HONG KONG – Hong Kong’s search for much-needed living space is training its sights on the southern Chinese city’s most prestigious golf course, as lawmakers push to have the site redeveloped for housing.
Experts predict a looming clash between the Hong Kong Golf Club’s exclusive membership and large sections of the financial hub’s seven-million population forced to live in cramped conditions.
“Why would we sacrifice the welfare of the people… (for) the recreational needs of a chosen few?” said lawmaker Fernando Cheung, who is at the forefront of the campaign to build on the 170 hectare (420 acre) area of land in the city’s north.
“Housing certainly has a much, much higher priority than playing golf,” he told AFP.
Stars of the game including Tom Watson and Rory McIlroy have triumphed on Fanling’s lush fairways over the years but sporting sentiment isn’t preventing local politicians from calling for the Hong Kong Open venue to be replaced by public housing.
Mr. Cheung was one of 12 members of the city’s lawmaking body, the Legislative Council, who passed a motion recently urging the government to allocate the land close to the border with China for two “new town” residential developments.
The 54-hole, three-course site, has come into focus because its decades-long lease is up in 2020.
A government spokeswoman told AFP the land would be included in a “study to explore further development potential in New Territories North, which is expected to commence in early 2014.”
The Hong Kong Golf Club, which was formed in 1889 under the name The Royal Hong Kong Golf club – making it one of the oldest golfing societies outside of Great Britain and Ireland, paid a one-off premium to lease the land.
It has been reported that it also pays HK$1 (13 US cents) a year on top of that, although the government has refused to confirm this.
The club has a membership of 2,500 and while non-members can play, it costs a hefty HK$2,000 (US$250) a round.
Fanling is home to one of Asia’s biggest golfing events – the Hong Kong Open, first hosted there in 1959, which attracts a stellar field annually.
Former world number one and two-time major winner McIlroy won the title in 2011 while popular Spanish veteran Miguel Angel Jimenez triumphed last year.
Supporters say hosting the professional tournament is important to Hong Kong’s standing as an international commerce hub and that building on the land could damage its business-friendly reputation.
“Most international cities around the world have golf courses, (but) very few have a European and Asian Tour event. It’s very important to Hong Kong,” Iain Valentine, chief executive of the local golf association, told AFP.
“If the golf course goes, then obviously there is no other place in Hong Kong capable of hosting the Hong Kong Open.”
He added that the setup was also one of the “few green spaces” left in the densely populated city.
But observers say the contention over the golfing enclave, in a city known for its free market, is symbolic of a shift in people’s attitudes away from favoring business over the wider public interest.
“People find privileges more questionable now,” Chung Kim-wah of the Centre for Social Policy Studies at Hong Kong’s Polytechnic University, told AFP.
“People now are quite opposed to elitism. People are also reconsidering the pro-merchant, pro-economic growth mentality as they demand a higher level of fairness and equality,” he added.
“Coupled with the pressing issue on the lack of space, people of Hong Kong have questioned the existence of private clubs.”
Chung believes a growing clamor for “fairness” will put pressure on the semi-autonomous government, handpicked by Beijing since its handover to Chinese rule in 1997, to address a widening income gap in a city dominated by a wealthy few.
More than 170,000 people live in cramped subdivided flats, a government-commissioned study found in May, underlining the scale of the city’s housing crisis.
Land supply is short and house prices have been exacerbated by an influx of capital from China that is pushing up prices.
The government has in recent years implemented a number of measures to rein in prices, including increasing resale costs for non-local buyers but more flats need to be built.
Officials have targeted a net increase of 450,000 apartments over the next 10 years.
When Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying was asked last month whether the golf course would house these, he said the target could only be met by “not ignoring any piece of land.”