Nice column in today's SCMP:

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"Fear of open spaces

Updated on Nov 19, 2009
I have heard similar stories from different people, so either they are part of an urban myth about Hong Kong or they say something rather disturbing about our city's effect on children. It usually goes like this: a child, either from an expatriate or local family, grew up in Hong Kong but moved overseas. In the new abode, he or she will always walk on pavements and avoid grass and mud because it is dirty.

Here is something else from my own experience. Many parents instinctively shield their children from any dog - large or small, even on a lead - walking past them with its owner on the street. The fear seems to be that the animal will attack, any time, any place, without provocation. I have lost count of the number of people I know who give up their pets once the wife becomes pregnant. We are teaching our children to despise grass, plants and animals - and wide open spaces.

Why do we do that to our own children? My theory is that we have to train them from an early age so they accept, and get used to, spending the rest of their lives living in price-inflated, shoebox-sized flats. And that means throwing nature out the window.

Living in overpriced shoeboxes means accepting physical confinement and restriction on movement. That's what we build prisons for. And that is why we train our children to despise nature. That's also why we buy them an Xbox, Wii or Nintendo so they can sit still and not move too much for hours and hours.

That's why we have family malls - owned by the same property developers - that do not allow children to run around, and public pet parks that ban dogs from being off the lead so they could roam free. A sign in one play room - padded, with cushions - at a community centre in Happy Valley instructs parents and helpers not to let children run inside. I presume such signs are common in play rooms across the city. We have neighbours in high rises who live close yet remain hostile strangers for ever. We force poor people and low-income families to live inhumanly close, so they have no means of getting away from each other. Violence, predictably, is often the outcome.

We are a wealthy and modern city, yet our education system, by and large, still favours rote learning. There are many reasons for this, both historical and economic. But for me, it is another effective method of social conditioning to make children sit still.

As a people, we in Hong Kong have commoditised space and built most of our economy and personal wealth on property. I don't dare denigrate that achievement under a government policy of high land value. It has served us well for decades by giving us physical security and material plenty - at least for the middle and upper classes. But it has also led to an economy being hijacked by property tycoons. With space as a tradeable commodity, we should not be surprised that developers - from Henderson's 39 Conduit Road to Sun Hung Kai Properties' The Cullinan - skip so many floors in their numbering process. They are simply following the logic of commercial and market fads rather than common-sense arithmetic. And we shouldn't be shocked when officials are reluctant to regulate so developers have to standardise gross, saleable and usable floor areas, or eco- and common areas and parking spaces. Commoditised space, like any financial instrument, is an object of manipulation in any free market. But we shouldn't complain too much; anyone who has speculated in the property market has contributed to the fraud perpetrated by developers, with tacit government approval.

We should not be surprised why the most natural and sensible proposal by the last governor, Chris Patten, to turn Kowloon West into the city's central park was quickly replaced by the arts hub idea, a Trojan horse to turn a third to half of the land into property development - and serious revenue for the government. There is a myth that Hong Kong has limited land and too many people; the reality is that land supply has to do with economics and government policy rather than geography. Hong Kong does not do grass or free space. You don't get to enjoy them without paying a high premium - and destroying childhoods.

Alex Lo is a senior writer at the Post. [email protected]"