Could a colonial-era golf club solve Hong Kong's housing woes?

The Hong Kong Golf Club has become the focal point of a raging, citywide debate about how to use Hong Kong's scarcest and most valuable resource, land. PHOTO: NYTIMES

HONG KONG (NYTIMES) - The Hong Kong Golf Club is a 129-year-old enclave of privilege whose quiet fairways once catered to the city's British colonial rulers, but whose parking lot is now filled with the Teslas and Porsches of its wealthy Chinese elite.

More recently, this sprawling golf club, with 54 holes, has become something else: the focal point of a raging, citywide debate about how to use Hong Kong's scarcest and most valuable resource, land.

"Golf is a plaything of the Brits," said Ng Cheuk Hang, 23, a spokesman for the Land Justice League, an activist group that wants the golf course redeveloped into low-rent public housing.

"It's not a grass-roots sport," he said. "It's not a sport for the people, and it creates a lot of social injustices."

Yoshihiro Nishi, 51, the president of the Hong Kong Golf Association, a group representing four private golf clubs in Hong Kong, thinks the activists are unnecessarily politicising the issue.

"All the members of the Hong Kong Golf Club understand the housing needs in Hong Kong," said Nishi, who works as a private banker by day. "We just want to make sure that we get to say what we want to say. Don't turn it into a little bit of fight between the haves and don't-haves."

The problem is that property prices in Hong Kong have soared to the highest levels in the world; blue-collar and middle-class families are priced out of the market. And so the city is searching everywhere for places to build - the edges of public parks, a few remaining farms, land reclaimed from the sea and brownfield sites, like former container yards.

It's an affordable-housing crisis whose effects have rippled across the broader economy and inflamed political tensions in a society already divided over Beijing's refusal to allow free elections.

Much of this mountainous, densely populated territory of more than 7 million has already been filled with high-rises, shopping centers and concrete sprawl. Hong Kong's golf courses and other private recreation clubs - long given special treatment as the city strove to be an attractive hub for global bankers and executives - are increasingly seen as one of the quickest solutions to the land shortage.

But as the golf courses and clubs face growing calls to be redeveloped into public housing, they also are facing angry protests linking the crisis over land use to the city's broader problems of economic inequality and declining social mobility.

In late March, protesters stormed the Hong Kong Golf Club, in the far-flung suburb of Fanling just two train stops from the Chinese border. Chanting "Land for all!" and "We want public housing! Take back the golf course!" they marched down the neatly manicured lawns before occupying a putting green.

When protesters reappeared a month later, they scuffled with security guards who barred them from entering. A golfer who was not a member of the club was seen grabbing a protester by the neck and throwing him to the ground.

The dispute has been exacerbated by Hong Kong's political paralysis.

Bitter infighting between its unelected, Beijing-backed leadership and the pro-democracy opposition has left the city's government unable to tackle tough problems, chief among them the lack of affordable housing.

The prohibitive property prices, while a boon for the elite, have hurt the rest of the economy by raising costs for small businesses and startups.

The activists seemed to get support from a recent government report proposing that the 425-acre golf course be partly or fully redeveloped for housing and other public uses. According to the report's estimates, the course is big enough to hold 13,200 apartment units, housing 37,000 people.

The club is one of six golf courses and 24 private sports clubs on special government leases. Some of the others, including the Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club and the Hong Kong Cricket Club, also date to the 19th century, and used to serve a mostly white, colonial clientele.

Together, the clubs occupy 828 acres - about the size of Central Park in New York City - and serve about 56,000 members. They rent their land from the government through the special leases, private recreational leases, that offer often below-market rates, drawing accusations that the government is "subsidising the rich."

The private recreational lease policy is a holdover from Hong Kong's colonial days, when recreational facilities were few. A policy document from 1979 said the private clubs "provide an important outlet for the upper middle class and business circles."

"We are lacking in golf facilities severely," said Arnold Wong, 44, the previous captain of the Hong Kong Golf Club, an elected position in which he represented its members. Wong, the co-founder of a restaurant company, pointed out that Hong Kong has fewer 18-hole courses than Singapore, which has a smaller population.

"In terms of golf facilities, we are already lagging way behind as a major financial city," he said.

As the debate has grown, the government's Home Affairs Bureau has proposed changes to the leasing policy, like charging the golf clubs higher rent.

Last year, the Hong Kong Golf Club paid HK$2.5 million to the government in rent, a mere 3 per cent of actual market rental value. Even so, the club had a deficit of the equivalent of US$1.27 million in 2016, according to its annual report, suggesting that substantial increases in rent would pose a financial challenge.

As the largest of Hong Kong's private clubs, the Hong Kong Golf Club represents the upper-class elite of the city. A corporate membership can be bought for some US$2 million. Individual memberships have a one-off entrance fee of around US$64,000, and monthly dues of several hundred dollars, but require personal connections and patience for a waiting list that is years long.

For most of its history, the club had the word "Royal" in its name, and members were predominantly British expatriates. Today, most of the 2,660 members are Hong Kong Chinese, many of whom got rich in real estate or finance after the economy took off in the 1970s. More recently, wealthy Chinese mainlanders have joined in growing numbers.

The club opens its gates to nonmembers on most weekdays, though the fee of about US$140 per 18-hole round puts it out of reach for many in Hong Kong, where the median monthly income is around US$2,150. In recent years, the club has invested in community outreach, like teaching golf to underprivileged students and training talented young golfers.

Yet as Hong Kong feels increasingly divided between rich and poor, the debate surrounding the golf course speaks to more fundamental questions about the future of this city, and whether it will be affordable to all, or just a playground of the rich.

Some of the most vocal opponents of the course are young social activists who call land ownership the biggest dividing line between Hong Kong's haves and have-nots.

Yam Chun, 24, a community organiser for the Concerning Grassroots' Housing Rights Alliance, sees the golf course as the epitome of inequitable use of land.

Born to a working-class family, she said she grew up in cramped subdivided flats and old tenement buildings while her family sat on a long waiting list just to get into public housing.

"When my family and I were still waiting for public housing, I thought to myself, does Hong Kong really not have enough land?" she said. "Now that I've grown up, I realise that the real problem is the unfair distribution of land."

Some experts say that while the dispute has exposed deeper anxieties caused by Hong Kong's economic rise, the golf course is not big enough to solve the housing issue.

"The golf course problem is just pure political populism," said Richard Wong, professor of economics at the University of Hong Kong.

"The golf course is peripheral, completely peripheral, to the solution to this problem," he added. "It's symbolic."

Still, symbols can be important, and some argue that getting rid of the golf course would hurt Hong Kong's competitiveness.

"As an international financial city you do need to balance housing needs with sporting needs," said Wong, the club captain. "You can't have a walled city of just concrete, with no facilities, no attractions to other investors, foreigners, expats, people of different backgrounds."

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