When you think of trees in Hong Kong, country parks often come to mind, but not those scattered in the city’s densely populated urban areas.
But for independent researcher and illustrator Teresa Chan, it is those street trees that most piqued her curiosity.
“I read an article by anthropologist Laura Rival on the Huaorani tribe in the Amazon rainforest, which talked about how the indigenous people look at a tree and name it,” said Chan, who has a background in ecology and anthropology.
“This is very related to my experience studying ecology. It’s really hard to memorize the Latin names of plants. I don’t know why I can never remember them.”
This got her thinking about what these names she was trying so hard to memorize meant to her.
After learning about the way the indigenous people describe trees according to their life experiences, she started doing the same for the urban setting she is living in.
Chan said she chose to focus on street trees in Wan Chai as she has been living in the district for around three years. Moreover, it is a place familiar to most Hong Kong residents as it is home to many government buildings, where people go to make official documents, and the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre, which is the venue for many large-scale events.
To do so, she joined tours of Wan Chai and documented her thoughts and that of her participants about the street trees in the district. She also dug through archives of newspapers and government documents to find out the history of these trees.
Consolidating these findings, she came up with the Wan Chai Tree Tour Map, which is part of her project titled “Art X Ecology & Anthropology《When Trees Cry in the City》”. The project is part of the Cultural Masseur Festival 2022, which is organized by Hong Kong Arts Centre.
The map identifies street trees of significance along a path from Victoria Park to Harcourt Road.
Chan noted that it might not be important for most people to recognize whether a street tree is a ficus or a weeping fig, but it might make more sense for them to know that it was planted by a singer or the last governor of Hong Kong.
“For example, there are these two trees in Wan Chai that are located close to each other but growing well. This is an ecologically unique phenomenon – since trees compete with each other for resources – so I named them The Buddy Trees,” she said, referring to the Burmese Rosewood and Chinese Hackberry at a bus stop near the Hong Kong Central Library.
She encourages other Hong Kong residents to participate by uploading their memories or feelings about any trees on the map to Instagram, be it in the form of photography, drawing or writing.
“Different people have different interaction with the trees,” said the researcher.
“I live near a wooden furniture store and one day, I noticed how the owner of the store would bring little plants to a nearby tree to keep it company in the day and bring the plants back into his store when he closes. If I don’t live there, I would think that the little plants are growing on the tree instead of being there because of a deliberate human effort.”
Besides the map, Chan is also holding an exhibition – titled “Leaf Craft Stories Exhibition” – and a series of talks, workshops and tours as part of the “Art X Ecology & Anthropology《When Trees Cry in the City》” project at the Hong Kong Arts Centre in Wan Chai from now to Sunday.
The exhibition showcases fallen leaf craft artwork and photos with stories behind them.
“The Singing Tree [in the Wan Chai Tree Tour Map] was planted by US country singer John Denver at the intersection between Wan Chai Road and Johnston Road in the 1990s,” said Chan.
She added it is rumored that the late Hong Kong singer and actor Leslie Cheung was born around the area.
“So for one of my earlier artworks, I picked up a leaf under a heritage tree near the Mandarin Oriental hotel in Central, carved a portrait of Cheung and brought it back to Wan Chai Road to take pictures,” she said, referring to the hotel where Cheung leapt to his death in 2003.
“I hope I can bring some spiritual significance back to Wan Chai with this leaf.”
There are also photos from the exhibition that look at how some of these street trees fall victim to people’s irresponsible disposal of takeaway containers.
During the exhibition tours, Chan will teach participants how to look at the health of a tree.
“In this place that we live, there are so many trees on the streets. I am keen to explore what kinds of relationships we can establish with them,” she said.
Chan said she hopes the people in Hong Kong can break down the boundary between nature and culture when looking at our environment.
“When we talk about tree conservation in Hong Kong, the focus is often on managing trees that are in danger of collapsing, or protecting stone wall trees or heritage trees,” said the anthropology master’s graduate from the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
“I think we can focus more on human interaction with trees and our feelings about them.”
Chan also encourages more people to pay attention to the trees we walk past every day.
“You will notice how all life is changing every minute and second, and this may help with adjusting your mindset,” she said.
Check out the Wan Chai Tree Tour Map at https://wanchaitree.com/?lang=en.
Visit https://www.popticket.hk/en/event/when-trees-cry-in-the-city for more information on the “Leaf Craft Stories Exhibition” and the talks, workshops and tours that are part of the “Art X Ecology & Anthropology《When Trees Cry in the City》” project.