There is a petition that has started circulating this week, by the Save Lantau Alliance umbrella group which asks people to voice their opposition to yet another half-secretive plan to change the face of Hong Kong’s largest island. This time, there is an alarming proposal which involves relocating the cows and buffaloes that roam freely on Lantau to the uninhabited island of Tai A Chau.
The petition explains that the idea of moving one of the symbols of Lantau originated with the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department (AFCD) in 2016, when it had decided to rid the island of the “nuisance” of these animals: the idea was strongly opposed, momentarily shelved, and, with no prior warning, resurrected on October 12. During a little publicised meeting, village representatives and District Councillors asked the AFCD to revive the project of removing the animals, once again described as a nuisance.
It is a strange battle, which sums up many of the contradictions that characterise life in Hong Kong’s outlying islands and in the New Territories in general, and where most terms used to describe the parties involved have become completely devoid of meaning. Those who used to be rural representatives are now anything but rural: they are – in large part – small time entrepreneurs, often involved in various real estate schemes, and are very invested in the large-scale development of rural Lantau, since there is so much money to be made from turning it into yet another high-density area. On their side, is a number of pro-establishment District Councillors, also glad to see the green belt of Lantau rezoned and turned into an urban area, with all the lucrative possibilities that this offers.
It is a process that has been gathering speed in the past ten to 15 years, in a mostly piecemeal fashion, and that has allowed many of the projects that had been previously opposed to be revived and even implemented without any consultation. A lot has been taking place while the government finally decided to move on its plan to install a new sewage system for the whole Mui Wo area – a major infrastructural work that seemed reasonable when it was first proposed, but that has plunged entire clusters of villages into prolonged mayhem. Excavation work has been going on relentlessly for over a decade, and shows no signs of being over anytime soon.
Meanwhile, various village representative and residents took advantage of the chaos to push forward their own pet-project: a number of houses here and there, with no planning whatsoever but more or less covered by the “small house policy” (which, indifferent to all fairness, guarantees every adult male villager a plot of land on which to build a three-storey “Spanish” villa, for their own use, even if most of them actually sell it on the grey market). A parking lot, even in places where no cars are allowed. A square for festive events, just in front of the wet market. A new, enormous pathway that stretches from the ferry pier to the beach without a single tree to provide shade, together with a double bicycle lane in green tarmac so unfit for the local climate that it has already sunk and deteriorated less than a year after completion. And more mysterious, bigger residential developments, that have just appeared out of some bureaucratic blueprint that nobody saw until it was too late.
The animals that have long called Lantau home have been quite indifferent to the destruction brought about by this latest building frenzy, and they can still be seen gathering on the beach at night. The cows have taken a shine to the green bicycle lanes, while the buffaloes still prefer the marshes close to the River Silver, where they can be seen munching grass, sleeping, eating grass and sometimes having buffalo arguments. Their presence requires cars to slow down and respect the speed limits, while cyclists and pedestrians have to take precautions not to irritate them and give them right of passage.
Since the government has been flooding the area with leaflets promoting its vision of a developed Lantau fit for the most demanding tourists, the presence of cows and buffaloes, so rare in other parts of Hong Kong, should be a precious bonus: instead, here we are again with the proposal of picking them all up and dumping them on a different island. Curiously, those who may be accused of gentrifying Lantau are the ones that are opposing the urbanisation of Mui Wo, and the removal of the animals. Those that still define themselves as rural representatives and villagers can be seen driving expensive cars in pedestrian areas asking the government to rid the area of its beautiful animals.
The Lantau Blueprint, with its ominous East Lantau Metropolis project (which would bring up to a million new residents on reclaimed land just off South Lantau) might yet become reality. But, until then, it is hard to see why humans and bovines should stop sharing the space around Mui Wo. To be honest, humans are being a much bigger nuisance than cows and buffaloes in Lantau these days.