How a tangerine tree changed farming in Hong Kong forever

The Kadoorie Farm and Botanic Garden near Tai Po celebrates six decades of supporting the local environment

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 11 June, 2016, 10:02am
UPDATED : Saturday, 11 June, 2016, 11:47am

It began with a tangerine tree.

Sir Horace Kadoorie, an Iraqi Jewish philanthropist, was ambling through the hills of Tai Mo Shan when he stumbled across the fateful plant. Agriculturalists previously thought humid conditions meant citrus trees could not grow in the region – but Sir Horace’s discovery inspired him to uncover the land’s potential.

Fast forward some six decades to 2016, and what was once just 148 hectares of barren land, is now an ecological haven where Hongkongers can escape the sometimes oppressive hustle and bustle of the city. The Kadoorie Farm and Botanic Garden (KFBG), perhaps one of Hong Kong’s least publicised success stories, is celebrating its 60th birthday.

In that time, its raison d’être has shifted from the rearing of livestock and crop cultivation, to ecological conservation and promoting sustainability.

As part of a year of anniversary events, the garden will be featured in a six-part documentary series that it hopes will be screened internationally, an achievement which its founders surely would have found inconceivable.

“They were visionary – this site was a barren hillside when they came here,” Andy Brown, KFBG’s executive director, said. “It really was an ecological desert … but they could see the potential.”

Today’s visitors may find it difficult to picture the farm’s early days when exploring its lush forests and preened gardens. Back in 1951, Sir Horace, along with his brother Lord Lawrence and partners Norman Wright and Woo Ting Sang, founded the Kadoorie Agricultural Aid Association, providing training and loans for local farmers.

Supported by the Hong Kong government, they also helped more than 300,000 Chinese refugees, who had fled the mainland following the Chinese Civil War, to become self-sufficient farmers in Hong Kong.

What had started as a pipe dream quickly became a successful business model that revitalised the New Territories after the second world war. The co-operative’s motto was “Helping People Help Themselves” – a progressive approach even by today’s standards.

“The Kadoorie brothers were just very kind people,” Brown said. “They took a personal interest in the real lives of people in Hong Kong. Today thousands of families can trace back to that time when they received a little bit of help from the Kadoories.”

It wasn’t until the early 1960s that the farm’s botanical garden was added to the site. KFBG is now listed in the world’s top 20 botanical gardens by Botanic Gardens Conservation International. Towards the end of the decade, Gurkha soldiers based in Shek Kong with the British army were trained in farming techniques to enable them to find work when they returned home to Nepal. This generosity continued into the 1970s, when the Kadoorie association helped build and repair more than 4,000 homes for local villagers who were finding it difficult to settle.

But by the 1980s, the farm had stopped supplying pigs and poultry to local farmers due to the shrinking of agricultural activity in Hong Kong. This trend has continued, with the region becoming increasingly reliant on produce from the mainland.

Controversial government plans to build on Hong Kong’s remaining farmland would be a “major mistake”, Brown said.

Proposed developments, such as the commercialisation of Lantau Island, could have a devastating impact on the region’s environment. Politicians were also falling short in terms of their commitment to international biodiversity conventions, he said.

“We are very concerned by what seems to be a desire to build on the remaining farmland.

“We think that would be a major mistake that would be regretted in the future. The government has a duty to protect farmland, but they want to cover it in cement. There is a great shortfall on what the government is doing on biodiversity. [Hong Kong is] getting left behind.”

Brown also warned the current rate of consumption in Hong Kong was unsustainable and that growing food locally was essential for its long-term ecological health.

“I don’t think anyone knew back then how climate change was going to affect us and how the world’s population was going to grow. This is a huge problem. We are looking for a tipping point, where you get so many people who are passionate about conserving nature … that the society can change. We are part of a worldwide movement. The way things are going, the human race seems to be in a race to the bottom.”

There’s a lot of stress in life today, especially in Hong Kong, and at the farm we offer some special peace and beauty, which can be de-stressing
Andy Brown, KFBG executive director

Nowadays, KFBG serves as a conservation centre for its animals, many of which are endangered. Wild boar, barking deer, porcupines, leopard cats, alligators, pigs and civets are among the species it protects. Some of the farm’s former animal huts have now become hubs for educational activity, teaching the public about the environment and eco-friendly lifestyles. KFBG attracts a steady stream of between 3,000 to 5,000 visitors a week – a figure that those in charge would like to maintain rather than boost in order to preserve the site.

It is also home to a fruit forest, as if in homage to its founder’s original discovery.

“There’s a lot of stress in life today, especially in Hong Kong, and at the farm we offer some special peace and beauty, which can be de-stressing,” Brown said. “It is very important to reconnect with nature. We get sucked into chasing money and targets. Here is a place where people can come and relax … that’s why [visitors] keep coming back year after year.”

For more information on the 60th anniversary events, visit http://www.kfbg.org/eng/60th-anniversary.aspx.