October 23, 2006
A reminder from—bizarrely—the subscription-only Wall Street Journal that Christians don’t have a monopoly on truly weird beliefs:
Roger Brooks, a senior inspector for the Hong Kong police department, used to spend his time chasing petty thieves and investigating murder cases. Now he is trying to nab a new kind of criminal: men who steal “lucky” trees.
The tree that Mr. Brooks is trying to protect is the Buddhist pine, or luohansong—believed by the Chinese to bring good luck. Smuggling gangs from mainland China come to Hong Kong’s forests at night to steal scores of the evergreen trees. They dig them out of the ground, chop off leaves and limbs to make them more portable, and pile them in boats.
Mr. Brooks, 39 years old, calls the thieves a “thorn to society.”
… A wild luohansong can fetch more than $1,000, Hong Kong police say. Sellers of the tree in southern China, however, say they have sold wild luohansong for tens of thousands of dollars.
China’s economic boom—and the tree’s lucky reputation—could prove unlucky for the tree itself. Academics and environmentalists predict that if the smuggling continues at current rates, Hong Kong’s parks may become bereft of the Buddhist pine in 50 years. The tree can take 10 years to produce seeds.
… The craze for the conifer is also bringing mixed fortunes for sellers of the tree: While sales are up, so are brazen attempts to steal them. Knife-wielding thieves recently broke into Weng Yongquan’s nursery near the southern Chinese city of Chaozhou, killed his dog, and stole away with some of his trees. Now, Mr. Weng says he sleeps in his garden every night to deter poachers.
… No one seems certain how the proverb about luck came about. The tree is often free of diseases, and Prof. Jim of the University of Hong Kong conjectures that “if the tree is healthy, then probably people will be healthy. If they are healthy, they can make money.” Some of the Guangzhou merchants claim the consumers themselves made up the proverb to feel better about spending so much money on a tree.
Kee Pui-yi, a 46-year-old who works for the Hong Kong government, hasn’t had luck with her tree so far. She bought in to the craze about a year ago, spending $12 on a small potted pine. But after carefully tending to her tree, it died six months later. She then bought a second tree, which sits by her living room window and is now close to dying. She says she plans to buy a third one soon.
“I really hope good luck will happen,” she says.
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