What's new

Hong Kong Is Building Public Housing on a Golf Course in a Snub to the Old Elite

The government is pressing ahead with plans to take back the land despite loud opposition from wealthy golf club members, underscoring the gravity of Hong Kong’s housing problem.

The decision to build on the golf course reflects how old business elites in Hong Kong are losing political sway as more staunchly pro-Beijing loyalists gain ground.
Hong Kong’s government will begin taking back a large chunk of an exclusive golf course near the border with mainland China to build much-needed public housing, a move that has provoked an unusual schism between the city’s political class and its powerful business elites.

Some 32 hectares (79 acres) of land from the Fanling Golf Course will be resumed on Friday to build 12,000 apartments, a day after the Hong Kong Golf Club’s current lease expires. The swath of land, known as the Old Course, was built in 1911 and is the oldest 18-hole course in Greater China. Members pay an entrance fee of about HK$400,000 ($51,000) to join, and some have been vocal in their opposition to the redevelopment plan, citing ecological, commercial and social reasons to make their case.

The government’s insistence on pressing ahead despite objections from the elite reflects the urgency it faces in resolving social issues like housing, with Hong Kong persistently ranking as the most unaffordable housing market in the world. Beijing directly exhorted local officials to fix the problems in the aftermath of the mass protests that rocked the city in 2019, demanding that Hong Kong get rid of so-called cage homes or subdivided apartments by 2049.

The Fanling Golf Course near the border with mainland China.Photographer: Bertha Wang/Bloomberg
The decision to build on the golf course also reflects how old business elites in Hong Kong are losing political sway as more staunchly pro-Beijing loyalists gain ground. When Beijing’s top official for the city visited it in April, he didn't meet with the real estate developers association, which represents some of the richest families, raising questions over whether the interests of the wealthy clans are even a major concern to the top leadership.

“This is a government that particularly wants to build its foundation on the grassroots,” said Carlos Lo, head of the Department of Government and Public Administration at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. “It wants to show to the central government that it has the ability to solve livelihood issues."

Read more: Hong Kong Steps Up Efforts to Fix Housing Crisis After Xi Push

The government first introduced the idea to take back the golf course site in 2019. One advantage of the plan is that building on government-owned land avoids problems that would arise from clearing and rehousing existing residents on private land.

The idea of redeveloping golf courses into housing is much more mature in Singapore, where the government laid out a plan in 2014 for how it will balance the need for housing with golfing. Last year, a golf club moved out of its original site when the lease expired to make way for public homes. The city-state also recently halted horse racing in order to redevelop the racecourse to meet housing needs.

A spokesperson for the Hong Kong Golf Club said that the Fanling course is “home to great heritage and ecological value” and hopes the government will retain the site in its entirety. It also said that over 40% of the golf rounds are used by non-members, while the public can also use facilities such as futsal courts and a night-walking trail.

Some 32 hectares of land from the Fanling Golf Course will be resumed a day after the Hong Kong Golf Club’s current lease expires to build 12,000 apartments.Photographer: Bertha Wang/Bloomberg
In recent months, the government has held public hearings to solicit views. Li Ning, the son-in-law of Hong Kong’s fourth-richest person Lee Shau Kee, attended one such event in June to oppose the plan on the grounds that it would harm the development of golf in Hong Kong, according to local media. In a document submitted to the Town Planning Board last year, he said the plan would harm the reputation of Hong Kong as a world city.

That view is echoed by Allan Zeman, a Canadian businessman who became a Chinese citizen and is best known for developing Hong Kong’s nightlife industry. Zeman argued that shrinking the golf course hits at the heart of the way business is done in the city.

“A lot of deals are done on the golf course all over the world for business people,” he said. “It is wrong in today’s climate” to take back part of the golf course, he added, at a time when Hong Kong desperately wants to attract businesses and people from overseas.

Opposition even comes from the inner circle of Hong Kong leader John Lee. Lawmaker Regina Ip, who is also the convener of the cabinet, wrote in a social media post in July that the plan “severely impact the development of local golf sports and create “social divisions, pitting golf enthusiasts against the rest of society.”

While the golf course will be returned as planned on Sept. 1, its timeline could be affected by a judicial review launched by the Hong Kong Golf Club against the government’s environmental impact assessment that conditionally green-lit the proposed construction. The court has suspended the assessment while it waits for a court ruling, without approval of which the government cannot start building.

“To address the acute housing problem, the government is obliged to take forward land supply projects as vigorously as we can,” the Development Bureau said in a statement.

The government first introduced the idea to take back the golf course site in 2019.Photographer: Bertha Wang/Bloomberg
Sze Lai Shan, deputy director at nonprofit Society for Community Organization, said that it is imperative that the new homes on the golf course are built. The current wait time for a public housing unit is 5.3 years as of the end of March, according to government data, with about 133,100 in line. Many of them are living in dire conditions, Sze added.

“The line will only get longer without those 12,000 units,” she said.
Top Bottom