HONG KONG (AP) – Chi Kee Sawmill & Timber, Hong Kong’s last operating sawmill, has been processing lumber in the city for 75 years.
Soon, a family-run factory near the territory’s border with mainland China may have to close as part of a development project: It received notice earlier this year that it had to vacate its current headquarters, which it occupied for nearly four decades, to make way for a development project.
Hong Kong residents would visit Chi Kee to buy bits of wood piled high around the sawmill and collect a small piece of Hong Kong heritage.
According to the local South China Morning Post, Chi Kee was supposed to have left by June 30, but was unable to move due to the tons of timber remaining there.
Today, carpentry factories such as Chi Kee have become the sunset industry in Hong Kong, and now mass-produced imported furniture is readily available. Most sawmills have closed or moved across the border to China, where manufacturing costs are cheaper.
The factory was established in 1947, at the time when the timber industry began in Hong Kong and the city became known for its furniture industry. It was located first on Hong Kong Island but in the 1980s it moved to Ko Tong, a rural area in the New Territories.
This area is scheduled to be developed as part of the “Northern Metropolis” scheme in Hong Kong.
It’s a blueprint to develop land close to China’s border into an information technology hub that could provide tens of thousands of jobs and homes in the densely populated city, the world’s most expensive real estate market.
The plan also aims to integrate Hong Kong, the former British colony with its economy, more closely with neighboring Shenzhen, across the border.
“Back then, we thought that this was a remote area, and it wouldn’t be affected, but who knew that it would become one of the most important areas of development?” said Wong Hung-kuen, Director of Chi Kee Sawmill & Timber.
So we need to deliver it to our country because the land belongs to the country. “We just hope to get some help and sympathy from the government,” said Wong, who gave up on the dream of turning the sawmill into a museum.
The Hong Kong Development Office, which is responsible for urban planning for the city, said in a statement that Chi Kee Sawmill & Timber had been notified that they would need to leave in the second half of 2021, but that this had been extended until the end of June 2022, “which should have left time sufficient for the operator to arrange removal and relocation if necessary.”
She added that Chi Kei was offered compensation for the land, compensation for disturbances caused by the development project and assistance in planning.
Although authorities have offered to help get rid of wood scraps from Chi Kee, Wong wants to convert it into products like furniture, which he says will be less wasteful.
At the moment, it is unclear when Chi Kee will be closed for good.
Local conservationists such as Yu Ka Seng, associate professor at the University of Hong Kong, say that while the sawmill is prized by the public, it is difficult to preserve because it lacks any historical or architectural significance.
However, those who flocked to Chi Kee after hearing that her days are numbered say that she is part of Hong Kong’s heritage. Even a small piece of wood has become something to hold on to in a rapidly changing city.
Jones Kwong was among those visitors.
“I think it is unfortunate. It is the only one left in this traditional industry, and it will be demolished soon,” Kwong said.