Steve Cran reports from Hong Kong, April 2012
“Hong Kong has a huge amount of energy. If it can be channelled into permaculture the concrete will be covered in gardens and forests.”
Its my first day in Hong Kong, well not really Hong Kong, actually it’s an island about 30 km from Hong Kong central which is bigger than the island of Hong Kong. Lantau, as it’s called, is supposed to be the “lungs of Hong Kong”. I think the lungs have had a smoking problem as the trees have been logged off long ago leaving a scrubby set of steep mountains with land slips dotted across the landscape. Some of the ravines have forest but I don’t see many old trees. Around the island, small towns and villages look out on the calm ocean. It looks like a Chinese version of the Riviera in the 1960’s. The air is smoggy in the distance but here on Lantau the pollution of the city is pushed back by the sea breezes.
I’m chatting to my friend Philippe Couture the organizer of the permaculture course I’m about to teach at Ark Eden. In the distance the mist and smog has obscured any view of the main city across the bay. As we talk the mist clears and like a monstrous metropolis out of a science fiction movie, Hong Kong appears. Holy Shit! As a guy that loves forests and nature, Hong Kong looks ominous.
We take a bus via the land bridge to the city. I sit up the front on the top level of the double-decker bus. Public transport is amazing here. You don’t need a car in this city. I use one swipe card (the octopus) for everything, even food. The cashless society is alive and being trialled here in HK.
As we drive across one of the many bridges into the main part of the city I’m looking up, down, sideways to all the buildings, causeways, bridges, walkways and overpasses. Every building seems to have a million air conditioners hanging out the windows. Pipes and conduits are visible on these ugly high rises. The amount of concrete and steel in this city in incalculable. It dawns on me there’s no shred of sustainability built into this city. Hong Kong has only one plan and that is to continue consuming as usual. With the arrogance of the builders of the Titanic there in no plan-B only stoke the furnaces and keep this monster running for eternity…
I have to speak at a green function at a university. I get up and explain a little of what I do in my permaculture work. I give out a challenge to the university to build a vegetation panel that fits on all the non-window surfaces of skyscrapers in the city. This panel I call a “Bio-skin”. A vertical, living wall. It grows plants out the side of the wall to produce oxygen, process carbon and provide vertical gardens instead of hot concrete surfaces. A city covered in “Bio-skin” would look like a huge forest in no time!
IMAGINE ALL CITIES WITH BIO-SKINS ON EVERY WALL…
A woman stands up and says it wont work because somebody tried once and the plants all died. I reply that they failed because they didn’t do it right and it should be researched and developed again. I’m not getting much of a response from the audience. Actually some of their mouths are hanging open. I get the feeling they have no idea why somebody would want to green a perfectly good concrete wonderland. One guy stands up and tells everybody that if we put bio-skins on buildings “insects will come!” This draws a few frightened murmurs from the crowd. Oh dear, I think, these guys are true human battery hens. Hong Kong needs a reality check fast. Their minds are stuck in the 1980’s!
Ark Eden is located up one of the forested re-entrants at the foot of a scrubby mountain. Philippe and I ride our bicycles through the village along a wide cement path bordered with heavy-duty handrails. Most houses are 3 story, flat roofed cement boxes. Roof top gardens flourish on a few of them but most are used for hanging up washing. We can look right into people’s living rooms as we pass by some houses on the path. Their owners along the way are walking lots of friendly dogs. One Chinese guy with buggy eyes and protruding forehead bones passes by. His dog, a bug-eyed chiwuawa, is following behind and I choke back a laugh because the dude looks like his dog! Yep, the old saying is right.
There are relatively few cars on Lantau and many people ride bicycles. Some have umbrellas attached to the handlebars. I see all kinds of bicycles including 3 wheelers with cargo cages on the rear. Old grandmothers are taken shopping by their grandsons riding the canopy-covered tricycles. The funniest are the many adults riding bicycles with training wheels! I even spy a bike with a doggy seat on the handlebars. The dog has sunglasses and a hat on…WTF!
There seems to be some over built public toilets for the aging population. I enter one and see a red emergency button next to the urinal. Maybe it’s for when you accidently zip your will up in your fly you slam the red button and an emergency team races to the rescue? I almost push it just to see who comes…
The concrete path continues for a kilometre up the valley. The forest grows darker and the trees hang over the path creating a tunnel effect. I spot several ruins in the bush below the path. I’m told there are many abandoned dwellings here from the British times. The forest is mainly regrowth from old homesteaders and numerous fruit trees are blended into the forest structure.
We finally arrive at Ark Eden. The main 2-story building rises from the tree line from a cement platform. Several dogs bark as we approach and I brace myself for an attack. A crowd of the most diverse bunch of canine’s rounds the corner. The loudest is a small shorthaired dog with a squashed in face and bulbous black eyes. It looks like a witchetty grub on legs. The others are all sizes with very weird haircuts. I relax realizing this crew couldn’t take on a wounded grasshopper if their lives depended on it. At least they sounded impressive.
I meet Jenny Quinton, the founder of Ark Eden and one of those die-hard Green Warriors that walk their talk. I get a tour of the land and see all its infinite possibilities. Lots of work needed and each job is an opportunity for students to learn.
We start the course with 22 students so keen, most of them want to get up and teach the class themselves. I’m going to learn a lot from these dudes. I love a super intelligent group. We have students from several countries including Portugal. I call the Portuguese the “Pork and Cheese”. They retaliate and call me “beef”, which is the nickname for Aussies in East Timor. One of them, Fernando Madeira, has been working in my old stomping grounds, East Timor. We have several friends in common and share some stories about them. It’s so good seeing permaculture is still growing well in Timor.
Each day we start hands-on work in the garden. I promised Jenny I wouldn’t destroy her “Mandela garden”. I don’t really recognize it because it has sunken into the vegetation; the first bed I dig is right through the forbidden garden. Ooops! Time to make amends! We build a whole new raised bed Mandela garden as compensation. Jenny has her happy face on again.
Day by day, the new gardens spread out around the farming site. Students are learning the use of hand tools and being the first time some of them had touched a tool there are some strange contorted body movements swinging a hoe!
Working in Africa and Asia with farmer’s means everyone can swing a hoe. Here with the city slickers its downright dangerous being anywhere them when they are cultivating the soil. Luckily I have some advanced students I can rely on to buddy up with the beginner farmers.
It’s time to move the compost station to our new site we cleared from the bush. I’m prying apart some old pallet compost bays and a rat jumps out of the compost. Like Thor, without thinking, I club the rat with the hammer. Looking up I see several vegetarians looking at me with horror on their faces. One of them accused me of killing a “forest creature”. I try to explain the rat is vermin but I see they would rather I scratched behind the rats ear and give it a bit of cheese instead of flattening it with a hammer. Oooops!
Each morning I go for a walk to the village 2 km away. On this day many Chinese people come to the mountains here to pay respect to their ancestors buried in huge cement graves up on the hill. You walk on concrete your whole life here in Hong Kong and when you die you are entombed in cement.
I notice Chinese money blowing around on the path. Picking it up I see I’ve found 50 million dollars from “The Bank of Hell”. There’s money blowing all around. I figure the people visiting their relatives graves must recon their loved one has gone to hell. To make their time in hell more bearable they place hell money on the graves. With 50 million dollars the loved ones can now go shopping with Satan. That’s very thoughtful of them. I scoop up several trillion dollars to spend when I get to hell.
We head up onto the slopes to plant some trees and do an erosion control lesson. Carrying our tools, water and trees, the group winds its way up the hill past many Chinese graves. I’m told that the old practice for these families buried here was for the relatives to burn off the slopes to cleanse the evil spirits. I can see now how this island ended up denuded. I see more “Hell money” blowing around.
We dig a few short swales and Fernando leads a team making soil traps on the top of erosion gullies. Here we build a barrier of sticks to catch silt and organic matter and slow runoff rainwater down. Looking across the coastline from up on the hill we can see many landslip scars and many concrete shot-crete landslip repairs installed by the government. I get the feeling the government wont be happy until the whole island is under cement. In every other part of the world it has been proven that poly-culture reforestation heals the scars and prevents further land slips if the forests are designed properly. Concrete is ugly and only temporary until it eventually slips away too.
Over the 2 weeks the students soak up permaculture and begin to see the world in a different way. The hands-on component of each day is everybody’s favourite. We build garden beds; make compost, and liquid fertilizer. We construct a worm farm. Seedlings are planted and we also build an “emergency garden”, a raised garden bed with enough food for a couple built in 20 minutes. Ark Eden’s gardens transform before our eyes and everyone feels productive.
The PDC finishes with students building a 3-D model of Ark Eden and placing their design ideas onto the farm. I like this method compared to general mapping as it gives people a real sense of integrating the design components and seeing their relation to each other on the map. Once in a while a dog wanders through the model like a giant Godzilla and crushes a few buildings and gardens.
The course is finally finished and I hand out the certificates in my usual manner. A big uber-cheesy smile as the student receives the certificate, just as our photo is taken. I manage a cheesy grin for each student. They are now fully qualified to go out and rebuild the planet into a paradise. I know some of these people will give it their best shot or die trying. Hong Kong has a huge amount of energy. If it can be channelled into permaculture the concrete will be covered in gardens and forests.