Villagers oppose private columbarium seeking recognition on Po Toi
Originally published at the South China Morning Post on August 15, 2014.
Villagers on remote Po Toi Island fear the island's fung shui will be damaged and tourists scared away if up to 2,000 private funeral niches on the island are given official recognition.
They expressed their concerns after the developer took steps to register the niches with the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department as an "operating" columbarium - a prerequisite for seeking recognition under a proposed licensing scheme to regulate private niches.
"We villagers all oppose it," village office chairman Leung Chun-nam, 55, said.
"It affects fung shui and tourism," he said. "Before, this area was for farming and growing crops. I did not sell land to them."
The developer of the columbarium, Splendid Resources, paid HK$3 million for 43 land lots on Po Toi in 2007. It could not be reached for comment. Work on the niches was discovered in 2012 but was halted shortly after the Lands Department questioned whether the development breached the land lease.
All of the 2,000 niches on the hillsides of Po Toi, close to Hong Kong's southeastern boundary, are described by the developer as "underground vaults" to store urns. But the Post found some "vaults" were just surface soil covered by memorial stones.
The developers applied in June to register the site as an existing columbarium - a move that critics argued would enable them to revive the project.
Eddie Tse Sai-kit, convenor of a concern group that focuses on illegal columbariums, questioned whether the company had finished construction at the site. If not, it did not constitute an existing columbarium, he said.
Tse said villagers contacted him after they saw men cutting down shrubs around the stones in early July and marking them with numbers, allegedly to create the illusion they were in operation. He said Food and Environmental Hygiene Department officers had taken photographs at the site for registration.
"They're creating the impression that they have been running [a columbarium] for a long time," Tse said. "The motive of registering is to bypass … the development freeze."
A spokesman for the department said they were still verifying the information provided by the columbarium on the island. He said the registration was required to determine if a columbarium was eligible to apply for a licence and that would not pre-empt the application results.
He also said an "operating" columbarium had to be in existence before 18 June this year - the date when the private columbariums bill was announced - and that the niches had to have been storing ashes.
A spokesman for the company told the Post in 2012 that the development covered about 2.2 hectares and the original plan was to build more than 4,000 niches. He added that they had spent HK$2 million on studies and concluded that no planning permission was required.
But the government in 2012 placed the island under an interim development order, freezing all development until next year.
Taking advantage of a shortage of public niches which are cheaper but allocated through draws, more private niches have been built across the city, with some being sold for hundreds of thousands dollars each.
This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Islanders oppose Po Toi grave sites