Block the bulldozers

Block the bulldozers

Developers are pushing old businesses and residents out of Western District as rents rise

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Blocks like this charming tong lau in Sai Ying Pun are being razed to build newer flats to attract wealthier residents.
Blocks like this charming tong lau in Sai Ying Pun are being razed to build newer flats to attract wealthier residents.
Photos: Dickson Lee/SCMP
In August, the 35-year-old Golden Cake Shop on Eastern Street in Sai Wan closed its doors for good, thanks to rising rent. The family-run furniture store Chong Ngai on South Lane near Kennedy Town had to make way for redevelopment.

The business reopened a few blocks away, but its former neighbours are gone.

It's definitely a case of out with the old and in with the luxury high-rises, art galleries and expensive bars. Long-time residents and business owners fear that Sai Wan will follow Kwun Tong and Sham Shui Po as the next victim of redevelopment.

"My sense of belonging to this neighbourhood, where I lived for 35 years, diminishes day by day as we begin to lose traditional eateries, such as Sun Chung Wah Restaurant and Chek Kei Conge, and the district turns into the new SoHo," says Tai Ngai-lung, head of the Changes in Western District group.

Peggy Chan opened her vegetarian bistro Grassroots Pantry on Fuk Sau Lane last year. She says Sai Wan used to have a very laidback and relaxed vibe. But now she sees that changing, with more Western eateries and coffee shops that cater mainly to expats.

"Construction is going on everywhere," she says. "It's not bad that the district is slightly Westernised, but I don't want to see people drinking, smoking and partying on the streets, like it's Lan Kwai Fong."

Chan put serious time and effort into finding the right place for her business. She preferred to invest less in location - and thus rent - and spend more on her food philosophy and staff.

She hopes her landlord will not raise the rent when she has to renew the contract.

The twin forces of change are the Urban Renewal Authority and MTR West Island line, which will link Sheung Wan and Kennedy Town from next year.

Tai believes the problem is rooted in the Land (Compulsory Sale for Redevelopment) Ordinance, under which a property can be auctioned to developers if 80 per cent of the landlords agree.

Businesses who own the street-level shops are the typical losers. Most won't give up their own space for fear they will have to rent a property, meaning their outgoings will be subject to the changes of the market.

But when the majority of the building's landlords agree on the purchase price offered by the developers, these businesses have little bargaining power. That's the situation facing Chong Ngai.

This practice has also driven up rent in the neighbourhood. According to Tai, you could rent a 100sq ft sub-divided unit in Kennedy Town for HK$2,000 a decade ago; now you need double that sum.

"The Western District is the last resort for the poor. If they are forced to move, they won't be able to afford apartments this size in the same area," he says. Some of his friends have already moved to the New Territories.

He urges the government to impose rent control and require developers to secure the agreement of at least 90 per cent of the old building's landlords before a building can be sold for redevelopment.


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