April 19th, 2011
07:03 AM GMT
Hong Kong, China (CNN) – It all began at about 3am. That’s when residents of Hong Kong housing complex Mei Foo Sun Chuen say they first heard the construction trucks arrive and a few of them rushed downstairs to see what was going on.
Resident Hewit Au describes what happened: “I asked the driver what he was doing. Then the driver said, ‘Go away - if not I will run you over.’ So I said, ‘Fine run me over.'
“Then I laid down in front of the truck.”
Au’s late night standoff kicked off a weeks-long stalemate between Mei Foo homeowners and Billion Star Development.
In Hong Kong, Au and his fellow residents have become more than just middle class homeowners with a complaint against a local developer. They have become symbols of growing level of dissatisfaction over skyrocketing property prices and the power wielded by some of the city's richest corporations, the property developers.
Billion Star has permission to a build a 20-story residential tower adjacent to Block 8 of Mei Foo Sun Chuen. Residents say the new building would block their access to light and clean air. They are keeping a 24-hour watch at the site to make sure no building can go ahead.
Retired schoolteacher Yip Siu-Chau says even if the new construction is legal, it is a morally questionable decision to build there. The distance between his building and the new development, he says, “is about two feet. We even made a joke – if we want to lend something to them, they can just pass it to us.”
Billion Star declined CNN’s requests for an interview, but in a press release said that the new building will be 7 to 15 meters from the Mei Foo Complex and that residents were told of the plans.
Hong Kong property prices have risen almost 69% since January 2009, according the investment group CLSA. The boom has made money for many, but it has also made it difficult to afford housing, especially for young middle class couples just starting out. In a city where construction is inescapable, so are high noise levels, scaffolding and debris. Plus you never know when a tower will go up, blocking your view and hurting your property prices.
The government is starting to face a backlash, according to Christine Loh, CEO of think tank Civic Exchange.
“I see that there is a desire amongst ordinary Hong Kong people to understand about why Hong Kong developers make so much money here,” she says. "People are asking questions like how much taxes are they really paying? And so I think this sense of the rich getting so much richer – and, of course, some of the most wealthy people in Hong Kong are the property developers - so people are making that linkage.
“And they are asking government, what are you doing about it? Is it a fair society?”
In a recent survey from the University of Hong Kong’s Public Opinion Program, 17% of those questioned said they felt “angry” about the state of Hong Kong society. 11% said their anger level exceeded what it would take to hit the streets in protest.
Hong Kong’s Development Bureau declined to speak for this piece because of the legal issues surround the Mei Foo controversy. The bureau put out detailed responses to the residents claims though, including in part "there is no case for the Government to interfere with a lawful private project.”
The Mei Foo residents organized a major street protest at the beginning of April, with hundreds participating. Their next step appears to be a legal battle, as they take their complaints into the courts.
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