Mon, Feb 21, 2005 - Page 16 News List

Hong Kong's Wishing Tree kills the mood

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , Hong Kong

Written prayers hang from Hong Kong's famous Wishing Tree.

PHOTO: AP

What does it mean if the main limb of a lucky Wishing Tree suddenly snaps during religious festivities and plunges to the ground, crushing the faithful?

Worse yet, what if it turns out that the limb had been overloaded with gifts being flung to the heavens? And what if the huge, venerable tree then turns out to be infested with insects because of previous religious observances involving the tree's supposed powers?

Even in a Western country, such questions would probably draw a lot of discussion, and perhaps a few lawsuits. But here in Hong Kong, a disturbing incident a week ago at the government's official Wishing Tree has cast a pall of foreboding over this forest of skyscrapers where superstitious beliefs in luck and bad omens still run deep.

People from across Hong Kong and nearby mainland China, as well as tourists from around the world, have long come to light incense and make wishes beneath the spreading limbs of a huge Chinese banyan here in Lam Tsuen, a bustling village near the mainland border. Respect for the banyan, which is hundreds of years old, is based partly on feng shui The tree is so popular that it shows up on highway signs and has its own expressway exit.

But the tree's main limb suddenly broke last weekend with a loud crack during Chinese New Year festivities.

The entire limb fell to the ground, breaking the left leg of a 62-year-old man. Some branches also scratched the head of a 4-year-old boy, who was treated at a local hospital and released.

The incident has prompted considerable debate here over what, if anything, it foretells for Hong Kong's fortunes this year. To prevent further injuries, the tree is now ringed with a wide circle of chest-high crowd-control fences. A Taoist temple nestled against the base of the tree, just below the angry brown scar where the limb broke loose, has been padlocked.

"It makes for a loneliness between tree and people to have this distance, but it's good for the tree to let it rest," said Edith Yu, a 41-year-old businesswoman, after lighting a thick handful of incense sticks and bowing several times to the tree, believed to be the residence of earth gods.

Taoists, Buddhists and people with a wide range of traditional beliefs have long scribbled their hopes and dreams on scraps of brightly colored paper, inserted the scraps in bright red envelopes and then tied the envelopes to oranges or, in earlier times, to stones (these were banned some time ago as a safety measure). They then hurled the offerings aloft, hoping that they would snag on a branch and that their wishes would ascend to heaven.

So burdened was the limb with oranges and wishes on Feb. 12, that it broke. Many residents here blame the government for the loss of the limb.

In previous New Year seasons, government contractors have used long poles to remove the detritus from the limb several times a day. But this year's contract required only that the offerings be removed three times a day on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday of that week, and that workers use their judgment thereafter.

The government has now declared the tree off limits and has asked that people place their offerings on the steel crowd-control barriers instead, a policy change that annoyed many visitors.

Tree specialists brought in by the local government this week found other problems. They counted more than 1,000 breaks in the bark, some of them old injuries that might have been inflicted years ago by stones. Insects then entered the tree through the injured areas, to the point that 70 percent of the tree is now very unhealthy and that it may not survive, a government spokeswoman said Tuesday.

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