Recently, there’s been news reports of confrontations between the police, security guards and demolition workers on one side, and villagers/outside solidarity activists on the other, in the village of Choi Yuen. A couple days ago, I posted an article on the loss of more rural villages in Hong Kong, as a result of urbanization and economic changes. However, this is not the case for all villages. Many villages continued to thrive and rely on farming, but they too are facing the same fate. But, instead of the village youth, attracted to employment in the city, migrating out, villagers face eviction by the state and private developers. In 馬屎埔 Ma Shi Po, private developers used loopholes to evict villagers. The village was slated for demolition, in order to implement the North East New Territories New Development Areas plan – a major infrastructure project for private housing development. Chan, an activist, explained that “[the Henderson Land Development Company has] left the place to rot. Houses have been torn down, releasing asbestos, leaving the village uninhabitable, which is the developer’s way of evicting villagers … and making sure that the ones who leave will never return”. An older villager agreed, commenting that he used to be a farmer, but after the developers came, he had to rely on collecting aluminium cans and carton boxes to make a living.
Similarily, Choi Yuen faces demolition as it stands in the way of the contentious Guangzhou-Shenzhen-Hong Kong Express Rail Link, seen by the public as a project paid for by regular folks, but built for the developers and the rich. Villagers have been willing to put their bodies on the line, physically stopping demolition efforts. As expected, the state and the business media have lambasted them. Nevertheless, as seen from an excellent segment from the Hong Kong public radio show, 自由風自由 PHONE (Wind of Freedom, Phone of Freedom), the villagers have a great deal of support from the public (the segment starts in Part 3 [Cantonese]) and have been steadfast in opposing the state and building ties to demolition workers, both local and migrant Nepalese.
A History of Resistance
Before we dive any further into the circumstances around Choi Yuen, it’s important that we recognize the important history of resistance in villages like Choi Yuen. Most of these villages have a long history in Hong Kong, established even before the arrival of the Portuguese in 1513 and the Brits in 1841. Because of this history, living in Hong Kong before the arrival of the Brits (most Chinese living in HK today were migrants that arrived after colonization), villagers have a special status and are known as 原居民, Indigenous Inhabitants. However, some of their most important contributions have been swept under the rug. The indigenous people of New Territories were some of the most vigilant anti-colonial fighters in China. In 1899, the north of Hong Kong, New Territories, was ceded by the Chinese Qing government, after pressure from the British. Seen as a betrayal by the thousands of local villagers residing there, villagers decided to resist, sparking the six-day war. An insurgent force made up of 2,600 villagers was organized. Unfortunately, as a result of poor weaponry, the villagers were no match for the Biritsh military and approximately five hundred villagers were killed. This tragedy has been left largely untold, with the appeasement of village heads by the British colonial government and fears of reprisal by the British. Nonetheless, villagers honoured those that participated in the struggle. At the funeral of 伍醒遲, Ng Shing-chi, one of last surviving leaders of the rebellion, a banner read
Like a valiant mantis trying to stop a cart with its front claws, a matter of strong selflessness, a matter to be admired, this is what the generation before the lease was like:
He would revive all those fish he found gasping on dry land: even in extreme old age he remained a model, indefatigable. let those who come after remember him!
Despite being unsuccessful in pushing the British out, the villagers, like a ‘valiant mantis’ against the behemoth of the British colonial state, won the admiration of many and their struggle should be taken as a reminder that the Chinese people did not stand idly by in the face of oppressors, as often depicted both in modern-day and historical stereotypes.
The Guangzhou-Shenzhen-Hong Kong Express Rail Link Backgrounder
The project that would result in the demolition of Choi Yuen is an especially contentious one. The railway, designed to connect Kowloon, Hong Kong to Panyu, Guangzhou, Guangdong, with stops at Shenzhen and other cities in between, has met significant opposition since its proposal in 2009. The railway is estimated to cost over HK$70 billion, and take 50 years before costs are recovered through user fees. With reports indicating that 80% of the trains would end up, across the border, in Shenzhen, the public saw this as a project that was funded by Hong Kong workers but built for developers, who have continued to build luxury condos in Shenzhen, and the rich. Tai Kok Tsui residents also complained that the noise would be unbearable and older buildings could collapse. Environmentalists complained that the railway would cause great deal of damage to the environment. All these concerns sparked a large-scale protest movement:
-in November 2009, 1,000 protested and conducted a sit-in in front of government headquarters
-in December 2009, 2,000 protested in front of the Legislative Council
-in January 2010, a group performed a “prostrating walk” (also seen during the WTO protests in 2006), where participants kneeled and touched the ground with their heads every 26 steps, symbolizing the length of the rail link
All these actions culminated in a mass protest, with 10,000 people at its peak on January 16. The demonstrators surrounded the Legislative Council, blocking all exits. Despite attacks from the police, using pepper sprays and batons, the demonstrators remained on location. It was not until the next day, that pro-government legislators were able to leave the premise to the chants of “shame”.
Railway construction certainly has a bad reputation, from historical examples of railways constructed to further colonialism in Canada and China (on the backs and lives of Chinese workers) to current issues around the use of the Chinese railroad to further colonize Tibet. Of course, it’s also been used as a space of resistance with First Nations blocking railways in protest.
Choi Yuen Village
Choi Yuen is a village of 500 people, with buildings constructed by residents for over four decades. Despite promises of HK$2 billion in compensation to the village and support in finding new land for the village and farms, protests have continued. Although villagers have already begrudgingly accepted relocation, villagers have continued protesting given the great deal of uncertainty surrounding the relocation plans. The major problem is that the government has been dragging its feet. Construction of the new village was originally scheduled for completion in October, but it was not until September that the government granted a construction licence. By December, the government started rushing the villagers to purchase land, stating that they would handle any problems and that the villagers must show intentions to move if the government is to delay demolitions. With this threat and the assurance of support, the villagers bought up land proposed by the government. However, the government has not been helpful when problems emerged and has taken a patronizing attitude, “acting like a unhelpful teacher to its student” according to a village representative. For example, the only road to the new land is privately owned. The owners have requested an exorbitant $5,000,000, which rose from $1,000,000, to use the roads.
Video <- It won’t let me embed! So please click link for video of action
Given the precariousness, last week, villagers resumed protests, blocking the demolition of its village and the raising of scaffoldings. The police and Mass Transit Railway (MTR) security guards violently attacked villagers, and a number of protesters were hurt. On Monday, the Hong Kong Industry Employees General Union, a member of the pro-Beijing company union, the HK Federation of Trade Unions (HKFTU), staged a press conference blaming villagers for injuries to their workers and the firing of workers given the delay in demolition. The union blamed villagers for affecting the livelihood of demolition workers. A spokesperson for the villagers on HK Public Radio responded,
In the dusty, chaotic battleground that is Chou Yuen Village, villagers, security guards, construction workers first met without any animosity or vengeance. In the end of the day, when we all remove our uniforms, we’re eating at the same BBQ pork shops. We’re all lower class. But the state has put all these uniforms on us and pit us against one another. The state wants to create these divisions, wants to blame us for their loss of livelihood and injuries. The government changed to these tactics in January, and I think behind this is the same couple high officials making hundreds of thousands of dollars in salary.
The representative claimed that they sympathize with the construction workers and have tried to explain to them every morning that they do not want this unfortunate situation to happen, and that they must protect each other. Workers at the site responded, “we understand, you’re here to protect your home”. As more and more Chinese workers refused to work at the demolition site, the company began using Nepalese workers. The villagers, through some Nepalese friends, spoke to the Nepalese workers. Apparently, the Nepalese workers were also very sympathetic, commenting that they too were once farmers and faced issues of land expropriation in the past, in Nepal. They said they understood the feelings of the Chou Yuen villagers, but they had to make a living. Nevertheless, the Nepalese workers told the villagers not to be too worried about affecting the Nepalese workers’ livelihoods as they were still getting paid wages as long as they showed up for work (hopefully, this doesn’t change, given the situation faced by workers from the HKFTU).
Earlier, while introducing the issue, the radio host commented that the statement from the HKFTU was puzzling. He stated that the complaints should be directed at the employers and the government, and that people defending their homes and livelihoods cannot be blamed. He speculated that the employers must have told the union to make such statements. I personally think that the HKFTU must be a pretty garbage union if the contract it agreed to allowed provisions to lay off workers during work disruptions. It’s no surprise that this came from the HKFTU, which has a horrible track record. Despite its cool lefty logo, it has long veered away from its roots as a militant working-class organization, and now acts as a stooge for the state.
The radio hosts interviewed the union representative. They criticized the union rep for attacking the villagers. The rep shot back, saying that they were not taking sides. He retreated a little, and said that he agrees the government should address villagers’ concerns as soon as possible, but then again proceeded to accuse villagers of violence. The hosts then brought up the issue of the layoffs, asking whether the union went to the employer about this issue. He claims they did, but then they have to follow the contract. He returned to the issue of political tactics and said the villagers should use their legislative representatives. The interviewer responded sarcastically, “yea, they should call up Uncle Fat. You guys should be very helpful with that”. Uncle Fat refers to Lau Wong-Fat, a legislator known to be very corrupt, controlling most of New Territories.
A construction worker, with experience working in contentious circumstances, then called in, saying that he disagreed with the union. He explained,
workers should never be sent in to circumstances where the land rights are not settled. Secondly, when workers are forced to go into these contentious work places. Usually, the workers themselves first meet with the residents and ask if the residents are planning to disrupt the work. If the villagers are, they tell the villagers that it won’t be an issue but then they would need to file a police report. If it’s agreed upon, the workers go to the police station to file a report so that they can claim back the wages from the employer afterwards. This issue of workers being laid off because of the disruption is ridicules. It’s not the issue of the workers if the employers couldn’t get agreement to secure the land. It’s clear the union is playing political games. I have never heard of any situation where there would be a contract where workers could be fired if land wasn’t secured … especially, not during this time when we have a shortage. It’s also strange that the workers are being sent to the frontlines to confront the villagers. I was really getting frustrated listening to this union rep, I had to call in.
The phone-in session continued to be insightful, as people from all walks of life called in. A person who often visited the village commented that some city-dwellers may not understand how having farmers move is much more difficult than it is for city-dwellers.
The farmers’ livelihood is in the land. We can’t expect people not to be angry when they see bulldozers going over their crops. It’s not as simple as picking things up and moving. The demolition would be akin to breaking the arms of an artist.
A student who used to live in the village commented,
They used to teach us to respect our elders. The village is full of elders. Where is the respect here? As for the statement from the union, it’s a joke. How can this union claim that they aren’t being political? The solution is simple, help the villagers build the new village. A friend adapted the famous German poem from the holocaust:
When the government privatized the Link public housing, I didn’t care as I didn’t live in public housing
When the government went to demolish Queen’s Pier, I didn’t care as I wasn’t a conservationist
When the government went to demolish Chou Yuen Village, I didn’t care as I wasn’t an activist
When the government went to demolish the old Cantonese buildings, I didn’t care as it didn’t affect my property values
And now, they’re at my door, and noone was there to help me
I call on Hong Kong people to be conscious of who is powerful and who isn’t in our society.
The segment ended on a humorous note, with the interviewers responding snarkily (note: paraphrasing, cut out a lot of comments, not a word for word translation):
Caller- I think the villagers took the wrong route, why didn’t they just go to the government offices? use the legislators?
Host- And lose their homes?“
C- What lose their homes? they should have done their work before they got to this point
H- right.. and lose their homes..
C- they didn’t do the prior work!
H- Maybe you haven’t been following the news
C- I FOLLOW THE NEWS! I WATCH THE NEWS EVERYDAY
H- Ok, you follow the news, it’s good you keep up to date, bye bye
Oh, if only we had this sort of programming on CBC Radio!
If folks can read Chinese, http://ragingiron.wordpress.com/ is a useful website for news on the cause.
There’s been some really great quotes from the radio segment. As the student said, I hope Hong Kongers can use this as an example of the need to be conscious of our place in society, that there is a small minority of rich that have the power, and the majority that is pit against each other. I hope ties continue to be built between the workers and the villagers. As the village representative stated so eloquently, when the uniforms are off, they’re all eating at the same restaurants. I commend the villagers for making an effort to speak to both local and migrant workers, when they so easily could have tapped into racist, anti-migrant narratives that pervade. I wish the best for these villagers and for the continued struggles of the regular people of Hong Kong against the tyranny of the rich and powerful!
Video/Photo Credits and Captions:
1.Choi Yuen Villagers protest eviction at government offices (Edwin Chu)
2.Anti-colonial resistance fighters (Cover of Hase’s The Six-Day War of 1899)
3.Photo exhibit showing daily lives of villagers taken by Tse Chi Tak (Tyronne Siu)
4.Video of scuffles between workers and villagers. Rather odd, how workers are on the frontlines as the cops stand idly by. PR move? A TV reporter in another video asked, "if the person that had been pushed down was a cop, would they have done nothing too?” The villager who was pushed received 3 stitches, and villagers who had filed complaints said they were treated like criminals by the police.
5.Aerial View of Choi Yuen Village (inmediahk)
6.Protest poster. The person on the poster is the chief of transportation.