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Hong Kong Reversion May Mean Step Back for Village Women

LIVES IN TRANSITION: Hong Kong Awaits China's Takeover. One in an occasional series.


HONG KONG — In the New Territories, the land between this city's gleaming skyscrapers and China's barbed-wire borders, is a forgotten Hong Kong. Here, in a scattering of traditional villages where black-clad women still till rice paddies with water buffalo, the elders eagerly count the days until China takes over.

It's a place where century-old Qing Dynasty customs hold sway: Ancestors' graves are carefully cared for each day, dwelling sites are selected with the help of a shaman and, until two years ago, women could not inherit land. (Even today they cannot build a home.)

The passage of a hotly contested law allowing land rights for women in 1994 made this area a symbolic battleground, the site of a struggle between progressive, Westernized Hong Kong and an older way of doing things. And because the village men hope that after 1997 Beijing will void the new land rights law, the villages could become a barometer of China's intentions for the rest of the territory's institutions.

"It's not a question of discrimination," said Alfred Lam, a lawyer who grew up in a hamlet of stone houses with curved tile roofs near the Chinese border and who now works in central Hong Kong. "It's a matter of history and tradition."

While Hong Kong's democratically elected legislature hurriedly passes laws to preserve the territory's freedoms before China takes over on July 1, a Beijing-appointed committee is earmarking contentious legislation for revision after the transition--and the village men want the land rights law at the top of the list.

A clause in the 1997 hand-over agreement provides protection for village customs, and Lam says top Chinese officials pledged their support to a delegation of 42 village leaders who traveled to Beijing to plead their case.

Lam reached for a handful of change to help show how family land is passed down through male heirs.

"OK, this is my son," he said, placing a $10 coin on the desk. Then he slid over a 50-cent piece: "This is my daughter."

His choice of markers revealed as much about village women's status as his technical explanation: If women were allowed to inherit, family land would be divided into ever-smaller slices and would disappear outside the clan when the daughters married.

"It would create chaos," he declared. "The whole village system would be broken. As it is, the boys will take care of the girls. Daughters don't need the land."

That's not how Cheng Lai Sheung sees it.

She is a bone-setter, acupuncturist and martial arts expert. She is unmarried, and her eyes flash above high cheekbones as she tells in rapid-fire Cantonese how being born a woman has robbed her of both power and property.

Her father, she recounts, promised her the top story of a three-level house before he died. But her two brothers sold the house, and she has had to go to court to prevent the new owner from evicting her.

"If a sister is single, she must rely on a brother's mercy to take care of her. But look how quickly they can make you a stranger in the family," Cheng says.

She gathered other disenfranchised women, and their cases caught the attention of legislators who, in 1994, pushed through a law permitting women equal inheritance rights. She won permission to stay in the house but not to own it, and she still fights pressure from other villagers to give up the property.

"As far I know, since the law, there has not been a case yet in which a woman has successfully obtained land," she says in her small clinic. "We are very concerned the law will change back after 1997 and things will get worse for us instead of better."

Legislator Christine Loh, who authored the land rights bill, is confident that Chinese leaders know better than to backtrack--even the Chinese Constitution enshrines equal rights for women, and supporting a return to feudalistic tradition would be unpopular everywhere outside the New Territories.

Other analysts say Chinese leaders' declarations of support may just be gentle appeasements of a powerful interest group. But that does not keep village men from hoping, or village women from worrying.

"Women have no voice, no position, and most of all no money to please the government," Cheng says.


Wong Shui Lai, 50, walks through Tin Yuen village, mapping out her lost fortune. She stops in front of No. 42, a three-story dwelling and one of the newer houses in the village.

"My father was born here," she says.

Moving on to No. 44, she places her palm on the old home's crumbling earthen wall. "This was my grandfather's. . . . It should be mine."

She could say the same about 20 houses, plus some land, in the labyrinthine village, but because she was an only child--and a female--when her father died, the property went to male cousins.

Now she lives with her 82-year-old mother in a sprawling shack with a tin roof.

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