Wood for the trees

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 08 January, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 08 January, 2012, 12:00am

Until the 1950s, one of the most common New Territories sights was a blue- or black-clad grass-cutter. Mostly women, they trudged along, homeward- or market-bound, under enormous (but actually rather light) bundles of grass and twigs cut from the hillsides. Completely vanished into the pages of nostalgia- themed picture books, they have been replaced by widespread hillside greening.

But what did the most to encourage reforestation in Hong Kong and allow desolate hill slopes to gradually recover lost vegetation? To the great surprise, no doubt, of contemporary environmentalists, the post-war introduction of affordable fossil fuels - more than any other single factor - enabled large-scale countryside rejuvenation to occur.

For millennia, Chinese of all social classes cooked with solid fuel. From palace to hovel, charcoal and firewood were the mainstays of every kitchen hearth. The long period of internal peace and prosperity that marked the middle years of the Qing dynasty - most of the 18th century - saw a population explosion in the Pearl River Delta, especially around the fertile West River districts. Demand for firewood correspondingly increased.

Hong Kong and its surrounding islands were - until historically recent times - heavily cloaked with dense subtropical forests. Less than a thousand years ago, these jungles supported primates, tigers and other large mammals. With widespread habitat loss, all are now extinct.

From about 1750, European maritime sources (such as ships' logbooks) noted how, with every passing year, the scattered Pearl River estuary islands, such as Lantau, had less tree cover. By Britain's acquisition of Hong Kong Island, in 1841, more than a century of environmental degradation had so badly depleted the forests that it was - like many other remote, peripheral islands around the delta - almost 'a barren rock'.

As the population surged with the stability and prosperity brought by British rule, large-scale firewood importation became necessary. When North Borneo (now Sabah, East Malaysia) came under British rule in 1882 (the chartered company that administered the territory was partially formed from Hong Kong business interests), it became a source for forest products. Borneo's tragically depleted rainforests still supply most of modern Hong Kong's timber requirements.

Hong Kong's wartime occupation by the Japanese saw further deforestation, because the American submarine blockade greatly limited the amount of fuel - and food - entering the harbour. By the war's end, abandoned buildings were stripped for anything that could fuel a cooking fire. Accessible gardens, likewise, were cut down to the roots.

In Chinese Crackers, his entertaining memoir of the immediate post-war period, British journalist Edward Ward describes the scene of destruction on a walk around abandoned residential areas on The Peak in 1945: 'Out came door frames and doors, windows, mantelpieces, floorboards, joists to be dragged down the hill and sold as fuel.'

By the late 1940s, most local families had shifted to kerosene-burning stoves. Shrewd retailing of kerosene dramatically aided this transformation. Between the wars, the American Standard Vacuum Oil Company had marketed its products - Mei Foo ('beautiful companion') lamps - all over China to saturation point. The company kept fuel prices so low that, eventually, kerosene was readily available in even the smallest inland villages. In post-war Hong Kong, steadily rising wages made kerosene an affordable daily necessity and before long, the hillside grass-cutters disappeared as demand for their wares drastically declined.

These days, most firewood ends up as charcoal, generally used for barbecues or the manufacture of certain roasted meats and Chinese pastries; that distinctive charcoal flavour adds an extra taste (and price) dimension to the finished product.

Cheaper appliances, such as Japanese-made electric rice-cookers, also accelerated the shift away from firewood in the 1950s.