Ambushed Behind Enemy Lines
Autumn's northeasterly winds bring the prime hiking season to Hong Kong, as the summer's hot, humid weather gives way to drier, cooler days.
Most of Hong Kong's New Territories -- the area between Kowloon peninsula and Shenzhen -- was transformed long ago from rural agricultural villages into a string of modern new high-rise communities.
There are still extensive country parks, which are fortunately off-limits to property developers, as well as a tiny but revitalized agriculture sector, flourishing in part because of demand for organic vegetables. New transport infrastructure criss-crosses the area, providing improved logistics links between Hong Kong and Shenzhen, but also spawning a patchwork of concrete clover leafs, container truck staging yards, and auto repair facilities. In short, it's a bit of a hodgepodge, full of stark contrasts.
Near the bustling town of Sheung Shui is a quiet green corner called Long Valley, where small farm plots dot a wooded peninsula at the junction of two small rivers. Ideal for walking, it's full of birds, trees, flowering shrubs and butterflies, and only a stone's throw from the border crossing at Luo Hu.
As an example of stark contrasts, across the river from this scenic spot sits Hong Kong's largest slaughterhouse (a very noisy place not recommended for animal lovers), a sewage processing plant, a high-security prison, and the border closed area. Not exactly an idyllic environment, but still quieter than downtown Mongkok.
My wife and I recently planned to spend a Saturday morning by driving out to the area around Long Valley and exploring it on foot. We had also received a direct mail flyer about a new luxury residential development near there, so we decided to combine the two -- first making a brief visit to the property, and then embarking on our hiking adventure.
In hindsight, this was not a smart plan, because in today's crazily overheated property market, peace of mind and property are like oil and water -- they just don't mix.
We drove from our home on Hong Kong island, through the uncrowded Western Harbor Tunnel, and arrived in Sheung Shui within about 40 minutes. We followed the roadside signs proclaiming the property's French name, and -- presto -- we arrived at the development, 300-some townhouses in all, straddling both sides of the road. Even though it was still early, there were real estate sales people lining up along both sides of the road, ready to pounce on passing cars.
The military maneuvers were about to begin.
We stopped at the entrance, where dozens of uniformed and plain clothes real estate militia were assembled. A security guard at the metal gate inquired coolly about our intentions, and we mentioned the name of the real estate agent with whom we had an appointment. Knowing looks and hand signals followed. Mobile phone calls were made. A few minutes later, our security clearance was granted. We were "in". Access granted. We'd passed the screen test.
Next step was to drive, with an escort, to one of the three designated parking areas, each operated by one of the competing real estate agencies authorized to sell the property. No other parking is available, by design, so the arrangement enhances the three real estate agencies' leverage over prospective buyers.
We were shown townhouses in the 4,000 square foot size range, with private gardens. They were very nicely designed and constructed, and finished to a high standard, including top of the line appliances and plumbing fixtures. But then, considering the asking price, roughly equivalent to US$10 million, one might expect a nice toilet, or two.
This is, after all, nearly twice the price that Bernie Madoff's Palm Beach getaway house sold for, after being on the market for one year; and as far as I know there are no slaughterhouses near that beach.
Things soon became more complicated. Property Agency "A" was showing us around, when we bumped into a manager we knew from a previous property transaction with Property Agency "B". The man from "B" telephoned his colleague, alerted him to the fact that we were fraternizing with enemy forces, and summoned him to make the 40-minute drive from Central District at once.
I sensed our peaceful walk in the country was about to be hijacked by warring property militias.
Soon our stomachs were singing more loudly than the magpies, and we retreated to the nearby produce market, which has simple restaurants on its upstairs level. We had an inexpensive but very delicious "dai pai dong" meal.
As we were finishing our lunch, we looked up and saw, not one, but two groups of Property Agency militias awaiting us outside the restaurant where we were dining. We'd become the target of a pincer movement.
How did they find us? Perhaps the dark-skinned vegetable seller lady was a spy for Agency "A", and the old bald T-shirted fellow selling hardware and sundry goods was a spy on the payroll of "B". Or perhaps the property brochures we'd been given were implanted with microchips signaling our whereabouts in case we attempted to escape without buying.
What followed after lunch was a very awkward walk with two sets of fiercely competitive property agents, to inspect a part of the new development which was technically not on offer yet. These units were still being held by the developer, until such time as they felt that announcing prices would be in their best interest -- a common ploy with new up-market developments intended to trigger anxiety attacks ("Oh gosh, let's not miss out on this rare and wonderful opportunity!") on the part of would-be buyers.
Both sales agents insisted they had the inside track with the developer and could secure us the rare and wonderful chance to negotiate in the developer's office back on Hong Kong Island, which is open all hours of the day and night.
The illusion of exclusive, inside access is thus cleverly planted, and, step-by-step, amplified. We were told that prime units had already been reserved for high-powered friends of the developer, with pricing on a "need to know" basis only.
Finally, after our awkward tour, I announced that the time had come for us to return to our core mission: to talk a leisurely walk in the countryside.
The skirmishing agents must have been drinking their own kool-aid. Unable to believe we were really going to go for a simple walk along a nearby village trail, they assumed instead that we were engaging in a clever ploy to throw them off the scent, or to escape the clutches of "B" and return to the arms of "A".
So, as we set off down the little concrete village path, both sets of militia followed us, hovering right behind us.
Ten minutes later, feeling like the Pied Piper of Hamlin, I was on the verge of losing my cool, and -- still politely -- asked both to leave us alone. One very kindly heeded my request, but the other continued to shadow us, lurking behind trees and shrubs, never losing sight of our movements, clutching his mobile phone and reporting back to his superior as we headed back an hour or so later.
After the walk, we said farewell, and meant it.