Trees are few and far between on Hong Kong’s cramped, chaotic streets.
Hong Kong’s wall trees struggle in the concrete jungle
What greenery is left is in constant danger of being chopped down to make room for the next big construction project.
“Hong Kong can plan world-class streets and buildings, but not trees,” says Jim Chi-yung (above), a geology professor at the University of Hong Kong.
Jim, affectionately known as the “Tree Daddy,” has lobbied for more than two decades for better protection for Hong Kong’s trees, with limited success.
Chinese banyans like the one above, which springs from a 150-year-old stone wall on Forbes Street, at the western end of Hong Kong Island, were almost removed to make way for a subway line extension.
After protests from green groups and district councilors, subway operators MTR Corporation agreed to move the site of the new Kennedy Town station to avoid destroying this “hanging forest.”
The stone wall trees are a distinctive feature of Hong Kong, given the capability of the banyan tree to form strongly linked root networks, and the rarity of the stone masonry which supports them.
“These roots are so dense that you see roots, rather than stone,” Jim says. “This is really a wonderful amalgamation of nature and culture.”
That can be dangerous. There have been high-profile fatalities due to falling trees.
In 2015, two people were sent to hospital after being hit by a falling Chinese banyan tree (below) on nearby Bonham Road. The government reacted by cutting down several banyans in the area.
Typhoons – tropical cyclones – also pose a threat. “Thousands and thousands of trees are toppled every time we have a typhoon,” Jim says. “That means that we have a lot of dangerous trees. The government should not be complacent.”
Arborists manage more than 1.6 million trees in Hong Kong’s urban areas but it’s rare to see them climbing trees, as in the photo above. Arborists have long been unable to practice or conduct professional examinations at government sites in Hong Kong due to legal restrictions.
The city says it’s reformed its tree management policies over the years, including establishing an advisory panel of experts and a risk assessment program for declining trees. There is also a registry of “old and valuable trees” that are inspected twice a year.
“Trees do not grow in isolation, but are inextricably anchored in their urban landscape,” a spokeswoman from the city’s Development Bureau said. “The government seeks to continually improve policies to safeguard the public, and enrich our urban landscape environment.”
Above is a 115-foot-tall white champak near the Zoological and Botanical Gardens on Caine Road, estimated to be at least 200 years old. Its trunk would require two or three people to wrap their arms around, and shoots straight upwards, unlike most white champaks that branch off at a lower level.
“A lot of people think that this is the biggest white champak in south China,” Jim says. “It is magnificent.”
But many of Hong Kong’s greatest trees are in decline.
In a former British Army barracks in the Tsim Sha Tsui shopping and nightlife district, the champion tree below, aged around 400 years old, is dying.
The Chinese banyan went into decline after the barracks was converted into a park. Concrete was paved over soil, choking the tree’s access to nutrients.
The tree is now fenced off from the public and is struggling to survive. “This is the dire state of the tree,” Jim says. “It’s a sad story.”
As Jim walks the streets, he envisions a verdant, leafier Hong Kong. “We want green, not gray,” he says.
Photos by Calvin Guan