Hong Kong you never fail to amaze and amuse. So two weeks ago we reported on the loss of a great Chinese Banyan tree in Sai Ying Pun. It was a mighty plant, many decades in the making. It had clearly grown past the point where it was safe, considering how busy that turn in Bonham Road is. Growing out of stone walls and mortar the way Hong Kong’s banyan’s do, it seems obvious that they need to be constantly pruned, and in some dangerous cases felled. The tree in question had grown to over ten meters tall, and weighed many tons – arching over a busy two lane street, bus stops, businesses and peoples’ homes. The city’s tree keepers designated it for destruction, but word on the street is the local council pulled strings to keep the great tree there, providing shade, history and character to the bend in the road.


But then the tree went down in a storm and almost killed a newsagent and a maid. It smashed into the new escalator and through peoples’ apartment windows all the way across the street. It also created a five meter crater in the embankment wall it called home. Suddenly the street was exposed, sunny, and pock marked. You can now see the shabby high rises directly behind it, and their wealthier relations above them on Babington Path and Lyttleton Road. Dangerous or not, the road lost a bagful of character when that banyan went down.


But there was still hope – in the form of four or five smaller banyan trees growing out of the wall a bit further down, by the bus stop. These were just babies, but provided shade and comfort to the people waiting for their buses and minibuses and taxis. In a city where you often broil just walking around all day on concrete and in and out of glass, stone and marble, the great banyans provide more than shade – they provide nature, serenity and wonder. So all of us locals (I live in the locality, but can’t claim to be ‘local’) were reassured that in time the babies would grow up to provide their healing grace and restore leafy elegance to the bend in the road.


But then disaster struck again. There I was coming down Bonham Road Saturday night, suddenly getting detoured at the corner of Park Road. The whole intersection was blocked off, yellow lights flashing in the early evening haze. Disgruntled, I got out of the cab and asked an onlooker what was going on. An older gentleman, a longtime resident, he sighed and said, ‘Typhoon coming, they want to make sure no more problem’. Wait. What typhoon? Typhoon Soudelor – that was projected to miss us by a wide margin and slam into Taiwan? Something was fishy.


But there were the Arbor Police, with serious expressions on their faces and chainsaws in their hands. What were they doing? I couldn’t believe my eyes, but they had decided in their ultimate arbor wisdom to take down all the banyans along that embankment wall. It was like a bad dream. For the second time in two weeks the entire intersection was blocked off with police tape. The first time due to Mother Nature, the second a result of lame hindsight guilt and shame. And this is where the city fails its people. First they miscalculate (and I’m being generous) a real danger, and then when disaster strikes they overcompensate and make a second wrong, with no right in sight. The only silver lining in the near-disaster a few weeks ago was the fact that there were still younger trees growing out of that wall.


But cruelly, idiotically the remaining trees were all sawed down last Saturday night, their sad, tar blackened stumps reflecting the light of the now dominant street lamps; their magnificent tangled roots groping down into cracks and crevices, coming from nowhere now – their lives cut short in a fit of short sightedness. And then something amazing happened. On Sunday the people spoke up, loudly and collectively – with signs, balloons and flowers – to pay their respects to the felled giants. There was a community outpouring of grief over the dead banyans. People came together to say, as much as anything, this: In a city where caution rules (and overrules – there is no place in the world with as many sidewalk dividers and ‘No Anything in this park’ signs) there is still a recognition of what Hong Kong is, what it was when the British landed, and what it will be in the end…a tropical island. The banyan trees are important. They are reminders of our own place in nature. The people respect them and pray to them – they remind us of our own frailty as much as any typhoon or illness. And in this respect the city has miscalculated greatly, just as it did when it underestimated Occupy or anger towards parallel traders. The city managers think that because Hong Kong has a nice big surplus they have done their job. They think people won’t care about things like universal suffrage or housing prices because the trains and buses run on time. But people who live in green places with yards and space don’t understand the importance of a few banyan trees to the common man. They can’t see the forest for the trees.


Slip Mahoney