First there was a fuss about indigenous villagers adding illegal extensions, such as an extra floor, to their houses in the New Territories; they were being treated far more leniently than Hong Kong’s post-19th Century interloping carpet-baggers in the urban areas. In essence, it was another backlash against the privileges Chief Executive Donald Tsang lavishes upon his client states-within-the-state, such as the aborigines’ Heung Yee Kuk mafia, the property developers’ cartel and his own grotesquely overpaid, overmanned and overweening civil service.
Then it got personal. Several legislators belonging to the Democratic Alliance for the Blah Blah of Hong Kong, our local public Communist Party front, were found to have illegal structures on their homes both north and south of the Mason-Dixon Line that is Boundary Street. Then, no doubt mindful of the ‘equal time’ guidelines, the press unearthed the illicit add-on at pan-democrat Leung Yiu-chung’s home. Then Undersecretary for the Environment Kitty Poon was found to have (a rather nice) one on her luxury villa.
Now, most embarrassing of all, Education Secretary Michael Suen has owned up to having a couple of unauthorized extensions jutting out of the side of his first-floor apartment in Happy Valley. Embarrassing because it was under his watch as Secretary for Housing, Planning and Lands that the Buildings Department sent him an order to remove the structures five years ago.
With such a high-ranking figure caught in the act, some government detractors are calling for the hapless Suen to be publicly beheaded. But even now, the righteous outrage is curiously muted. And the reason for that is simple: nearly anyone who is anyone (ie, not living in public housing or a modern high-rise shoe-box) has, or has had, some sort of illegal modification built into their home. In many cases, people are barely aware of the alterations, which were done decades before by previous owners.
Suen was not alone in ignoring the Buildings Department blitz on the phenomenon five years back. In my neighbourhood of Soho, the official letters were in nearly every low-rise mailbox. The majority of residents were given a month to remove the offending structure, typically a veranda absorbed into a living room, or face a fine and/or prison. The effect was to make many apartments maybe a third smaller, and thus uninhabitable for the families that had lived in them for decades. They sold and moved out, opening the way for new owners (often Westerners) to buy, convert to studios and lease out to Yuppie types at inflated rents. In practice, it was a clearance of the poor to make way for the rich.
A minority of residents got a different letter, like the one Suen got, giving them a month to fix the problem or face the insertion of a note into the property’s official record – thus alerting a future buyer to the existence of a forbidden structure. This was because the verandas annexed into living space did not overlook the street and threaten passers-by. These people were lucky and are still there. However, they live in fear of the day – maybe tomorrow, maybe in 10 years – when the bureaucrats finally and suddenly order the unlawful walls and roof demolished; it will be their eviction.
In theory, the background to all this is public safety; illegal structures have occasionally collapsed and killed people below or caused death by blocking fire escapes. However, many of them are probably structurally sound, and the hunt to eradicate them seems to be driven at least partly by official, and totally inflexible, vindictiveness. The government didn’t collect a premium on the land for the extra amount of roofed-in space; the owner didn’t go through the correct, impermeable, procedures to change a building; the dweller has the nerve to acquire a decent area when it is government policy to keep housing artificially scarce, expensive and tiny.
Suen, now 67 and on dialysis, was crassly hypocritical to oversee a policy of clamping down on illegal structures – forcing, in my street, families with live-in grandparents to up sticks and leave at a few weeks’ notice – while enjoying his own illegal washing-machine space. But what he really deserves to be flayed alive for is not questioning, indeed not giving a damn about, a brutal policy.