When Shenzhen was established 34 years ago, it was to be a hub for the single-minded pursuit of GDP growth, unbound from history or tradition. That the city’s urban development has caused its mangrove forests to decrease from 530 hectares in the mid-1980s to around 130 hectares today would suggest that this quest for economic gain at all costs is exactly what happened. Yet history is not the bulldozer they say it is.
Shenzhen is still home to 1,559 trees that are legally classed as ancient. Many of these trees are as imposing as a skyscraper and as diverse and populated as any metropolis. To qualify as a “古树” or “ancient tree” under the current system, a tree must be at least 100 years old. This is not particularly impressive considering that there is a kauri in New Zealand that was already 4,000 years old when the first Maoris arrived from Polynesia or that there are pines in California that germinated around the time man invented writing and thus are as old as the recording of history.
Although Shenzhen was described by Naomi Klein in Rolling Stone as representing “the crack cocaine of capitalism”, the city is doing a commendable job of preventing its oldest trees from becoming grist to the GDP mill. The person most responsible for this is Chen Cui, the committee manager at Shenzhen’s Landscape Management Office.
Even as a little girl Chen Cui, whose parents were both arborists, was pained to see a flowerbed get trampled. She studied landscape management in Guangzhou before getting the job of overseeing the greenbelts on Shenzhen’s roads and then being promoted to supervisor of all of the city’s ancient trees.
According to Chen, Shenzhen’s ancient trees come in 87 species. Types of banyan account for 41 percent. Litchi, longan and camphor trees make up another 27 percent. Two banyans in Nanshan District’s Nanzhou Village and another in Futian District’s Xinzhou Village are around 615 years old, making them the oldest trees in Shenzhen. If you include transplanted trees, there is a cycas pectinata in Luohu District’s Fairy Lake Botanical Garden that is 1,010 years old.
Although she is the only full-time specialist taking care of the city’s ancient trees, Chen told The Daily Sunshine that her bureau has landscape managers who offer support and that plenty of citizens come forward to complain when they are concerned about a tree. Her office has rejected the requests of countless organizations to knock down or transplant trees so they can build, as Chen claims that urban development needs to “give way” to the life of the city’s trees.
In the past year a government construction project in Longgang District requested to remove 200 ancient litchi trees. The Landscape Management Office was against the idea. Shifting that number of trees is a process of 1-2 years, a longer period than the Longgang government was willing to wait, according to The Daily Sunshine, thus ancient trees were prevented from being transplanted or felled.
To boost public awareness, Chen Cui’s office claims to have erected a sign next to every ancient tree. On each sign is a QR code which visitors can scan and learn facts about the tree. The official register that lists all of Shenzhen’s ancient trees took five years to complete and there is another that lists those that are 80-99 years old.
There is a lot of work involved in keeping the trees alive and healthy. Withering leaves and dried-up branches are among the signs that a tree may be suffering from an illness or an infestation. In these cases, Chen Cui will spray a drug or a pesticide to combat the problem. In serious circumstances, Chen might have to cut off a branch to keep an illness spreading before applying a protective agent to the incision.
Typhoons, with their strong winds and lightning, are one of the biggest threats to Shenzhen’s ancient trees. Ahead of a typhoon, protruding branches that might attract lightning will be cut off. To preserve particularly top heavy trees, Chen Cui might prune the longest branches or even add a metal “trunk” to help support them.
The informal titles given to Chen Cui and her colleagues over the years include “urban farmers” and “urban beauticians.” Chen claims not to care what people call her as long as she and her colleagues are allowed to keep doing their work, but is the label of “urban beauticians” disturbingly trivializing? Is Chen’s work the equivalent of giving the city a face lift when what it really needs is to go on a detox diet?
There is a strong argument to say that the very existence of the special economic zone has been disastrous for the area’s wildlife. More than half of the endangered species that once lived in Shenzhen’s mangrove wetlands – which until the 1980s formed one of China’s most important conservation zones – have disappeared, including birds, plants and fish, according to a 2012 report in The Daily Sunshine.
Experts in Shenzhen blamed the mangrove forests’ decline on this reckless urbanisation as well as industrial pollution, according to South China Morning Post. Few expected such a massive loss of forest area, especially after the local government released a blueprint in 2007 pledging to triple the size of the city’s mangrove forests to more than 500 hectares by 2015.
The remaining mangroves will be under threat as long as felling trees continues to make as much or more economic sense as protecting them. Chen Cui stressed that as well as their natural beauty, trees were hugely important ecologically and as “witnesses of history.”
“Giving way” to trees
In the period between 1997 and 2004, 700 ancient trees were felled in Shenzhen without government permission. Intelligent policy, dedicated professionals like Chen Cui and increased public awareness have all contributed to improving this situation.
However, a much bigger movement needs to take place for Shenzhen to have a healthier relationship with the ground that its concrete jungles were built on. Chen, who sees herself as an artist as well as a scientist, wrote a poem about trees in a local newspaper. The poem’s power kind of gets lost in translation, so instead a more appropriate quote can come from contemporary Inner Mongolian poet Xi Murong musing upon the limitations of her own vocation in “After Arbor Day”:
If what we need is action
to prevent all this from descending into chaos
Then I agree my friend.
Writing a poem doesn’t compare
to planting a tree.
If every aspiring poet went to plant a tree
then we would never be short of paper again
And when the moon came out
every quiet forest would be full of
rendition upon rendition
of reverent poems.