It was bound to happen. 26 months after Tsoi Yuen Village received its death sentence, 100 police officers burst into the remaining villagers’ houses and told them to leave.
The villagers were incredulous. “I was negotiating with the government peacefully only a few days ago,” one man, Cheung Sun-yau, told the South China Morning Post. Tuesday morning, after workers cut through his front gate, police pushed him into his house and searched him, before telling him that it was his last chance to leave before a new high-speed railway is built through the village.
Tsoi Yuen’s residents have been protesting their village’s impending demolition for more than two years. Despite an evacuation order last year, 60 villagers have chosen to remain as they continue to negotiate with the government for compensation. Yesterday, apparently, the government decided it had had enough.
If you’ve been following Hong Kong politics, you might recall Tsoi Yuen from last year’s protests against the Hong Kong-Shenzhen-Guangzhou high-speed rail line, which were part of a new wave of social and political activism in Hong Kong. Many of those who protested were young students, artists and creative types angry with the slow pace of democratic reform, the widening gap between rich and poor and the control of Hong Kong’s economy by a small circle of oligarchs. To them, the high-speed rail, known the “express rail” in English and the go tit in Cantonese, was a symbol of the government’s detachment from the needs of the people.
When it is completed in 2016, the express rail will stretch from West Kowloon to a terminus in the southern suburbs of Guangzhou, linking Hong Kong to China’s growing national network of high-speed railways. It has been controversial for a number of reasons. First, there’s the cost, about HK$67 billion. That’s about the same as the recently-approved Shatin-Central MTR line, but the express rail, by contrast, won’t have any stations in Hong Kong other than the terminus, meaning it will be of no use to the 3.5 million people who live in the New Territories, through which it will pass. There’s also the issue of disruption caused by its tunnelling, which will pass through soft soil under the working-class neighbourhood of Tai Kok Tsui, possibly damaging building foundations.
Then there’s the fact that the rail line was opposed by a majority of democratically-elected legislators, but approved because of support from the so-called “functional constituencies,” which are professional associations represented by their own councillors in Hong Kong’s corporatist legislature. In other words, the railway gained legislative approval only because the people who benefit directly from its construction — the construction industry, for instance — have more electoral weight in Hong Kong’s system of government than do ordinary citizens.
In the context of these grievances, Tsoi Yuen became a sort of martyr for the anti-express rail cause. Though the actual railway will pass by the village, MTR planners decided it would make a good spot for an emergency station — hence its impending demolition.
I visited Tsoi Yuen for the first time a couple of weeks ago, on the fourth day of the Chinese New Year. Many of the activists who had protested against the express rail have worked closely with villagers to win compensation from the government. In some ways, the activists became honorary villagers, attending weddings and developing close relationships with some of the residents. With the clock ticking towards the village’s destruction, the activists held a two-day art, music and theatre festival.
The atmosphere was that of an Irish wake: the mood was at turns celebratory, elegiac and outraged. Hand-painted Chinese protest banners hung near the village’s entrance, where two courtyards had been turned into a bar and café staffed by activists and villagers. Somebody had stencilled flowers along the narrow village path, along which photos of village life and the express rail protests had been pasted. (I found the protest photos a bit self-indulgent — revolution for the Facebook generation.)
It was an unusually hot, sunny day, and winter flowers were blooming from bushes that spilled over from gardens lining the walkway. Further along, there was a vast, dusty clearing, where dry grass and soil had been churned up by construction equipment. Some young people along the path were selling used books, CDs and DVDs, and in the background, some local musicians were playing a concern. Towards the other end of the village were more art installations, an outdoor theatre performance and houses that had already been abandoned. It seems as though people had left in a hurry. A friend of mine found a wedding photo on the floor of one house; in another, a wall calender hung crookedly on the wall, its date frozen in time on November 19, 2010.
Like anyone who had followed the protests in the news, I had heard a lot about Tsoi Yuen Village. My friends Derrick Chang and Zoe Li visited last January and came back with a nice photoessay for CNNGo. But it wasn’t until I visited in person that I realized how remarkable it actually is. Unlike most of the indigenous villages in Hong Kong, which are packed with lookalike three-storey houses, Tsoi Yuen was settled by refugees from mainland China in the 1950s. They built modest houses surrounded by lush gardens and small farms (the village’s name, in fact, means “Vegetable Garden”). Even in its half-destroyed state, it was a pretty idyllic place, and my heart dropped as I walked past hand-built houses fronted by banana trees, mountains rising in the distance. Many villagers had lived there for the better part of a century; I can only imagine what it feels like to be wrenched unwillingly from your home of 50 years.
What perplexed me, when I visited, was why Tsoi Yuen needed to be demolished at all. Though there were a few indigenous villages nearby, this part of Hong Kong is pretty sparsely populated, and most of Tsoi Yuen’s neighbours are illegal junk yards and empty lots. There is even an half-abandoned air force base a few hundred metres; British soldiers lived there with their families, but now that the Peoples’ Liberation Army is in charge, the barracks are mostly empty, home to a handful of soldiers who never leave the base.
So why Tsoi Yuen? Why not build the emergency station somewhere else? My guess is that it was easy pickings. Expropriating land from an indigenous village would incur the wrath of the indigenous villagers’ all-powerful lobby group, the Heung Yee Kuk. The air force base, being property of the Chinese government, is untouchable, even if it is barely used. Many of Tsoi Yuen’s residents are squatters who built their houses on public land (or “government land,” as it is uncharitably known here), which gave the government an advantage in resuming property.
In any case, it should come as no surprise that the people with the least amount of power are those who lose the most. What is surprising is the popular uprising in support of Tsoi Yuen. Activists failed to prevent the express rail from being built, but the splash they made could cause a sea change in Hong Kong politics. Law Wing-seng, a cultural critic, declared the protests the start of Hong Kong’s process of decolonization — a public revolt against collusion between the government and elites, a system that came into being during the years of British rule.
Five years from now, when the express rail comes into operation and it will be possible to travel between West Kowloon and Shenzhen in 12 minutes, I wonder what Tsoi Yuen will mean. Will it be an footnote in history, yet another village cleared from the path of modern development? Or will its demolition be remembered as the beginning of the time when Hong Kong’s power structure finally began to dissolve?
Above: A ceremonial march in honour of the village and photographers gathering on the roof of an abandoned building to take a group photo.
Tags: Art Installation, Festivals, High-Speed Rail, Hong Kong, New Territories, Politics, Protest, Public Art, Redevelopment, Villages