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Can he stop the sprawl that's eating Hong Kong’s harbor?

Scolded by his mother for ruining her view, Winston Chu took up the battle to save Victoria Harbor. Fourteen years, 1,300 acres, and a death threat later, he’s succeeding.

By Sara BlaskContributor / September 3, 2008

Hong Kong

Hong Kong

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From the garden of the Chu family’s 30th floor penthouse, Hong Kong’s jumble of skyscrapers rising against the harbor look like pixie sticks propped in the ground. To a visitor, the scale amazes, but to fifth-generation Hong Konger Winston Chu, it appalls.

And for one reason: The “fragrant harbor” – which is what Hong Kong means in Cantonese – is literally disappearing under cement.

Hemmed by dramatic mountains, the city has grown seaward, literally over the water’s edge through reclamation. Victoria Harbor has shrunk, its once-scalloped edges have been straightened into the city-street grid.

“The harbor used to be twice as wide as it is now,” says Mr. Chu. The government has “been reclaiming [it] bit by bit. There’s a Chinese term that translates to a ‘silkworm eating a leaf one bite at a time.’ But now it’s like a tiger. And that tiger is the government.”

The view of the harbor from this patio of potted pansies and terra-cotta tiles used to be unobstructed. Fourteen years ago, Chu’s five-foot-tall mother, Cissy Fok Wing Yue, then 80, pulled him aside, pointed toward the reclamation across the harbor in western Kowloon, and accused her son of being at least partially responsible for her compromised view.

At the time, Chu, a lawyer, served as a senior member of the powerful Town Planning Board. So Ms. Yue assumed that harbor reclamation – and the destruction of her view – was his and his colleagues’ fault. As the mother of 12, she was accustomed to others’ claims on her space. But this 1.3-square-mile patch of new earth was too much.

“ ‘You Town Planning Board people are ruining our harbor!’ ” Chu recalls her saying. He shakes his finger toward the reclamation like his mother did. “She really gave me a good scolding.”

He promised to look into it. After several weeks of research, Chu learned why he’d neither heard about nor participated in the reclamation-approval process: There was no law requiring the board to learn about or participate in it, no system of checks and balances.

And so, 14 years ago, Chu began a campaign to preserve what was left of Victoria Harbour.

• • •

Enticed by the harbor’s natural depth and protection, the British dropped anchor off Hong Kong Island during the First Opium War and began setting up permanent shop in 1842, after the Chinese ceded the territory under the Treaty of Nanking. Soon, industrial-sized dreams started to flood the shoreline, and, in 1850, the first reclamation began. Developable land was scarce, after all, and more was needed.

Chu doesn’t quibble with the original reclamation. He takes issue with everything reclaimed since 1984, when the Chinese government in Beijing established the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR), giving Hong Kong an additional 365 square miles called the New Territories, and increasing Hong Kong’s land almost 10-fold. Because of this vast amount of developable land, Chu argues, there’s no justification for carrying out the 3,000-plus acres of reclamation that the British proposed or committed to before it handed Hong Kong back to China in 1997.

Chu doesn’t exactly fit the profile of a bumper-sticker activist. His own involvement in development investment opens him up to some criticism. He’s chauffeured around town in his Mercedes Benz. He was among the powerbrokers responsible for one of Hong Kong’s major thoroughfares,and has owned tin mines in Malaysia and Thailand. In his spare time, he reads nuclear physics, plays snooker, and has written a book of poetry in English – a diversion the native-Chinese speaker developed at London’s University College, where he’s now a visiting professor.