Well it’s nice to know that owners of valuable dirt have their rights protected in Hong Kong. This was demonstrated last Sunday. Earlier this month a pile of dirt 10 metres high was discovered in a field near Tin Shui Wai. This is a big heap. Think beached Titanic.

Protests from local residents produced no sign of official action.

A group of protesters turned up on Sunday, thinking they might collect a few bags of the dirt heap and deposit them on appropriate government doorsteps.

However the arrival of the protesters was closely followed by the arrival of the police, who arrested them on suspicion of theft. Theft?

dump site
Protesters held banners to protest government inaction at the dump site.

I must say this came as a bit of a surprise. About the same time as the megapile of dirt appeared in Tun Shui Wai somebody started dropping off small piles of construction debris on the grass next to the car park at the top of Sui Wo Road, where I live. I would have thought that anyone who picked up some of it and took it away would be doing a public service.

Surely the law does not regard it as an offence to pick up something which someone has thrown away? The exuberant lady who cleans our road finds a lot of tins and packets, especially after weekend nights. I suppose they all have a potential value to someone, but at some point surely private property becomes public litter.

Clearly the megapile in Tin Shui Wai contains no ordinary dirt. This is designer dirt. Having matured for a few years in a New Territories field it will become Vintage dirt, commanding a monstrous premium from dirt connoisseurs.

In the meantime it would be nice if the dirt owners conformed to the law, which at least in theory regulates where such owners can leave heaps of their property to undergo the maturing process.

protesters dump site
Protesters clashing with police at dump site.

It seems that as in so many matters in the New Territories the law is, if not completely helpless, at least extremely sluggish about this sort of thing.

The relevant Permanent Secretary, who happens to be the disreputable but durable Paul Chan Mo-po, said that three departments were “strictly following up the matter”, but were engaged in gathering evidence and investigating the law.

This brought immediately to mind a rare moment of enlightenment in the colonial Legco, when a member responded to a rather similar problem by relating an old Chinese proverb: If one monk is in charge of getting the water he brings two buckets on a pole over his shoulder. If two monks are getting the water they bring one bucket on a pole between them. If three monks are supposed to get the water we have no water.

Clearly Hong Kong has no lack of competitiveness when it comes to providing a supportive environment for the dirt industry. Dirt owners can be assured that they can park their property wherever they like.

If the resulting heap annoys nearby residents, never mind. They will be invited to play pass the parcel with three government departments, leaving your heap to ferment in peace. If on the other hand some local miscreant threatens to take a shovel to it, then the cops will be on his case right away.

Isn’t the rule of law wonderful!

Tim Hamlett came to Hong Kong in 1980 to work for the Hong Kong Standard and has contributed to, or worked for, most of Hong Kong's English-language media outlets, notably as the editor of the Standard's award-winning investigative team, as a columnist in the SCMP and as a presenter of RTHK's Mediawatch. In 1988 he became a full-time journalism teacher. Since officially retiring nine years ago, he has concentrated on music, dance, blogging and a very time-consuming dog.