Freshly elected Islands District Council Member (South Lantau), Randy Yu Hon Kwan is ready to tackle infrastructure, disharmony and a cynical constituency. Elizabeth Kerr reports.
Whatever you do, don’t call Randy Yu Hon Kwan a politician. The two-term appointee and first-time (landslide) electee to Islands District Council, Randy sees himself as a community worker rather than a type to press palms for a living. Sitting in the boardroom of the council office in Central – a purely serviceable space that is actually buzzy with the business of governing – Randy is disarming; he makes it difficult to be cynical. Approachable, unflappable, quick to let loose a boyish laugh, urbane and shockingly clear-eyed with regards to government, Randy is the type of realist who could restore even the most sceptical Hongkonger’s faith in legislators.
Not one to talk in sound bites, Randy, 53, is a fan of accessibility. “I hate doing 15-minute interviews. Making a statement for questions is not how I would like to explain things. I’m not a politician,” he begins.
Born and raised in Tai O, Randy still refers to himself as a “Lantau boy,” even though he doesn’t live here full time. Despite the distance, Randy believes it’s one of the elements that helped him win the Islands District Council election in November – that, and eight years of job experience. “It’s not like working in London and representing Birmingham after 20 years,” he says. “Lantau is a special constituency and it’s not just about where you live. Eight years ago I could have been challenged on that, but I was lucky enough to be appointed for those two terms and that really helped.”
In a way, Randy has never really left Lantau. He was a major player in the restoration of the Tai O Heritage Hotel and its sustainability plan, and he has a healthy appreciation for what makes Lantau unique, as well as what makes it frustrating. “I think I stand a better chance of striking a balance and bringing harmony to the place,” he says. “This was the right time to run.” And Randy is gracious in victory. Suggest that he hammered his opponents on election day (he won over half the votes) and he balks at such an antagonistic image.
On sustainable development
A surveyor by trade, Randy’s life took a turn toward public service with a Buddhist awakening of sorts following a trip to Tibet in 2003. Deciding to “practise what I preach,” he went into development on a community and sustainability side, and left behind a cushy corner office job for the glamour of social responsibility. “I saw people living in poverty that were happy, and here I was, earning a lot of money and unhappy,” he recalls. “I didn’t know why. So I came back and decided to do something I like, not quantity surveying.”
His first position was with Sino Land figuring out how development could complement environmental protection and heritage conservation, something he argues more and more developers aim for. For all the fears of developer irresponsibility, without them nothing would get done, like the Tai O Heritage Hotel, the PMQ and Central Police Station projects.
The elephant in the room, of course, is the lingering perception among Joe Public that developers are really holding Hong Kong’s reins and government is beholden to powerful land barons. Real estate interests are well represented in LegCo and the Lantau Development Advisory Committee. As a former Sino manager and current community relations general manager for Henderson Land (which has no land interests on Lantau), Randy is in a prime position to dodge questions about conflict of interest. But he doesn’t. How does anyone inspire confidence in a suspicious public, facing record home prices?
“That’s a very big question. I can’t give you a perfect answer,” he starts. Randy doesn’t blame the public for its distrust and is well aware of documented conflict of interest and the corruption that gave rise to it. Development must and will happen anyway, it’s a matter of doing it right. “People attack big corporates because they have connections. It’s the reason they’re big. They know the way to get things done and they react quickly. On the other side of the coin, if they really put their minds to it they get results… The good is that developers tend to make things happen rather than waiting on government. The bad is that the public sees them as trying to get another $10 per square foot.”
Election campaign promises
Allaying those fears will be part of Randy’s job as council member, but his constituency – Mui Wo, South Lantau, Tai O and rural Tung Chung – has bigger fish to fry. Of his election platform focusing on social welfare, community facilities, sustainable development, heritage conservation and amity among Lantau’s diverse communities he notes: “Four years is not a very long time, and obviously I’ll try to achieve it all. But reality has taught me I might not be able to. Which is a good excuse for another term,” he adds with a guffaw. In the immediate future, Randy is looking to address communications (fibre-optic infrastructure) and dental services for the elderly.
Another contentious issue on Randy’s agenda is widening the South Lantau Road in order to bring it up to modern standards – not to accommodate more cars. “I’m not saying don’t do it, but do it alongside the Highways Department and local stakeholders,” he says. “I’ve got people accusing me of advocating a four-lane highway. No. I don’t want another Festival Walk in Cheung Sha.” The South Lantau Road was originally a construction road, and as well as having an inadequate road base, it is 6.8 metres wide compared to a now standard 7.3. The road as it is can’t hold double-decker buses (an easy way to reduce traffic) and it is unsafe.
When he’s not advocating for better roads, Randy can be found with his nine-year-old son, three-year-old twins and fashion designer wife. “When I’m not working I spend all my time with them. I can honestly say Sunday is my hardest working day.” He makes a crack about just needing a nice cup of tea by 9pm, but it’s obvious he loves it – and that his family keeps him grounded.
Randy’s combination of realism and idealism will serve him and Lantau residents well for the next four years. Perhaps one day, he could throw his hat in the ring to be Hong Kong’s first elected Chief Executive. Is he interested? Randy laughs again – heartily – and then finally says, “That sounds like something between a fairy tale and a nightmare.” Or community service.
You can contact Randy Yu Hon Kwan at email@example.com.
Images: Terry Chow