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HK to partially develop controversial Fanling golf course for housing

Hong Kong

HONG Kong earmarked a slice of its historic Fanling golf course for public housing on Wednesday, a controversial plan which exposed the city's dramatic social divide and was resisted by international golfing stars.

The city government said it had accepted a proposal to take back less than a fifth of the exclusive, 170-hectare course as authorities scramble to find new land for housing in the world's least affordable property market.

Located near the border with mainland China, the colonial-era course is part of the Hong Kong Golf Club and has hosted the Hong Kong Open, a mainstay of the European and Asian Tours, every year since 1959.

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Rory McIlroy, Justin Rose, Greg Norman and the late Peter Thomson are among those who have won at Fanling, whose short fairways, small greens and dog legs have won a legion of fans.

The club has argued that sacrificing a world-class sports venue is short-sighted, a stance echoed by top golfers who spoke out against the development plans including McIlroy, Miguel Angel Jimenez and local golfing star Tiffany Chan.

But campaigners said the prime spot should not remain a playground for the wealthy elite in a city crying out for cheaper homes and more space. Hong Kong's chief executive Carrie Lam told the city's Parliament on Wednesday that she accepted the decision would "offend and upset some people" but her administration had "to strike a balance in a difficult situation for the greatest public good".

The Fanling complex is an oasis of ancient trees and diverse wildlife, including turtles, owls and butterflies.

The oldest of its three 18-hole courses was built in 1911 on land that was home to the centuries-old graves of indigenous clans, whose descendants now have to skirt the greens to pay tribute to their ancestors. It also hosts the Hong Kong Ladies Open.

Under the plan approved by the government on Wednesday, only 32 hectares of the 172-hectare venue will be primarily turned into public housing allowing the rest to continue to operate as a golf course. Fanling's clubhouse features a plush members' lounge which even displays a letter from Queen Elizabeth II's private secretary on the walls.

While non-members can play, one round costs US$140. Last year an agent told AFP a corporate membership goes for around US$2.2 million.

Hong Kong has an acute housing shortage crisis. Other proposed solutions also approved by the government on Wednesday include developing brownfield sites and large-scale reclamations, as well as building underground space. Thousands of people have also taken to the street to protest against vast reclamation plans around the outlying Lantau island, citing colossal multi-billion dollar costs and the potential environmental impact. AFP