Political Risers: Roy Tam, a localist, environmentalist, Legco hopeful

Roy Tam Hoi-pong (譚凱邦) will run under the Neo Democrats banner and promote his own curious blend of environmentalism and localism.

(P.S. Tam announced his withdrawal on 21 July in order to take care of his wife who has a serious health condition)


Many consider Horace Chin Wan-kan (陳雲根), aka Chin Wan as the godfather of localism. But long before his ascendancy as the localism philosopher-king, a secondary school science teacher, Roy Tam Hoi-pong (譚凱邦), first articulated a localist philosophy from an urban planning and environmental perspective. Elected as a district councillor last year, Tam has decided to promote his localist-environmentalist platform at a higher level by seeking the voters’ approval to bring his ideas to Hong Kong’s Legislative Council as a candidate in the New Territories West constituency.

An urban-environment educator

During his years in the Chinese University of Hong Kong, Tam, as an environmental science undergraduate student, was active in promoting education on education causes. He founded a university student and graduate-based NGO, Footprint, in May 2002 to educate the younger generations outside the campus. “The most remarkable event organised by Footprint would be the No Air-con Day first held in 1 Jun 2004,” Tam recalls. “I still remember the summers of Hong Kong in the past were not that hot.”

After his graduation, he first pursued his career by working as a secondary school science teacher. Within his ten-year teaching career, he spent nine years in a school in Tuen Mun. One of his students is Tommy Cheung Sau-yin (張秀賢), the former spokesman of disbanded student activist group Scholarism led by Joshua Wong Chi-fung (黃之鋒).

Tam describes himself as an urban environmentalist who focuses on the green issues in urban life. “The green movement can be classified into two categories: countryside and urban. I have chosen the urban environment because many environmental NGOs in Hong Kong have already chosen the countryside,” he says.

Tam first rose to prominence after establishing another environmental NGO, Green Sense. In 2006, he raised the issue of ‘wall buildings’ (屏風樓), the private residential building blocks built like a wall to capture the seaview for most apartment units. Many of them are located in the West Kowloon reclamation area and may affect the ventilation and air quality of Kowloon. “I was the first to coin the term ‘wall building’, and then people starts following me,” he claims.

I’m the first one who coined the term ‘wall building’, and then people starts following me.”

The earliest localist

Light pollution problems and shark-finning are among the issues successfully publicised by Green Sense. However, Tam believes publicity and awareness are not enough to effective change. Policy matters. The core problem of outdated or failed environmental policies in Hong Kong arises from the government’s, in his opinion, senseless decision-making. “Environmental education without political participation is not enough to put sustainable life into practice, so I decided to be more politically active.”

Three years before Chin Wan publishing his localist classic, Hong Kong as a City State, Tam joined his first Legco election in 2008 under the slogan ‘Vote for a green Hong Kong’. He lost the election with a very low voting percentage, but continued his work.

“Hong Kong has been too focused on economic development that causes tonnes of environmental and social problems, including air pollution, wall buildings, long working hours and loss of private space.” Tam’s first political agenda now turns to be the common belief of most localists who are critical of Hong Kong-style sweatshop development approach.

It’s population, stupid

In 2012 the Hong Kong public started resisting a comprehensive integration with China by opposing the flood of mainland Chinese immigrants, travellers and parallel traders. The housing policy of Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying (梁振英) was then interpreted by localists as helping mainland Chinese immigrants to settle in Hong Kong while ignoring the needs of local grassroots.

August 2013 saw Tam, Legco members Gary Fan Kwok-wai (范國威, Neo Democrats), Claudia Mo (毛孟靜, Civic Party), Fernando Cheung Chiu-hung (張超雄, Labour Party) and social activists crowdfund and co-publish an ‘anti-mainlandisation’ (反赤化) advertisement to condemn Leung’s mainland Chinese-inclined policy approach and call for removing Leung. The term ‘reduce population at the source’ (源頭減人) in the advertisement, later elaborated on by Tam in an article, drew huge criticism from the mainland Chinese immigrants rights advocacy groups. They criticised Tam for discriminating against the immigrants by insulting them as ‘waste’ with reference to the slogan ‘reduce waste at the source’ promoted by the Environmental Protection Department.

“The problems of today’s Hong Kong is the population. By looking at the distribution of land and the daily load of public transport, we can see the carrying capacity of Hong Kong is seriously overloaded. Slowing the growth of population is just common sense,” says Tam.

I believe all localist parties and groups can have their own roles in fighting for the future of Hong Kong. I do respect all of them.”

Respect separatism

Tam joined Fan’s Neo Democrats in 2014, the moderate localist party that was being criticised by many radical localists as a ‘pseudo-localist party’. The labelling could be traced back to Fan who distanced himself from radical protesters in the ‘restoration campaign’ (protests aiming at sweeping away parallel traders) in 2015 and the Mong Kok unrest in February 2016. Tam admits he is not radical compared to those protesters, but he claims he seldom criticises the radical means of social movement.

“I believe all localist parties and groups can have their own roles in fighting for the future of Hong Kong. I do respect all of them,” he says.

Neo Democrats includes ‘Hong Kongers in priority’ (港人優先) among its policy initiatives, arguing Hong Kong people’s interests should be looked after first, including gaining control of authorisation of immigration and cross-border travellers from mainland China. Tam agrees with this idea. “I joined Neo Democrats because it focuses on practical issues with concrete ideas and discourse,” he explains.

Also, he does not rule out the possibility of an independent Hong Kong – some day. “Yes, I agree it is impossible to achieve Hong Kong independence in short term, but I believe [Hong Kong’s future] after 2047 must be determined by Hong Kongers, and secession from China should be an option,” he concludes. “We need to win Hong Kong back.”

Benny Kwok

Benny Kwok

Benny Kwok is a Harbour Times journalist following Hong Kong affairs, especially targeting political and business inner circles. He earned his bachelor’s degree majoring International Studies in City University of Hong Kong, and obtained his master degree of Asian and International Studies in CityU of HK also. He worked for Hong Kong Economic Journal (HKEJ) as the International News Reporter before joining HT.
Benny Kwok
Benny Kwok the author

Benny Kwok is a Harbour Times journalist following Hong Kong affairs, especially targeting political and business inner circles. He earned his bachelor's degree majoring International Studies in City University of Hong Kong, and obtained his master degree of Asian and International Studies in CityU of HK also. He worked for Hong Kong Economic Journal (HKEJ) as the International News Reporter before joining HT.

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