The Aquilaria tree is regarded by some as an “enduring symbol of Hong Kong.” Due to its being endangered, less than 100 remain in Hong Kong. The ancient trade of agarwood is what gave the harbor city its name, which in Cantonese means fragrant city.
The oil derived from the wood is a key ingredient of luxury perfumes and high-quality incense. Incense is widely used across most of Asia. It’s burned in private homes and temples.
The unique aroma is the result of a fungus that infects the aquilaria tree, which darkens the wood. The transformed wood is then called agarwood.
“Agarwood is formed when the tree is hurt, for example, it gets attacked by insects, lightning, or it gets infected with bacteria. The tree will produce some substance to heal the wound, some oil will then appear in the wound, and that is the agarwood,” according to Joey Yuen, Manager, Wing Lee Sandalwood.
Due to the high demand for incense in east Asia, the price of agarwood has steadily grown. The catty is a traditional Chinese unit still used to measure the agarwood. A catty of high-quality incense sticks (600 grams) can bring thousands of dollars. Besides the weight, the price is also measured by the shape and the amount of resin on it.
The oil derived from the wood is also referred to as “liquid gold” and can sell for as much as HK$300,000 (roughly US$38,414). This makes the agarwood a sought-after commodity for poachers, who illegally fell the trees. Unfortunately, only a small number of the aquilaria trees, about 10 percent, have the fungal invasion, which makes agarwood very scarce.
“So, when these so-called agarwood hunters went into the forest, they would indiscriminately chop the trees,” according to Professor Chi Yung Jim, Chair Professor of Geography, University of Hong Kong.
As a result, the numbers of this tree species capable of producing agarwood is dwindling. As a matter of fact, according to experts, the tree is almost extinct.
Fortunately, there are initiatives like the one led by the executive director of the Association for the Ecological and Cultural Conservation of Aquilaria Sinensis, Ho Pui-han, who is trying to protect and replant the almost extinct tree species.
According to Ho Pui-han, the tree is something sacred to the villagers.
“The tree’s strong root makes it a symbol of preservation of tradition in Chinese culture,” she says.
The trees are now being grown in plantations, in the hope to save the Aquilaria tree and sustain its commercial use at the same time.