Tanya Chan is a pro-democracy firebrand. Two months ago, the Civic Party politician resigned her Legislative Council seat to run in a by-election that has been branded a "de facto referendum" on democracy. What few people know is that she's also one of the staunchest defenders of Hong Kong's trees.
Inspired by the University of Hong Kong's renowned tree expert Jim Chi-yung, Chan will be taking an exam this October to gain International Society of Arboriculture certification, which would allow her to join Hong Kong's growing ranks of certified arborists.
There are just 100 arborists in the city, about 80 of which work for the government. But the number has swelled in recent years as more people realize the importance of protecting trees in this most congested of cities.
Tree conservation advocates argue that Hong Kong's government doesn't do enough to protect trees from damage and disease, which has led to a number of landmark trees being killed in recent years.
In one case, Kowloon Park's 200-year-old "King of Banyans" collapsed after government contractors damaged its roots and then poured concrete over them. More recently, the so-called "Ghost Pine" at Maryknoll Convent School was chopped down after contractors severed most of its roots. The school had been wanting to fell the tree since last year but an outcry by students and alumni stopped it from doing so.
Earlier this month, we sat down with Tanya Chan to talk trees.
So why did you decide to become an arborist? That seems like an unusual step for a politician.
I believe that if I become more knowledgeable about trees, I do more to
help them, and I can develop my own views on them more independently.
Trees are our friends. Since trees cannot protect themselves, we need
to do it for them. Especially in Hong Kong, we can see that within a
few years, development has destroyed many trees. People say it's no
problem, because they can just plant new ones. But some trees are
really old and valuable. When I went to Beijing at the end of
September, I saw trees that were 200, 300 years old. They're so pure,
so strong, so reliable. Nature can sometimes destroy trees but it's
human beings who are their biggest enemies.
Did you care much about trees when you were growing up?
When I was young I took trees for granted. I grew up in North Point near Braemar Hill and my grandfather would do morning exercises and walk up to the hill every morning. He would always bring me back some leaves, fruits and flowers. Sometimes I would walk up with him and he would tell me, 'Oh this type of tree, blah, blah, blah,' and of course I wouldn't always listen, but he had a lot of stories about nature and he taught me a lot of things anyway. He gave me my first exposure to nature and how complicated it is.
What happened when you were elected to office?
After I became a district councillor I tried to use that position as a platform to promote more thinking about trees. My district has a lot of wall trees in particular and they are so special to Hong Kong, they have such a long history. I think they're very iconic, so I used one of the committees I was on to organize an activity for students to submit pictures or drawings of wall trees. Professor Jim was invited to evaluate their work. He explained to us that in Hong Kong, the official list of monuments and antiquities doesn't include trees, even though they are part of our heritage. It's a very sad thing.
Professor Jim is a very interesting guy. I've met him several times on the streets during the holidays, camera around his neck, very excited to be out taking photos of trees. He does a lot of site visits on weekends and in the summer, taking a lot of time to update his database of trees. It's with his encouragement that I'm going to take the arborist examination this year, hopefully in October. I've got a lot of books I need to read and the most important part is I need to learn to read the trees. Professor Jim warned me that you need to walk a lot and do a lot of site visits.
Trees can actually send us messages if we care enough to look at them. For example, if some types of trees are sick and going to die, they will grow flowers because they want to spread as many seeds as possible to ensure the survival of their species. Sometimes if a tree is not getting enough sunlight, it will grow smaller trees from the trunk, to try to grow in different directions to find sunlight. Just by looking at a tree we can see whether it is growing properly, if it is getting enough nutrients, if it has been hurt by something or other.
How would you describe the way the Hong Kong government deals with trees?
It's very old-fashioned. I don't think they treat trees as something alive. They treat them as objects. The most important point made by the judge who looked into the lady's death [after the Stanley tree collapse in August 2008] was that there should be a unified office to look after trees in Hong Kong. There's a new department in charge of trees that just started operating this month, but they're still searching for a head. This is a step in the right direction, but they still haven't done anything to resolve the fact that different departments have their own guidelines and their own ways of dealing with trees.
What's the most outrageous example of tree mistreatment you've seen?
The Maryknoll Ghost Pine. It's absolutely unacceptable. It's supposed to be protected by the Antiquities and Monuments Ordinance but it's still being chopped to pieces after being damaged by negligence during so-called drainage works. It looks deliberate. 50 percent of the roots were cut, but one side of a tree only has 20 to 30 percent of the roots. How did they manage to cut more than that? I was there when they chopped the tree and so were a lot of schoolgirls and old girls. They cried when they made the first cut. I cried myself.
What's your favourite kind of tree in Hong Kong?
Cotton trees. In this weather, in the springtime, they're full of red flowers and it's so beautiful. Those flowers are what my grandpa used to bring home to me when I was young.