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Hong Kong environmental issues

Film on two 80-year-old banyan trees cut down in Hong Kong reveals roots of affection run deep

Recording what they saw of the contentious tree removals, the young artists explore how a community fights against authorities for something it values

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 07 July, 2018, 5:01pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 07 July, 2018, 5:26pm

A magnificent banyan sits on a grassy hillside, as dozens of local villagers, children and adults alike, unite, prepared to guard it with their bare hands. The tree is shaken, shot by a gun, and finally set on fire by ruthless developers wearing robot-like gas masks.

The banyan appears in the dreamy memory of villagers, its leaves sparkling and children climbing all over its limbs. The image contrasts sharply with looming construction sites and bulky vehicles situated on the other side of the hill.

The scenes appear in a short animated film called Green Earth, produced last year by Rebecca Ko Wing-sze, 27, and Angela Wong Sui-ki, 25. The work amounts to an exploration of tree preservation and urban planning in Hong Kong.

“By making this film, we looked at how a community fights against authorities for something it believes in and values,” Wong says.

“In a sense, it’s never always about one tree.”

Hong Kong, a city renowned for its concrete jungle, has recently seen controversies erupt over government decisions to remove decades-old trees in old neighbourhoods.

In May, two 80-year-old banyan trees in Sai Ying Pun were chopped down for their “high risk of collapse”, according to a Lands Department report. Both local residents and lawmakers protested.

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Keen to “witness” the events, Ko and Wong visited the scene of the removal and began sketching what they saw.

“People against it would get really emotional, saying the trees had a spirit and that those who cut them down had blood on their hands,” Ko recalls. “But then there were also people agreeing that removing them was necessary for safety reasons.”

“When I heard the different voices, I understood there was a picture that had not been presented.”

What was missing at the scene, she believes, was a dialogue between the conflicting parties, noting: “I only saw people yelling at each other, and there was no communicating.”

Wong says some construction workers in charge of removing the trees approached them after seeing them sketching.

“They showed appreciation and curiosity for our drawings, and then complained that they were misunderstood,” she adds.

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“At that moment I realised what art can do: connect people and open a space for conversation.”

Spending two years working on the film, the two young artists travelled across the city to draw glimpses of nature. They also spent time talking to local residents.

At that moment I realised what art can do: connect people and open a space for conversation
Angela Wong Sui-ki, artist and filmmaker

“In Hong Kong it’s very special in that it’s never just the city versus nature,” Wong explains. “Nature has always been part of a childhood and daily life.”

“What fascinates me is that there are so much emotions and relationships embodied in just a tree.”

For Ko, her interest in the city’s old trees deepened when she learned several years ago about nature-worshipping culture in Japan. Later she came to understand a tradition among some villagers in a New Territories community devoted to nurturing a “feng shui tree”.

“It’s really what their lives are centred around,” Ko says of the tradition.

For her, the sketching outings and film project comprised parts of “a personal journey of questioning”.

“We are more artists than activists,” Ko says. “I myself am still trying to understand why city planning is the way it is now in Hong Kong and why is it so hard for people with power to change.”

Yet the issues the two explored show no signs of abating in the city.

In what looks poised to be a new flashpoint, 37 trees along the Yuen Long Town Nullah are expected to be uprooted as soon as construction of a new footbridge in the area kicks off, according to the Highways Department. The total costs of the project are now being discussed.