By Sharanya Pillai
Losing a loved one to cancer is a painful experience, one that 63-year-old Ng Kim Chuan knows all too well.
In 2001, Ng’s younger brother succumbed to lymphoma, a cancer affecting the immune system. While coping with his loss, Ng, then a technician at Nanyang Technological University (NTU), also realised that many cancer patients were struggling to afford modern drugs and wondered if there were any other means of boosting their health.
“There must be a more affordable way for patients from low-income households to cope with cancer treatment. I began to read some books and articles about how traditional herbs can help cancer patients,” he told The Online Citizen in Mandarin.
“I cannot declare that these herbs can cure diseases, because I’m not a qualified doctor. But I focus more on the health benefits of the herbs, than on viewing them as medication.”
Over the next eight years, Ng read widely about the health benefits of Chinese herbs and heard success stories from friends who had consumed the herbs. In 2009, he resolved not only to grow his own herbs, but to provide them to everyone at zero charge, by starting the NTU Community Herb Garden.
Nestled in a secluded corner of the university’s Jalan Bahar entrance, the garden is about the size of 1.5 football fields, and boasts over 300 species of herbs and fruits. Ng left his technician job last year and has committed himself to the garden full-time as a research assistant with NTU’s School of Biological Sciences. He is aided only by a fellow full-timer, two contract workers and a handful of volunteers. The garden is sustained by an endowment fund and relies on the goodwill of donors to maintain operations.
Manpower and financial constraints are therefore major challenges. But even in the face of limited resources, Ng’s effort has benefitted over 3000 people from all over the world. Patients have flown in from neighbouring countries such as China, Myanmar and the Philippines, just to visit the garden for herbs. Last year, a celebrity chef from New York dropped by to source for ingredients.
“We don’t segregate visitors based on religion, race or nationality. Whoever needs the herbs, just come,” Ng said emphatically during our first meeting at the garden. “Setting up this garden is mainly to provide herbs for the needy, without placing a financial burden on them.”
It was this kindly, unassuming demeanour that stood out in my conversations with Ng. Our first meeting was on a drizzly Thursday morning, and the garden made for a glorious sight - flowers in full bloom and moist leaves glistening under the gentle sunlight.
Sitting at a table salvaged from the university’s refuse, we spoke over home-brewed Indian mint tea, with Mr SK – the other full-time staffer – serving as a translator. Together, the two men pored over files and notebooks meticulously detailing the herbs they had dispensed to patients and medical researchers.
Details of each visit and the herbs prescribed were painstakingly recorded, even down to technical details of which stage of cancer a patient was suffering from. While declining to comment on any specific case, Mr Ng handed me a booklet of testimonials from visitors who had benefited from his herbs, such as a cancer-stricken woman who gained the strength to cope with chemotherapy after consuming the Sabah Snake Grass, and an elderly man who found relief from joint pain through a concoction of coix seed plant roots.
As we converse, visitors and volunteers trickle in to meet Ng, arriving with warm greetings and engaging in friendly banter. There was a tight sense of community, and nearly all of them are seniors. Ng conceded that the garden does not receive many young visitors, but hopes to that will change.
One NTU undergraduate has stepped in to make a difference. Lee Jin Long, a final-year civil engineering student, spearheaded the NTU Community Herb Garden Student Committee last year. The committee helps Ng with public relations, reaching out to other youth at exhibitions, running the garden’s Facebook page and raising awareness on the need for donations. I met the 22-year-old on my next visit to the garden, and was surprised to find out that he initially had no interest in herbs, but acted purely out of respect and compassion.
“I was jogging around the area and discovered that there’s a herb garden in here. And after I spoke to Mr Ng, I realised that there are only two men over 60 working full-time in such a big plot of land,” Lee said. “It’s not very moral [to have the elderly work alone], so I decided to see what I can do for them.”
Thus far, the committee has technically gathered over 30 members, but Lee says that only about four of them help out regularly. Yet they persist in their efforts. For Ng and his team, reaching out to the young is crucial not just for the sustainability of the garden, but to preserve an important aspect of Chinese culture.
“If nobody passes on this knowledge of herbs to the young, the culture will be die out,” says Tan Thean Teng, a herbalist who has volunteered since the establishment of the garden. “So we have a responsibility to teach the young generation about these herbs.”
Ng intends to reach out to schools to have students “play with the soil and plants” at his garden and learn more about Chinese herbology. He also hopes for more funds to improve the visitor experience at the garden, by building covered walkways and planting more climbers. But more than beautifying the space, he wants to introduce even more varieties of herbs for the benefit of the poor and sickly.
However, Ng might have sacrificed his own well-being for his unrelenting devotion to providing free herbs for the community. I learnt of this only by speaking to his daughter, Ellyn Ng, who revealed that her father works on the garden for over 12 hours a day, sometimes staying up till 8pm just waiting for visitors to pick up their herbs.
“He has pains all over his body, but he still puts in his full effort when patients request for herbs at any time,” Ms Ng tells me. “Sometimes I even have to request his permission for us to have some family time together. To me, he has overworked.”
Ng, predictably, disagrees that he has worked too hard. When I mention retirement plans, Mr Ng shrugs off the notion, replying: “Old people must work, or our brains will ‘die’. We need to work to stay active and healthy.”
“I will keep working at the garden, until I cannot do so anymore.”
Featured image by Gina Goh / NTU Community Herb Garden Student Committee
Photographs by Sharanya Pillai