Dozens of century-old trees have reportedly been cut down at one of Hong Kong’s most valued historical sites as its owners plan a multi-billion dollar redevelopment on the site.

The non-profit Conservancy Association said that the Oi Yuen Villa, located in Sheung Shui, used to have 450 to 550 trees, but since July 2015 that number has dropped to around 200.

The organisation criticised the villa’s owner for not respecting the site’s historical value as many of the trees are at least 100 years old, reported Apple Daily.

Oi Yuen Villa
Oi Yuen Villa.

The 340,000 square feet villa was previously owned by Hong Kong tycoon Hui Oi-chow, who was buried in the villa after his death in 1966. Originally built a century ago as part of the Fanling golf course, Oi Yuen Villa’s status as a Grade I historic building is pending. According to the grading definition, this would make it a building which “every effort should be made to preserve if possible.”

Hui Sai-fun, son of Hui Oi-chow and the current owner of the villa, previously applied to the Lands Department to turn the villa into a Comprehensive Development Area. The reason for the application was reportedly to conserve the historical site.

Hui later proposed a plan to construct a 107,499 square metre housing estate within the villa, including seven 25-floor buildings that would contain a total of 816 apartment units. The project is estimated to be worth $11.5 billion, with completion scheduled for 2019.

According to sources cited by Apple Daily, the Hui family submitted a construction plan accompanied by a report about the trees’ condition to the government. The plan stated that there are currently 270 trees in the villa and preserving 241 would be sufficient recognition of the villa’s heritage.

oi yuen villa
Left image from bottom to top: Hui Sai-fun, his daughter-in-law Michele Monique Reis and son, Julian Hui.

While the Lands Department approved the construction project in 2003, the Planning Department has yet to deliver its decision. A preliminary review will take place on September 30.

“[They] started cutting trees down before the application has been approved – why have they picked a spot to start the construction?” said Peter Li Siu-man, senior campaign manager at the Conservancy Association.

Li said the villa’s owner plans to turn the building into an estate clubhouse under the name of conserving and rejuvenating it. He added that the villa’s surrounding area is also part of its historical heritage and permitting the construction of high-rise buildings would not be respecting history.

By comparing satellite images and the villa’s construction plan, Apple Daily found that the areas where the trees have been cut down almost matches precisely where the new buildings would be built.

hui oi-chow oi yuen villa
Hui Oi-chow and Oi Yuen Villa.

An employee at the adjacent Fanling golf course managing office, surnamed Lau, said that 70 per cent of the estate owners in the area were opposed to the construction plan at a meeting last Wednesday, saying it would worsen traffic near the golf course on weekends.

The Planning Department said that the tree-cutting cannot be considered illegal development since there are no restrictions regarding tree-cutting in Oi Yuen Villa.

The Lands Department said there is no clause related to tree-conservation in the Oi Yuen Villa’s title deed.

Correction 17/8: A previous version of the article stated that the Oi Yuen Villa is a Grade 1 historic building. In fact, the status of this grading is pending.

Gene Lin is a Journalism and Computer Science student at The University of Hong Kong. He worked as a reporter for the 'LIVE: Verified Updates' during the Occupy Central protests. He is also an editor at HKU's first English-language student paper, The Lion Post.