A golfer swings during a tournament as a crowd looks on.
English golfer Simon Dyson during the third round of the Hong Kong Open in 2010. The tournament is held at the Hong Kong Golf Club in Fanling, where the local government now plans to build new housing. Action Images/Paul Childs/Reuters

In a controversial decision, the government has announced it will take part of a golf club and redevelop it as housing, much of it public.

HONG KONG—Part of a 129-year-old golf club will be appropriated for new housing in this land-squeezed city that, for nine years running, has been ranked as having the world’s least affordable housing market. The decision comes following protests over the fate of the club’s 172-hectare (425-acre) site in the northern suburb of Fanling.

Last week, the local government announced that it will take 32 hectares (80 acres) from the Hong Kong Golf Club next year and redevelop it for housing, much of it public. (The local government has the authority to do this because it essentially owns all the land in Hong Kong, and leases it out on decades-long terms.) Later this year, the government will begin a technical study to determine the number of apartments to be built on the land and the scope of infrastructural work needed to support the development. Construction is expected to start in 2024, with residents moving into the homes in 2028 at the earliest.

Public and private housing complexes in Hong Kong. Hong Kong has one of the highest population densities in the world, and its housing is among the globe’s priciest. (Bobby Yip/Reuters)

In a statement, the Hong Kong Golf Club immediately denounced the government’s decision as “populist and political … putting housing and sports at loggerheads.”

“We sort of anticipated this was going to come,” said Yoshihiro Nishi, president of the Hong Kong Golf Association, a group representing four private golf clubs including the Hong Kong Golf Club. Nishi led the group’s efforts last year in lobbying the government to preserve the entire Fanling site. Now, he said he is worried that the decision will be a blow to the future of golf in Hong Kong.

Supporters of the golf club also said the redevelopment will mar a landscape that includes historic buildings and many old trees. “It is one of the oldest courses in Asia, and a lot of history is going to have to go with it,” said Michelle Cheung, a member of the Hong Kong golf team.

Meanwhile, housing advocates criticized the government for not taking more land from the club.

“It’s killing the chicken to scare the monkey,” said Yam Chun, a community organizer for the Concerning Grassroots’ Housing Rights Alliance, using a Chinese idiom that means warning the many by punishing the few. “To protect 140 hectares by taking back 32 is to just silence citizens’ demands, and we think this is unacceptable.” Yam wants to see the entire Fanling site, with three 18-hole courses, redeveloped for housing and other public uses.

The fight over the future of the golf courses started last February, when a task force proposed a series of options to increase Hong Kong’s land supply, including partially or fully redeveloping the Fanling site. The bitter debate that followed laid bare deep fractures in a city grappling with problems of economic inequality, declining social mobility, and slowing growth.

One of the most common criticisms of the golf club and other private sports clubs like it is that they rent their land from the government through special, reduced-rate leases called private recreational leases. Because Hong Kong’s 24 private sports clubs serve about 56,000 people in a city of 7.4 million, some have attacked the special-lease policy as a subsidy for the rich. (The government this week announced that private sports clubs will be charged substantially higher land premiums starting from 2026 or 2027, but they will still be well below market rates.)

A corporate membership at the Hong Kong Golf Club costs about $2 million (U.S.). Individual memberships cost much less, but involve a vetting process and a years-long waiting list. Non-members can play on most weekdays, with an 18-hole round costing around $140, and the club has outreach programs offering classes for underprivileged students and training for young golfers.

Last March, protesters stormed the Hong Kong Golf Club, chanting “Land for all!” and “We want public housing!” At another demonstration in April 2018, protesters scuffled with security guards and a golf coach grabbed a protester by the neck and threw him to the ground. The coach was later charged with assault and given a suspended prison sentence.

The golf-course redevelopment is one of eight recommendations in a report published in December by the land-supply task force, which spent months studying various ways to tackle Hong Kong’s land shortage. Hong Kong covers about 425 square miles of land, but with less than a quarter of that developed, it has one of the highest population densities in the world. The task force’s other recommendations included tapping into private farmland, developing underused sites like container yards, and a $60 billion project to build a series of artificial islands totaling 6.5 square miles. The government recently endorsed all of the task force’s proposals.

While redeveloping a portion of the golf club is one of several government initiatives to boost Hong Kong’s land supply and grow its housing stock, it leaves unresolved the larger, more deep-rooted problem of a complicated land policy, said Christine Loh, chief development strategist at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology and the city’s former undersecretary for the environment.

“Land policy is a very complex issue in Hong Kong,” Loh wrote in an email to CityLab. “The issue of land premiums is [one] issue but there are others, such as the Small House Policy; and as far as housing is concerned, Hong Kong also has many dilapidated buildings.”

There has been intense focus among activists and within the government on increasing the supply of land, but some advocates have argued against this. Rather than the supply of land, they say, the real issue is how land is distributed, which in turn affects the price and quantity of housing.

For example, the government currently sells land leases to the highest bidder. While this is the most transparent way to award land, it also means that property developers are forced to recoup their costs by pricing their apartments ever higher.

“Creating land but not solving the issue of land distribution will just worsen income inequality,” said Johnny Lau, a member of the Land Justice League.

Other experts, like the economist Richard Wong, have long argued that a flawed public-housing policy is to blame for Hong Kong’s housing crisis.

That the decision about the golf club has rankled people on both sides speaks to the intractability of the affordable-housing shortage in Hong Kong—and not only in that city.

“Income inequality is not going to be solved by snatching some land from the golf course,” said Loh. “There are no quick or easy answers to a nearly worldwide problem that has resulted from major forces over the last 50 years.”

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