Malcolm Merry, The Unruly New Territories: Small Houses, Ancestral Estates, Illegal Structures, and Other Customary Land Practices of Rural Hong Kong, Hong Kong University Press, 2020. 300 pgs.
In the summer of 1994, protesters stood before Hong Kong’s Legco building to oppose new legislation that would give women inheritance rights to land in the New Territories. The protesters’ voices may have been heard, but they weren’t taken into consideration when the new law passed. Now almost thirty years later it seems especially antiquated that women couldn’t own land in the New Territories then and that people would protest their right to inheritance. But according to Malcom Merry, this was just one of many examples in which the New Territories has operated differently from the rest of Hong Kong. His book, The Unruly New Territories: Small Houses, Ancestral Estates, Illegal Structures, and Other Customary Land Practices of Rural Hong Kong, takes a thorough look at what makes the New Territories unique.
As most people know, Hong Kong returned to China on 1 July 1997 largely because the lease on the New Territories, which the United Kingdom had acquired in 1898, expired on that. For financial and logistical reasons, the UK decided to hand over all of Hong Kong to the People Republic of China. But according to Merry, the term “lease” is not a correct one when it comes to the New Territories. It’s true that the British took this land in 1898, but back then the boundaries of the New Territories were not defined (the UK had also originally wanted Shenzhen to be included) and no money was exchanged, as in a traditional lease. Merry’s book is filled with legal terminology and examples from Hong Kong court cases throughout the decades to show how the New Territories has upheld more traditional Chinese customs than both the PRC and the rest of Hong Kong. Although the New Territories refers to the land north of Boundary Street and south of the Lion Rock (also known as New Kowloon) and the outlying islands, in this review it will apply to the land north of the Kowloon Hills up to the Sham Chun River.
While the New Territories was traditionally used as farmland, there was a period in the 17th century when the land was evacuated due to trauma. “Only the hardy survived and returned. They were largely Cantonese, or Punti. Later they were joined by industrious peasant farmers from elsewhere,” writes Merry. Under Ching rule, the farmers in what is now the New Territories were left by and large on their own, free of strict regulations due to the distance from the capital; they were about as far it as could be. This independence carried over after 1898 as the new British rulers also allowed the residents of the New Territories to operate according to traditional customs. When it came to land rights, this meant there were two sets of owners for each plot of land and inheritance was based on family and clan associations and foundations, called t’so and t’ong.
In 1899 much of the land in the new territory was found to be occupied by members of lineages within clans and was claimed to be owned by the lineage. The clans were extended families having the same surname. The lineages consisted of part of the clan, so they shared the surname but did not include all the (male) members of the clan. The land was held by an association composed of members of the lineage and named after one of their common ancestors. Other areas were held in the name of a variety of customary organizations dedicated to communal use.—Malcolm Merry, The Unruly New Territories: Small Houses, Ancestral Estates, Illegal Structures, and Other Customary Land Practices of Rural Hong Kong.
The British had an impossible time charting the plots of land and who owned what—sometimes one of the two owners of a plot of land lived far from the New Territories—so the traditional custom continued with two owners per plot of land. Other customs outlawed in China after 1949—including the Chinese adoption for inheritance purposes (sometimes after the patriarch had died) and polygamy—continued in Hong Kong under the assumption that the New Territories would always be used for farming and extra hands would be always be needed to work the land. Polygamy was finally outlawed in 1971 and Chinese adoptions stopped soon after that (although those already engaged in those practices could carry on), but the housing ownership and inheritance customs continued as land prices increased more than anyone could have imagined.
Traditional New Territories homes were about 436 square feet and, as the territory developed, grown children and grandchildren of farmers in the territories moved into urban areas of Hong Kong or abroad. That left some homes empty. Other owners who remained were allowed to build larger homes. Some also constructed illegal structures that ignored building codes.
When property developers started buying up land to build shopping malls and high-rises, male heirs could claim their rights to a village house if they were descended from a male ancestor who had resided in the New Territories before 1898. Even after the change in law that allowed women to own land in the New Territories, village houses could still only be passed down to men. The development of new towns in places like Sha Tin, Ta Po, Sheung Shui, Yuen Long made many New Territories landowners wealthy from property sales, although it wasn’t uncommon for scam artists to target New Territories heirs in the years leading up to the handover. With many heirs living far from Hong Kong and unaware of their rights to homes in the New Territories, these conmen preyed on unsuspecting heirs who weren’t up to date on the Hong Kong property market.
One of the more striking transformations is Tseung Kwan O, another new town that was near what had been called Rennie’s Mill, home to Nationalist officers and refugees who had fled the Chinese Civil War. As Merry writes, “They were placed far from the centre of Hong Kong, where they might cause the least trouble.” Some people may remember the shanties that lined the hillside, draped with Nationalist flags along the shoreline. All traces of that era are now gone.
While most of the book covers land and housing rights, and how those centred on male heirs, Merry includes other interesting titbits about the New Territories. For instance, during World War II, the Japanese had a relatively easy time marching into Hong Kong from the north when they took the city in December 1941. They simply followed the route of the Kowloon-Canton Railway, which ran from the top of the New Territories down to Tsim Sha Tsui in Kowloon. After the war, the British returned and set up military units across the New Territories so they wouldn’t be caught by surprise again. Towns like Tai Po and Sheung Shui still have British pubs, like the Bobby London Inn and the Better Ole, respectively, which catered to British troops at a time when few other foreigners lived in the New Territories.
Merry concludes by describing how many parts of the New Territories are now built up and overcrowded with larger homes, illegal structures and car parks. As he states, “The temptation to despair seems overwhelming. But then one remembers that this is the villagers’ choice, and that this is not the well-ordered city. This is the unruly New Territories.”
How to cite: Blumberg-Kason, Susan. “Truculent Attitude and Independent Spirit: A Review of Malcolm Merry’s The Unruly New Territories.” Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, 23 Apr. 2021, chajournal.blog/2021/04/23/new-territories/.
Susan Blumberg-Kason is the author of Good Chinese Wife: A Love Affair With China Gone Wrong. Her writing has also appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books‘ China Blog, Asian Jewish Life, and several Hong Kong anthologies. She received an MPhil in Government and Public Administration from the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Blumberg-Kason now lives in Chicago and spends her free time volunteering with senior citizens in Chinatown. (Photo credit: Annette Patko)