Jim Chi-yung normally walks with a steady, deliberate pace, but on the grey afternoon of February 4th, he broke into an uncharacteristic sprint, running from his office at the University of Hong Kong to a friend’s waiting car. He was heading to Maryknoll Convent School in Kowloon Tong, where the future of a tree was at stake.
Last year, Maryknoll had a decided to chop down a 20-metre-tall Norfolk Island Pine that leaned to the north and seeped resin from its trunk, giving the eerie impression that it was crying. The schoolgirls called it the Ghost Pine. Since it was planted in the late 1930s, it had become an emblem of Maryknoll, which is one of Hong Kong’s most prestigious private girls’ schools. The decision to fell the tree was met with a furious response from Maryknoll’s network of well-connected alumni, who called Jim for help. He helped publicize the case and after a flurry of media attention, the school backed off.
But in January, a crew of contractors dug a trench around the pine and severed most of its roots. The school declared that the tree could not be saved. Its felling was scheduled for February 5th. When he arrived on the afternoon of the 4th, he asked to look at the tree, but the school’s administrators refused. He looked worried. “Like a doctor who will use every effort trying to save a patient, immediate stabilization work can be imposed on the trunk instead of cutting the tree immediately,” he told reporters.
An hour earlier, Jim had been sitting in his office on the third floor of Hui Oi Chow Science Building, at a desk piled high with paper and books. Bespectacled and dressed in grey trousers, a finely-pressed pinstripe shirt and a navy cardigan, he looked the part of a professor. A leaf print adorned his burgundy tie.
Jim is Hong Kong’s leading tree expert and such a prominent advocate for tree conservation that he is known by many people in Hong Kong simply as the “Tree Professor.” Along with an increasingly high public profile, his work has earned him the unique role of a government watchdog whose advice and opinions are often sought — but not always welcomed — by those in power. He’s probably one of the busiest men in Hong Kong academia, working 14 hours a day, sometimes seven days a week. But the long hours of his work don’t seem to have taken much of a toll, and Jim looks a fair bit younger than his 56 years.
Those youthful features belie the energy with which Jim approaches his duties. He publishes frequently and widely — 15 papers and two monographs in the past two years alone, on topics like the effect of greenery on residential property values and exactly how much air pollution is removed by trees. But his work extends far beyond research and publication. The list on Jim’s website of publications, committee memberships and recognitions is at least twice as long as any of his colleagues. Arranging to meet Jim is a difficult task — his days are invariably packed with committee meetings and field visits.
“A typical day is all sorts of things,” says Jim, who speaks in a softly emphatic way, drawing listeners in. He deals with university administrative matters, advises the government on urban greenery and is a member of the Ocean Park board. He teaches an undergraduate geography course each semester and regularly updates his lecture notes. When he has the time, he meets with his research team — six Ph.D students and two post-doctoral fellows — and sits down to write papers.
“I used to work on Sundays,” he adds, “but lately I’m trying to take at least a half-day off.” He looks around at the piles of papers in his office, which is packed with photos of colleagues, red Chinese charms and hundreds, perhaps thousands, of books. “I find my office very disorganized. I try to tidy up once a year, during the summer, but during the past two summer holidays I couldn’t find the time.”
Jim owes his packed schedule to a kind of metamorphosis he underwent in the 1990s. He had spent years doing regular surveys of Hong Kong’s urban trees and realized that many of them were disappearing or being damaged. He decided to speak up to raise awareness for tree conservation. “I find that as the city has become more prosperous, the living environment has become worse, and there has been a decline in its so-called livability,” he says. “I grew up in this city, I love this city and I want this city to become better and better for its people. There are ways to make our city greener and more livable.”
Dr. Ng Cho-nam, a professor of geography at the University of Hong Kong and the director of the Conservancy Association, an environmental advocacy group, has known Jim since the early 1990s. Originally, he says, Jim kept a low profile, quietly conducting his research and writing papers. Now he’s the face of Hong Kong tree conservation. “Personally, I welcome that. Professor Jim obviously loves trees. If he was a pure academic, he’ll just write papers. But he’s too passionate for that.”
Jim calls it “just a natural expansion of what I have been doing so far.” Part of his strategy is to use the mass media to promote awareness of trees. Few newspaper stories about trees run without a quote from Jim. Several years ago, he tried to stop the Highways Department from removing banyan trees growing out of old stone walls around the Mid-Levels. When the work continued despite his pleas, he called reporters. After their stories appeared in the press, the work stopped.
“Previously, if reporters called me I tried to shun them, but then I thought that as an academic it is my social responsibility to make my city a better place to live,” he says. “You can’t just hide in the ivory tower. You have a duty to share your knowledge and experience with others.”
Chinese banyan roots at Wan Chai temple
When Jim was born in 1953, the fifth of six children, tens of thousands of refugees were pouring into Hong Kong every month, and the population swelled from 1.5 million to 2.2 million in just a few years. Jim’s parents were among them, fleeing Shanghai after the Communists won the civil war in 1949. They settled in a tong lau on the slopes of North Point, which at the time was home to a thriving community of Shanghainese immigrants. Jim’s family spoke Shanghainese at home — “everyone around us, my parents, our aunts and uncles and all their friends, they were all from Shanghai,” says Jim — but he has lost much of his ability to speak it.
What has stuck with him is the memory of his first contact with nature. If he took the footpaths that wound their way up the hill behind his family’s flat, Jim could reach the Braemer Hill Reservoir in 30 minutes. “That part of North Point was still a backwater, so there wasn’t much development,” he says. In the 1960s, when he was still in school, he would spend days on the hill with his friends, collecting dead wood and chopping it up to make a fire. They couldn’t afford to buy chicken or steak, so they’d cook sweet potato instead. “We’d spend the whole day up there. Afterwards, when I was older, I never had time to go back.”
Jim spent his school years at St. Paul’s College, an Anglican boys’ school located across Bonham Road from the University of Hong Kong. At the time, students were streamed into either arts or science concentrations, and Jim recalls that there was considerable pressure from parents to study science. “Being pragmatic Chinese, parents push the better students towards the science class, and they consider the arts class to be inferior. If people know you are an art student, people think you’re the lesser student in terms of academic achievement, or intelligence, for that matter.”
Though he was assigned to the science stream, Jim opted to take arts classes as electives. One of the lasting effects of his early school years was admiration for the English language, which has stuck with him until today. Once, when he was in primary school, an English teacher asked him to read a speech at a school assembly. “He trained me to speak proper English,” he recalls. “I realized that this is a very interesting language. It’s the world language now, so if you want to communicate with people from other countries, you need to speak proper English.” For a curious boy growing up in a British colony, the son of immigrants from a country that had slipped into a self-destructive isolation, English must have seemed like the gateway to an unfathomably vast world of knowledge.
When he graduated from St. Paul’s in 1971, Jim couldn’t afford to study overseas, so he set his sights across Bonham Road, at the University of Hong Kong. At the time, it was still a small, exclusive school, with about 2,000 students. Originally, he wanted to study geography and biology, but in those days a double concentration was not allowed, so he settled with geography. “I liked how it combined the natural with the human,” Jim says. He became close with his geography classmates and they stuck together most of the time, taking trips to the countryside, playing badminton and soccer, and chatting for hours about “everything under the sun” next to the Lily Pond at the centre of campus.
At the end of his undergraduate studies, Jim won a Commonwealth Scholarship to study soil science (“a very unpopular subject at the time”) at the University of Reading in England. “Studying in the UK was really an eye opener,” he says. It was only his second trip outside of Hong Kong — the first was an undergraduate field trip to Thailand in 1974 — and Jim remembers thinking that the flight was far too long and far too smoky (passengers were still allowed to smoke on planes in those days). After arriving, it didn’t take him long to acclimatize; by the end of the first year, he was wearing t-shirts in 20 degree weather, “just like the British people.” He was nearly an expert at fixing his bicycle’s tires, too, since they would be punctured by curbside broken bottles at least once a week.
“I love British towns and cities, as they preserve their cultural and natural heritage very well,” says Jim, but Hong Kong was calling him back. The Commonwealth Scholarship required students to return to their home countries for at least a year after graduation, but many of Jim’s classmates at Reading broke their pledges and stayed overseas. Jim was offered several jobs in Ireland, the United States and Australia, “but I wanted to come back,” he says. “I love Hong Kong. It’s very exciting. It’s full of challenges because it’s very compact and more intense than the UK, where there isn’t the same intensity of human interaction.”
Jim took up a post at the University of Hong Kong’s geography department in 1981. His former teachers were now his colleagues. “I treated them with great respect as though they were my mentors. [They] gave me freedom and support in both teaching and research endeavours.” But research funding in the early 1980s was, “by the yardstick of a research university, rather abysmal,” and Jim only received a few thousand dollars for each of his projects.
“I was determined to conduct research despite the dearth of resources,” he says, especially since he couldn’t bear the thought of working for decades as little more than a lecturer. As he looked around, he realized that Hong Kong, with its extraordinarily high population density, hot climate and rough landscape, was the perfect place to study the relationship between nature and the city. “I had to struggle, improvise and steer my research interest away from topics that demanded more than a modest amount of grants,” he says, so he ventured out into the city streets to start a survey of Hong Kong trees. “I soon found a niche by substituting funding with perspiration, with lots of laborious field studies instead of costly laboratory analysis.”
Though he was clearly more interested in his research than in teaching, Jim’s passions got the best of him, and his early lectures were involved and excitable. Most of the students weren’t much younger than him, so he treated them “almost like co-learners.” In 1984, he was voted by students to be the university’s best teacher. He made tenure that same year.
“Jim has done very well at merging his academic work with his passion for tree conservation,” says Ng Cho-nam. “That’s why he can maintain both an academic profile and a public profile.” The unpredictable nature of Jim’s work makes it especially difficult. If a tree that Jim has studied is damaged, he needs to be there to inspect it, otherwise it might be chopped down without warning. “You have to put that as your top priority. And Professor Jim puts trees as his top priority. He and his wife don’t have kids, so that might help. If you had a family then you might not be able to spend so many hours on your work, on your passions. But he can afford it.”
Jim met his wife early in his 20s. They were married before he left for England. “In my undergraduate days my classmates were joking that whoever got married first would get a free bed. I’m still trying to claim it,” he says, chuckling softly. “I was the first one to marry in the whole class.” Jim is guarded about his personal life, and though he speaks at length about his work, he is reluctant to go into much depth when asked about his family. He and his wife never had children — “It was just a choice we made,” says Jim — and she asks not to be included in any of the media coverage he receives. The couple live in faculty married quarters, in a flat overlooking the sea at Pok Fu Lam, ten minutes by minibus from the University of Hong Kong’s campus. But Jim is rarely home, and even when he is, he is often working.
Asked what his wife thinks of his dedication to urban nature, he laughs. “I think she has been infected. I think my interest in trees is rather contagious.” They travel frequently together, often to Europe, a continent of which Jim is particularly fond. He lists Berlin, Brussels and Barcelona as his favourite cities for the way they combine rich streetlife with abundant greenery. He seems somewhat less impressed by Asian cities, though he speaks with reverence of the ambitious greening program that has transformed Singapore into one of Asia’s most verdant cities in less than a generation.
Wherever he goes, Jim likes to travel independently. “I hate group travel. I’ve been with one or two tour groups and I hated that so much I told myself, ‘Never again.’ Travelling means freedom. You shouldn’t have to follow group activities, especially if it’s a Hong Kong tour group. Then all they care about is shopping.”
Photography is another interest that, like everything Jim does, ties into his passion for trees. Using a Nikon FM2 film camera, and more recently a D70 digital SLR, Jim has taken more than 60,000 photos of trees around Hong Kong, Europe and Asia. Part of it is for his research — photographing trees is the best way to keep track of their growth, health and how they’re coping with the human activity around them — but also for personal pleasure. “Every tree is an individual,” he says, and each branch, each piece of bark tells the same kinds of stories as a person’s pockmarked skin. “I look at the body language of trees. The tree will tell you whether it’s happy or not, whether it’s in distress or not.”
Jim spends what little spare time he has making site visits around Hong Kong, photographing some of the city’s most significant trees. “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,” says Tanya Chan, a Civic Party representative in the Legislative Council and the Central and Western District Council, who has worked closely with Jim on urban greening programs.
Most people who struggle to finish an eight-hour workday might wonder how Jim summons the energy to do all of this. Jim credits his own interest in urban nature, which has proven to be an inexhaustible mine of knowledge. Nature has always coexisted with human life, often uneasily, and the challenges posed by urban greenery will only grow more important as the world urbanizes at a rapid pace. For the first time in history, more than half of the world’s population lives in cities, most of them in the developing world, where centralized planning is weak and cities grow in a haphazard, organic fashion, which creates endless opportunities to see what unchecked urban growth means for nature.
But Jim’s character certainly plays a part. When asked about him, one of his former Ph.D students, Wendy Chen, simply said, “Without curiosity there would be no scientific findings” — and Jim is nothing if not curious. “I’ve always believed that knowledge should have no artificial boundaries,” Jim says, and his privileged position as a tenured professor has allowed his mind to roam freely. But there are limits, even in academia. Jim deliberately draws from many different disciplines in his research, and more than once he has run into the wall of academic orthodoxy, which insists on specialization to a sometimes absurd extent.
“Knowledge has been compartmentalized excessively,” says Jim. He complains about the narrow-mindedness of some academics, especially those who edit some scholarly journals. “Most journals are disciplinary, and when they receive an interdisciplinary paper, usually they don’t like it. When I write papers, I have to make sure that the disciplinary specialist will accept it. Each paper has to go through a peer review process and the reviewers are very critical.” He recently submitted an paper on green space use in Hong Kong that combined economic and sociological approaches. “But the reviewer asked me to remove all the non-disciplinary aspects, all the sociological parts. It’s very sad.”
Increasingly, it’s also difficult for academics to play a role in public life. University funding is based on research, which is based on results. If you spend too much time working with community organizations or raising public awareness about your work, it’s seen as a waste of time. “It won’t help your promotion,” says Ng. “If you write ten papers, it’ll look better for your career than if you save ten trees, even if your papers are about those trees. The system does not facilitate academics to do what Professor Jim does.”
Over the past several years, Jim has written a number of educational books on Hong Kong’s trees, many of which are published with the support of the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department. One, Chinese Banyan, is probably the definitive guide to banyan trees in Hong Kong. Lately, Jim has been studying magazine features to try to adapt his writing to a general audience, and he is working on some bilingual books that he hopes will help introduce trees to a Chinese-language audience. He’s particularly interested in publishing for children — if Jim’s days on Braemar Hill are any indication, being exposed to nature at an early age can have a lasting impact.
It’s hard to gauge just how much of an influence Jim has had on the Hong Kong public. The Stanley tree collapse in 2008 brought tree conservation to the forefront of public discussion, which gave Jim’s reputation a considerable boost, and helped him spread his message to the public.
His influence might be easier to trace in the back rooms of Hong Kong politics. In 2008, after the incident in Stanley, Tanya Chan called Jim to ask for his views on the matter. “We had a very long discussion, and that’s when I realized the importance of having a tree ordinance in Hong Kong, something that would protect trees by force of law,” she says. The two worked together to draft a bill that would make it illegal to damage trees, including acts like topping, which involves the pruning of a tree’s upper branches to prevent further growth. Although it is widely practiced in Hong Kong, topping can actually cause decay and structural instability, making a tree more prone to collapse in the long run.
Growing up in North Point in the 1970s, Chan says she took trees for granted. She didn’t think much of it at the time, but she now remembers how her grandfather used to go for long walks up Braemar Hill, collecting fruits, leaves and flowers that he would bring back home. Meeting Jim inspired her to use her political position to help advocate for trees. In the records of Legco proceedings on trees, Chan’s name is the one that comes up most frequently, and she has become a bullish supporter of adopting tree management and protection policies that are in line with those in Europe and North America.
Meeting Jim has inspired Chan to become a licenced arborist. Her certifying exam is next October. “Jim warned me that you have a walk a lot and do a lot of site visits, but it’s okay — I’m excited,” she says. “I’ve realized that I need to use my [political] position as a platform to promote tree conservation.”
Hong Kong has only recently made an effort to bring its tree management standards in line with the world’s best practices. Although 80 internationally-licenced arborists work for the Hong Kong government, the most experienced one only obtained his licence in 2005. “Our experts are short on experience and have room for improvement,” said Kathy Ng, the government’s chief landscape architect, at a public forum last year.
An even bigger problem is the fact that responsibility for trees is split between nearly a dozen government departments. The Highways Department deals with trees on slopes and alongside roads, the Lands Department deals with trees on government-owned property, the Development Bureau is responsible for trees on construction sites and so on.
In 2004, the government established the Register of Old and Valuable Trees, which includes 500 trees on public land that are either exceptionally old, large or culturally significant. But the trees on the register have no special protection under the law and there are no safeguards to ensure that they are not damaged by construction or inappropriate pruning. Government workers regularly pour concrete around the base of trees, which strangles their roots and kills them. In 2007, a 200-year-old Chinese banyan in Kowloon Park, nicknamed the “King of Trees,” collapsed after construction workers damaged its roots and then poured concrete on them.
Government officials regularly call Jim to ask for advice about trees. He sits on a number of different committees that advise the government on urban greening, tree management and protection. But Jim’s efforts are not always appreciated. Chan recalls one instance when the Central and Western District Council was discussing a company’s request to move two trees to make room for some ground work. “I suggested we call Professor Jim and ask him for his advice, but one of the other councillors turned to me said, ‘No need leh. Of course he will stop that.’ Some people don’t like him because to dares to say the truth. It’s not easy, what he is doing.”
For his part, Jim takes a dim view of the government’s approach to dealing with trees. “It’s rather lukewarm and half-hearted,” he says. “A lot of the workers who deal with trees are totally unskilled — they’re just given a chainsaw and they climb up to the tops of trees and chop them off. The government says that as long as they don’t fell a tree it’s not criminal. You’re paying a company a handsome sum and they almost kill your tree.”
In one instance, after construction workers severed the roots of a Chinese banyan that had grown on a wall near the University of Hong Kong, causing the tree to collapse, Jim examined the tree and presented his findings to a government committee on greening. The government only prohibits workers from digging in the two metres behind the façade of a stone wall, but many wall trees have roots that extend far beyond that. Jim argued that the policy needed to be changed, to make sure wall tree roots were not inadvertently cut, but after his presentation, the policy remained intact.
“I asked why they refused to change it, and they said they do not believe the roots grow into the soil behind the stone wall,” Jim says. “This is just ridiculous! I have excavated behind stone walls and I have personally pulled out roots from the rib holes of the wall that were thinner than a pencil but measured 12 metres. If such a thin root could measure 12 metres, you can imagine that a larger and sturdier root would have gone 20 or 30 metres behind the stone wall.”
Jim is especially fond of wall trees, which are unique to Hong Kong. He describes them as “cultural and natural heritage combined” for the way they grow out of rough-cut stone retaining walls built before World War II using traditional Hakka technique. Some of the most impressive can be found on Forbes Street, in Kennedy Town, where 22 Chinese banyans grow out of a 12-metre-high stone wall, covering the street in a magnificent green canopy.
On a muggy afternoon last June, Jim took his D70 and paid a visit to the street. He walked right up to the wall, where banyan trees covered the stones like the tentacles of an octopus.
“See what’s happening here?” he asked, touching a root that had been smeared with concrete to prevent it from growing. He looked irritated. “The people who do this, they don’t understand trees, they don’t conduct research, they don’t believe in science. They’re defacing heritage. Imagine doing this to an ancient monument.”
Tree worshipped as a deity, Cheung Chau
On February 6th, in the hours before dawn, Maryknoll’s Ghost Pine was chopped down. It took 30 workers to saw apart the tree and remove the wood. When they made the first cut, Tanya Chan found herself crying, along with the handful of schoolgirls and alumni that had gathered to watch the tree’s final moments.
The news that the Ghost Pine would be felled came as a surprise to everyone who had been involved in the fight to save it the previous summer. “I was having dinner when Professor Jim called about it,” Chan recalls. “I said, ‘No way!’ It was a shock.” Neither of them could get through to the school’s administration, and it wasn’t until the school issued a press released stating that contractors digging a trench for drainage work had cut more than half of the tree’s roots that they realized the implications of what had happened.
Jim is convinced that the school had planned all along to get rid of the tree. Last year, it hired an arborist to evaluate the tree. He conducted a visual assessment and declared that it likely suffered from a termite infestation and could collapse at any time. Other arborists, after drilling into the tree, found it to be in fine health. When Jim laid eyes on the first arborist’s report, says Chan, “he got out a red pen and started marking it up just like a teacher does to his students’ assignments, correcting things and writing comments in the margins. He said to me, ‘If this man was my student, I would probably fail him.’”
On February 19th, two weeks after the Ghost Pine was felled, a new tree was planted in its place. Jim’s bitterness over the situation is still evident. For all the damage he has witnessed through his career, he still takes it to heart when a tree is killed, especially one as significant as the Maryknoll pine. But he’s convinced that history is on his side. Back in his office, he looks around at the books in his shelves, the awards he has received for his work on conservation.
“Attitudes are changing,” he says. “The whole world is trying to learn and take care of nature. Hong Kong is lagging behind, but it’s trying to catch up. We’re going in the right direction. I’m an optimistic and open-minded person. I know I’m going towards the peak of my career, but it can never really be reached, which gives me the drive to keep going. Everyone should strive to reach the peak, but don’t let it be reached.”
A Chinese banyan takes over
The above article was originally published in the April 2010 edition of Muse.
Tags: Education, Hong Kong, Kowloon, Trees, Wall Trees