What comes to your mind when you hear the word ‘Hong Kong?’ People usually associate it with one of the best cosmopolitan cities with skyscrapers and numerous shopping centers that one can never get enough of. To give a little background, the name Hong Kong is a phonetic translation of the city’s Cantonese name 香港 (heung gong), which literally means ‘Fragrant Harbour’ or ‘Spice Harbour.’ The British colonists, after arriving in the 1840s, smelt the delightful burning fragrance of incense. Since then, the name ‘Fragrant Harbour‘ stuck around and soon became the name of the city we now know as Hong Kong.
Historians believe that the city’s name of ‘Fragrant Harbour’ was an effect of its history of trading agarwood, a fragrant incense, which is known to be the ‘King of Incense’ around the time of the Ming dynasty and early part of the Qing dynasty. It was considered as a treasure as just two ounces of agarwood resin can be sold for thousands of dollars.
Before the British invaded Hong Kong, their total population only consisted of 7,500 inhabitants. These locals then started planting Aquilaria sinensis trees (Agarwood), believing that it had good feng shui. Up to this day, feng shui practitioners believe that agarwood contains special and auspicious energy (qi) that can improve luck, health, and environment. It only intensifies if it is burnt as an incense, as it is believed to release a purifying scent and spiritual energy.
These incense trees have also been used in Hong Kong for Buddhism and Taoism. It’s usually used for offerings, meditation, scriptures, and other holy ceremonies. Small amounts of agarwood resin, found in incense chips, can be sold for a whooping HK $58,000 (P361,900) per kilogram. Hand-carved sculptures made of Agarwood can be sold for millions of dollars. Aside from incense chips and Agarwood sculptures, its resin can even be distilled to create an oil that is a highly sought-after ingredient in high-end perfume that can be sold for $300,000 (P1.9 million) per kilogram.
As if its fragrance is not impressive enough, Agarwood is also a sought-after commodity for Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) practitioners. They use agarwood resin as a sedative, pain killer, digestive aid, and even as an aphrodisiac.
Sadly, due to deforestation and poaching, Agarwood is now considered nearly extinct in Hong Kong with only about less than 300 trees remaining. The Hong Kong government announced a protection action plan in protecting these trees by building iron fences and installing cameras to monitor targeted areas with Agarwood trees.
Despite Hong Kong’s protection plan, poaching is still very rampant as they take advantage of the trees that have not been fenced yet. The trees play an important role in the naming of Hong Kong. This is why they believe that it is their duty to secure their legacy by preserving these trees.