Mainlanders risk hefty jail term for just $300

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 14 August, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 14 August, 2005, 12:00am

Tree thieves from the mainland are risking capture and up to 10 years in jail for pay days of just $300 or $400. And fishermen are paid only $900 to run boats across Hong Kong waters to carry freshly dug up Buddhist pines.

Across the border a good tree - they can grow up to 5 metres - can fetch $100,000, because of their fung shui value and rarity.

It is usually grown as a house plant or used to decorate entrance gates, as many believe it brings wealth and good luck. The trees take at least 10 years to mature and tend to grow in steep areas, such as parts of Sai Kung or Po Toi.

Chum heung trees, known as incense trees, are now rare in Hong Kong, although some can be found at Sha Lo Wan, on Lantau. Previously, they were used to make joss sticks. The tree helped give Hong Kong its name. The character 'heung', meaning 'fragrant', is used in Fragrant Harbour.

Thieves target the tree for its fragrant wood and the sap, chen xiang, is used in Chinese medicine. They first slash a 5cm cut in a tree, which over several months leaks sap to cover its wounds. The thief returns to collect the dried sap, and a small quantity of resin can be extracted from wood blocks by heating.

Sections of trunks or branches that contain patches of fragrant, resinous wood are known as agar wood.