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Sha Tau Kok residents disagree over whether closed area should be opened up

By Brian Wong and Sherry Tsui

The two sides of Chung Ying Street are lined with boutiques selling clothes and knick-knacks and stores selling everything from accessories to electronics and appliances. But the most popular ones are the grocery shops and minimarts offering everyday consumer items imported into Hong Kong – such as milk powder, instant noodles, nappies and shampoo. Shoppers enter empty-handed and leave with boxes of goods. Outside the stores, people busily pack the goods they have bought.

Logs of daily goods keep entering Chung Ying Street every day
Trolley-loads of daily goods enter Chung Ying Street every day

They are free to shop on both sides of the 250-metre-long street, and pay no attention to the seven boundary stones separating Hong Kong and mainland China in the middle of Chung Ying Street. They were erected in 1898 to mark the boundary between imperial China and British Hong Kong, and after 1950 between the People’s Republic of China and the capitalist crown colony.

In 1951, most areas of the Sha Tau Kok district became part of the Frontier Closed Areas (FCA), including Chung Ying Street, which means visitors can only enter with a permit. Today, the Sha Tau Kok Rural Committee estimates that only 6,000 to 7,000 of the 30,000 or so residents from Sha Tau Kok’s 47 villages still live in the area, of which 4,000 to 5,000 are non-indigenous residents.

At the urging of the Rural Committees, the government announced a substantial reduction of Hong Kong’s Frontier Closed Area in 2008. Currently, Sha Tau Kok Market and Chung Ying Street are the only restricted areas left in Hong Kong and ironically access is easier from the mainland side where travel agents can secure permits for Rmb10.

Business may be brisk now, but it cannot compare with the early 1980s when China embarked on economic reform and Mainlanders flocked to Chung Ying Street to buy Hong Kong and foreign goods. At its peak during the 1990s, there were more than 40 gold shops in Chung Ying Street – the businesses there attracted up to 100,000 visitors and made HK$1 billion in takings a day. The adjacent Sha Tau Kok Market also prospered at that time.

Tsang Yuk-on, the indigenous village representative of Mui Tsz Lam Tsuen, says mainland residents and Sha Tau Kok residents could go freely between Chung Ying Street and Sha Tau Kok Market before 1997 as the colonial government exercised discretion over their movements. But after the handover, the permit system was strictly enforced on the Hong Kong side. Tsang speculates this is due to the need to enforce the One Country, Two Systems principle.

He is disappointed to see many of the spaces and facilities in Sha Tau Kok Market left unused after access became restricted. “For 16 years, we’ve wasted the shop spaces. The whole area is wasted,” Tsang says. It is hard to make a living in the closed area and he estimates that fewer than a thousand people stay overnight as most residents have moved to the mainland side or the downtown areas in Hong Kong where there is better transportation and access. Tsang says many hold on to their empty homes solely so they can apply for permits to enter the closed area.

Tsang and other indigenous villagers think the only way to stem the exodus and revive the area is to open it up and develop it.

Members of the Sha Tau Kok District Rural Committee and Sheung Shui District Rural Committee submitted a development plan to the Development Bureau and Security Bureau in February this year. Proposals include setting up a boundary control point at Chung Ying Street and opening up Sha Tau Kok Market. They say development of Sha Tau Kok could curb the number of mainland visitors going further afield to shopping hubs like Sheung Shui and Tsim Sha Tsui.

Sha Tau Kok District Rural Committee Chairman Benjamin Lee Koon-hung believes Sha Tau Kok could attract mainlanders who only want to shop in Hong Kong.  “If Chung Ying Street is enough to satisfy their shopping needs, they don’t need to step into Hong Kong,” Lee says. Meanwhile, he also hopes to develop Sha Tau Kok Market and Chung Ying Street into tourist spots by preserving their historical and cultural features.

Lee says most of the indigenous people, who can trace their ancestry in the area back to 1898, support the opening up of the district.

“Opening up is always better than closing. Who wants to be imprisoned in their residence?” asks Lee. He says there are approximately four times as many non-indigenous residents as there are indigenous villagers because there is a public housing estate- Sha Tau Kok Chuen – in the closed area.

Those who oppose the plan are fishermen and non- indigenous residents. “I could only say they are naïve. As they are not well-educated, their minds are easily affected by others,” Lee says.

However, So Tik-ka, 32, the organiser of a campaign to oppose the opening of Sha Tau Kok, says she and other non-indigenous residents were not consulted or informed of the plan.

“We only knew of the plan through television news but in fact they haven’t asked any of the local residents,” So complains. In March, So set up a stand outside a supermarket to collect signatures against the scheme and says 2,000 people have signed so far.

The Sha Tau Kok Public Pier which cost 46 million dollars for renovation is now the stop of merely 3 kai-tos commuting from Sha Tau Kok and nearby islands
Just three kai-to’s serving nearby islands berth at the renovated Sha Tau Kok Public Pier

Bowie Hau Chi-keung, the chairman of the Sheung Shui District Rural Committee admits he did not consult local residents about the opening up of Sha Tau Kok District before submitting the plan.

But he says the development can create business opportunities while having little impact on Hong Kong citizens. Hau says it would also help to curb smuggling activities and imports of illegal goods across Chung Ying Street because customs and police officers would be able to regulate imports at a proper border checkpoint.

Shirley Lo Suet-yan, who lives on the mainland side of Chung Ying Street, disagrees with the opening of Sha Tau Kok. She is annoyed about the problems of parallel trading and thinks the problem would worsen after opening. As it is, she usually gets held up at the control point to the Mainland because there are too many people queuing with their goods.

“The police check us very strictly and I usually collide with the carts,” Lo says. When Varsity visited Chung Ying Street, we were asked by four different people to deliver goods to the Mainland and were offered between Rmb40 and Rmb60 to do so.

Lo worries about the potential disturbance caused by a stream of visitors. “I have lived here for a long time and I really enjoy the quiet and comfortable environment. But it would deteriorate if more tourists come,” she says.

Another local resident, 50-year-old Lee Chor-kwong, who also lives on the mainland side of Chung Ying Street, has a different view. He thinks the economic potential in Sha Tau Kok could be an incentive to improve the community’s ancillary facilities and create more jobs. “Now I have to go to Kowloon for work. If you can have the jobs matched inside the area and find the locals to do the job, it is possible to develop,” says Lee.

Opinion among the Chung Ying Street retailers is mixed.

Fifty-year-old Leung Kai-chung, who is a second generation store owner, agrees with the proposal. He says opening up would lead to development and progress and says it is essential for areas like Chung Ying Street to divert mainland shoppers away from crowded areas like Causeway Bay and Sheung Shui. Once they have bought their fill of Hong Kong products, they will just leave and go home, he says.

However, Lau Wan-ying, a newspaper vendor and local resident is worried about the implications for security. She says Sha Tau Kok is an extremely safe place. Most residents are elderly people who lead simple lives and it is easy to spot strangers because residents recognise each other.

Lau is satisfied with her lot, “I don’t need to employ staff and I just need to make money to pay the rent, that’s all.” But she thinks the rent would definitely go up and public security deteriorate if the area is opened up.

“Local residents normally disagree with the opening of Sha Tau Kok, except those who own their own land,” she says.

People in Sha Tau Market usually cycle around their neigbourhood and recognise others
Bicycles are the preferred mode of transport in Sha Tau Kok market

Ms Law who owns a children’s clothing boutique in Chung Ying Street says Hongkongers spend less than Mainlanders do. Nearly 80 percent of her customers come from the Mainland. She guesses Hong Kong people are uncertain about the quality of goods at Chung Ying Street.

Yet Law signed the petition against opening up Sha Tau Kok. She hopes Chung Ying Street can retain its unique atmosphere which depends on the fact that people cannot easily access it without closed-area permits. She argues that the permit-only rule might continue to prompt people’s curiosity so that they treat it as a tourism spot when they travel across from Shenzhen.

Despite public discussion, the Development Bureau says it has no immediate plans to develop Sha Tau Kok district and that Chung Ying Street is unsuitable for large-scale development due to its restricted access. In a written reply, the Security Bureau said there was no plan to establish a control point at Chung Ying Street at present because it “involves various complicated considerations”, such as immigration, residents’ mobility and boundary security.

As for the younger generation of Sha Tau Kok, they have different thoughts about their home.

Chan Sai-leong, a university research assistant who used to live in Nam Chung, which is a few kilometers away from the Sha Tau Kok town center, says he does not miss the desolate environment and inconvenient transportation.

Although the 22-year-old has moved to the city, he is happy to see more commercial activities taking place in his old neighbourhood. Chan believes development and conservation should co-exist. He thinks others who live in more developed districts have no rights to ask Sha Tau Kok residents to preserve the area, while they themselves are enjoying the benefits of development. Chan says. “This is totally unfair. Why is it that you can develop yours but we cannot develop ours?”

Chan understands that a coin has two sides. The opening of Sha Tau Kok could result in the emergence of parallel traders who might cause disturbance to the district. Yet, he is convinced that if the government compensated the shop owners and the residents reasonably, there would be no complaints.

But to 21-year-old Raymond Wong Wai-nung, a local resident who works as an investment adviser, the development project could be another way to enrich the already rich and powerful at the expense of the livelihood of local residents. He agrees the opening up of the area would only turn Sha Tau Kok into a centre for parallel traders. “Such a proposal wraps itself in ‘development’ and ‘business’, exploiting the livelihood of normal residents. They fall victim to it completely,” Wong says.

Wong believes opening up is essential to generate income, but he hopes that any plan would be beneficial to all parties involved. “You need to think twice, do we need to trade what we originally have for such business opportunities?” he asks.

Edited by Cherry Wong