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Accidents and personal safety in Hong Kong

A dead Indonesian woman, a sick Indian rubber tree, and the two closely linked Hong Kong companies handed multimillion-dollar deals to care for it

Post investigation raises questions about relationship between City Landscaping and C.K. Garden, the two firms responsible for maintaining branch that fell and killed domestic helper Jumiati Supadi

PUBLISHED : Monday, 27 August, 2018, 9:33am
UPDATED : Monday, 27 August, 2018, 4:35pm

Two companies separately awarded multimillion-dollar contracts to maintain trees in a public housing estate where a branch fell and killed a domestic helper last week are closely connected, while doubts have been raised as to whether one of the firms is even qualified to carry out the work, a Post investigation has discovered.

The owners of City Landscaping Company, which is responsible for risk assessment, and C.K. Garden Company, which is tasked with pruning, share the same residential address, set up companies together, and are involved in the same property transactions.

However, under the Housing Authority’s tendering conditions for contracts for tree remedial work and tree risk assessment, the contractor shall not be the same for both in the same region.

In the case of the trees at Shun Lee Estate in Sau Mau Ping, where Jumiati Supadi was hit by a 30kg branch from an Indian rubber tree, the companies involved in the maintenance of some 21,000 trees are closely linked.

C.K. Garden is also not on the authority’s approved list of soft landscape contractors, and a tree expert who observed their work said the firm was either “irresponsibly fast, or they just don’t have the knowledge or skills”.

The Post visited the flat in the Grand Del Sol estate in Yuen Long, which is listed as the address for Chui Chun-hung, the sole shareholder and director of City Landscaping, and Miranda Leung Yuen-yee, the sole director and shareholder of C.K. Garden.

A young man who answered the door initially confirmed the pair lived there, but said they were out. He then denied knowing them when the Post reporter identified herself, before slamming the door. Emails and calls to City Landscaping went unanswered.

Victor Man Kwok-hing, the firm’s director who co-owns another tree management firm with Chui, told the Post the company observed the authority’s guidelines, but refused to comment on whether there was a conflict of interest.

Until September this year, when his term ends, Man is also chairman of the government’s Arboriculture and Horticulture Industry Training Advisory Committee.

City Landscaping and C.K. Garden were both awarded two-year tenders in 2017 to take care of 21,000 trees in Kowloon East. C.K. Garden won the bid from the authority at HK$4.94 million (US$629,000), according to the authority’s financial document.

Documents from company and land searches show that Chui and Leung run at least three companies together.

In 2011, Leung’s company Rich International Inc, with Chui as secretary and reserve director, bought the flat in Yuen Long. In 2017, Leung bought another unit in the same private estate from City Landscaping for HK$6 million.

It is not the first time Chui and Leung have won tenders from the authority, and their companies have been major players in the past. In 2013, five out of seven two-year contracts for tree assessment and remedial work, worth a total of HK$14.9 million, were won by the pair and another company, Gaia Tree Management, which Chui co-owned with Man.

Death of Indonesian helper highlights poor tree management, experts say

Responding to questions from the Post, a spokeswoman for the authority could not say why some contractors that had won tenders were not on its list, but emphasised that the contracts were awarded through open tenders. She made no mention of companies tasked with carrying out the work.

The spokeswoman reiterated that it would investigate the branch failure and come up with preliminary results in two weeks. “We wish to focus our ­effort on the preparation work and are not able to release further details at this stage,” she said.

In contrast to the authority, guidelines issued by the Leisure and Cultural Services Department are more stringent, requiring the inspection service tenderer to “declare its actual, potential or perceived interest with the contractor of tree remedial works in providing services in respective tree groups”.

The helper’s death was the fifth tree-related fatality in the city in 10 years, and questions have been raised about why City Landscaping twice failed to identify acute problems with the tree over the past eight months.

Lam Tak-chak, who trains arborists for the Vocational Training Council, said contractors are paid more when a tree needs urgent treatment.

“This may explain why some contractors do not sound out the trees’ problems earlier,” he said.

According to the authority, City Landscaping carried out an annual tree risk assessment for Shun Lee estate in January, and found the tree in question to be normal. In May, the authority arranged another contractor to review the trees in the estate, and it identified three, including the rubber tree, that needed further review.

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In June, City Landscaping assessed the tree and again did not identify problems justifying immediate action. It only proposed some remedial work be taken in the next two months.

On August 6, the authority asked C.K. Garden to carry out the works recommended by City Landscaping before August 24. Jumiati was killed on August 21.

Jim Chi-yung, a tree expert and geography professor at The Education University of Hong Kong, was shocked when watching C.K. Garden workers cut big branches from the tree after the accident, as they were making cuts that would cause “the remaining branches to rot”.

“Either it’s because they just want to be irresponsibly fast, or they just don’t have the knowledge or skills,” he said.

Jim believes the loophole in the tendering process allowing closely related companies to bid for contracts needs to be closed.

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“The authority outsourced the tree risk assessment and tree remedial works separately, but if it doesn’t ban closely related companies from bidding the two tenders, it will defeat its original purpose.”

He also said the need for a stringent certification system is something he had been asking for, for 20 years.

“Every time we talk about the same thing when people die from tree accidents, but there is no progress afterwards,” Jim said.