San Shek Wan representative Andrew Brown shares his enthusiasm for village life
Reporter: Lotus Lau
On a cold, rainy Saturday afternoon in San Shek Wan village, Englishman Andrew Brown shows off a drainage ditch in a footpath that has been properly covered with concrete. It is one of his proudest achievements since being elected as a resident representative of the south Lantau village in 2003.
It is also just one of the many works Brown has done for his village in his three consecutive terms. He says the village was “dead and dying” before he moved in. The young people had left and only the old remained. Many houses were unoccupied and construction waste and junk littered the area. Brown cleared the junk, fixed the telephone lines, and replaced the old rusty pipes.
Brown, a civil engineer who helped construct the Tseung Kwan O Rail and other lines for the MTR Corporation, used his professional knowledge to improve the village infrastructure and revitalize the community of around 50 residents. More families with kids loved the new environment and decided to stay. During his eight years in office, life has become easier and more comfortable for the villagers.
“People began to take a pride in the village. They could see that things were improving,” says Brown.
Apart from infrastructure projects, Brown has also sought to build stronger bonds between the residents in the village. He has organised Christmas parties for the whole village in the car park and holds regular meetings to discuss village matters. When he talks about the meetings, he takes out a list of members from his large but well-organized piles of documents. He knows everyone on the list well.
“This lady is Japanese. Diana is Filipino. Mimi is Chinese, indigenous. Grace is from England. Popo is an old lady. She comes to all the meetings. She does not even speak Cantonese. She speaks Hakka,” he says.
Brown loves the multiracial character of the community. Though he is an expatriate, he enjoys interacting with villagers of different backgrounds.
The 48-year-old Briton came to Hong Kong 15 years ago to work as an engineer. His first home in Hong Kong was in Discovery Bay, where his neighbours were mainly expatriates. But he was dissatisfied with living in an expat community with weak relationships.
“Why would I come and live in Hong Kong if I just wanted to live in an expat community?” Brown says. He eventually discovered his dream place and moved into San Shek Wan two years later.
“I know all people in this village and most people you can just knock on their doors and drink a cup of tea,” he says. Brown thinks the media tends to mislead people into thinking there must be a battle between the indigenous locals and the “gweilos” in his village.
He says this has no basis in reality. He cites the cordial relations he enjoys with his neighbours, saying the manager of the supermarket knows him and their daughters are playmates. The owner of the electrical shop always gives him a discount.
“It is great to get involved with these people who treat you as one of them,” he says with a smile. “It is a mindset thing. As long as I think that I am a part of this community, I am.”
The villagers have shown their support for Brown in the three elections he has fought and won since 2003. He is the first expatriate village head in Hong Kong under the dual-heads electoral system which was introduced after a landmark Court of Final Appeal ruling in the same year. Under the system, indigenous residents pick one head while the entire village selects the second head.
The three consecutive wins did not come out of the blue. As half of the residents are foreigners, it may seem that Brown has an advantage in elections. But he is irritated that newspaper reports have suggested his victories were “a matter of luck”. He thinks the media has overlooked the real situation.
Under the current rules for elections, not all the non-indigenous locals or expatriates are granted the right to vote. Only those who have lived in the village for at least three years are allowed to cast their ballots. Out of the 21 expatriates in San Shek Wan village, only eight are qualified to vote. Brown stands no chance of winning if he merely counts on the votes of expatriates. He believes he can win only because he can convince Chinese residents, both non-indigenous and indigenous, that what he stands for is worth voting for.
“I will be dumped if I just talk to the expats,” he stresses. “You cannot win the election in this village by luck. You have to win it by persuading or convincing people that what you are offering is better than the alternative.”
“The alternative” he mentions is the indigenous chief Mo Ngan-fuk and his family. Mo and his family members have run against Brown in the two-heads election since Brown first beat Mo’s son, Mo Kam-tong, in the first election eight years ago.
With the mention of his nemesis, Brown launches into a litany of complaints about Mo’s behaviour. “He is just a 77-year-old man who has no friends. People all hate him for all sorts of horrible things he does.”
Brown says Mo objects to every infrastructure project he proposes, citing bad feng-shui. He has also locked Brown out of the village office. Brown has never set foot in the office in the eight years he has been resident representative and villagers take turns to provide their homes as meeting venues.
Brown can barely contain his criticism of Mo. “He does not even organize a celebration on Chinese New Year which he should. I do not think he celebrates anything. He just sits there counting money,” he says, bursting into laughter.
Funnily enough, Mo describes Brown in exactly the same hostile way. He complains that Brown counts everything in the village as his own achievement. The septuagenarian is animated when he counters that Brown also opposes all his suggested projects, like constructing a concrete footpath up a hill. He thinks Brown is selfish, unreasonable and troublesome. Mo also says he does not communicate with Brown because he does not know English.
“Don’t bother talking to me. I won’t talk to him,” he warns Brown. “Don’t walk past my front door, because I’ll do him over if I see him!”
However, Mimi Ng Suk-yan, does not find it hard to communicate with Brown although she is an indigenous local who does not know English. She says they use body language to interact with each other and Brown’s wife helps to translate. Ng is glad Brown was elected as she thinks he is helpful. The small garden in front of her house is one of his works.
Jonathan Mortimer, an expatriate resident of four years, also thinks that Brown has helped to improve the quality of life. However, he says he wishes Brown and Mo could work together as the indigenous heads still have the real power and connections in the villages. He does not believe the two will ever be able to cooperate with each other.
Independent legislator Albert Chan Wai-yip, one of the villagers of San Shek Wan, compares what Brown is doing to hitting his head against a brick wall. He thinks Brown is in an even worse situation than he is in the Legislative Council because he has to fight alone against the “feudalism” of traditional New Territories villages.
Brown is still determined to fight against the old, traditional system in which the chief has the right to demand everyone to listen to him. “We have to do it in this village because we have that sort of attitude that we are fighting against where we are getting told nothing and just getting things imposed on us,” he says.
Being responsible for five railway construction projects now, Brown admits he has less time for village matters than before. However, he does not complain about his workload, as he does not consider being a village representative to be a job: “It is a passion. It is a bit like my hobby, like sailing.”
Despite having to juggle his work, village affairs and family life, Brown is still working hard to be a complete local. His wife is a local and one of his daughters is bilingual, but they only speak in English at home. Despite the effort he has put into learning Cantonese for so many years, he is still unable to speak it.
He recalls a funny experience of going to the market with his wife: “My wife went to a store and the woman said: “ya-sarm mun”. I said: what is that? She said it is twenty-three dollars. I know that twenty-three is “yee-sup-sarm”. So you guys cheat! You guys do not speak like what it says in the book.”
In spite of his passion for managing village matters, he would like to encourage others to take on his job and run in the next village representative election. He says he does not want to be another Mo who occupies the village head’s position for nearly 40 years. He thinks all villagers have an obligation to contribute to the community that he would love to stay in for the rest of his life.
“I cannot be anywhere else. When I go to the UK, I just want to come back here. I think it is home,” says Brown, without a shadow of doubt.