SPECIAL REPORT

Villagers' sons get to build own houses

Mr Chan Zhan Lun, 91, was born in the New Territories and has spent his whole life there.

His father was among the 100,000 people who had been living in the New Territories when the area was leased to the British in 1898 by China, he told The Straits Times.

Back then, Mr Chan's father owned two houses where he lived with his three wives and children. When Mr Chan got married, he built his own three-storey house in Fung Chi Tsuen, a village in Yuen Long, where he lived with his wife and nine children.

To preserve the family tradition, Mr Chan's three sons applied to the government for permission to build their own houses under the "small house" policy of 1972, meant to protect the local culture. It allows male descendants of villagers who were living in the area in 1898 - or indigenous people - to build houses on their own or government land.

"The indigenous male descendants in the village all built their own small houses, although many of them have since moved out. Some have sold their houses and land, while others lease them out. It costs HK$8,000 (S$1,500) a month to rent a small place here, not something that a normal worker can afford," said Mr Chan, who was the village chief back in 1962.

"Today, I get many people coming to knock on my door to ask if there is any house or land for sale. Fung Chi Tsuen has prospered. New Territories is a self-contained region. We are not dependent on outsiders and our own people control the area," he added.

Mr Joe Lam, 47, a civil servant, agreed: "We are a very close-knit and united community in New Territories. Many of us grew up together and know one another well. When one family is in trouble, the entire village will gather together to help."

For almost 30 years, Mr Lam has been living in a two-storey house in Ma Tso Lung village in Sheung Shui district, near the border with the Chinese mainland.

"I am a non-indigenous resident and so I am allowed to build only a two-storey house instead of a three-storey one. Each storey is also limited to 400 sq ft instead of 700 sq ft," said Mr Lam, whose ancestors had settled in the New Territories after 1898.

Mr Lam said he has also been leasing a 14,500 sq ft piece of land owned by his family to a fishery operator.

"I am enjoying the space living in the New Territories. I don't think I can live in a shoebox apartment in the city. Even if I get a good offer price for my house, I will not sell it," he said.

Joyce Lim

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 22, 2016, with the headline 'Villagers' sons get to build own houses'. Print Edition | Subscribe