Regarde les Chinois : Paul Zimmerman 司馬文

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Photo by Robert Olsen Dans ce prochain Regarde les Chinois, j’ai fait la rencontre en mai dernier de Paul Zimmerman, un Hongkongais d’origine néérlandaise depuis 1984. M. Zimmerman fait partie de l’organisation à but non lucratif Designing Hong Kong qui fût à l’avant-garde d’un débat sur l’espace ouvert public qui fit rage depuis le printemps … Continue reading “Regarde les Chinois : Paul Zimmerman 司馬文”

Paul Zimmerman
Photo by Robert Olsen

Dans ce prochain Regarde les Chinois, j’ai fait la rencontre en mai dernier de Paul Zimmerman, un Hongkongais d’origine néérlandaise depuis 1984. M. Zimmerman fait partie de l’organisation à but non lucratif Designing Hong Kong qui fût à l’avant-garde d’un débat sur l’espace ouvert public qui fit rage depuis le printemps dernier. Directeur-général de Jebsen Travel, il se présente comme candidat du Parti Civique pour le siège de représentant au tourisme du conseil législatif de Hong Kong lors des élections du 7 septembre. Dans l’entrevue, M. Zimmerman a beaucoup parlé de politique en développement urbain à Hong Kong, un sujet qui le passionne depuis son implication avec divers groupes, et de l’univers particulier de la Région administrative spéciale.

In this next Regarde les Chinois, I met (in May 2008) with Paul Zimmerman, a Hongkonger who came from the Netherlands in 1984. Mr. Zimmerman is part of Designing Hong Kong, which was at the avant-garde of the debate on open space that raced through Hong Kong since last spring. Executive director of Jebsen Travel, he is running as the Civic Party candidate in the tourism functional constituency of Hong Kong’s LegCo (legislative council) on the September 7th election. In this interview, we talked a lot about the politics of urban development, a topic that he is passionate about since his involvement with various groups, and the unique universe of the Special Administrative Region.


Paul Zimmerman: I was born in Holland, and arrived in Hong Kong in 1984, and ran a graphic design company, which I sold in ’98. I worked as a consultant for a while, and one of the projects I worked on as a consultant was Design(ing) Hong Kong Harbour District. It was a research project into why, or what we can do better in the harbour front. Because we realized there were only two places you could eat and drink: it was the York Club, where you could drink a beer if you were a private member, and there was the Fleet Arcade, that’s where the American Navy arrives – there was a McDonald’s there.

Comme les Chinois: Ok.

So these were the only two places on the hundred kilometres of waterfront that we have in Hong Kong that you could eat and drink. And the government had just announced West Kowloon, and we felt that West Kowloon…

CLC: West Kowloon, the landfill… (reclamation project)

Yeah, well, the West Kowloon project is the cultural district project where they were going to build sixteen venues on a forty-hectare piece of land, or at least some twenty hectares of it…

CLC: When was that announced?

The discussion had been on since 2000, around 2000, and we looked at it, and we thought it wasn’t such a good idea to build such a large complex with one goal, and all these cultural venues when we knew that people in Hong Kong don’t have, want the experience to build a nice waterfront, and they don’t have the experience to build lots of new venues or managing venues that they are promising. Because it’s always been a very bureaucratic management.

So we thought that that was going to be a bit of a white elephant. So, we started this research, to kind of like say, what can we do better about our harbour front. At the same time, we kind of look at how we can break open the Kowloon West project, move the things around the harbour, and so on.

CLC: Who’s “we”?

“We”. Well, there was a certain number of people that were very concerned about urban planning at that time, around the waterfront… There were Mr Po Chung (CHUNG Po-Yang 鍾普洋), who was the founder of Creative Initiatives, who used to be the owner of DHL International here – he just sold it. He was concerned. Christine Loh was concerned, Nicholas Brooke was concerned. I mean there were a lot in the property industry that were concerned. We have found as we… the small group kind of grew, people who were concerned and so on.

There were lots more people that came in the project. They started to come to seminars and so on. That group has now grown – we have maybe a mailing list of about 5000 names.

CLC: That group’s Designing Hong Kong…

Designing Hong Kong, yes. People that are concerned with the urban environment in general… maybe coming from different directions, in what they are concerned about, but they are concerned about the shape of the urban environment.

And so, that’s how we started. From that project, I didn’t know anything about urban planning. I had just run my own company. During the project, we became aware of a couple of fundamentals in Hong Kong, one is that the topography is very very difficult, you know, where any other city has a city centre, we have a harbour; every other city has ring roads, we get mountains. There are narrow strips of lands – it means there’s not much land around the core areas, so you have to go outside if you want to grow. People want to be in the core area, so you have a high-density, in very narrow strips. So, how are you going to manage that.

With the agreement to not do any more reclamation, in 1997, there was certainly a finite (amount) of land. Previously, for 150 years, Hong Kong, when it needed something, it just reclaimed land. So, they would always increase the land mass by reclaiming the harbour, for 150 years. From the first piece of land sold, that’s how it operated, because people were building piers, and then warehouse… they always run further into the water.

So soon, it was no longer the case. So, that was a big change in the government, it was very much dependent on premiums. So, land, creation of land created income for the government. 40% of its annual revenues come from land-related incomes, premiums, rates, rentals. So, in terms of planning, the government tends to plan for their financial gain, rather than for the public good.

Of course, you could say that everything they always did was for the public good: they were building warehouses, more housing, and more roads, and so on, but it was never aimed at building a nice living environment, which in a very highly dense area means that you have to make decisions not to build, to build less, or to create more space. And that is where it costs money in their calculation. They could’ve sold it, and built things or built roads so that they could sell all the lands, y’know.

CLC: Is it the same situation in the rest of China?

… In fact, there is a some comparison with the rest of China that you could make. The topography is easier in China, because it is small city surrounded by agricultural lots, and everyone is very happy to sell their agricultural land when you get a lot of money for it. Quite often the ownership of agricultural lots might already be in government’s hands or there might be… there are various ownership forms that makes it easier.

So, people can go outwards quite easy. The comparable really is the fact that government quite often makes money out of land sale. Often the village or the town make the money when the lands are sold. Therefore, there is a planning gain in terms of financial income that’s there. But in terms of the topography: probably not. Because they are pancakes, when we are squeezed onto small pieces of land.

We can’t go outside. Shanghai keeps growing, Pudong, you know, it’s farmland…

CLC: Yeah, Beijing…

Everything just keeps growing on the outside.

CLC: So Hong Kong is pretty unique.

In essence it’s pretty unique. And it’s confined by its topography, more than anything else, because if we had a flat piece of land, then maybe we would’ve just grown out into the New Territories much more. But because there are mountains in between and so on, and there was historical aspect in that the New Territories came in later.

CLC: I was told that transportation routes are very important. Every time they built a new subway line in Hong Kong, they develop a whole new area.

Well, that’s how they did that. New town development and rails was combined. There was a decision to build a new town, and at the same time you provided the rails. So, it was always a joint decision. And it was good, because the rails was financed by building a new town, and you had people to use the rails because of the new town. It all worked together.

There a problem there now. It means that rails decisions have always been made on the basis of: What’s the patronage? How many people do I have live near the station? If I get enough people living at the station, then I build the station. It was never based on, like, I build rail because I can avoid people from using their car. And I subsidize it because even if there are even ten people, I don’t want them to use their car. Therefore, I subsidize it because there is public benefit, not only a financial benefit – they pay for their trip – but also a public benefit – less pollution, less road use, I can use other space in the city for other uses. That calculation is not really there.

So, one of the problems that we have now is in urban areas, we tend to build roads before we build rails. That’s another issue.

And now, in the built-up areas, to say, well, can you put more rails. And they say, well, how are we going to finance it? Because normally you finance it by building on top of the station, but if you put stations under existing buildings, then who pays for those stations, and who finances those rail? Because there are certainly still no more development to finance the stations, so the public will have to subsidize it – that’s not an easy decision.

The history, legacy of rail, town building, is somewhat of a problem right now. I’m sure we can get over it.

*** Mr. Zimmerman’s assistant brings us some oranges at this point.

CLC: So what has your organization done so far?

Well, we’ve done the… various things. We did a research in Designing Hong Kong Harbour District, we’ve organized seminars and conferences, we participated in the Harbour-front Enhancement Committee, which is a government organization. We’ve made submissions to the town planning board. We’ve made submissions to Legislative Council (LegCo), submissions to the District Councils.

CLC: Did it have any tangible effect?

Um, yeah. We’ve moved people’s mindset. But, you know, with this type of stuff, if we can move the outside by a metre, we may be moving the inside by a millimetre. So, the tangible effect… and also, the impact of those tangible benefits are not immediately measurable or see-able. Most of these infrastructure and development projects will take ten years, fifteen years before people can see them. So, in that sense, it’s not all that easy.

But there are tangible impacts. There is now a little dock park on the waterfront in Wan Chai. There’s a temporary park in West Kowloon… I mean, there are things, things are improving. And the government has focused on it. The way they talk about it – now they talk about the waterfront as an asset, previously it was not – it was like development potential.

So, I think things have changed in that sense. But it’s not as tangible yet, because it won’t be until fifteen years that we can walk around the harbour-front, and areas that we can go. We talked about twenty years ago, that’s why it’s now this way, you know! (laughs) These things take time, and it’s hard for people to see.

Maybe by that time, people will have forgotten what would have been if we hadn’t. So, in that sense, it’s hard to add one and one.

CLC: Are there precedents of these sorts of activities in Hong Kong?

Well, I guess so. More immediate ones, in Hong Kong. Of course, in Designing Hong Kong, we’ve done other things, not only the harbour-front, also we worked with Heritage… the Heritage Watch, so, trying to save Queen’s Pier and the Star Ferry. Now, both have been removed but Queen’s Pier will be rebuilt, it’s been saved.

We’re trying to save the street markets in Graham Street. Now, we have a commitment that it will happen. How will it happen, and will it happen on time, are issues. We’ve set up a Save the Street Market -dot- com ( We got a whole group running, people who are fighting to save the street market. There are all sorts of activities that these people are organizing, from fashion shows in a street market, to an artist live impression show, all kinds of things to try to get attention for the market.

Again, we made lots of submissions. Now we have the activity on open space, two seminars that really sparked a debate in public…

CLC: Was it your organization that initiated the whole debate (currently taking place in Hong Kong on public space)? What happened – I didn’t really follow the beginning of it.

Well, in the beginning, we organized a conference on this, one in January, and one in March. And there was lots of different groups of people involved in those two conferences. And it’s kind of stimulated debate among some people, to the point that one of the radio stations set up a program in the morning and they talked about open space – because there was some people that knew about Times Square, the Times Square piazza. But there were already lots of other open space, individual issues pending like, or simmering in the background. Like, I knew that IFC had an open space, and that somebody had been fighting IFC and had been already () the government for one and half year.

We knew of some of them out there, that there were discussions. So, when we came up with the topics for the seminars, we were aware of those. By having the seminars, it sort of galvanized the idea in some people’s mind, and then, Commercial Radio Two do their program, and bang-bang-bang, it was this fire that went on, race very very quickly. We put in our submission in LegCo, which sort of formalized the debate.

So, did we start it? It was something that was ripe. It was just a little match that we put in there.

CLC: Basically (to recapitulate), it was that the government gives tax benefits to companies to develop a land, and in exchange they build open spaces, public spaces…

Well, for the government, again, they’d rather sell the land available for sale that they have to developers. But on the other hand, the government has an obligation to create public open space – it’s for the health and benefit of the public. There is a standard of about 2m² per person that you need to provide in every district. So, for the government to provide that by having to develop or create or reserve some space within their development and designate it as public open space. And in that way, the government can try to meet that requirement.

Basically, there’s a shortfall of public open space in almost every urban district. So, because of this shortfall, the government is under pressure, they gotta find solutions… and the developers are pretty happy with that because, one, if the government were to put a park in front of their building, then they (the developers) would have no control of the park.

But if they can put the park, say, inside their building, they can design it to what they like, they can put the security into what they like, they can basically manage and control that space to their benefit and their style. So the developers are happy.

And then in some cases, if they provide the public space, they get compensation for that, an additional gross floor area. They like that too.

So, it’s a great one for the developers, although they can complain about it, because of course, there are lots of controls, and the government wants all kinds of things and wants them to do it. So it kind of force them into accepting some of these deals. So the developers are not always necessarily happy with it.

But, you know, they have a benefit, and the government has a benefit – but the public loses out dramatically. What we need is public open space at street level, proper parks, space for people to breathe. We need wider sidewalks!

We need street widening. Every time you build a building, you should widen the street because, y’know, there was an old building that was only two stories, and now you put a fifty-story building there! You should widen the street around the building. You are going to have a hundred times as many people coming in and out of that building! The street should be wider, but the government doesn’t do that. They consider that a loss when you do that.

Also, basically, it’s the final plot ratio, so this is the side, and times… it means you can build as many in that block. If you say, you gotta setback, is it still plot ratio 10? Well, it means a smaller building. And the developers are not happy with that, and the owners of the building are not happy with that… the government doesn’t like it because they get less premiums.

So those two on that side are against it, but as a result the city is dying because we don’t have enough circulation space in the streets. It’s getting too crowded. And we don’t have proper open space that is healthy, accessible, open, good amenities, and is free. It means it’s truly open, truly public, not that there is a security guard that tells you that you can’t eat here. “‘xcuse me, it’s public open space, I want to eat, I eat!” It’s the street, it’s public!

CLC: Well, I notice in the newspapers that these property owners, they changed the signs from “You can’t sit here” to “Be careful of the flowers”…

Well, they did, because now they have more pressure. The fact that they have more pressure doesn’t mean that the situation has really improved. It’s still, there’s this obvious problem: we are not dedicating enough of our lands for public open space. And there is a collusion of interests, not necessarily “collusion”, as in illegal working-together, but a collusion of interests – government has an interest to sell the land, rather have it (the public space) inside the buildings. Property owners are just happy to take the inside of building (open space). Both of them win, public loses and they have no voice in the game.

CLC: Do you think they mind? Maybe they like living in a place that’s super-dense…

Well, there are things that the public of course finds nice and interesting about Hong Kong, you know. Just take this the other way around: if I am going to buy a flat in a building, I want that building to have playgrounds for the kids, have a park and a sit-out area for me as a resident. But that’s a different things. In the old days, there were buildings put up here in Hong Kong that didn’t have enough of a lobby space. They didn’t have enough space for the lift lobby, y’know. Buildings were just built to maximize the sellable area, or the rentable area.

So then they had to develop a building code. Basically you had to do a minimum standards. Sure! Maybe that in these very large complexes, the minimum standard should be that there is a park inside the building. If there is 10,000 people living in a complex, then maybe there should be a park inside a complex rather than have 10,000 people looking for a park outside the complex. So, you know, that kind of makes sense.

The question is, whether that park is a residential open space or whether the park is an public open space. I you say that the park is a residential open space for the people who live there, fine. You know, the piazza at Times Square, if you say it’s for circulation space, because I’ve got this building, 200,000 people walking through here, fine, yeah you need that. But that doesn’t make it a public open space where people can have passive recreation. It’s circulation space. Residential open space, circulation space, they are not counted as public open space. I still need my 2m² of public open space outside! But if I start counting all these things as public open space and not build any park, then I have a city that does not have enough space.

So, you have to be quite clear about that, the distinction…

CLC: How do you see the future of…

Well, I mean, this debate is fantastic of course! Times Square this morning are going into the newspapers advertising about their deed, saying that it’s private lands. They say, its allocation as public land occupied by a private (inaudible) is misleading! You know. It says clearly that it is private property! So they are making it clear!

So, that’s a good start. Because that means that if the government then says that public open space under private control… Well excuse me, if you have public open space, on private land, that ain’t very good! Can we have public open space on public land. Because obviously when we put public open space and private land, we’ve got serious problems! Because there’s all these controls and management issues.

For us, it’s great. But then all these developers get upset about, and the government finds out… Then the public says it’s inferior open space, and then the government will have to provide superior open space, which is public lands used for public open space!

That’s all we need! And it takes time and effort, and the government says that we have limited land, and that I dispute entirely, because the government has many properties throughout Hong Kong that they are demolishing: the Central Market, all the reclaimed areas, cargo bay working areas that they are no longer using. There are lots of government properties all over Hong Kong that are taken away, and that they are trying to sell. They don’t have to sell it: make it public open space!

Every time that there is a redevelopment, there should be a good setback rule, so the street is widened. But they don’t do anything, still aren’t doing anything. We’re fighting, we’re fighting…

CLC: How did you personally get interested in urban development?

I decided to stay here. I had sold my business, and I decided to stay here in Hong Kong because I thought about leaving, just because I’ve been here for a long time and I come from Holland, originally.

CLC: When was that?

2000. After I sold my business, done my earn-out. So, sold it in ’98, earn-out 2000, finished. I had a chance to leave and I look around, and thought, do I go to Holland, do I go to Australia, do I go to China, do something different? In the end, I came to a conclusion and I want to stay here. Because I think it’s a great city.

Hong Kong has the potential – as for me, Hong Kong is the most beautiful city in the world, except for the urban environment. Because we got our mountains, our reservoirs, our seas, our islands, our coastlines, natural coastlines… I mean also, look at our biodiversity here, in terms of wildlife, birds, marine life, whatever, it’s there. We got more different types of corals than anywhere else in the entire area. There’s not much of a life right now, because we destroyed a lot. But if we let it come back, it will all come back. There are more insect species, more bird species…

I mean, really, Hong Kong is a very unique… Topography-wise is unique, but also the location is unique. The climate, where we are… so Hong Kong has lots of it going for it. So if we can fix our urban environment… For me, fixing the urban environment is like, you know, I bought a house, I fix it, I make it nice. I make my balcony nice, then I want my building and my neighbours to have a nice building. So, we fix up the building. Then I want my street nice. Here it’s like, then I want my street nice. Here I like the place where I live, I like it to be a nice place! I don’t like it to be ugly.

So that was my pure motivation and it was also, somebody has said to me, after I sold my business, what do I do next with my life? And then he had this very simple rule. He said: the first part of your life you learn, the second part of your life you earn, and the third part of your life you serve! I serve… Hey, (so) you do something for the community! You know, you do something different. You make some money and now you do something different!

So I never was involved with NGOs or anything like that. So now I got involved in Creative Initiatives and started to do some NGO work, and this project comes out out, didn’t make me any money. (laughs) But, you know, I thought it was a very nice project about how to make a nicer harbour-front! So, that’s how I got involved.

But as I got involved… then, you know, I am a passionate person, but I’m also, I run my own business. So, in business, it’s very simple, if you see something that is good, you get it done! You get everybody to do the things right. But when you work with this harbour-front issue, then I found everybody to know exactly what needed to be done. But we still can’t get it right!

And then you find that the government is working against you, you know… for land premiums reasons, for the fact that they’ll have to change internal procedures, which is really tough, it’s hard work for them – for the fact that they’re not be concentrated on it, they’ll have other things to do, they don’t think it’s important. Or just because _you_ came up with the idea and they didn’t come up with the idea… So it’s not invented here. So it’s your idea, not their idea, why touch it, we’re not going to support you because then we look like weak government.

You know, there’s all kinds of psychological things, all kinds of reasons why the government certainly is not doing it. But then I am a tough bastard! (laughs) You know, if people start pushing back at things that I know are right, everybody tells me it’s right, and everybody keeps telling me, everybody I meet! Doesn’t matter, if we’re working with government, their own property (?), the general public, all these people agree with you, that these are the kinds of things that we need to do. But we can’t get them done because we got this push-back from government, then I push harder, so you get more determined, you do another thing, you keep going.

CLC: Well, thank you Paul.


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