Some months ago the Lands Department, the Hong Kong government department which presides over land use, came in for a certain amount of stick concerning the ease with which some people mysteriously acquired the free use of bits of government land. Sundry houseowners (this seems to be a disease of the rich) had managed to establish such facilities as swimming pools and tennis courts on said patches. The department, beset by much other work no doubt, had failed to assert any control over the matter.

Part of the department’s response was to upload to the internet a map, which you can see here – offering some 300 “Vacant Government Sites Available for Application for Greening or Government/Institution/Community Uses”. The implication is that NGOs might find a use for a site, and apply to the department to borrow it. Apparently the question of rent will not arise – the idea is to put idle assets to good use.

The Land Department’s map.

This looked interesting. I have for some years longed to find an abandoned and inexpensive place where several arts groups of which I am a member could have a permanent home: a place to store their stuff and practice. I know of several arts groups which have gone out of business because of the lack of such a place. Others have to rely on public provision, for which the competition is fierce. Also you cannot book anything on a long-term basis. As a result my dancing career has taken me to a wide variety of community halls and sports centres which I did not know existed. The idea is not to open a performance venue, just a couple of biggish rooms for regular practice sessions.

The Lands Department’s map is searchable and the offerings come in two categories — vacant school premises and “others”. It seems from the sample I have looked at that the others are mostly odd-shaped pieces of land currently occupied by grass and trees, which the department thinks someone might enjoy “greening”. In other words, no buildings. As far as the vacant school premises are concerned there are none in the urban area at all. It is difficult to believe that the provision of schools has so exactly matched requirements. Not one vacancy in the urban area?

Never mind. I am broad-minded and I live in Shatin. In my district the department is offering three “vacant school premises”. Two of them are in the middle of nowhere. One is at the back of an inaccessible village. One is actually in an area which appears on Google Earth to be entirely forested and have no houses at all. I suppose there was a village there once. Also lacking is any kind of road. It’s miles from civilisation. The third looked more hopeful.

Lung Hang Estate. Photo: Wikicommons.

This is described as “near Lung Hang Estate”, which suggests accessibility, and indeed on the map it appears to be a short walk from Tai Wai Station. So I thought before considering a visit to the local Land Office I could have a quick look and see what was on offer. The site is, as I surmised, a mere 10 minutes walk from Tai Wai station. You go down an alley between two schools. You then come to a rather handsome fence, through which you can see a lot of tombs and urn repositories. The fence has a gate. Although this sported two padlocks neither of them was actually locked so I pushed the gate open and went in.

There is a flight of steps, which I correctly guessed would lead to the school. They are small (meant for kids?) and rather neglected. Lots of rubble. Who builds things up here? I came to the remains of the school gate – two concrete pillars and, lying on the ground, an arch with Chinese characters in wrought iron, now turning into wrought rust. Then, on the left, a flat patch which presumably used to be the playground. This sported a row of brand new tombs, which solves the building mystery. Onwards and upwards and a building appears. Monkeys fled at my approach and several bits of tree had to be pushed aside. So to the “vacant school premises”, which turned out to be a picturesque ruin. A few more or less intact walls and some reminiscences of a roof. The department’s website notes the existence of “derelict structures”, an understatement.

I do not like to appear unwelcoming of a well-intentioned innovation, but NGOs tempted by the thought of a vacant government site need to keep two things in mind. The first one is that a “vacant school building”, if you can find one near you, may not be much of a building. In fact it may be more of a wreck. The second is that the vacant site may not be all that vacant either. I fear that anyone who takes up the offer of a vacant school near Lung Hang Estate is going to be very unpopular with the local tomb industry, which has evidently become accustomed to using this site for its own purposes. It seems the Lands Department does not actually have much control over what happens on vacant sites. Which, alas, is where we came in.


Tim Hamlett

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.