Land Use and Fung-shui: Negotiation in the New Territories, Hong Kong

With the intensive rural development and increasing values in property from the late 1970s in Hang Kong, land administration became a more complicated task. The Government increasingly needed more land for future development, both industrial and residential; but the government's claim to indigenously-held land was strongly rejected by the land's owners and dwellers. One of the main grounds for challenging the government is fung-shui, or geomancy. Fung-shui concerns the balance in nature between buildings and landscape, and might be considered superstitious and old-fashioned, but it has actually been implemented as a negotiating tool by indigenous villagers in the leased territories. Local villagers defied the government's claim to the land with protests that the villagers would be harmed by the consequent disruption of the good fung-shui.

Background

Historically speaking, the indigenous villagers' desire to claim their rights goes back to a political conflict that began in 1899 with the formal establishment of colonial rule in the 99-year leased New Territories after the Convention Respecting an Extension of the Hang Kong Territory signed on June 9, 1898. On April 16, 1899, the British hoisted their flag in Taipo, inciting villagers all over the New Territories to attack them. (Endacott, 1973) The village resistance forces were armed with cannons and rifles, but the British successfully launched a final assault on the rebels and a great many of the villagers were killed. (Hang Kong Daily Press 1899) Once the British established control of the area, the first police station in the New Territories was built on the top of a hill, overlooking the Ping Shan villages.

Villagers today continue to resent the presence of the police station; the memory of the indigenous villagers' struggle against the government in land-related disputes has been revived recently. In 1990, the Tangs in Ping Shan were asked by the government to remove two graves of their ancestors who had been buried there 240 years before because the site was situated within a landfill project site. The Tangs refused, however, on the grounds that the fung-shui of their ancestors' graveyard strongly affects the future prosperity of the lineage descendants, and that disturbing the graveyard would be harmful. The protest escalated when the graves were dug up and removed by the government without any Ping Shan villager's consent on August 10, 1995, the government's deadline for the start of construction.

According to the government agency responsible for the removal of the graves, the action was necessary for a landfill project which would benefit the larger Hang Kong community, and was undertaken in strict accordance with the procedures set out in relevant existing law in Hang Kong. The villagers held to their position that, "the government was wrong to not inform the Tang clan and to remove the graves without the presence of any representative of the Tang clan." In response to this removal, the Tangs effectively "closed" the Heritage Trail (the first heritage trail in Hang Kong, a tourism site which is located within the village area) as a protest to the request and offered to move the graves only if the government agreed to tear down the former police station that affected their fung-shui for almost 100 years. The police station, however, could not be easily demolished since it was "graded" as a historic building; the Tangs proposed that it could remain, but only if it could be turned into a museum presenting the villagers' culture and tradition.

Despite the hostilities, each side was able to make progress in achieving their goals: both parties got what they wanted. Tang Ming(*), an indigenous villager, was an example of how such compromise can be reached. Tang Ming understood both the schedules of government work and the local context, facilitating negotiation. In the dispute over the removal of the graveyard, Tang Ming said, "fung-shui is important for indigenous villagers; but of course, we agree that some exceptions might be made if the project is a public work...vital to Hang Kong society." While showing a conciliatory attitude to the government, he yet argued that, "the government cannot provide any document showing that the land will be used in the public interest for the coming five or ten years." Tang Ming believed that the government's mention of public interest was nothing more than an excuse. Since his involvement in the negotiation, the Tangs were able to obtain major concessions from the government side. From a final written decree dated April 30, 1996, we know that the government offered to help the Tang clan relocate the graveyard to another site, promising an ex-gratia allowance of HK$2.6 million for voluntary removal of the grave and for the traditional ceremony performed at the time of a grave removal, as well as for a new graveyard site with good fung-shui, to be chosen by the Tangs. The police station was slated for conversion into a village museum, and improvements to a communal hall and other facilities along the heritage trail were promised by the government.

A Mediator

Tang Ming did not give up after the dispute over the graveyard; he believed that continued communication was important for further negotiation. In 1998, Tang Ming formally proposed the full opening of the Heritage Trail by collecting signatures from elders (gaining a consensus among the Tangs), and privately showed the "closed" monuments to visitors who made appointments with him (since he is one of the key-holders).

Tang Ming's qualifications as mediator between the government and the indigenous villagers are many. On the one hand, he belongs to a family that owns a study hall in the village, he is well-educated (with university degrees), he has been one of the village's representatives for twenty years, and he is well-equipped to articulate village positions; on the other hand he has served as a civil servant for nearly thirty years, is familiar with all steps and schedules of government works, and can thus "speak the government's language." At the same time, rural development has helped raise the value of indigenous inhabitants' heritage; it has become an important bargaining chip in negotiating with the government. Due to its tourism value, the heritage trail has become leverage for negotiating with the government for indigenous rights, and has strengthened the legitimacy of fung-shui as a basis for addressing grievances based on politics and history.

The removal of an ancestral graveyard is not exceptional -- there have been hundreds of similar cases in the New Territories, especially as a result of road-building for public transportation. (During 1990 and 1991, more than 10 graveyards and 150 bone-urns were removed to create landfill sites.) Tang Ming also is not exceptional, and for this, both indigenous villagers and the government can be grateful; as long as people like him are able to use their backgrounds and knowledge to convene negotiation between the government and indigenous villagers, ways will be found of satisfying the government's needs for Hang Kong while preserving and enhancing indigenous Hang Kong people's rights and benefits with respect to the land.

(*)Not his real name.

References and further reading:

Cheung, Sidney C.H. (1999). The Meanings of a Heritage Trail in Hong Kong. Annals of Tourism Research 26:3, pp 570-588.

---- (2000). Martyrs, Mystery and Memory Behind a Communal Hall. Traditional Dwellings and Settlements Review 11:2, pp 29-39.

Endacott, G.B. (1973). A History of Hong Kong (Revised Edition). Hong Kong: Oxford University Press.

Hong Kong Daily Press (1899, April 19). The Ferment in the Hinterland.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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