Saturday, October 28, 2006

The Uglification of Nathan Road

I've often seen pictures of Nathan Road as it was 100 years ago - a quiet, leafy, broad avenue, a quiet residential neighborhood for middle class Europeans. Even through the 1920s, the area remained verdant and attractive. But yet, the next photos I saw of it - during the Japanese Occupation of Hong Kong - saw the roads largely stripped bare. Even with the havoc and destruction wreaked by Nippon in those three weeks of December 1941, though, it was incredibly unlikely that they had found the time to remove the trees. So when did this transformation happen?

I discovered the answer in some recent questions posed by that redoubtable Portuguese member of Legco, Mr. J.P. Braga, in response to the government suddenly cutting the trees down:
Hon. Mr. J.P. Braga asked:--

1.--Will the Honourable the Colonial Secretary[Sir Thomas Southorn, of Southern Garden in Wanchai fame - Ed.] state the reasons for the recent felling of the trees in Nathan Road at Kowloon, and on whose instructions were those useful and ornamental trees destroyed?

2.--Is it not true that shortly before the trees were felled quite a number of those with damaged or decaying trunks were treated at some expenditure of public money in a manner to arrest destruction through natural causes? And if true, what is the explanation for the sudden change of policy leading to the destruction of perfectly sound trees by means of human agency?

3.--Is it the intention of Government to cut down any more, and if so, how many, of the trees that once formed such a picturesque avenue in Nathan Road?

4.--Was any reference made to the Kowloon Residents' Association, or to the Hong Kogn Automobile Association before the decision was taken and put into effect for the removal of the trees in question?

5.--Will the Government consider the advisability of restoring, partially if not totally, the avenue that excited so much admiration, by commencing a programme of sapling planting in places where planting will not constitute a danger to wheeled traffic?

6.--In future, in any matter affecting the amenities of the Peninsula, will the Government be good enough to ascertain, in the first place, the views of responsible bodies or organisations in Kowloon before carrying out decisions concerning which Kowloon residents may advantageously be consulted?

The Colonial Secretary replied:--

1.--Instructions were issued by Government that certain trees should be felled, on the recommendations of the Inspector General of Police after consultation with the Superintendent, Botanical and Forestry Department, on the ground that they form an obstruction to traffic.

2.--The treatment of damaged roadside trees is a routime matter usually attended to in February before the spring rains begin. When the trees in Nathan Road were teated the recommendations of the Inspector General of Police had not been received.

3.--It is the intention of Government as at present advised to remove certain other trees, in partcular thosein the neighbourhood of bus stops and those at the corners of side streeets.

4.--The answer is in the negative.

5.--Only such trees as are considered to constitute a definite obstruction to traffic are being removed. It is not therefore considered advisable to replace them.

6.--The Government are at all times prepared to give full consideration to views expressed by representative bodies, but cannot see their way to give the specific undertaking asked for.
There you have an early example of the traffic department and of the Hong Kong government in general giving rather callous treatment to aesthetics, nature and pedestrian (and shade for those waiting for the bus) considerations. Thus it has always been, and the hundreds of old trees hacked down for recent projects in Aberdeen and TST have been simply the modern manifestations of very old attitudes. One assumes with the handover that the government has changed; but rather, to the contrary, change is the exception and old habits die hard.

The twenty yard stretch between the Old Kowloon British School and the McDonalds near St. Andrew's Church give the modern visitor a faint idea of what Nathan Road might have once appeared in its green, leafy glory...

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

great post for showing the colonial history of environment!