‘Wood is life’: A Hong Kong sawmill’s last days

HONG KONG (NYTIMES) – From the brine-soaked docks of a ferry pier to the red-painted pillars of a Buddhist temple, many an ageing wooden structure in Hong Kong has found new purpose in the hands of Mr Wong Hung-kuen.

Mr Wong, 73, clambered over mountains of logs at Chi Kee Sawmill and Timber on a recent afternoon, loading wood onto a rumbling crane, veins of sawdust clinging to his gloves.

Nearby were the parked bulldozers that had toppled neighbouring businesses. Soon, they would come for his.

Next month, Mr Wong will have to give up the sawmill, which his family has owned since the late 1940s. It stands in the way of the Hong Kong government’s US$13 billion (S$16.7 billion) plan to turn a quiet stretch of villages and wetlands into what it calls the Northern Metropolis, featuring tech startups, ecotourism, housing for 2.5 million and easy access to Shenzhen, the city across the border in mainland China.

Mr Wong petitioned the authorities to spare Chi Kee, but in June, he said, he had no choice but to shut it down. He said he did not want to stand in the way of modernisation.

But he had hoped that his family’s soaring, 10,000 sq ft mill in Kwu Tung village – and the 1,000 tonnes of wood there, amounting to recycled Hong Kong history – could somehow be preserved.

“Wood is life, even if it can’t speak,” Wong said. “I see it as my responsibility to extend its life span and find new purpose for it.”

‘Once they’re gone, theyre gone forever’

For years, major development projects like the one slowly transforming the border region – part of China’s broader plan to bind Hong Kong more closely to the mainland – faced protests from environmentalists and conservationists. Activists held sit-ins at farmlands targeted for development and historic landmarks facing demolition.

Since 2020, however, when a national security law was imposed on Hong Kong, protests of any kind have been rare. But since Mr Wong said he would close Chi Kee, visitors have been coming to the mill – some to buy wood in a quiet show of solidarity, others just to see it.

One was Mr Oscar Yeung, a young jewellery designer who makes pendants and rings from colonial-era Hong Kong coins. He sees the same neglected value in Mr Wong’s towering stockpile of wood that he sees in his coins.

“I hope these things can stay in Hong Kong,” he said. “Once they’re gone, they’re lost forever.”