Police attended a standoff at the beleaguered housing estate Tin Ma Court on Tuesday, as the property manager attempted to clear residents protesting against managerial neglect and rent hikes.

Police at Tin Ma Court on Tuesday. Photo: Alliance Saving Tin Ma Court/Roy Kwong.

It came a day after residents began a sit-in demonstration. They allege that the estate’s shopping mall and public facilities have been neglected since last year. During a recent visit, HKFP observed that escalators have not been repaired and plants have not been watered.

Last year, the Wong Tai Sin estate’s mall and facilities were sold to property investor Vantage, while Guardian – part of London-based Savills – took over the responsibility for property management.

On Monday, the Alliance Saving Tin Ma Court – the principal concern group – called upon Vantage and Guardian to conduct a “real dialogue” with residents. They put up signs criticising the companies around the mall.

Attempted clearance

On Tuesday, around a dozen property management personnel arrived at the mall protest site, led by a Guardian deputy manager surnamed Cheng.

“Not all of the security or clearance personnel were wearing uniforms or possessed staff identity cards,” an Alliance spokesperson told HKFP.

In the morning, Cheng was filmed in heated debate with residents, criticising their protest action – but he refused to answer their questions on management issues.

“Hong Kong is a society based on the rule of law. Don’t you think what you’re doing is over-the-top?” asked Cheng in video footage published by the Alliance. The footage also showed Cheng and a local resident taking turns filming one other.

Visiting the estate at noon, pro-democracy legislator Roy Kwong and district councillor Clarisse Yeung urged Guardian not to call the police to prevent residents from expressing their opinions.

Guardian deputy manager Cheng. Photo: Alliance Saving Tin Ma Court screenshots.

“The new owner… is showing its arrogance and lack of concern for residents’ livelihoods,” said Kwong in a press release.

Then at 1:30pm, resident Jan Wong wrote on Facebook that the company called the police and the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department to clear out the protest site.

But the Alliance told HKFP in the afternoon that the clearance did not take place. “Police are here and advising us on our actions,” said a spokesperson. “Reporters from RTHK and online media outlets are also here.”

See also: Tin Ma Court residents stage 12-hour sit-in against poor management, rent hikes

Another group, the Tin Ma Mall Youth Concern Group, told HKFP that the Guardian security personnel retreated to their offices after reporters arrived on the scene.

According to the Alliance, police spoke to the Guardian staffers regarding the concerns of the residents. Cheng told the force: “At the moment we cannot promise to hold a residents’ meeting, and we do not have a date or a timetable to provide.”

Photos posted at 6pm Tuesday showed that numerous protest signs remained at the mall – but tents inhabited by residents during the sit-in were no longer there.

The standoff between dozens of residents, property management staff and police continued into the evening as district councillor Yeung, legislator Kwong and the Civic Party’s Jeremy Tam returned to the scene.

Accusations of manipulation

Last week, local pro-Beijing district councillor Chan On-tai accused the Alliance Saving Tin Ma Court of being manipulated by parties for a “political struggle,” and criticised the local media’s negative coverage of the saga.

“I want true dialogue with the landlord.” Photo: Alliance Saving Tin Ma Court.

Chan organised a briefing session attended by Guardian – but not Vantage – last Tuesday afternoon, but almost 2,000 residents signed a petition demanding another session in the evenings or the weekends, when they are not at work.

In the meeting, a Guardian spokesperson explained certain changes in facility management – such as not watering plants because soil needed to be removed in order to solve problems of water leakage to the floors below.

Tin Ma Court shop owners also told HKFP during a visit last month that Vantage refused to extend their shop leasing contracts, while Guardian increased property management fees by some 44 per cent.

See also: In Pictures: The slow death of Home Ownership estate Tin Ma Court

Built in 1986, Tin Ma Court is a home ownership estate originally managed by the Hong Kong Housing Authority. The government allocated the estate’s public facilities to listed private property trust Link REIT in 2004, but the trust sold the facilities to Hong Kong-listed Vantage in 2016.

Vantage and Guardian did not respond to HKFP’s recent requests for comment.

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Elson Tong

Elson Tong is a graduate of international relations and former investigations consultant. He has also written for Stand News.