Tracing roots

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 22 January, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 22 January, 2012, 12:00am


Cemeteries all over the world - including those in Hong Kong - are distinguished by the type of trees planted within them. Often the predominant species offer intriguing links to earlier times.

Yew trees (Taxus baccata) have been a common cemetery species in England since the Middle Ages. Essential for making bows - the main weapon in those times - yews were also poisonous to cattle. As churchyards were enclosed by stone walls, which kept the animals out of harm's way, they were safe places to grow them. By the end of the 16th century, longbows had been replaced by firearms. Yew trees had become associated with graveyards and their earlier practical importance was eventually forgotten.

A common example in this part of the world is the yellow-and-white frangipani (Plumeria rubra). This fragrant-flowered tree is planted extensively in Muslim graveyards throughout Southeast Asia. Frangipani sap is mildly poisonous and in former times was used for blowpipes, and as a stunning agent in fish and animal traps. For this reason it was kept away from children and animals, and grown in cemeteries instead.

Planting this tree in graveyards was one of the many cultural legacies the Portuguese brought with them from Malacca to Macau in the 17th century. Eventually the practice spread to Hong Kong. The Roman Catholic Cemetery in Happy Valley, where many early local Portuguese lie buried, contains some of the city's oldest frangipani trees. The Cantonese name for this tree - sei yun fah ('dead person's flower') - evolved due to its presence in cemeteries. It is also commonly known as gai daan fah ('chicken egg flower') due to the white and yellow petals which - with some poetic imagination - can resemble a fried egg, sunny-side up.

Frangipanis are also planted in cemeteries in other parts of the tropics. In the South Pacific, frangipanis were introduced by 19th-century Christian missionaries. As the trees lose their leaves in the cooler, drier months and then return to lush greenery and flower with the return of heat and rains, they are used to symbolise the Biblical resurrection myths.

Pine trees and conifers are popular in Chinese cemeteries, as they symbolise endurance and winter - common symbolic metaphors for old age and death. Like frangipani, these species are extremely hardy and survive well in marginal soils - such as those in cemeteries - with little or no care and attention.

In some parts of the New Territories, grave mounds are planted with semi-circular copses of pines, or surrounded with ragged-looking potted specimens, to deflect dook hei ('poisonous vibes') given off by nearby graves. Apartments located near graveyards, such as those around Pok Fu Lam and on the hills overlooking Happy Valley, frequently feature these trees among the fung shui details.

Other trees were planted in graveyards for more prac- tical purposes.

Happy Valley's Colonial Cemetery was, for decades, a noted beauty spot. Attractive garden cemeteries were a common feature in 19th-century cities from Glasgow to Singapore, and Hong Kong was no exception. But in the local manner, practicality combined with a sense of aesthetics prevailed in arboricultural matters.

The Colonial Cemetery came under the administration of the Botanical Department and was operated as an extension of the Botanical Gardens. Numerous species were introduced here on an experimental basis. Some were intended for hillside reforestation while others were tested for possible commercial applications. Cook pines (Araucaria columnaris) would be used to make ship masts and spars, and rattan vines (Berchemia scandens) would be grown for furniture manufacture and as a non-aromatic packing material for tea chests. All can still be seen growing in the cemetery today.

Cloyingly sweet, frangipani's distinctive scent - especially powerful at night - has long been associated in the Malay world with pontianak ('vampires') and other malevolent ghosts.