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Standoff at old ferry pier turns nasty

Donald Asprey and Mimi Lau

Thursday, December 14, 2006

The government Wednesday resumed demolition work on the clock tower at the old Central Star Ferry Pier just minutes after protesters were forcibly removed by police, with one protester arrested and another taken to hospital.

The 24-hour protest ended shortly after 4.30pm with the arrest of Loy Ho, 41, editor-owner of the Lantau Post and single mother, who was accused of criminal damage after she tore away some of the green cloth around the scaffolding surrounding the clock tower.

She was escorted to a police car, but a dozen protesters blocked its path for half an hour before they were removed.

The action drew outrage from lawmakers who accused the government of "disrespecting citizens" even while the issue was being debated in the Legislative Council.

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They urged the government to halt demolition work until after a panel of experts could convene to discuss whether the tower could be saved.

Democrat Martin Lee Chu-ming accused the government of "bullying."

"Every bone in my body screams to join the protesters, but as a legislator I can only watch while these youngsters are forcibly removed by police. Does the government really need to take this action? They are like a bully," he said.

Hong Kong Federation of Trade Unions lawmaker Wong Kwok-hing, said his attachment to the Star Ferry's clock tower began when he was courting his wife. He would ride the Star Ferry across the harbor to Hong Kong, listening to the clock's Westminster chimes, before taking a tram to Shau Kei Wan to meet the future Mrs Wong.

"What other monument has created as much concern as the Star Ferry Pier? Everyone in our generation will have some attachment to it. I see crowds of people, the young and elderly alike, rushing to the pier to take photos and preserve their memories," he said.

"The protesters are not there to create trouble, they are there because they love Hong Kong and the government should be happy the youth have such strong feelings for our home. They are fighting for what they value, the least the government can do is listen."

But Secretary for Housing, Planning and Lands Michael Suen Ming-yeung rejected lawmakers' calls to halt the demolition, saying the government had followed all legislative procedures, and gone through "many years" of public consultation beginning in 1999, during which they had not received any opposition to the plan.

"There is a very basic reason why the clock tower cannot be preserved in its current place, that it is currently located on the sea and not on land. Its foundations are supported by a platform and not the sea bed. If we take away the platform to build the bypass, it will have nothing to stand on," he said.

"We don't have the luxury to pick and choose which projects we would like to conduct. This project didn't just start this year, it has been ongoing since the 1980s as part of a plan to relieve congestion. It is misleading to say the clock tower can be preserved with a simple detour of the bypass," Suen said.

Suen added the Department of Planning was already investigating the possibility of merging the characteristics of the clock tower and the Star Ferry Pier in the new harborfront. Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen said the government had to balance preserving Hong Kong's heritage and building vital infrastructure to meet the city's transport needs.

The standoff began Tuesday afternoon after workers removed the bell and the clockface from the tower, leaving a gaping hole.

About a dozen people stormed the pier, demanding a halt to the demolition and a meeting with Suen. They occupied the site for about 24 hours.

Police were accused of brutality after about 40 officers moved to clear a dozen protesters from the site at 3pm, causing sufficient injuries to at least one protester that he was taken to hospital.

Witnesses said during the clearance police stamped on his arm, exacerbating an existing wound.

Fred Lam Fai, 27, said he was surprised at the ferocity of the police. Now covered in scrapes and bruises, he said he was lying in front of the police car containing the arrested Ho when he was dragged away by eight policeman, receiving more than four kicks.

Yip Po-lam, 27, a masters student, said she was shaken by the experience.

"I didn't expect the police to be so violent. It was dangerous and slippery, people were getting hit and kicked, they didn't have to be so rough," she said.

A police spokesman said they acted on a request for help from the management of the site. They said 11 men and two women were removed during the operation, which lasted nearly two hours, resulting in one arrest. Workers could be seen repairing the scaffolding and shifting rocks on to ships less than half an hour after the last two protesters were removed around 4.30pm.

Protesters Wednesday called off their action but plan to return tonight to hold a candlelight vigil.


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