Photographic evidence from the mid-19th century until well into the 1950s amply demonstrates that Hong Kong’s hillsides were mostly badly eroded and bare of vegetation. From this visual evidence, and numerous descriptions left behind in period memoirs and travel accounts, one can see where the early “barren rock” description originated. But how did Hong Kong’s mountainsides become so denuded?

Extensive deforestation around the eastern side of the Pearl River estuary accelerated from the mid- 19th century. Long grasses took the place of trees stripped away for firewood and not replanted, and by the 1820s, the mostly granite islands around the eastern side of the delta, including Hong Kong, were barren rocks. And as cordwood became depleted, coarse grass itself was gathered as a supplementary fuel.

The main grass harvested was thick, heavy-stemmed Imperata cylindrica, commonly known as cogon grass. Known in the Malayspeaking world as “lalang” and in Australia as “blady grass”, the name is painfully appropriate as the leaves have sharp edges and slash into exposed skin easily. To prevent being badly scratched, grass-cutters wore woven split bamboo or rattan gauntlets on their arms. Examples can be seen in local ethnographic museums, such as Sam Tung Uk, in Tsuen Wan.

Grass-cutters – mostly women – were once one of rural Hong Kong’s commonest sights, especially in the New Territories. Many were Hakka; from the mid-17th century, Hakka settlers colonised the rocky, mountainous areas left uninhabited by earlier Cantonese migrants, who preferred the more readily arable lowland areas. Sai Kung, Tsuen Wan and other mountainous districts had extensive Hakka-majority populations. Bundles of grass sticks offered for sale in New Territories markets were commonplace, as was the sight of people trudging down remote hillside paths almost completely obscured by massive bundles of freshly cut grass.

Once gathered, grass stems were twisted and knotted into thick “sticks”, which were then sun-dried and used for cooking fuel. Faster burning than other solid fuels, such as wood or charcoal, grass sticks were nevertheless better than nothing, and best of all, grass could be gathered for free. That cogon tends to burn quickly – even when apparently green – partly accounts for the rapid spread of hill fires in those parts of Hong Kong where this grass is most prevalent.

Grass flares were seasonally used by local fishermen, and other boat dwellers, to bream their boats. This scorching process was essential to kill marine parasites before they could bore into the vessel’s submerged timbers, and was a once-common sight along Hong Kong’s more remote beaches, particularly along the south Lantau coast.

With the widespread introduction of affordable fossil fuels, such as inexpensive, cleanerburning locally refined kerosene, in the late 1940s and the eventual popularisation of bottled LPG, the market for grass sticks steadily declined. In addition, the availability of factory jobs from the early 50s onwards meant that younger people from more accessible New Territories villages tended to become absorbed into paid employment in urban areas. Without spare time to gather fuel, and possessed of a reliable income, which allowed the regular purchase of fossil fuels, domestic use of grass-stick fuel steadily declined.

Nevertheless, grass cutting remained widespread in remote parts of the New Territories well into the 70s. Older villagers continued to gather their own fuel – after all, why pay for kerosene if they didn’t need to? – but as that generation gradually passed on, the practice died out with them.

For more on Hong Kong history and heritage, go to scmp.com/topics/old-hong-kong