Hong Kong’s Missing Trees

It was a blustery November day in Hung Hom when a group of workers showed up to remove the banyan trees. Six weeks earlier, Typhoon Mangkhut had blasted through Hong Kong with 250 kilometre an hour winds, punching out windows, uprooting trees and casting ships ashore with terrifying force. It was the strongest recorded storm to have ever hit the city.

The following day seemed post-apocalyptic. As millions of workers struggled to reach their offices, they had to navigate blocked roads and defunct railway lines. An image of a man confronted by a mountain of green debris on Kennedy Road inspired a series of memes that made fun of Hong Kong’s rush back to work in the midst of such devastation. One took a still from the 1987 film Predator, with Arnold Schwarzenegger and Carl Weathers lost in the jungle, and added a new subtitle: “Where is the MTR station?”

Amazingly, nobody in the city lost their life in the storm. The trees weren’t so lucky. The Hong Kong government says it received more than 60,800 reports of fallen trees. Arborist Alvin Tang called the destruction “unprecedented.” Evidence of the destruction lingered for months after the typhoon. In late November, a footpath linking Ngau Tau Kok with Kowloon Bay was completely blocked by fallen trees. Near Bishop’s Hill in Sham Shui Po, a giant ficus tree lay on its side, surrounded by red warning tape. Many of the banyan trees that lined the streets near the waterfront in Hung Hom had been torn out at the roots and were teetering at odd angles when the workers came to remove them.

“Tai2 zyu6 (睇住)! Watch out!” shouted a worker as a couple of young girls crossed the street, towards the trees. They scurried away as another man on a ladder began lopping off branches with a chainsaw. The workers left a procession of naked stumps as they made their way down the street.

These post-Mangkhut days have left Hong Kong feeling uncannily naked. “[The storm] blew down a giant tree that was part of the Catholic Mission School property. Wrecked the fence, too,” says Zolima CityMag contributor Justina Chong. “I once saw a squirrel running around from that tree and now wonder where the squirrel has gone.”

“Every time I pass by a pile of wood I feel so sad,” says filmmaker Jenny Suen. “I mentioned this to an auntie recently and she said, ‘Yes it’s very sad, but now that the trees are gone my apartment finally has a view.’”

The reality is that the typhoon was only continuing work that has been going on for decades. Hong Kong has always had a contentious relationship with trees, especially in the urban areas, where few roads enjoy the cool shade of a green canopy. In the recent past, efforts to plant more trees along city streets have been opposed by merchants who think the greenery will block their signage and residents who fear the trees will attract insects. Many of the city’s oldest and most regal trees are suffering from years of neglect, their roots entombed in concrete and their insides hollowed out by rot. Every few years, Nathan Road’s famous Park Lane seems to lose another one of its majestic banyan trees.

In a survey of 380 heritage trees over two periods, from 1993 to 1998 and 1999 to 2003, urban greening expert Jim Chi-yung — popularly known as the Tree Professor — found that 54 of the trees were lost. In a research paper, Jim noted that, although Hong Kong’s climate is highly conducive to tree growth, its urban development has sabotaged that natural asset. “The high-density development mode has resulted in cramped and poor-quality growing conditions both above and below the ground,” he wrote.

It wasn’t always that way. In Hong Kong’s early colonial days, the government was keen on making the city a much greener place. Centuries of deforestation for firewood had left Hong Kong’s hillsides completely denuded –hence Lord Palmerston’s dismissal of the future colony as “a barren island” after the British arrived in 1841. In the late 19th century, British administrators embarked on an ambitious reforestation programme, reintroducing a mix of native and imported species to the mountains around the quickly growing city.

It was actually street trees that inspired that reforestation movement. “Historic photos of the city’s streetscapes from as early as 1860 show mature street trees, indicating that planting must have commenced right at the outset of the colonial period,” wrote landscape architect Mathew Robert Pryor in an article for the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society Hong Kong Branch. Most official records of these early tree planting activities were destroyed during World War II, so Pryor relied on what little survived, along with old photos and newspaper articles, to get a sense of how green Hong Kong was in its early days.

What he discovered is that, although Hong Kong was crowded and congested even in its earliest days, money was set aside to make sure that many of its major streets were lined by trees. Queen’s Road, Cotton Tree Drive, Garden Road, Pedder Street, Wyndham Street – all of them enjoyed a robust population of trees that had already become mature in the 1850s.

Pryor noted that, at first, the British did not see Hong Kong as a permanent base, and the government was encouraged by London to keep public expenditure to a minimum. “So why expend effort and resources on planting trees, particularly at a time when the administration had larger concerns claiming its attention?” he asked. The answer turns out to be obvious: “To create environmental comfort for pedestrians on the street.”

In a sweltering subtropical climate, each tree is an oasis, a shelter from the sun and a respite from the unrelenting humidity. As Hong Kong’s street trees matured, they began to take on the extra symbolism of “colonial authority within the emerging city,” wrote Pryor. In the eyes of colonisers, trees marked Hong Kong’s evolution from a barren rock to a place of civilisation. The success of the street trees led to public support for greening the barren hillsides around the city, convincing the government to loosen its purse strings in a show of commitment to the future of the colony.

It is impossible to ignore the political dimensions of Hong Kong’s early street trees. “As they grew, street trees came to emphasise the informal racial segregation of the city,” wrote Pryor. The streets of European-dominated Central were green and leafy, while Sheung Wan and Tai Ping Shan — home to the city’s much larger Chinese population — were almost entirely denuded. In these areas, urban greenery was more haphazard, limited to a stretch along Queen’s Road West, along with gravity-defying wild banyans that took root in stone walls.  

But the trees were popular across racial and class lines. Even a single tree transformed the space around it. In Central, trees attracted flower hawkers, shoe shiners and men who carried sedan chairs, not to mention people simply looking for a cool place to sit, chat and linger. Further west, residents of the Chinese quarter decorated banyan trees with lanterns during festivals.

When Tsim Sha Tsui was developed in the late 19th century, trees were planted along nearly all of its streets. The giant camphor trees of Haiphong Road date back to the 1880s, as do the banyans of Nathan Road. Chatham Road still boasts an elegant row of trees in its centre median. But the trees along smaller streets like Carnarvon Road disappeared in the frenzied decades after World War II, when Hong Kong’s population exploded and development pressure was intense.

As Hong Kong’s buildings grew taller, its tree cover shrank. It was death by a thousand cuts. In July 2009, a pair of trees towered over Minden Row in Tsim Sha Tsui. By September they were gone, felled to make way for the construction of a new skyscraper. Every so often, a tree falls suddenly, due to neglect or stormy weather, sparking a public outcry and government promises to keep better tabs on the health of Hong Kong’s trees.

For years, a big problem was that responsibility for Hong Kong’s trees fell to a variety of different government departments that did not seem to communicate very well with each other. In 2010, after years of public pressure, the Development Bureau established the Greening, Landscape and Tree Management Section to better manage Hong Kong’s tree population. Since then, it has developed a Street Tree Selection Guide to help various government departments and private organisations determine which trees are best for planting on streets. It has also overseen the implementation of the city’s Greening Master Plan.

By any objective measure, there is more greenery in Hong Kong today than there was just a few years ago. More than 400,000 trees have been planted in Hong Kong’s urban areas since 2014, including trees in parks, along streets and in public housing estates. Even a little bit of greenery can go a long way. In Tai Kok Tsui, Palm Street — one of many streets named after trees that were notably absent from the area — is finally lined by palms, attracting birds and softening the edges of its concrete landscape. A motley collection of trees and shrubs now occupy the centre median of Waterloo Road, masking the grey metal fence that lines the street.

And yet, even as Hong Kong is infused with fresh greenery, more and more of its oldest and largest trees are vanishing. That is particularly true in Central and Western District, where wall trees have become an endangered species. These are banyans that have taken root in Victorian-era stone walls, holding themselves aloft thanks to root systems that burrow deep into hillsides. Ever since a wall tree collapsed on Bonham Road in 2015, the government’s attitude to them seems to have hardened.

“The official attitude seems to have changed towards regarding these hanging trees as high risk and that stone walls were not design to accommodate them,” says Jim Chi-yung. “It is likely that more will be felled in the name of risk abatement.”

Jim estimates that at least 20 wall trees have disappeared in recent years, due either to typhoons, redevelopment, poor maintenance, disease or what he calls “unjustified tree felling by the government.” Unjustified is how he describes the preemptive removal of four Bonham Road wall trees after the 2015 collapse, a surreptitious nighttime operation that left many nearby residents aghast. Since the four trees were felled, new growth has sprouted from their trunks, leading to some optimism that the trees may regrow. But Jim says that will not be the case.

“The cluster of thin branches coming out from the stumps are water sprouts that have emerged from adventitious buds lying below the bark of old woods,” he says. “When a tree encounters stress, the latent buds will be enlisted to generate new photosynthetic tissues to keep itself fed and alive. Their continued vegetative growth, however, will only provide an increasingly expanded bushy form. Regrettably, the truncated trees will not be able to reconstitute a normal trunk and branch structure to regain their former glory.”

As for Hong Kong’s other wall trees, he describes the prognosis as “ominous.” The same might be said for many of the trees knocked down by Mangkhut. Although the government is committed to planting more trees, it seems unlikely that all of the trees destroyed by the storm will be replaced. “When formulating the replanting programme, we will also take the opportunity to review and improve the planting conditions where practicable,” says a spokesperson for the Development Bureau. “Quality and sustainable tree growth is important and we will not pursue replacement planting on a strictly one-on-one basis if the planting conditions are not suitable.”

Some Hongkongers are doing what they can. After the typhoon, Zolima CityMag contributor Billy Potts noticed many of the trees around his home had been blown over, including a particularly old banyan wall tree. But there was one sign of hope. “Neighbours from the block managed to save one small tree by raising it with rope, tying it to a railing and propping it up with a fallen tree bough,” he says. “It’s starting to sprout leaves again.”

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