This week, Senior Partner Colin Cohen meets Paul Zimmerman – District Councillor, environmentalist and passionate advocate of sensible urban planning.
Among many topics, they discuss Hong Kong’s notorious traffic congestion, public access to the iconic harbour and what it’s like working with, and sometimes opposing, the city’s bureaucracy. Only on Law & More.
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Host: Colin Cohen
Director: Niall Donnelly
Producer and VO: Thomas Latter
Colin: It's really with great pleasure. I have Paul Zimmerman with me. Paul, I've known for many, many years, and it's a privilege to welcome you. to The Law & More Podcast. What have you been working on?
Paul: What I've been working on this week is, the Cyberport extension is a big issue.
They tried to take over a bit of the park at the Cyberport waterfront, Pokfulam waterfronts and we tried to rescue part of that park. Well, the town planning board has approved the building government has approved the funding for the building, and now we're going to make sure that the park at least is going to not damage too much.
So at least that there was going to be money for the enhancement of the park that is remaining.
Colin: Tell me a little bit about your upbringing in the Netherlands. I understand you are something of an activist in your high school and what brought you to Hong Kong?
Paul: Well I grew up in a small place in Holland and it was a pretty boring, straightforward school.
But no, I mean Holland was a great time.
But my dad had been building a business out here in Asia. To import textiles manufactured in China, into Europe and through his contacts. I got in touch with people here and I didn't want to stay in Holland. After my study. It was kind of, I wanted to see the rest of the world. I ended up in Hong Kong.
Colin: When was that?
Paul: It was 1980.
Colin: Wow. You arrived just three years later than I arrived. So I would say it really is remarkable. You've been here a very long time. when you first came here, you worked for some other companies before you set up your own design company.
Paul: Very short period. About three years, I worked for several companies, in IT, and then in public relations.
And then I set up my own company producing annual reports for listed companies in Hong Kong. So my study in economics, in Rotterdam came out was very useful because I could understand the numbers and be able to tell stories about the numbers of these companies, and convince investors.
Colin: When you came out here, what were you involved in politics? at the very beginning? Or were
Paul:No, not at all. At university, I helped out a party in the Netherlands. And I went primarily on all the marketing and campaign trails. it's a bit of like the liberals in the UK, that it was the Democrat 66 in the Netherlands.
But when I arrived in Hong Kong, I had a few hundred dollars in my pocket. I had to work my butt off and politics only started for me to come back into it and us to have my head above the water. And there was, I think. Christine Lowe was doing campaigns about cleaning the air.
And I started to help out on that. And then...
Colin: When was that?
Paul:so that's and the closest 1997, 1998. Around that time. Yeah, just before the handover and clear the air was set up and I helped with that. I basically contacted her, said like, listen, I'm happy to help out because I think you do good work. And I offered her the graphic design services for my firm. and so that's how I got to know Christine Lowe. And then soon after I sold my business I was looking around what else was going to do with my life. and I ended up doing a project called designing Hong Kong Harbour District where we are really looking at how can we make the areas around Victoria Harbor a great place for the public and save the most public space.
Yeah. So I remember it was early days when Winston Chow, he was very much involved.
Well, Winston and Christine were in court against the government to stop reclamation. And we looked at that and got our well, okay. That's, it's going to happen. There will be an end to it, but there is an end to reclamation. If you continue to build and grow the city, but you don't reclaim, then there is nothing going to be left on the waterfront except for buildings and highways.
So we were very keen to shift the focus to safeguarding, whatever space the most around the Harbor. for public space and for parks and for a promenade and for both clubs and other water sports activities. And so we set up the designing Hong Kong Harbor district. We did the campaign, got everybody involved in the government, set up the harbourfront commissioning as in response.
And I'm still a member of that. And I think we're going to have 50 kilometers of our waterfront around Victoria Harbor become connected waterfront
Colin: It seems to me that all your politics is really environmental. It's always sort of aimed at the community, aimed at that environment, and that keeping Hong Kong clean for the benefits of Hong Kong.
Paul: Well I only got into politics later, so it all started with environmental issues. It was the Harbor waterfront issues.
Then it became heritage conservation. Of course, first of all, with Queens Pier and Star Ferry Clock tower then it became the street markets conversation. Then it became a conversation about public space and private developments. Times Square. So it was always the urban development issues.
and only because you started to lobby people in government, you started to lobby legislators. The only legislators who were really listening to my story at the time were the Democrats. So then he invited me to join in setting up the civic party, which I did. I joined them as a founding member.
And then from there, I ran into my first district council campaign, which I lost with 45% of the votes at Stubs road. And it was when a district counselor resigned to join Donald Tsang's team in Pokfulam. and there was another year left on that term that I ran there and I won. And I've been ever since,
Colin: When was that? What date was that when you
Paul: So that's 2010
I got reelected in 2011 and then reelected again in 2015 and
Colin: Well we do share something in common. I have to confess it. I'm also a founding member of a civic party. Cause I remember Audrey Eu. When the party was formed, she said, would I join?
I said, of course I would
Paul: Trying to recall the venue where we all got together for the activity founding event was that the business environment
Colin: It actually and we were all together as well. The Hong Kong iconic Harbor is very close to your heart and this idea of the public access to the waterfront. And I read with great interest, your Facebook, whereby you did your trip, all the way around Hong Kong. I try to emulate a little part of it. and I couldn't even from Wan Chai all the way to Kennedy Town there were lots of barriers. up. And you said earlier on, Well, we're all gonna be able to walk around is that ever going to come to fruition.
Paul: I think it definitely will. Definitely Victoria Harbor waterfront. So you can get from Shaukeiwan all the way to Kennedy town easily in a few years. at the routes around Hong Kong island, all the way around much of it is in place.
It's a matter, of understanding how to connect between the different sections of prominence and trails that are existing and the ones that are missing we trying to fix up. So that's Waterfall Bay in Pok Fu Lam, to get from South Bay to Tung Tau Wan to get from Cape D'Aguilar down to Shek O main beach and to get through the museum of coastal defense.
If he could fix those four sections, we can get everybody easily around Hong Kong island on footpaths and trails.
Colin: as a district councillor, and you're very, very well known, for the Southern district, Melville Boase one of the founders of our firm is a staunch supporter of you and really admires what you do. yeah. how much of your time now is spent doing district council work.
Paul: Well, it takes time is pretty much responding to issues that pop up all the time. So you get constant contact emails and messages and phone calls from residents about anything. And that could be, it could be dog poo on the street. It could be dirt on the slope could be noise.
It could be pollution in -inaudible- and that's just a that is the constant. And then the incidental is, Hong Kong U is going to redevelop a site and they're going to turn a Greenbelt into a new building. A high west is going to be redeveloped
Colin: I saw that when I was walking from Middleton up. I'm into hiking at the moment. You know, my new idea. I'm trying to keep fit
Paul: We trying to fix up that footpath there. That runs over the conduit that you will have walked into Pok Fu Lam reservoir. So those are kind of the incidental ones and Wah Fu redevelopments that constant new projects that will be initiated by the government in the area that you have to respond to.
There are these incidentals that are big projects and there is the constant flow of dealing with issues that pop up.
Colin: You enjoy yourself on this
Paul: Tell you what, this is the most rewarding, because you can solve these issues. You can actually resolve them. You're not going to win them all, all the battles but you can definitely make improvements.
And that's fun. and also it's rewarding in the sense that the residents come back to you and they kind of thank you for it or the -- industry to come on and say, Hey man, this is great. We just stuff that you do for us. So that's rewarding and it's somewhat more rewarding than actually the big politics in Hong Kong because it's a ship that is moving down and down and down. -- it's hard to move.
Colin: Are they listening to you. Other people so-called in the home affairs department, when you write letters. do they respond to you?
Paul: Anything related to working level, getting things done. Yeah. You can get things done. bigger policy issues right now is a little bit difficult because you're tainted as being yellow.
It's not -- here, so you're not going to get easily support. and then there are the big projects, you need really need high-level government support. And the obvious routes may not work, but there are routes that work. you do a lot of advice to people directly.
And they made and take that to the government and date and get it done. So it's not in your name and then you can get a lot of work done.
Colin: Now many of our listeners may not know that you and I worked together on a landmark case against the town planning board, and we hear it at Boase Cohen and Collins. We gave you, good legal support pro bono if I may say so. And they went all the way to the court of final appeal. Very unusual for that to happen. Perhaps for our audience, you could just give me a little bit of background to the benefit, of what you were trying to achieve. You're Designing Hong Kong in respect to that case.
Paul: well there is a significant section of the central waterfront is closed up because of the central military dock.
And we wanted that to be open for us as far as there were no ships in town, which is most of the time that that area will be open. So you can enjoy the waterfront continuously. And also we can have them dragon boat races right in front of it, and everybody can go and see it. And that's really what we try to campaign for.
Unfortunately, in part of the, our case was also asked for protection of cost. And we lost that bit of the case and we had to withdraw the entire case. And if you now go to the central waterfront view, you can see the central military documents close to up and you have to walk around it and you can't enjoy the waterfront.
the dragon boat races can't be held in central because the central military dock is closed up. And there is no ship in town. And we see it's just there
Colin: it is. And I mean, everyone was wanted that to be opened up. I mean, people didn't realize that well, part of the case we were saying is that look when the ships came in, we agree, these
Close it off exactly. And then, but when it was a sort of a long drawn out battle, I think we won the hearts and minds, but whether we achieved anything.
Paul: weird thing right now is there is the actual central military dock then because it was a worksite, there was a fence around that takes even more land than is dedicated to the military. And I'm trying to get that fence removed. But now the development bureau cannot give me a response because it deals with the military, with a military facility and it appears to me that they don't have good communication with the military.
So now we're sitting there in an ugly rotting fence around a properly designed military dock that is open and closable. but it's not functioning and it's a shame. it's all stuck in bureaucracy somewhere up there.
Colin: To be honest, it's not only Hong Kong that has that problem. Many, many people have this all over the world. Hong Kong is one of the most congested cities in the world. And we know what public transport can be like And we know about the cars, you've always championed this issue. Quite a lot. tell me a little bit all about your work in this area and what you're trying to achieve. and what would you be looking for?
Paul: We do a lot of pedestrianization issues and trying to improve pedestrian links and the round the island walking trail is one of them. but let me take this opportunity to kind of highlight. a point I think that everybody should be really worried about today we have about 16,000 vehicle trips across the boundary, before COVID it was 43,000 a day.
but we have built capacity for 220,000, vehicular trips a day to come across our boundary. Our city was never designed for it. our city was designed as a closed city with very little vehicular interaction with the rest of the mainland. The city is not ready for it. and if we're going to have all our vehicular movements into the city, we're going to have a massive traffic jam and nobody has talked about it and nobody has thought about it.
And we have seen no solutions in place to deal with it. We've asked the government. I said, are you going to put in big car parking facilities at the boundary? And the response was well, that would defeat the purpose for the boundary-crossing. Yes, it would in a way, but where then else are these people going to stop, get out of the car and go into a bus or a train so that we don't have these vehicles blocking up the whole of Kowloon and Hong Kong on it that cannot cope with any more vehicles
Colin: I mean London, Singapore, many, many big cities have congestion charges.
a very carefully thought out policy. electric cars are really low emissions, et cetera.
Paul: Well the low emission -- it's fine. But that still gives you congestion. The electronic road pricing issue with that is going to be that the ones that can afford it are the ones that make a big trip all the way from Guang Zhou to Central Hong Kong.
They can afford that electronic road price, but the person who has to go there every day. And then has to pay for it. They're burdened with that charge so you've got to figure out how that is going to work. Who you chance more, and who has arrived to access to that through the road or your locals or the people to come visiting.
And then you're going to think about them. Where are the people's going to park the vehicles? We don't have a plan. The city doesn't have a plan for it at the moment
Colin: as we all know, Hong Kong is going through one of the major changes at present. you're a long-term resident, passionate environmentalist. there are major changes, national security law, electoral law changes. You've been here. A long time like me, where are we going?
Where do you see the problems with respect to matters?
Paul: First of all, of course really disappointed that that conversation between Beijing and Hong Kong really never took place in the last, so many years, we had the conversation from 1982 till 1997. but we didn't have a conversation since 1997 until today. and I saw a note in a newspaper where Christine Loh actually tried to engage the Hong Kong public and the government on -- communist party on the discussion, on their presence in Hong Kong in 1995.
But they kind of themselves also denied it. And now suddenly we have the communist party stepping up in Hong Kong and coming out of the woodwork. The conversation has been delayed for so long. And I think that that's hurting Hong Kong. I know we've got to speed up on that, but we're doing that, in a time that we have the national security law rule in place.
And there is a lot of threats to people's safety in freedoms and so on. And that conversation is now stifled. So it's a real shame that this has happened to Hong Kong. I had hoped that Hong Kong would have had walked a better way.
Colin: And your hopes for the future.
Paul: Well, my hope for the future is that we'll find a way out of this. I mean, we've got a great city and we've got a great community.
and we got a great business operation here in terms as a special purpose vehicle, especially in finance of the Chinese business community. so my hope is that we'll find a way, the conversation actually will start and that we'll maintain a lot of our freedoms here by building a better understanding between all parties. But right now it's looking a bit skewed.
Colin: Are you still doing your parachuting gliding?
Colin: I saw you on Facebook, or are you banned from that?
Paul: no, no. Paragliding is a good thing to do. You've got to take 20 kilos up the hill and then you fly for free. it's a fantastic sport to undertake.
And Hong Kong has such a beautiful nature. and I think there's one of the greatest assets that the city has and will not lose is our beautiful seas, beautiful mountains, beautiful nature areas. And one of the best ways to enjoy it is to either be up in the air or be on the water. And I think you're a man who's on the water and I'm a man who loves to be on the air.
Colin: Yeah, that's funny, as we all know, you're from Holland, I'm from England. there's something going on. at the moment, Euros, do you rate your team.
Paul: Oh, my God. It's like my team. the problem is with the Dutch. I think we always end up in the finals, but we've never won it, so,
Colin: We England as well. We've never won
Paul: yeah, but I think we've
Paul: more finals. been in more finals than the UK. so anyway I, I wish you good luck with your team and I wish you could
Colin: I wish very best.
Paul: with the Dutch team.
Paul, thank you
Colin: so much. It's a great pleasure having you on Law and More podcast. Keep up the great work you have many admirers throughout this beautiful wonderful city of ours
Paul: Thank you for your support, Cheers