During Hong Kong’s cool, dry autumn and early winter, many residents’ thoughts turn to hiking. Appreciation of the territory’s outstanding scenic beauty and abundant hillside trails is not a recent phenomenon; recreational tramping in Hong Kong’s marvellous, almost wild countryside has been popular since the colony was established.
From the 19th century onwards, travel accounts, memoirs and multidisciplinary works have extolled Hong Kong’s readily accessible open spaces. Hiking guides first appeared several decades ago. Among the earliest was G.S.P. Heywood’s Rambles in Hong Kong, published by the South China Morning Post in 1938. Charmingly written, with delightful line sketches, Heywood’s book radiates satisfaction with the healthy enjoyments found only a short distance from what was – even then, with less than a seventh of today’s population – considered to be an overcrowded, polluted, stressful city.
More substantial and erudite, but still accessibly written, is Geoffrey Herklots’ The Hong Kong Countryside. First published (also by the SCMP) in 1951, this volume draws upon earlier work culled from pre-war journal The Hong Kong Naturalist, which Herklots founded in 1930 with other nature enthusiasts.
A professional botanist, Herklots was a keen observer of Hong Kong’s countryside and the plant species found within it. Specialised knowledge came in handy when he was interned in Stanley Camp during the Japanese occupation. Some of the practical uses local plants were put to by civilian internees, such as brewing potent alcoholic “hooch” from wild ginger roots and making “rabbit tobacco” from various leaves, are detailed in this volume.
From the late 1950s until the 90s, general publications that mention Hong Kong’s natural world are sparse; it is as though the pressures of development during those overcrowded decades made any popular appreciation of nature seem of little consequence. These decades witnessed Hong Kong’s industrial take-off, when pollution and despoliation were both normal and seemingly unstoppable. And for most people, the constant desperate scrabble for a bare existence today, combined with some hope for a better tomorrow, completely dominated their lives. Ecological concerns – such as heritage issues – were unaffordable luxuries.
Greater awareness of environmental issues really only developed in Hong Kong in the late 80s, with the rise of a broad civic consciousness that accompanied the city’s rapid transition into today’s post-industrial society. Concerns about breathable air, clean water, uncontaminated food and other “quality of life” issues began to be more seriously discussed as community, rather than minority, concerns.
As awareness of environmental issues has evolved, the number of related publications has dramatically increased. In the same way that Hong Kong’s property conglomerates have cynically clambered upon the heritage bandwagon in recent years, developers’ nods to nature and greenery help create a public perception, however illusory, that these nakedly money-making construction machines are – at heart – sensitive, fundamentally good corporate citizens with a tender regard for the well-being of our natural world.
Predictably, photographic heritage works produced in association with property developers harp gently upon fuzzy concepts like “nature” rather than explore threatened ecology and potentially controversial conservation issues. Artistic photographs of mottled leaves, flowing streams, soaring birds and distant city and mountain vistas are “safe” subjects. But frogs, spiders and other stream life – however artistically rendered – are too close to “creepy-crawly” for comfort, and are conspicuous by their absence.
For more on Hong Kong history and heritage, go to scmp.com/topics/old-hong-kong