School will chop down tree despite protests

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 06 February, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 06 February, 2010, 12:00am

A 70-year-old pine tree on the campus of Maryknoll Convent School will be chopped down today after the school said yesterday that conservation measures were impractical.

The school's tearful supervisor, Helen Yu Lai Ching-ping, refused to say whether contractors who had been doing drainage work on the site had been told to protect the tree, or who should be held responsible for damage caused during the work.

She said accusations by former pupils of a lack of transparency on the issue were unfair as alumni and pupils had been informed by e-mail last year that the tree had to be felled.

A law firm wrote to the school on be half of some alumni yesterday demanding the school save the tree as it is protected by the Antiquities and Monuments Ordinance. Some alumni and former legislator Tanya Chan said they would not rule out legal action to stop the removal.

The school's principal, Josephine Lo, speaking about the controversy for the first time, said meetings had been held with the contractor and the Antiquities and Monuments Office to discuss how the drainage work should proceed.

Yu said the school had already obtained approval from the office for the tree felling, saying it was a 'painful decision'.

'I completed my Form Five studies here in 1960. This year is my 50th anniversary ... I also love the tree, I hope we can be treated fairly.'

In a letter to Chan last year, the Development Bureau said any work, including tree conservation measures on the monument site should gain approval from the antiquities authority, Secretary for Development Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor.

A spokeswoman for the Development Bureau said yesterday a general approval obtained from the monuments office allowed emergency work that did not affect monument buildings but the owner must inform the office before the work or within 48 hours after the work was completed.

The spokeswoman did not say whether the authority had given approval for the tree to be cut down but she said it was not a heritage item, although it is on a monument site.

The bureau released two reports by two teams of tree consultants yesterday. They were hired by the school to inspect the tree after half of its roots were damaged by the drainage work last year. One of the consultants said in the report that the root damage had reduced the tree's strength. Although both reports said the tree could threaten public safety, alternatives were proposed to save it, including using cables to secure it and reducing its size.

Yu said the alternatives were not feasible as such work might damage buildings and affect the tree's health.

Old pupils were split into two camps. While some had collected more than a thousand signatures from pupils, alumni and the public in the space of three hours yesterday, others said they valued public safety above tree conservation.

A number of pupils walked to the school entrance during their break yesterday to sign a petition to save the tree. Some posted their views on the school's wall, saying things like: 'How could this happen? No consultation. No Respect. Keep our pine tree.' The statements were later removed by the school.

One former pupil, Annie Woon, said she had heard that no one was allowed to visit the school site unless they had approval from the principal.

She handed in a petition with about 1,500 signatures.

The school said parents were concerned about their children's safety and they had received a public complaint about the tree posing a danger to passers-by in October 2008.

Jim Chi-yung, a tree specialist at the University of Hong Kong, said: 'Perhaps we should ask why the tree is being felled when various government departments pledged to protect it last year? It is a challenge to the authorities.'

He believed the tree could be transplanted, a process that usually required removing half of the roots. He said the tree could then survive with proper care.

The chairman of the Antiquities Advisory Board, Bernard Chan, said the board would look at the need to preserve the natural landscape at a monument site. 'Cultural heritage should not be confined to architectural structures,' he said.

On Thursday, Yu said wood from the trunk would be used to build furniture for the school and the smaller branches would be turned into souvenirs. A new tree would be planted on the campus on 'worldwide reunion day' on February 19 to mark the school's 85th anniversary, she said.