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My Hong Kong-born wife was taken on a holiday to England when she was three. One afternoon, while strolling through the grounds of Hampton Court Palace, she turned to her mother and yelled, quite adorably, “Mummy, is this grass real?” People within earshot were taken aback, and some laughed, but any Hong Konger can understand the confusion. We’re just not good with nature. We spend lifetimes in Lilliputian apartments and tree-less, teeming streets. Flora, woodland, lush greenswards – well, they’re just not natural, are they?
Perhaps that’s why we’re having such a hard time managing our green spaces. Conservationists—and they are a cowed, lonely group in Hong Kong—have recently been upset by two issues. The first is the proposal to site a fake beach on the shores of Tolo Harbour, which involves reclaiming two hectares of land, building parking spaces for 100 cars and coaches and destroying the natural coastline. This would happen within half a kilometer of a nature reserve—and the water in Tolo Harbour isn’t even particularly good for swimming.
The second issue is the government’s insistence on paving over every centimeter of hiking trail in the name of public safety. By “hiking” the rest of the world understands an invigorating hack over natural terrain. In Hong Kong, it means walking on concrete paths, lined by metal railings, scarifying the hills for kilometers on end. Protests recently forced the authorities to suspend the concreting of a section of a popular trail near Big Wave Bay, but so what? There are plenty more virgin trails for government work gangs to ruin, and the greens can’t be everywhere at once.
Hong Kongers can’t leave land be. We must crassly impose ourselves upon it. The hillock near my home exemplifies this perfectly. With the mere addition of a few trees, and the laying down of some turf, it could have been a decent enough spot to go jogging or picnic or strum a guitar. Instead, it has been turned into what the developers hilariously call a “park”: turnstiles regulate entry, exit and the direction of your stroll; dreadful piano music plays from hidden speakers and kitsch displays (a fake campfire scene, ornate countryhouse gates that lead nowhere) allude to the nature that we can only enjoy in facsimile. Even the boulders haven’t been left alone: several of them have been brightly painted with priggish declarations. “Goodness” reads one. “Self-control” says another. I suppose they are intended to prompt some kind of moral reflection, but all they do is drive me into the arms of Satan. At least the grass is real. (Isn’t it?)