Here in London, the sun is finally shining and summer is making a tentative long-overdue entrance. This year’s dismal COVID mood has, up to now, only been made greyer by an unseasonable cold and wet spring. At least, in this part of London where we now live, we have been able to mitigate the monotony of life, distant from friends and family, by enjoying London’s largest Royal Park in Richmond, in the southwest of the city. Whatever the time of year; whatever the weather, the Park is a source of joy, with its diversity of flora and fauna and its native animals, including herds of tame deer. Richmond Park is one of London’s largest and oldest public green spaces, and serves not only an important social and recreational function, but an environmental role as well, acting as a “green lung” for the city, sucking in carbon dioxide and exhaling oxygen in return.
One of the pleasures of returning home to London, after twenty fulfilling years in Hong Kong, was to appreciate the city’s greenery and open spaces. In contrast, Hong Kong felt like a dense and sometimes claustrophobic urban setting of crowded streets and looming skyscrapers. That superficial view of Hong Kong, of course, only pertained during the working week. As a family, we also ventured out and explored the territory’s expansive country parks on the Island, in the New Territories and on the surrounding islands.
Much lesser known and appreciated, however, were the few green oases in the city itself. On return visits in recent years, I have appreciated the new Harbour-side walkways and gardens. But even in the old days in the 1980s and 90s, we had Central Park, Victoria Park and, above all, the Zoological and Botanical Gardens.
The Botanical Gardens were particularly important to me, as, for some years, I lived in Robinson Road in the Mid-levels, just above them, and often walked through on the way down to Central and to my office. They provided some valuable moments of calm reflection and sensuous enjoyment amongst the colourful range of plant life and animal diversity, before descending into the maelstrom of Central and another hectic day’s work.
Whilst I always benefited psychologically from my visits, my knowledge of the place was superficial. I will always remember the comforting, steamy tropical atmosphere in the summer, punctuated by the cries of birds and monkeys. I could almost imagine myself in a rainforest somewhere far distant from Hong Kong. The spectacular, brightly coloured flowers, such as camelias, azaleas, and magnolias (which we have here in Richmond Park London too) were an exploding feast for the eyes.
The range of animals was also intriguing, bringing wonder, curiosity and entertainment at once to myself and other visitors. I always felt sorry for the lethargic tiger kept there in its dismal enclosure. I understand it died some years ago after 20 years of residence, and was not, thankfully, replaced. The other mammals that always caught my attention were the Bornean orang-utans. These languid semi-human beasts always attracted a crowd, which they seemed on occasions to deliberately and mischievously entertain and taunt with their antics – probably out of boredom. Their smaller cousins – the sprightly, chattering macaque monkeys-- were a bundle of nervous energy in comparison, while, at the other end of the scale, the sloths could help stretch out time with their slow-motion performance.
A visit had to include a stroll past the flamingo enclosure. These scarlet-pink birds would march around in military-like formation, their heads held proudly high on their long necks, as they pranced along with their precise and ladylike steps. The mynah birds were also fun and, if you were lucky, you could get them to mimic you.
My enjoyment of the Gardens was real enough, even though my botanical knowledge was weak. I suppose most people were like me. However, a little research later turned up some interesting facts about my favourite route to Central. First, it turns out that Hong Kong’s Zoological and Botanical Garden is not only the oldest park in Hong Kong, but one of the oldest of its type in the world. It was opened way back in 1864, and among its early VIP visitors was the famous American civil war general and later President of the USA, Ulysses Grant. Second, the Chinese name for the Garden – “Bing Tau Fa Yuen” – which means “Head of the Army Garden” comes from the fact that the Garden occupies land on which the Governor’s house originally stood. He was head of the army of course! Believe it or not, there are more than a thousand species of plants and over 700 animals kept in the Garden today.
It is a treasure house, used by families, schoolchildren, and famously, young lovers. Also, it was once frequented by this stressed expat on his way to a demanding job, finding it a calming influence and reminding him there was more to life than ambition and work. I wonder how many expats and Hongkongers today really appreciate what a green gem they have nestling at the heart of their busy city.
(The writer lived in Hong Kong for more than twenty years, arriving soon after the death of Mao and leaving after the handover of the territory to China. He experienced the seismic transformation of Hong Kong on its journey from plastic flowers and T-shirts to global front runner in trade and high finance.)
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