November 11th, 2012

Meet the Fig Tree

Posted in Asia Pacific, Environment, Heritage and Preservation by Christopher DeWolf

It’s a fun exercise to think of how long it would take for reclaim our cities if humanity were to disappear overnight. How many months until Dubai is returned to the desert? How many hurricanes until New Orleans becomes part of the Gulf?

Here in Hong Kong, nature’s plan is well underway. In a city entombed in concrete, it’s easy to forget just how fertile the surrounding land is, until you remember that this is a place where century-old banyan trees grow from the cracks in stone walls. The same scenario occurs in many smaller instances: tile roofs taken over by grass; shrubs sprouting from broken drainpipes.

There’s a particularly derelict building at 23 Temple Street. After a similarly-aged building in Hung Hom collapsed two years ago, emergency scaffolding was installed to hoist up its concrete balconies and it has been there ever since. But there is a benefit to such dilapidation: there’s a fig tree growing on the building’s roof. I can only guess that it came into being the same way as any other tree, seeds deposited by wayward birds, but in this case it grows so perfectly — protruding right from the middle of an old concrete shed — you’d almost think it was planted deliberately.

Over the past couple of weeks a few people in the neighbourhood have launched a campaign to save the fig tree, though I’m not entirely sure how they would go about doing this, unless they plan to buy the building from which it grows. It seems more like an effort to generate community discussion about the preservation of old urban fabric in a fast-changing area. On the group’s Facebook page, they describe some exchanges they had with passersby when they asked them to sign a petition to save the tree:

Certainly there are passersbyers for whom this petition appears pointless. But at least half the people we are asking are actually stopping and ready to give their name and signature. And maybe half the people who sign are actually interacting with us. The supporters of the petition find this cause meaningful. There is a tendency that younger people suggest to transplant the tree (from its desolate-looking structure beneath) to a better place.

Older generations suggest to preserve both the tree with the building. A younger woman living nearby pointed out another wild growing tree on ground level of Temple street that she finds worth protecting. There was also the toy store owner who lives for more than 20 years on Temple street and witnessed this wild tree growing from a house wall out of nothing. We had a longer, very engaged conversation with a Nigerian man named Prince who is based in HK: his point was that it doesn’t make sense if the government starts to regulate what’s supposed to happen on private properties. He considers wild growing trees the responsibility of developers. Preserving the tree at 23 Temple street to him appears like a European idea of preservation that doesn’t suit HK. On the other hand, we had a supporter who mentioned that cities like Macao or Singapore are doing a better job in preserving their heritage and city.

Then there was this very senior lady who didn’t sign the petition because she thinks that young people should determine the future. In her view, older people can’t engage with social and public matters anymore. An older gentleman commented that there are many bad neighbors around here who don’t care for green issues. Interestingly enough, we heard from one encounter that apparently people in the neighborhood are talking about this petition…

All images from Save the Roof Tree’s Facebook page.


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