Starting from the Bottom: Paul Zimmerman Aims to Improve Hong Kong from the Ground Up

Photo by William FurnissPhoto by William FurnissPhoto courtesy Paul Zimmerman

Paul Zimmerman has a secret weapon: his motorcycle. Though he lives on the other side of town from his constituency, the Pok Fu Lam district councillor often rides his Kawasaki bike around the neighbourhood’s hilly streets, taking mental notes of fly tipping and other problems. “I take detours all the time,” he says. He recently bought slip-on rain pants for the stormy summer months.

A motorcycle has been the one constant in Zimmerman’s life since he came here nearly 33 years ago. Almost everything else has changed. Several years ago, the imposing, shaggy-haired Dutchman traded his corporate suit for a career in neighbourhood politics and urban planning activism. One of the founders of Designing Hong Kong, he is an outspoken advocate for Hong Kong, who believes the city can — and must — become a better home for its citizens.

Zimmerman was born in Rotterdam in 1958. His activist streak emerged early: when he was a teenager, he helped set up a student union at his high school, and he served on the editorial board of an underground student newspaper. He later studied at Erasmus University, where he graduated with a degree in economics.

At the time, the Netherlands still had mandatory military service, which Zimmerman thought was a waste of time. “It was two months of training in Germany and 16 months of drinking beer,” he says. Instead, he decided to move to Hong Kong, a city he had glimpsed in 16mm films shot by his father, who had often travelled here to buy textiles. “I cut the film for him, so that was always in my mind,” he says. He found an internship with a Dutch bank, bought a plane ticket and settled into his new life.

“It was love, hate, love, hate for the first two years,” he recalls. It’s a common enough experience for new arrivals. “If they stay for more than two years, they’re sold.” He ended up starting his own branding and graphic design firm, consulting for local businesses, and focused on his new career. “I had my head down and was trying to earn a living and stay ahead of my bank account,” he says.

In his spare time, he went paragliding and sailing. But he also spent hours wandering around the city after work. “I would take off my work clothes, put on my shorts and walking shoes, and go out every night, seeing the city, eating noodles on the side of the road,” he says. He didn’t know much about urban planning (“I only recently found out what the Dutch term for it is – ruimtelijke ordening,” he says) but he was fascinated by the layers of activity in every street. “I had an affinity for the city.”

Not too many people were thinking about the special qualities of Hong Kong’s urban environment at the time. In the years before the handover in 1997, it seemed as though everyone had a foot out the door. Middle-class families were moving to Canada and Australia, leaving behind “astronaut” breadwinners who earned money in Hong Kong and sent it to wives and children overseas. Zimmerman says he was constantly asked if he was going to stay after 1997.

He did, and the year of the handover, he received an offer to buy his business. He sold it and stayed on for another few years, working for the new owners, but eventually quit and began thinking about his future. By that time, he was married, with two sons, and he thought about moving the family to Holland, but deemed it “too boring.” Same for Australia. He spent six months living in Shanghai, which was exciting — it reminded him of Hong Kong’s boom years in the 1980s — but ultimately exhausting, especially since the city lacked the close proximity to nature that Zimmerman enjoys so much in Hong Kong. He decided to stay put. “Hong Kong is the place I will be forever,” he says.

That led him to think more critically about the city around him. In 2003, the government announced plans to develop a patch of reclaimed land into the West Kowloon Cultural District, which would be developed exclusively by Sun Hung Kai. That ignited a storm of controversy — people accused the government of giving a sweetheart deal to a big property company — and it led Zimmerman to launch Designing Hong Kong, an urban planning advocacy group, with former legislator Christine Loh, environmentalist Peter Wong and conservationist Markus Shaw.

Several years earlier, while serving on the Legislative Council, Loh had helped pass the Protection of the Harbour Ordinance, which put a moratorium on land reclamation in Victoria Harbour.

“It fixed the shores of the harbour for the next hundred years, but it was a pretty crappy harbourfront,” says Zimmerman.

The first ambit of Designing Hong Kong was to push for more public access and more thoughtful design. Since then, it has tackled a growing number of issues: missing pedestrian crossings, haphazard village growth, illegal development in the country parks.

In 2007, while he was working as an executive at local trading house Jebsen Group, the Civic Party tapped Zimmerman to run for a seat on the Wan Chai District Council. Since he has lived for years in Clearwater Bay, where he shares a village house with his second wife, daughter and four dogs, he asked if he could run for a seat there. “They said no way,” he recalls. Politics in the New Territories is dominated by the Heung Yee Kuk, the powerful association of indigenous villagers, but in Wan Chai, with its large number of middle-class, English-speaking households, he might actually have a chance.

He lost that first race by 129 votes – 567 to his opponent’s 696. A few years later, he quit the business world for good and ran in the 2010 by-election for the Pok Fu Lam seat on the Southern District Council. Though he didn’t live in the area, he saw it as a homecoming of sorts – “My first bed in Hong Kong was in Baguio Villa,” he says, referring to a housing estate in the north part of Pok Fu Lam. He won with a solid 59.6 percent of votes. He has been re-elected twice, in 2011 and 2015, each time with nearly two thirds of the votes.

Though Zimmerman has tried over the years to learn conversational Cantonese, he never quite succeeded. But he insists that it hasn’t been a problem in Pok Fu Lam, where the electorate is well educated and bilingual. “I slipped in quite easily,” he says. It may have posed more of a challenge to Zimmerman’s recent run for a seat in the Legislative Council, which he abandoned after polling at just 1 percent. While his middle-class Pok Fu Lam constituents may be familiar with his silver beard and bright orange eyeglasses, he remembers feeling like a novelty when he campaigned on public housing estates. “[Not speaking Cantonese] doesn’t prevent me from doing my job, but the problem is standing on stage in a debate and trying to convince people you know what’s going on, that you can build an emotional connection,” he says.

At times, he has encountered outright hostility, especially when he has challenged powerful village interests in the New Territories. Though many people of European descent served on the Legislative Council and now-defunct Urban Council during the colonial era, Zimmerman is currently the only non-Chinese elected official in Hong Kong. “I’ve been told, ‘Gweilo go home,’” he says. It doesn’t seem to bother him. In 2012, he renounced his Dutch citizenship and became a Chinese national with a Hong Kong passport.

In any case, Zimmerman seems to relish a fight; maybe it’s his old student activist side. He says he was drawn to neighbourhood politics precisely because it isn’t glamorous. Being a district councillor is the rare political position where actions speak louder than words. “It’s about getting your hands dirty and doing it yourself,” he says.

Not enough people seem to share his philosophy. Zimmerman thinks one of Hong Kong’s biggest problems is that the small details of urban governance aren’t given enough scrutiny. Though he is a staunch proponent of democracy — in 2014, at the dawn of the Umbrella Movement, he made international headlines by bringing a yellow umbrella to the government’s official National Day celebrations — he also believes that political reform shouldn’t take precedence over livelihood issues.

Unlike New York, Paris or London, the Hong Kong government is tasked with basic urban management like garbage collection, as well as high-level issues such as immigration and economic policy. Zimmerman has long said that Hong Kong needs a mayor in addition to a chief executive, someone who could deal more proactively with things like transportation, development and urban design. At the neighbourhood level, he thinks district councils should have more power; they currently function mainly as advisory bodies, with a small budget for discretionary spending.

So far, those ideas haven’t found much traction with the government. But Zimmerman seems happy to keep up his approach. He says his district council position puts him in close contact with the front-line civil servants and top-level bureau heads who manage Hong Kong’s affairs. It’s a bit like riding a motorcycle: fun, agile, and with lots of detours.

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