Agnes: Basically the residents are very upset about the project. But there is no way they can do anything to stop it. According to the village leader Tang Chung-hing, he said the land had been owned by previous village leader Lee Kwai-sau, whose son-in-law Johnson Chan Wing-kan, a shareholder of the project developer, China Choice Enterprises, sold it to the company after Lee’s death. And the villagers were first told that the group was building luxurious houses on the site so there was no problem about that back then. But after villagers found out these buildings were not installed with toilets and kitchens they knew something fishy was going on. And the developer finally admitted that they were building a private columbarium. So villagers got really upset because they said the project would affect their mental health and they don’t want to have the dead to be their neighbours. That’s why they tried to stop construction work at the site and it finally led to the clash.
Kit: Why did the residents oppose the construction of a columbarium there?
Agnes: Apart from the psychological effect that might have on them, they are upset that it is possible that many strangers from other areas of Hong Kong will go to the area during Ching Ming Festival or Chung Yueng Festival to do grave sweeping. And they don’t like having too many strangers going to their village. And also, generally, if it has plans to building a columbarium, the government will have to consult district councils and residents in the district. But in this case, since the land is privately owned by a developer, there was no consultation at all. So villagers were basically not asked how they feel about the project. And that’s why the reaction was quite radical last week when they had a clash with construction workers and a couple of dozens of men who claimed to be working for the developer but actually they were there to escort construction workers there to make sure that they can continue to work.
Kit: Did this clash come in a backdrop of an increasing number of private columbariums in the city? If yes, why?
Agnes: According to the spokesperson for the Hong Kong Columbarium Merchant Association, he said, according to government figures, there were about 47,000 deaths in Hong Kong every year. Yet the supply of niches in Hong Kong is only about 22,000. So you can see there is big difference between these two numbers, and the difference itself accumulates every year. So there is a big room for private operators to get into the trade because of the strong demand for niches and limited supply working in the market. And also Hong Kong is facing an ageing population problem so that’s why there is plenty of room for private players to join in the market.
Kit: If we take the recent case in the Sheung Shui village for example, is it a breach of laws for the building owners and managers to build a private columbarium in the village?
Agnes: Well in the Sheung Shui case, based on the evidence which has been seen at the moment, it seems that it is quite legitimate, in the legal sense, for the developer to do the project. They paid the money, they bought the land. And according to the land lease — which was drafted before 1900s according to the village leader — there was no term forbidding such trade to be held in the site. But at the moment there is no single ordinance, or law, or government department to regulate such commercial activity. Basically you’ll just have to find problems related to certain department if you want to complain about operation of such business.
Kit: Is there any single government department governing the trade then?
Agnes: No, not at the moment. For example, residents in Hung Hom, they have been complaining about nuisances caused by the trade for years. They have to approach several departments. For example, if they want to complain about fire safety problems [arising] from burning paper offerings they would go to the Fire Department. If there is any illegal structure being made to certain flats or a building in order to run the trade, they will only go to the Buildings Department. If they think there is anything related to hygienic issues, they will have to go to the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department. So you see there is no single law or single department dealing with all these complaints or dealing with problems caused by the trade and there is no licensing system to regulate the trade at the moment.
Kit: Last week, the government said that it was planning to set up a voluntary registration system to address this issue. Can you tell us more about this system?
Agnes: Secretary for Food and Health Dr York Chow said in the Legislative Council last week that in order to enhance the public’s confidence, the government will look into ways to increase transparency in this regard in joint efforts with the trade, by for instance, setting up a voluntary registration system to make the information more transparent so that they can protect consumers’ rights. Because it is difficult for consumers to find out what are the terms listed in the land lease, whether such kind of business is listed is allowed on certain sites or inside certain flats. But the government still has not revealed much information about the system, like what kind of people or organisation would be qualified to register, or what kind of documents they are required to submit in order to be on the list, or is there a way to tell the public that you can be sure that for the money you pay, in return you will get the niche you want. There is no such information available at the moment. The intension of setting up the registration scheme is purely to protect consumers’ rights because consumers don’t know how the trade operates and they also have problems finding out terms listed in land leases. Also, Dr Chow addressed the definition of human remains, which might be seen as the core of the problem. According to Chow, the definition of human remains did not include ashes resulting from cremation of bodies under the Public Health and Municipal Services Ordinance. But that interpretation was not applicable in private contracts. So you see it’s quite confusing because many private columbariums have actually set up in private flats in residential areas or in private land. But operators in the trade, for example, Memorial Park Hong Kong executive director Gilbert Leung Kam-ho. He quoted information they gathered from the Lands Department. And according to lands officials, ashes are regarded as human remains and the lease stipulates that the site in Leung’s case cannot be used as a cemetery or storage site for human remains. So we have two different laws, having two different definitions of human ashes and human remains.
Kit: Thank you Agnes. Thank you for being with us.
Agnes: Thanks for having me.