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 , Contributor

Hong Kong

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.

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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.

But before Chu came along, there were no activists fighting for the harbor and few activists in Hong Kong. The population had grown accustomed to the dredging in the harbor – and Chinese culture discourages confrontations with power, as did the old colonial regime. Chu points to an old Chinese adage: “A poor person should never oppose a rich man, and the rich will not fight against officials.” Apathy, Chu says, is how most people here survive.

It wasn’t until the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 that Hong Kong saw a flood of refugees, bringing many intellectuals who were more inclined to contribute to public dialogue.

“The average person in Hong Kong is rather passive, as under British colonialism there had never been encouragement for such public debates,” says former Harvard professor and cultural critic Leo Ou-Fan Lee. “Moreover, the general level of education in Hong Kong is not high – merely high school for the average person, who often feel they lack the intellectual sophistication that should be the expression of any resonance in a cosmopolitan city.”
However, some locals have “awakened,” Mr. Lee adds. “Suddenly they feel that some of the traces of iconic sites are being erased, so they’re trying to preserve them. I think one of the reasons is what might be called collective memory.”
•••
After Chu completed his initial legal research in 1995, he enlisted Christine Loh – who, like him, is Chinese and British-educated. At the time she was serving on Hong Kong’s legislative council. Together, Chu and Ms. Loh founded the Society for Harbor Protection, or SPH. Chu went on to draft a law, with the assistance of Loh’s legislative office, called the Protection of the Harbor Ordinance. It made the harbor a public asset and natural heritage of the Hong Kong people. Only in cases of “overriding need,” the bill read, could the government proceed with reclamation. It was approved 72 hours before the 1997 British handover back to China.

Historically, reclamation has been necessary for development, says Carrie Lam, the secretary of development, but after the current project, reclamation will cease.

Chu claims the government’s reclamations since 1984 have been solely for the sake of profits from selling the new land and that its promises “are totally unreliable.”

About a quarter of government revenue comes from selling land and other income from land development, according to the government’s annual yearbook.

In any case, Chu has staved off the reclamation of more than 1,300 acres. And even Ms. Lam, whom Chu calls the “enemy,” commends the SPH for taking the high road.

Asked if Chu’s campaign has been a hassle, Lam laughs: “I can’t say it’s not. We’re running around answering questions, getting taken to court, but I accept this is part of public governance.”

SPH has won two of the three high court cases it pressed and five lower court decisions.

So far, Chu has sunk more than $500,000 of his own money into the campaign, and, when his mother passed away in 2006, she left him a “meaningful amount” for the fight. All told, their contributions exceed $1.25 million.

Chu isn’t just “a meticulous lawyer,” says Loh, SPH cofounder, “he’s a person of financial means, and he’s very dedicated to the issue. In Hong Kong, he’s the only person I know who has these characteristics and has gone on to become a campaigner.”

Chu has made enough noise in Hong Kong that in October 2003, he, his wife, and his mother fled after he received a letter physically threatening them. The letter contained the make, model, and license numbers of his mother’s cars, where she attended the opera, the kind of jewelry she wore, and the name of her hair salon.

Now, back on the terrace, on chairs where Chu and his mother used to nap and where the family celebrated Chinese festivals, Chu lowers his voice. “Look, Hong Kong cannot survive without the harbor – economically, environmentally, in giving people a better quality of life.

“I was raised a Buddhist. My father always told me that if you see a banana peel on the ground, you’ve got to remove it ... it only takes a minute to do, but the old lady who might step on it could be crippled for life. To practice Buddhism is no more than that. You start with small things, and I suppose you end up with the harbor.”

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