Is this a joke or the ultimate symmetry of the White Elephant Bay Area?

This question is prompted by a government proposal to bring the failed food truck scheme onto the Bridge to Nowhere crossing point, in an attempt to boost the ailing food truck fiasco by having trucks stationed at the entry point to the Hong Kong-Macau-Zhuhai bridge.

The bridge is now establishing itself as little more than a tourist attraction while totally failing in its stated aim of being a vital link for commerce in the Greater Bay Area.

Macau Zhuhai bridge
Photo: GovHK.

Meanwhile, that other “vital link” – the high-speed railway to Guangzhou – is merrily underperforming, with no sign of achieving passenger traffic anywhere close to target expectations.

On the cultural front the other massive white elephant project, the West Kowloon cultural hub, which at least started out with the noble aim of enhancing Hong Kong’s cultural life, has now pretty much been subverted to focus on its political role of enhancing national identity. Other parts of the project languish as the hub’s bosses desperately do all they can to get the Beijing Palace Museum extension up and running.

Arguably, the only major infrastructure project which does not come laden with a political mission, the Shatin to Central rail link, is floundering like mad, immersed in scandal, running wildly over budget and heavily delayed – but at least at the end of the day, it will serve some useful purpose.

Shatin to central link
Shatin to Central Link railway map. Photo: Wikicommons.

As ever, determined to learn nothing from failure, the administration is planning an even bigger white elephant splurge, ferrying container loads of cash over to a new Greater Bay Zone in the area between Hong Kong and Shenzhen.

And then there’s the East Lantau reclamation project which is causing property developers to refill their champagne flutes with relish as they can hardly believe that they actually stand to get more than they asked for.

The emptying of Hong Kong’s impressive financial reserves could not be in better hands, assuming that is, that the aim is indeed to reduce this cash mountain to a molehill.

But let’s get back to that bridge because only the intensely naïve ever believed that its main purpose was transportation. Barely any goods traffic is using it and anyway another, more convenient link to Zhuhai, is in the works.

The fact that ordinary motorists have no way of even accessing the bridge tells you more or less all you need to know about what remains of the bridge’s transport pretentions.

white elephant save lantau protest metropolis

What mattered to the people who conceived this scheme was a physical symbol of greater integration with the Motherland, no matter the cost and quite regardless of the real infrastructure needs of the three entities that are part of this link.

The fact that this bridge has emerged as a major tourist attraction never even figured in the minds of its birth parents. As matters stand, tourism is indeed its main function, which may well make it the world’s most expensive tourist structure.

That was not the plan and, of course, the planners never paid a moment’s attention to the consequences that this would have for Lantau residents, who have found their only major urban centre swamped while local public transport is left struggling to provide a service.

In these circumstances, only a bunch of bureaucrats could have conceived a solution that involves trying to salvage one of their other failed projects by applying it to the chaos that exists at the Hong Kong end of the bridge.

John Tsang, when he was the financial secretary, was the godfather of the food truck project, basing his enthusiasm on what he had seen in places like New York, where the spontaneous proliferation of these trucks greatly enhanced the vibrancy of many communities and, by the by, led to an outpouring of creative food offerings.

Lantau Tomorrow Vision
Lantau Tomorrow Vision. Photo: GovHK.

When this idea was transplanted to Hong Kong, the bureaucrats quickly got their sticky fingers all over the scheme, insisting that spontaneity should be replaced by regulation and, most absurdly, that these little men and some women with their clipboards should actually determine what food was to be served.

From Day One the failure of this scheme was predictable. But mistakes can never be admitted by the bureaucracy, so the official line varies from claiming that everything is going swingingly to the weasel-like assertion that it is too early to judge success or failure.

That, incidentally is the same response to questions that surround the languishing transportation projects. So why the heck not take one failing project and hitch it up to another?

Honestly, you cannot make this stuff up. It’s all a bit of joke and would be quite funny if we – the people paying for this nonsense – were not being robbed in such an audacious manner.

Steve Vines

Stephen Vines

Stephen Vines is a journalist, writer and broadcaster and ran companies in the food sector. He left Hong Kong with great reluctance in July 2021 following the crackdown on freedom of expression. Prior to departure he had been the host of the RTHK television current affairs programme ‘The Pulse’, a columnist for ‘Apple Daily’ and a contributor to other outlets. He continues to be a columnist for ‘HKFP’. Vines was the founding editor of 'Eastern Express' and founding publisher of 'Spike'. In London he was an editor at The Observer and in Asia has worked for international publications including, the Guardian, Daily Telegraph, BBC, Asia Times and The Independent and, during Hong Kong’s 2019/20 protests, for the Sunday Times. Vines is the author of several books, the latest being Defying the Dragon – Hong Kong and Worlds’ Biggest Dictatorship