Are Alternatives Available?: A Case Study of Mui Wo
Article by Christine Chow.
Since 2008, numerous land movements have been opposing government-led developmental projects in the New Territories. These projects are considered as hybrid products of developmentalism, predatory capitalism, as well as Sino-Hong Kong regional integration. To respond to the government projects, land movements bring out divergent opinions of “the needed development(s)” for Hong Kong’s future. This article focuses on the case of Mui Wo, a small town central to the controversial “East Lantau Metropolis”. By summarising the brief history and the present status of Mui Wo, the article attempts to examine the significance and possible consequences of the “East Lantau Metropolis”, and the resistance it triggered.
Among the most popular places of Hong Kong, Mui Wo (梅窩) is hardly on the list. Located on Lantau Island (大嶼山), the largest outlying Island in Hong Kong, this small rural town is best known for its natural environment, a relatively small population of 6000 with their slow pace of living, and probably the wandering buffaloes. It could be surprising for both local and foreign visitors that Mui Wo looked so in contrast with other parts of Hong Kong, usually with high density and all the hustle and bustle. This contrast may reach its peak when visitors take the ferry from Central (中環), the famous central business district (CBD), to Mui Wo. The journey may cost 35-55 minutes, depending on whether you take a fast-speed or slow-speed ferry. From my own experience, I have heard Mui Wo people describe their departure from the town (or Lantau Island) as “going to Hong Kong”, and this usage of language always gives me an illusion that Mui Wo is detached, or semi-detached from the rest of the global city. This detachment may also apply on Mui Wo people’s own identification as well, whether consciously or unconsciously.
My encounter with Mui Wo started in the summer of 2017, when I joined the Mui Wo Oral History Project initiated by a local community-based organisation, Lantau Society (大嶼學堂). I was not aware of the geographical and historical significance of Mui Wo at the beginning. Having gathered information from both our interviewees and other resources, I gradually outlined several stages of Mui Wo’s social and economic development.
Location of Mui Wo (source: Google maps)
From Past to Present: A Brief History
Before going into details of Mui Wo, I will first briefly go through Hong Kong’s historical background. Due to a sequence of unequal treaties, the British Empire acquired Hong Kong Island in 1842, Kowloon Peninsula in 1860, and leased the New Territories (and the outlying islands) in 1898. Strategically, the New Territories were considered as the buffer zone against invasion from mainland China, protecting Victoria City – the de facto capital of Hong Kong. As the New Territories were just on lease, the British Government adapted the “non-intervention policy”, leaving the rural local communities as well as their long-standing traditions alone.
The end of the Second World War had become an unexpected turning point. When the British resumed their rule over Hong Kong from Japanese occupation (1941-1945), they simultaneously found it urgent to settle the floods of migrants and refugees from mainland China. They were encouraged to start their new agrarian life in the New Territories.. At the same time, Hong Kong has undergone the processes of industrialization and urbanization. While colonial Hong Kong and mainland China under the rule of Communist Party of China decoupled from each other in this era, the new settlers were able to produce food (especially vegetables) necessary for the expanding urban population. This not only turned the New Territories into the supporting base of the city, but also further established the (invisible) boundaries between the rural and the urban. Yet, agriculture in Hong Kong declined when mainland China opened its doors again for trade. Hong Kong’s relation with mainland China has also changed drastically, especially after the handover of Hong Kong to China in 1997. In principle, Hong Kong is able to retain a high-level of autonomy and stands apart from the development of the rest of the country. And yet, we can see the tensions soon.
Mui Wo was one of the farming rural towns in the New Territories. People from mainland China have brought their knowledge and techniques of farming to Mui Wo, but the number of farmers decreased year by year with the general societal trend. Furthermore, Mui Wo was the main transport hub of Lantau Island until the end of the 1990s. People and goods from the other parts of Hong Kong must pass through Mui Wo to go to the rest of Lantau Island (and vice versa). From the 1970s, Mui Wo has also benefited from a new wave of local tourism. It was the time when this rural town was bustling with countless tourists “going to Lantau Island” on holidays, which literally meant “going to Mui Wo”. Nevertheless, everything changed when Tsing Ma Bridge (青馬大橋) and the Tung Chung Mass Transit Railway (MTR) line have been constructed in 1997 and 1998 respectively. Lantau Island and urban Hong Kong were then connected by road. As a consequence, the volume of people and goods passing through Mui Wo dropped all of a sudden. I have heard repeatedly from local people that the “golden era” of Mui Wo had passed. This conversation usually simulated their further opinions about what Mui Wo’s future development could be.
A Re-Positioning Project: the “East Lantau Metropolis”
While Mui Wo lost its position as the transport hub of Lantau Island and thus experienced an economic downturn, it was, to a certain extent, distanced from Hong Kong’s core economic and political districts as well. With its distant location, Mui Wo was rather spared from the city’s financial capitalist circulation since the 1990s so that an alternative kind of development was possible (Tang, 2017).
Nonetheless, a recent official project of capital penetration and regionalization has targeted Lantau Island and Mui Wo, triggering divergent reactions in the society. Named “East Lantau Metropolis” (ELM, 東大嶼都會), the project was formally revealed in 2014 under the scheme of “Hong Kong 2030+”, suggesting that Hong Kong should reclaim more than 1700 hectares of land between Hong Kong Island and Lantau Island. The proposed ELM will be built upon the reclaimed land for accommodating new population (est. 700,000 – 1,000,000) and a core business district so as to promote “economic development” and provide “job opportunities in Hong Kong” (Development Bureau & Planning Department, 2016). Four to five bridges and tunnels will be constructed to link ELM with the rest of Lantau Island and the existing CBD (Hong Kong Island and Kowloon). By then, Mui Wo will become one of those connection points, which may dramatically transform the status quo of this small rural town and Lantau Island alike.
On top of that, the ELM project has evidently placed Hong Kong in a new regional position. It is stated that the ELM would buttress Lantau’s position as the confluence of the Greater Pearl River Delta (大珠江三角洲) and the “double gateway” of Hong Kong rendered by the presence of the Hong Kong International Airport and Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge (港珠澳大橋). Being strategically integrated into the “one-hour inter-city traffic circle within the Greater Pearl River Delta region” (大珠江三角洲內的城際一小時交通圈), the ELM is arguably a part of the socio-political and economic regional integration project, “inserting” Hong Kong into the future “Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area” (粵港澳大灣區), under the Chinese Communist Party’s flag of “the Belt and Road Initiative” (一帶一路). The circulations of persons, services and goods are believed to be greatly accelerated within the specific area.
In this age of global capitalism, flows of capital will keep demanding for a faster realisation of surplus value, which can be again invested into the next round of production and capital accumulation. As a consequence, perpetual improvements in infrastructure (esp. transportation and communications) are necessary. With more advanced connectivity and accessibility, space is then “annihilated” by time so that distances are no longer barriers to circulations of capital. Here with the example of ELM and Mui Wo, the government’s will of capital penetration into those “underutilised land” on Lantau Island (and also the proposed reclaimed land) is clearly revealed.
In addition, the will to reposition Hong Kong through regional integration is also strong. Since the handover, the Hong Kong government has gradually turned to mainland China for its tremendous economic capacities. To develop closer socio-economic relations with China, the Hong Kong government has (physically) linked the city with the country by constructing the High Speed Rail (Hong Kong Section) and the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge. This China-oriented turn has already triggered social anxieties and conflicts over Sino-Hong Kong relations in recent years. In this case of ELM, it is often surmised that ELM’s estimated population number has largely overrated local population growth. This speculation also implies that both land and real estates of the ELM will be primarily prepared for future speculation, but not for social needs. The fear of being overwhelmed by Chinese immigration as well as their capital has been one of the main arguments over land disputes in Hong Kong.
Into the Future: What are the possible development(s)?
Undoubtedly, the ELM project has sparked off intense Anti-EML protests. Organisations oppose the ELM owing to its sky-high costs (est. HK$500 billion), it’s possible damage to nature, its political agenda of regional integration and so on. For people who cherish Mui Wo’s status quo, they too would love to protect the existing communities and environments. Since the 1990s, house prices have decreased in Mui Wo, as such young artists and people without adequate financial resources find it attractive to develop their art and alternative ways of living there. This further allows people to (re-)discover the meanings of life on the social, cultural and artistic front (Tang, 2017). Yet, once the ELM is implemented, this distinct independence of Mui Wo from capital circulations and speculations will soon be undermined.
Seeing the whole picture, we will realise that opposition to the ELM is on the team of contemporary land movements in Hong Kong. Since the late 2000s, conservation of agricultural land and rural communities against developmentalism has become one of the most controversial social issues. Cases of Anti-Hong Kong Express Rail Link Movement (2008), disputes over North East New Territories New Development Areas Planning (2014) and Wang Chau housing controversy all exemplify this social movement trend. Through land movements, the question of “alternative developments” has been raised. What else can be desired, if capital penetration and homogenisation of space are not the best choices? What else can be done, in order to preserve the existing ways of living, further, to provide new social imaginations distinct from the “official blueprint” of Hong Kong’s future?
Other than demonstrations and protests, other forms of land movements are happening in Mui Wo in the same way. In recent years, a younger generation of farmers, who are enchanted by Mui Wo, have started farming there, echoing with a new wave of “agriculture renaissance” in Hong Kong. Likewise, local community organisations like Lantau Society have been proposing several agricultural projects (e.g. Farm to Table) to gain more public attention. Besides, this small town is rather well-known for its communal environments in which the elderly and wandering animals find it plausible to co-exist with local people. There has been media exposure on relevant topics, revealing that discursive production is similarly essential in the processes of land movements. These discourses too, are proposing some possible directions of future development(s) for both Mui Wo and Hong Kong.
I would like to make it clear that, “development(s)” by nature, is not evil at all. Definitely, Mui Wo and Lantau Island still have room for improvement in terms of social welfare, communal infrastructure, long-term land use plans and so on. What matters the most is whether the proposed “development(s)” have taken the needs of people and their homeland into real account. From the intense resistance triggered by the ELM project, it is obvious that there might be better alternatives, given a financial budget of HK$500 billion.
Due to the word limit, it is pitiful that this article has not discussed the detailed processes of the Anti-ELM protests, and the dynamics and tensions between different interest groups in Mui Wo. Yet, this article goes through Mui Wo’s stages of development together with Hong Kong history. It also suggests that we are now at a critical moment whether a large-scale official developmental project will permanently turn the small town and the city to a not-that-favourable direction of capital penetration and regional integration. Are there any alternatives that people and their land can be better preserved? How can these alternatives be heard, negotiated and implemented? What role, then, should the government take (if any)? With all these questions and unknowns, land movements in Mui Wo and Hong Kong are still ongoing; and hopefully, they can figure out their own ways of responding in the future.
Chan, Kim-ching. 2018. “Land Reclamation has become a synonym of the ‘One-Hour Inter-City Living Circle’”. （陳劍青：填海已成為一小時生活圈的同義詞）. Source from https://www.inmediahk.net/node/1058793.
Development Bureau & Planning Department. 2016. Preliminary Concepts for the East Lantau Metropolis. Source from https://www.hk2030plus.hk/document/ELM_EN.pdf.
Kam, Shui-yung & Yau, yat. 2016. Century-old Mui Wo – Historic Villages, Wild Cattle and the People. Hong Kong: Zhonghua Book Company. （甘水容、邱逸：《梅窩百年——老村、荒牛、人》）
Tang, Kin-Ling. 2017. Encountering Development in the Age of Global Capitalism: A Case Study. Singapore: Springer.
Yam, Tom. 2018. “Why East Lantau Metropolis is yet another conjuring trick by the Hong Kong government”. Source from https://email@example.com/why-east-lantau-metropolis-is-yet-another-conjuring-trick-by-the-hong-kong-government-f3b73c2b0763.