Letters from leaders of Hong Kong's political parties and government departments.
Dear Hong Kong People,
I have recently received a letter from one of my friends who has left Hong Kong and lived overseas since year 2000, informing me that he would like to visit Hong Kong in July, and hope that I can show him around including seeing some of our recent achievements. To enable my friend to plan his visit, I took the opportunity to give him a pen picture of Hong Kong. The following is the extract.
“Although some may say that Hong Kong has lost the glory of its heydays, I assure you that Hong Kong is still very vibrant and quite affordable - at least for a short stay. Lately, we see a lot of polarized political arguments daily in the media. For the local people, high housing prices and rents are indeed at present the most imminent issues. On the whole, development is making progress, notwithstanding the increasing filibustering in the Legislative Council. Our city infrastructure is still robust and efficient, and the city is safe and public transport facilities are highly convenient. However, I also asked myself whether Hong Kong is indeed better than other cities, as I do not wish to hard sell it to you or anyone else.
The first berth of the Kai Tak Cruise Terminal was opened in 2013. Yet up to now, the surrounding sites are still rather desolate and difficult to access. The Third Runway for the Airport, first mooted in year 2010 in the Airport Master Plan 2030, only obtained approval from CE in Council in 2016 and much is still on the drawing board. Hong Kong Disneyland’s patronage has been low for many years since opening in 2005, and it records losses in most of the years. Approval was given last year for further expansion with new themed lands to be opened in 2020. Let’s hope that Hong Kong will have some more attractions soon. As for the Ocean Park, the Budget Speech announced in February that Government will allocate $310M to support it in view of its difficulties. Many people rightly expect greater vibrancy and attractions at Victoria Harbour waterfront. I have been appointed to be a member of the advisory Harbourfront Commission in July last year. I could feel the public sentiments and I also hoped that Government could speed up the implementation of the long outstanding visions and enhancement measures. Whilst my involvement in the Commission has still been very short, I hope that I could help to give matters some push in the coming year.
Apart from strategic and large scale projects, what makes a city great often relies on its innate character, cultural heritage, environmental quality and moreover, how friendliness towards tourists and visitors who are unfamiliar to the place. I have frequently discussed with friends in the fields of architecture, surveying, planning and landscape. Many of us have expressed similar concerns about the gradual degradation in the cleanliness and maintenance of the street environment, the lack of well planned and designed greenery and new attractions. The new “attractions” we find are perhaps mainly commercial developments filled with chain stores and advertising bill boards.
You and I are both professionals in the construction industry. I am sure you would share with me similar values of a friendly city and good urban design. We cherish walkability and pedestrian friendliness, green and sustainable development, quality of the living environment, as well as greater public participation in local area affairs.
However, looking around, illegal parking and on-street loading and unloading activities are very common. Government is currently carrying out a study on potential uses of underground spaces in three selected locations in the business area, with a view to solve some of the street level congestions. I have read those reports but I have yet to be totally convinced as the proposed commercial uses may generate even more traffic in the surrounding streets. Sometimes, opportunities could have been grasped but they just appeared to be neglected. One of a rare positive example may perhaps be found in the busiest niche in Mong Kok, where pedestrian pavements are so narrow and often blocked by hawkers and goods over-spilled from adjoining shops. In the redevelopment, the designer has set back the lower floors of the building and has thus freed up a lot of areas, and as a result provided opportunities for place making. The original urban matrix could only be revamped to improve the pedestrian environment with a sensitive and people-oriented approach, and by coordinated and timely efforts of comprehensive urban renewal, plus a review of the traffic and transport policies.
Whilst I am glad to note that the CE’s Policy Address this year has stated that “Government will continue to take forward “Walk in HK” and encourage people to walk more … ... to help alleviate traffic congestion and improve air quality, and develop Hong Kong into a walkable city …”, I am somewhat skeptical about the effectiveness in implementation. We have been talking about building a smart city for many years, but up to now only some explorations are being carried out on some aspects in the Kowloon East district.
To be able to move about freely and safely in the city is all more important for the elderly. Life expectancy is getting longer and longer. By year 2041, nearly one third of Hong Kong’s population will be aged 65 or above. Although Government pledged to make the city barrier-free and has carried out many footbridge and escalator projects in various districts, it is time that we take a closer look at the needs and difficulties encountered by the elderly persons, to see whether the current design standards are adequate, for example: “small” but important matters like the sizes of signage and associated letterings, the speed of escalators, the green times of traffic lights, the provision of handrails, the number and convenience of location of public toilets, clinics, elderly service centres, etc. Even the distances of facilities and local parks and bus stops from the residential area may require a comprehensive re-think and support of new policy initiatives.
On another front, certain improvements have been made to some LCSD managed parks, where previously many activities, even walking on the lawns were prohibited. The change is welcome but it is still quite slow.
As some form of local attractions, from time to time the District Councils initiated some events or bazaars to help the local businesses. The Financial Secretary in his 2018-19 Budget speech stated that he will set aside $8 Billion for proposals initiated by the 18 District Councils. Whilst the Home Affairs Bureau would act as coordinator, I am glad to note that my friends in the professional fields volunteered to participate, if there are such opportunities at all, to facilitate the District Councils in better resolving district issues and in more professional planning and design work.
As I am currently representing the Architectural, Surveying, Planning and Landscape professions in the Legislative Council, I earnestly hope to address these issues as far as I could in my position, and work together with the Government and the community to make Hong Kong a better place to live, work and visit.
I look forward to your visiting Hong Kong soon, to show you the progress of our city and to consult you on how to make Hong Kong a much friendlier city.
Life goes by in the blink of an eye. There came Christmas time, followed by the New Year. Have Santa got you the favorite gift?
In this joyous festive moment, right down Santa Claus' lane are shoppers on a spending spree. Little did we notice though, that the look-alike shops have discreetly rising prices digging deeper into our pockets. Old shops selling stationery and toys like aeroplane chess or grocery have vanished like rain drops in a dessert. Even public housing malls can barely escape the factory-molded plastic surgery-style renovation.
Monotonous malls and chain stores dominated shopping scenes in our city. By eliminating retail outlet diversity, Link REIT is the lead culprit. Back in 2005, the Hong Kong Government founded Link REIT as a cure to the fiscal plight faced by the Housing Authority. The government spun off malls and car park assets in 180 public housing estates. Following this was a stock exchange listing. This privatization proves to be a fundamentally flawed prescription for an ailing problem.
Here's the issue: By ridding a large pool of public assets into private investors' hands, the government let the fat cat off the hook. A cat that ran wild in the house. What's dubious about the government's role in the whole scheme is its failure to keep an eye over these spun-off assets. The government failed to maintain a controlling stake in the spun-off vehicle, leading to today's out-of-control situation.
The creation of Link was an outcome of a government call. Unlike the MTRC, however, it escaped the official reign in the absence of a controlling stake. Contrary to what it's meant for in catering public housing residents, Link brings inconvenience to residents, and worse still, leads to an exodus of small retail shops.
When profit maximization topped the agenda, hefty rent hike followed suit. With limited means, individual tenants were quickly shown the door. Small shops closed one by one. What's next is chain stores and consortium retailer gradually taking over. In 2016 alone, rent surged by 27% in Link-managed mall. Rent increase stood remarkable at 23% and 11% for shops and car parks, respectively. Thanks to tenaciously aggressive management, Link's market cap soared by more than 800% from $20 billion at IPO to $170 billion today. It has proudly emerged as the largest REIT in Asia. Behind the glory is the casualty of thousands of expelled small shops and millions of suffering residents deprived of choices.
It didn't take long for Link to become one of the most unpopular brands in town. Its profound contempt of people's livelihood and appalling CSR record accounted for its classic greed in the public eye.
A cunning wolf is never short of tricks. A bitter twist followed as Link attempted to leave behind this bad taste. Wanting to fade out our property market, Links started to load off Hong Kong assets. Ironically, this time, it's not a sale back to the government. Rather, it's the smaller less-savvy investors. A perfect profit loyalist, Link broke sales down into small individual units in order to get a higher return. Since 2014, the trust disposed 47 malls already, representing 30% of its pre-IPO portfolio. If you believe things can only get better, wait until you see what Link has done to us. The new smaller owners were reluctant to invest in the malls. It didn't help when we have a laissez-faire government. Now, who's willing to pay for less choices with higher prices? Not surprisingly, these malls suffered from poor management and lack of traffic. Long gone are the days with variety and affordable choices. It looks set that the situation is only getting worse as Link continues to pursue this strategy.
As we see it now, the situation has turned into a stalemate. Even today's government has no clue. It's unfortunate that our government was so lacking in vision back then.
Notwithstanding this, however, I am confident that we can put an end to this:
First, the government should take lead in proactively managing and changing the situation. For instance, the government should set up a task force to inspect the disposed assets against illegal land use.
Second, the government can keep things in its radar by participating as a bidder whenever the units are put up for sale.
Third, as a counterbalance tactic, the government should provide for more flea markets and increase the number of shops in the public housing estates. By bringing in competition, smaller operators can benefit from a healthier retail habitat.
Fourth, local public interest group and labor union can help monitor Link by regularly conducting market survey of product prices, rental figures and sales staff payroll.
Together, we can rebuild a healthy and diverse consumer market habitat.
Hong Kong prides itself as a shopping paradise. Not only are we proud of value-for-money deals, we also boast ourselves of the diversity and variety on offer, from mass products to super luxury goods. I sincerely call on our government to take up leadership in the fight against the Link REIT anomaly. Bring us back the breathing space for individuality in the shopping scene.
The more and better choices for consumers, the healthier our retail sector. With this, our society will thrive better in 2018!
Please send my regards to your parents.
With love, Auntie Alice