Saturday, April 24, 2004

Hong Kong's answer to Don Quixote


In the early 1950s, when I was heading off to England to study, my ship was berthed at Kowloon Wharf, the site of Ocean Terminal today. Passengers would throw coins into the harbour and young boys would dive off their sampans to retrieve them. Back then, the water was so clear that you could see all the way to the sandy bottom. In the early 1970s, when my son was young, I used to take him for walks along the harbourfront. We watched people fishing from the old Blake's Pier and generally had a great time just enjoying the harbour, which was easily accessible. At that time, the harbour was wide, clean and beautiful.

Unfortunately, since those days, it has shrunk beyond recognition and its water is polluted beyond belief.

The harbour is a gift of nature to Hong Kong people and should be passed undamaged from generation to generation. Few people realise that the original shoreline on Hong Kong Island was along Queen's Road. The HSBC headquarters was originally right on the Central waterfront. Today, the harbour covers only half its original area.

I sought to protect the harbour through the law. Despite vehement government opposition, through the efforts of our then deputy chairwoman Christine Loh Kung-wai, the Protection of the Harbour Ordinance was enacted on June 27 1997, just three days before the handover. But I have since found that the law cannot protect the harbour because despite the ordinance, the government has been proceeding with its reclamation projects.

I am forced to conclude that the only hope for the harbour is through the voice of the people.After all, Sydney Harbour is not protected by law, but by the concern of the people. It is, therefore, vital for Hong Kong people to stand up and speak out. Seven months ago, I received a phone call from the popular radio broadcaster Albert Cheng King-hon and found myself being interviewed by him on air. He fully supported our campaign to protect the harbour and asked the public to do the same. The news media took up the story and I was thrust into the limelight. This publicity brought unpleasant consequences.

Two threatening letters were received which could not be ignored. I therefore announced my resignation as chairman of our society and took my family abroad. Previously, some news media had called me a "hero of the harbour", but I became cowardly, in Chinese, a "shrunken-headed tortoise". Such is the price of being a public figure. However, my work goes on as an adviser for the society. I have often been asked why I took up the harbour fight. My family calls me Don Quixote, after Miguel de Cervantes' hero who stands for chivalry and courage.

The government refuses to believe that I do not have any personal interest. The reason is simply this. Any sensible and responsible person would stop a naughty boy from damaging a large and beautiful tree. How much more important is the harbour compared to a tree? Protecting the harbour from unnecessary and excessive reclamation was something that had to be done. I just happened to be there to do it.

An article in the South China Morning Post at the end of last year reported that I was the third most high-profile figure in Hong Kong. Former secretary for security Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee, who proposed the Article 23 legislation, came second. The most popular figure turned out to be the Yuen Long crocodile. Such a result was both amusing and a lesson in humility, to know that I had been defeated by a crocodile.

Winston Chu Ka-sun is an adviser to the Society for Protection of the Harbour.

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