Hong Kong sawmill resists government eviction

For 40 years, Wong Hung-kuen and his two siblings have owned Chi Kee Sawmill & Timber. Known as “Hong Kong’s last sawmill”, it now faces imminent eviction by the Hong Kong government.

The Wongs are the second generation to run the 75-year-old business in Hong Kong’s North Point district. The company moved several times before 1982 when it settled in its current location in Kwu Tung, near the border with the Chinese city of Shenzhen.

This is an area where Hong Kong authorities have pushed development to address a chronic housing shortage.

The sawmill received an eviction notice in January 2019, according to the South China Morning Postwho said the Wongs faced a June 30 deadline.

They haven’t moved yet, and even though some local residents want to save the sawmill, the government is moving forward with its plans.

A spokesman for the Lands Department told the South China Morning Post, “The government had given more than two years of buffer to allow the sawmill to move” and the development plan cannot be delayed any longer.

He said that according to ministry records, the sawmill had not accepted government assistance for planning consultation and mediation services.

Wong Hung-kuen, 74, and his siblings want a two-year grace period to allow them to turn around 1,000 tonnes of wood they have on hand into furniture or artwork rather than send it to landfills. This wood includes valuable woods like camphor, which is used to make quality furniture and cabinetry.

“The authorities can bring all the wood in dozens of trucks to the landfill…. This is how they want to treat the wood,” Wong told VOA Cantonese. “But we really hope to put it to good use and get the most out of it in the wild.”

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As well as giving them more time to manage their stock which includes recycled wood from local demolition sites, the family is also proposing to turn the sawmill into a museum to showcase traditional Hong Kong wood craftsmanship and the role which he played in Hong Kong’s past.

According to Wong, the philosophy behind the company is to extend the life of trees and turn them into useful wood.

“Especially wood, we should cherish it, because without trees we animals cannot have living space,” Wong said. “Trees have helped us a lot. It’s very important for us to have an attitude of gratitude.”

Wong said he and his siblings wanted the sawmill preserved rather than receiving government compensation. According to South China Morning Post the government is offering HK$1,500 (US$191) per square foot to reclaim the land.

That, Wong told the South China Morning Postis insufficient for a company so closely tied to Hong Kong’s post-WWII history.

“If it’s destroyed, it’s such a shame. … Why not keep that? There are (historical values) here,” Wong told VOA Cantonese.

Wong hopes to stay in the lumber factory as long as possible, in part so he can continue to teach young people about the uses of wood.

According to Ng Cheuk-hang, a volunteer in the anti-eviction effort, Chi Kee has held carpentry classes every month since 2016. The lessons include identifying tree species, instructions on creating furniture and of works of art using wood and, above all, why the students should cherish wood and nature. Ng said he helps teach the classes.

Although suspended during the COVID-19 closures, the course has taken place at least 60 times so far and over 1,000 people have taken part, including those from the University of Manchester in the UK. Uni and the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

According to Ng, Chi Kee wrote to the Lands Department in February asking for clemency but received no response. He added that the company had tried to find a new site but the only option proved too costly.

Ng said that for years Chi Kee received wood from demolished sites from Hong Kong authorities and helped recycle it.

“It’s actually a very strange situation,” Ng told VOA Cantonese. “On the one hand, the government keeps bringing in wood, or these public institutions keep bringing in wood, and want us to take care of it, but on the other hand, they (the government) keep taking over our factory. .

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