In Hong Kong they were everywhere: in doorways, in foyers, in shopfronts, in courtyards, they were even on the smallest of balconies; they were used by the wealthy and the not-wealthy-in-the-slightest. And the first thing I did upon returning home – well, not the first thing: I showered, I emptied the backpack, we slept for twelve hours – was go around to the local garden-nursery. I didn’t expect to find one; I thought I’d have to drive up to the Southern Highlands where the prevalence of rich people might mean these things would be more readily available. Luckily I didn’t have to go up to the Southern Highlands. There they were, tucked away in the citrus section: kumquat trees. I bought one, one with a good shape, and I also bought a suitably deep red pot, and took the lot home, where, happy as a pig in shit, I got it all together at the backdoor.
In Hong Kong, in China, in much of Asia, kumquat trees are a wish for good fortune. They’re gifted during the various Lunar New Year festivities. More often than not they’re kept as a very small tree, a couple of feet high at the most; sometimes they’re almost as small as a bonsai. So, while the fruit is edible (it can be turned into marmalade and chutney), the tree is seen as decorative more than anything else. Kumquats have been around for centuries: the earliest historical record of the things is in twelfth-century China. The rather appropriately – and deliciously – named Robert Fortune, a collector for the London Historical Society, introduced them to Europe in 1846. And I’ve introduced a kumquat tree to my little old house in Goulburn on Tuesday 14 February 2012.
Do I need good fortune? In the greater scheme of things I’ve been fortunate in my life: I’ve had – I’m having – an excellent education; I’m healthy (no doubt there’s some dodgy wiring in the old brain-box, but that’s de rigueur these days, isn’t it), and I have family and friends, and I have something that I enjoy doing, writing, which brings in next to no money, but that’s hardly the point. The point is I don’t really need little trees and the associated superstitions to bring in good fortune. But I did want a kumquat tree at the backdoor; in fact, I’d made the decision even before leaving Hong Kong.
Really it’s just a souvenir, and certainly it’s better than the tacky crap you can buy in the markets or in the tourist shops or at the airport in the moments before departing. But perhaps there’s more. Maybe I do want my good fortune to continue. Maybe I know how lucky I am to be able to jump on a plane and spend a week experiencing another country. Maybe I don’t ever want to be in a position where opportunities such as these aren’t possible. What if my good fortune is about to run out? Not with my kumquat tree at the back door, it’s not. So I’m off to water it. I’ll water it every week. I’ll give it fertiliser. I’ll look after it during our severe winters; I might even cover it with a blanket to protect it from frosts.
Fine little kumquat tree: I’ll be good to you; please be good to me.