A tree expert has said that the government did not conduct a detailed investigation before chopping down two 80-year-old banyan trees on Bonham Road.

The two trees were on a stone wall of the University of Hong Kong’s Tang Chi Ngong Building. The Lands Department said last Thursday that there was risk of collapse, and the trees were cut on Sunday despite objections from lawmakers, scholars and activists.

Chinese University of Hong Kong professor and tree expert Chiu Siu-wai said the government report on the two trees was done carelessly, and did not include a mechanics report from the university on the stone wall.

bonham street trees
Photo: Facebook/treeshkwest

“The most important job [of the Tree Management Office] should be to manage the tree, before handling the risk of collapse,” Chiu said at the site on Monday.

She said if the trees were in danger of collapsing, their bases would be fragile, but they were in fact solid. She said one of the two trees could be saved if consolidation work is done. Chiu added that they weathered a strong typhoon recently.

She said she hoped the government will conduct objective and systemic analysis in the future before deciding to chop down trees.

“Otherwise, when the rain and typhoon season comes, we may lose thousands of trees,” she said.

bonham street trees
Photo: Facebook/treeshkwest.

Florence Ko, the head of the government’s Tree Management Office, said on an RTHK radio programme on Monday that the stone walls showed cracks because of the growing trees, which may lead to structural issues.

She said the authorities made the decision after comprehensive consideration of factors including the safety of students and residents in the neighbourhood. “There are potential risks of the trees and stone walls collapsing, this is our major concern,” she said.

But Chiu said the decision was too rushed: “This is not communication at all.”

bonham street trees
Chiu Siu-wai. Photo: inmediahk.net.

On Sunday, District Officer Susanne Wong, Senior Forestry Officer Edmond Lam, and Ko appeared at the site with around 20 residents, who said they supported cutting down the trees.

Democratic Party lawmaker Ted Hui said the government used residents’ fears to evade its responsibility of managing the trees.

“Whenever the government tells residents that the trees are dangerous and they have to be chopped down, it is producing populism,” he said.

He said a law on trees should be legislated to set up a clear mechanism on the management of old trees.

bonham street trees
Photo: inmediahk.net.

District Councillor and environmentalist Roy Tam said Ko was a geotechnical engineer, but she did not have any expertise on trees, and was unable to respond to doubts raised by Chiu on Sunday.

Tam said the Tree Management Office’s examination method was unscientific as it depended on visual examination and the report was only several pages long.

Activist Sam Yip of the Island West Dynamic Movement said he watched the trees grow while studying at adjacent King’s College.

bonham street trees
Photo: inmediahk.net.

He said the government only gave one day’s notice before chopping down the trees: “It only told residents that it was dangerous, but it has done nothing to preserve the trees in three years.”

In 2015, the Highways Department decided to chop down four century-old stone wall trees, citing public safety concerns, three weeks after two pedestrians were injured by a falling tree during a rainstorm.

Kris Cheng is a Hong Kong journalist with an interest in local politics. His work has been featured in Washington Post, Public Radio International, Hong Kong Economic Times and others. He has a BSSc in Sociology from the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Kris is HKFP's Editorial Director.