The Sai Kung community in Hong Kong with a swashbuckling Frenchman for village head

by David Vetter, South China Morning Post

South China Morning Post have given kind permission for BUZZ to reprint this story. It was written by David Vetter and originally published on 8 September 2018.

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Hervé Henri Bouvresse, 57, is the representative for Long Keng Village.                Photo: Roy Issa

In a rural village in Long Keng, Sai Kung, a small community counts an unlikely character as its leader: a Frenchman with a swashbuckling past, who is one of only four non-ethnic-Chinese resident representatives out of a total of 695 in Hong Kong.

Hervé Henri Bouvresse, 57, came to the city in 1988. He married a Hong Kong-Japanese woman in 1993, and says he has never looked back.

“My brother Christophe, who got here first, told me this was a place with a lot of opportunity, and I still feel that way,” he says. Bouvresse established catering firm Cafe Concepts with his brother, which serves independent schools across the city.

In 2004, he settled with his family in Long Keng Village, having chosen the location for its beauty and fresh air. Bouvresse has two children, both of whom study in Canada: his daughter, 23, recently graduated from McGill University in Montreal, and his son, 17, attends a school in Toronto.

Bouvresse applied to become the village’s resident representative in 2011, after attempts by property developers to build houses on the nearby wetlands sparked concerns the community’s idyllic way of life could be affected.

The area teems with wildlife including the barking deer, one of Hong Kong’s protected species. Because of its ecological value, the land around Long Keng has been zoned by authorities as unsuitable for development.

According to Bouvresse, workers began arriving in the area as early as 2007, clearing large swathes of trees and undergrowth in preparation for construction works.

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Long Keng Village in Sai Kung.                         Photo: Roy Issa

In response, Bouvresse’s neighbours set up the Long Keng Valley Concern Group, which is active on Facebook and YouTube raising awareness about the situation. Bouvresse decided to contribute in another way: by entering the rural representative elections.

“In Hong Kong, everyone has the right to object to a situation,” he explains. “But people don’t have to listen. If you’re a representative, however, people have to listen.”

According to the Home Affairs Department, any Hong Kong resident who has right of abode, or permanent residency, and has lived in a village for more than five years has the right to stand as a resident representative.

Bouvresse qualified and was elected unopposed. He says he got in touch with authorities over the land matter.

The Planning Department confirms to the Post that the land in question falls within a green belt. The department says it has taken legal action against parties that carried out “unauthorised filling of land”. Should further construction work take place at the site, it says “appropriate planning enforcement action will be taken”.

While Bouvresse can count this stance as a victory, he says he was initially reluctant to take on the job as village representative. He eventually took the plunge to give back to the area.

“ I recognise I have been part of the community for years, and people supported me and wanted my help. So this was my duty.”

Upon taking his seat in 2012, he found that the position also came with other expectations.

“You’re regarded as the village chief,” he says. “Which is ridiculous because you don’t make the laws, you’re just there to listen to people.”

When it comes to mediating disputes in the community, Bouvresse says he does what he can: the arguments are usually parking or noise-related, and he prefers to resolve such matters amicably.

He recommends people avoid complaints about loud parties by inviting all their neighbours. “If they’re invited, they don’t complain about the noise,” he says, grinning.

The sedentary Long Keng lifestyle could not be more different from his past. Born in Paris’s 9th arrondissement, Bouvresse learned savate, a French form of kick-boxing, at the age of 16.

“I was a chancer, I lived for fun,” he explains. He quickly tired of Paris and while still in his teens began his adventures as a sports instructor, teaching windsurfing during the summer and skiing during the winter. His travels took him to places such as Haiti, Venezuela, and Mexico.

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The land around Long Keng Village.                        Photo: Roy Issa

Among his exploits, Bouvresse claims he was in Haiti at the outset of the revolution in the 1980s that eventually overthrew President Jean-Claude Duvalier. Later he went in search of gold in the jungles of Venezuela, an adventure he says failed to make him rich, but taught him a lot.

“When you’re deep in the rainforest you truly understand you can’t just quit. You have to keep going, no matter what,” he says.

He may lead a different life now, but he hasn’t left it all behind. Bouvresse has brought a taste of his homeland to his village by introducing the quintessentially French game pétanque, a boules sport, to his neighbours.

“Not a Saturday or Sunday goes by without a game of pétanque and an aperitif (an alcoholic drink taken before meals) with my neighbours. This is what it’s all about.”

“I love France,” he says. “But I will definitely not live in Paris again. For one thing, the winter is too long!”

Bouvresse says that without his wife, who is a Hongkonger, he would not understand the city as well as he does now. “It’s not so much about translating,” he says. “It’s about understanding the culture, the mentality. It’s very different from how the French think.”

This, Bouvresse feels, extends to work-life balance. “It’s a cliché maybe, but I think in Hong Kong people live to work; the French, we work to live. We live to have a good time, because you only have one chance at this life.”

He believes many people realise this too late. “People get to old age and realise all they have done is work for a boss they don’t know and who doesn’t care about them. They’ve not experienced anything. I know I’ll never have that feeling, and there’s so much more I want to do.”

Yet success means different things to different people, Bouvresse notes.

“I’ve never been interested in massive wealth. How much do you really need? At 57, if I have my health, if my kids are happy, if I can be exercising every day, what else do I need?”

This is why he treasures the rural life he has built, and now takes his role as village head seriously. Bouvresse is fiercely protective of the community and surrounding land.

“There isn’t much green space left in Hong Kong,” he says. “We should protect what we have left.”

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