Hong Kong clans fight land rights for women

IN THE villages of Hong Kong's New Territories, far from the gleaming towers of the business district, low houses still nestle in the shade of banana trees and old men tend vegetable plots. The past lives on here. So much so that, until last Wednesday, an inheritance law dating back to the Qing Dynasty barred most women from inheriting property.

Cheng Lai-sheung, 42, knows what it is like to feel dispossessed. Ten years ago, her father died without making a will. Under the law, the title to his land and six houses was automatically transferred to her two brothers. Ms Cheng inherited nothing.

Last week Hong Kong's Legislative Council finally voted to give the women of the New Territories equal property rights with the men. But what might have been a simple issue of sexual equality has flared into a public battle about traditional clan life and the survival of indigenous culture.

Villagers accuse urban outsiders of interfering in their traditional lives. More cynical observers believe that the high passions roused by last week's change in the law have more to do with Hong Kong's sky-high property prices.

The discriminatory property law goes back to 1898, when Britain leased the New Territories, the extensive rural part of Hong Kong that borders mainland China. The British agreed that the clans' traditions and customs would not be tampered with, and passed a New Territories Ordinance that barred women from inheriting land unless named in a will.

Under clan traditions, ancestral land always went to males bearing the clan surname, and not to women, because they would marry outside the clan and become part of their husbands' families. The quid pro quo was that male clan members had to care for widows or unmarried sisters, taking them into the family house. In early 1992, still unmarried, Ms Cheng found that the family house in Long Tin Chun village, which she had been living in since before her father's death, had secretly been sold by her two brothers, with her as a sitting tenant. The new landlords are now trying to evict her because she refuses to pay their rent demand of pounds 2,000 a month.

Ms Cheng said: 'I am so angry. Growing up, I knew I didn't have property rights. That's fine if I can live here. But my brothers went and sold off the house.' Last year Ms Cheng formed the New Territories Female Indigenous Residents Committee, and started lobbying for a change to the law.

Three months ago, an independent Legislative Council member, Christine Loh, proposed that the inheritance law should be scrapped. 'This was just such an obvious and miserable practice, and it has caused over the years tremendous discrimination against a particular group of women in our society,' she said.

Many of the New Territories' 750,000 villagers saw it differently. The Heung Yee Kuk, the mostly male organisation that claims to represent the clans, has argued furiously against legislation which, it claims, will destroy the traditional life of the villages.

Tang Kun-nin, a member of the Tang clan that dominates the Long Yuk Tao collection of villages, has one son and two daughters. To get around the new law, he thinks he will now make a will to ensure that his son, still just 18 months old, inherits the family house. 'We don't think it's unfair, it's the village way. The clan wants to live together and farm our village,' he said.

Ms Loh said: 'The reality is, not much farming is going on. A lot of farm land is being used as container-stacking yards. A lot of men are selling land to developers. If they can sell it to people with different surnames, what's wrong with a woman inheriting?'

Villagers fear that this is only the start of the erosion of many economic and political privileges enjoyed by the clansmen. Each adult male villager can claim a 700sq ft plot of land on which to build a so-called 'small house'. Tang Kun-nin and his two brothers are now the proud owners of three very large, valuable 'small houses' that they have constructed on land provided to them under this policy.

Wednesday's vote was overwhelmingly carried in the Legislative Council, but the Heung Yee Kuk says it will continue to fight, perhaps by organising mass will-signing sessions.

It also hoping that Peking will change the law after taking over in 1997. Mainland China, where 45 years ago Mao Tse- tung banned feudal practices and proclaimed that 'women held up half the sky', has come down against the revision, saying that it breaks the proposed post-1997 mini-constitution for Hong Kong.

Last night Ms Cheng was feeling optimistic. The change in the law may have come too late for her personally, but she joined friends to celebrate it with a banquet.

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