Cookie consent

We use cookies to improve your experience on this website. By continuing to browse our site you agree to our use of cookies. Tell me more | Cookie preferences

Saving the 'Hong' of Hong Kong

    Just Watched

    Hong Kong incense tree under threat

Hong Kong incense tree under threat 02:40

Story highlights

  • Hong Kong plantation has 300,000 incense trees, but are increasingly rare
  • Hong Kong's name, 'Fragrant Harbor,' comes from its history as a provider of incense
  • Much of the native trees have been eliminated by illegal harvesting
  • The most expensive incense wood sells for $2500 per kilogram

Tangled thickets and thirsty mosquitoes safeguard the secret of Koon Wing Chan. Less than two kilometers from the mainland Chinese border, in a quiet shadowy grove by a local village, sits a rare 200-year-old wild incense tree.

"No one in this village even knows that this is an incense tree -- except me," says the 54-year old Chan. "I love these trees because I grew up with them."

He wants to ensure his two young sons do as well.

Officially known as Aquilaria sinensis, "agarwood" was once a common commodity, but is now rare because of illegal logging. Chan has been trying to change that.

Over the past four years, he has planted 10,000 new trees on Hong Kong's only incense plantation, part of a family business passed on to him from his father and grandfather. All told, the plantation has some 300,000 incense trees.

"My grandfather was the one in the family who started planting these incense trees back in the day," reminisces Chan. "When I was young, I followed him up into the hills to help. Now, I see a lot of incense trees in Hong Kong have been logged, so I want to preserve them."

    While incense tree conservation is one of Chan's motivations, a lucrative livelihood is another.

    Chan explains he can sell a sapling for as much as $600. The 10,000 trees he planted could mean millions if he were to sell.

    But if left to mature at least 10 years, the trees can be an even bigger moneymaker once harvested -- supplying incense powder, fragrant wood used in herbal teas as well as traditional Chinese medicines with anti-inflammatory properties.

    The wood itself can command a hefty sum. Chan says one arms-length carving can command $125,000. He adds his buyers usually come from Taiwan and mainland China after they learn of his business through word of mouth or through his website.

    But because of its high price and limited supply, the incense tree has also become a victim of its own value.

    Mainland Chinese loggers are to blame, says Professor Chi-Yung Jim, chairman of the geography department at the University of Hong Kong.

    "They would come here -- of course illegally - usually in a fast boat at night. They would land and then climb into the hills, and stay there to actually set up some kind of rudimentary camp - and even cook there," explains Jim. "And then they would systematically find these trees. Its value is comparable to gold, but of course, we are talking about the highest quality."

    Over the past 90 years, Wing Lee Sandalwood has been legally trading in that quality. Long, slender aromatic joss sticks line the shop's walls. An incense burner sits by the entrance, puffing out a smoky scent to passersby. The most expensive incense wood sells for $2500 per kilogram. About once a month, employees hand roll incense sticks from scratch -- starting with incense power, water and secret, trade ingredients.

    Business has been bustling, says employee Li Hua Peng.

    "In the past five years, I can see from my shop that there are more customers buying incense wood. The most popular products are the ones that are used for worshipping gods."

    In fact, incense is primarily used for prayer and how Hong Kong got its name. Hundreds of years ago, this city served as a regional supplier of scents -- an Asian hub for aromatic affairs.

    "Hong" means fragrant in the local Cantonese language. "Kong" means harbor.

    In the meantime, Chan hopes people will not forget the city's heritage as he nurtures the city's last incense plantation to save the "Hong" of Hong Kong.

    "I hope my incense trees can grow bigger and be everywhere. Even though Hong Kong is urbanizing I think more trees can and should be planted."

      CNN Business

    • An Iraqi worker adjusts a control valve at the Daura oil refinery on November 5, 2009 in Baghdad, Iraq. Iraq and a grouping of U.S and European oil companies Exxon Mobil Corp and Royal Dutch Shell PLC signed a $50 billion contract today to develop the West Qurna oilfield, two days after the Iraqi South Oil Company signed a technical service contract with Britain's BP and China's CNPC to develop the Rumaila oilfield. The Iraqi government is trying to attract foreign investment, especially in the oil sector, in hopes of reviving its war-torn economy. Iraq has the third largest oil reserve in the world but it is producing way below its potential. (Photo by Muhannad Fala'ah/Getty Images)

      Airstrikes, rebels seizing control of oil fields, plus a severe refugee crisis are a recipe for market panic. So why are Iraq oil prices stable?
    • A view of gloves and boots used by medical staff, drying in the sun, at a center for victims of the Ebola virus in Guekedou, on April 1, 2014. The viral haemorrhagic fever epidemic raging in Guinea is caused by several viruses which have similar symptoms -- the deadliest and most feared of which is Ebola. AFP PHOTO / SEYLLOU (Photo credit should read SEYLLOU/AFP/Getty Images)

      The biggest Ebola outbreak in history is taking its toll in Western Africa, hitting some of West Africa's most vulnerable economies.
    • People enter a casino in Las Vegas, Nevada, on April 18, 2009. Las Vegas is the most populus city in the US state of Nevada and internationally renowned major resort city for gambling, shopping, fine dining and entertainment. Las Vegas which bills itself as the �Entertainment Capital of the World� is famous for the number of casino resorts and associated entertainment. AFP PHOTO/Jewel SAMAD (Photo credit should read JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)

      Macau has overtaken Switzerland in the wealth stakes, being named the world's fourth richest territory by the World Bank.
    • spc marketplace middle east ata atmar a_00010015.jpg

      Saudi Arabian Bateel brand is best known for its delectable dates but it now has more than a dozen cafes and a new bakery in the works.
    • Vantablack designed by Surrey NanoSystems absorbs 99.96% of all light. It however will not be the solution to the creating the world's ultimate slimming black dress! A dress made out of this material would render the curves and contours of the human body invisible and would leave the wearer looking like 'two dimensional cardboard cut-out.'

      A British nanotech company has created what it says is the world's darkest material. It is so dark the human eye can't discern its shape and form.
    • Jibo robot is designed to be an organizer, educator and assist family members. CNN's Maggie Lake met him and says she was impressed with his skills.
    • A picture taken on March 15, 2014 shows children playing at the sprawling desert Zaatari refugee camp in northern Jordan near the border with Syria which provides shelter to around 100,000 Syrian refugees. Syrian refugees in the seven-square-kilometre (2.8-square-mile) Zaatari camp in Jordan fear that President Bashar al-Assad's likely re-election this year will leave their dream of a return home as distant as ever. The brutal war in Syria between the regime and its foes shows no sign of abating and has killed at least 146,000 people since it erupted in mid-March 2011. And 2.5 million Syrians have fled abroad and another 6.5 million have been internally displaced. Jordan is home to more than 500,000 of the refugees.

      Sandwiched in between Iraq and Syria, Jordan's destiny seems to be one of a constant struggle for survival. John Defterios explains.
    • SHEFFIELD, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 18: Queen Elizabeth II wears 3 D glasses to watch a display and pilot a JCB digger, during a visit to the University of Sheffield Advanced Manufacturing Research centre, on November 18, 2010 in Sheffield, England. (Photo by John Giles - WPA Pool/Getty Images)

      At the last football World Cup, it was all about 3D. This time around, it's nothing less than 4K.
    • An Iraqi worker adjusts a control valve at the Daura oil refinery on November 5, 2009 in Baghdad, Iraq. Iraq and a grouping of U.S and European oil companies Exxon Mobil Corp and Royal Dutch Shell PLC signed a $50 billion contract today to develop the West Qurna oilfield, two days after the Iraqi South Oil Company signed a technical service contract with Britain's BP and China's CNPC to develop the Rumaila oilfield. The Iraqi government is trying to attract foreign investment, especially in the oil sector, in hopes of reviving its war-torn economy. Iraq has the third largest oil reserve in the world but it is producing way below its potential. (Photo by Muhannad Fala'ah/Getty Images)

      Iraq produces 3.3 million barrels per day and has the world's fourth-largest oil reserves. But the current crisis is putting all this in danger.
    • Valves of gas pipe-line are seen in the gas station not far from Kiev on March 4, 2014. The European Union will help Ukraine pay the $2.0 billion it owes to Russian gas giant Gazprom, a top official said Tuesday, as part of an aid package reportedly worth more than one billion euros. AFP PHOTO/ ANDREY SINITSIN (Photo credit should read ANDREY SINITSIN/AFP/Getty Images)

      The gas standoff between Russia and Ukraine could have a knock-on effect on Europe. Explore this map to find out why is the EU nervous.