Chinese Leafy Greens, Polytunnels, and Killer Floods

I have often been asked why I don’t grow much Chinese leafy greens. Those commonly seen in the market like chye sim/choy sum, kai lan, xiao bai chai, Chinese cabbage, etc. After all, growing up in a Chinese family, these are the vegetables frequently seen on my family’s dining table. Food is a big part of our identity, heritage and culture. What we eat during childhood is usually entrenched deeply in us. It is familiar ground we draw comfort from. So why do I choose not to grow these vegetables?

Truth be told, it’s something I have done before. I still remember planting and harvesting chye sim, Japanese kai lan, Chinese cabbage, and xiao bai chai from a  rooftop garden at a school over 3 years ago. It’s always nice growing what you ate growing up as a child, proudly bringing the harvest home for your mum to cook them in the same way.


Peeking into supermarkets around Singapore and Malaysia, one can be led to think that these Chinese greens grow perfectly well here. You see chye sim, bak choy, kai lan, radishes arranged in neat rows with labels stating they are grown locally. Walking around commercial vegetable farms, you see acres of them planted neatly on straight mounds. A sea of uniform green covered with thick juicy leaves. Try Googling “malaysia vegetable farm” or “singapore vegetable farm” and you’ll know what I mean. Images are powerful, and that was the type of farm I was striving for when I started farming.


Conventional image of a vegetable farm (Source: AVA)

But somehow, along the way of my farming journey, I stopped growing these vegetables. Here’s why…

With Nature, Not Against

Originating from temperate China, these Chinese leafy vegetables do not actually grow well in our tropical heat and humidity. Yet they are commonly seen in markets and eateries here. One reason is that there are many overseas Chinese living here (including myself) and our diet is very much tied to our Chinese heritage. My grandparents, born in China, took the boat down south to Singapore like many Chinese of their era. They brought with them culture and memories, among which would be Chinese food and cuisine. In foreign land, they kept their identities and reminisced about home by cooking and eating what reminded them of China. When it was my parents’ turn to provide food for the family, they kept to familiar tastes, albeit with more meat and fish. And so it goes, and I would probably have stuck to this diet if not for my farming journey.

Along the way as I experimented with growing different vegetables, I realized that these Chinese leafy greens simply do not grow as easily and well as other tropical leafy vegetables. The Chinese leafy greens are fragile and require much more hand-holding by humans. More water, more fertility, more labour. As a short-lived annual, farmers harvest the entire plant every month or so, leaving the soil bare and exposed to the elements once more. Vegetables for the next cycle will have to be grown from seeds again. They are mostly grown under plastic polytunnels because they might rot after one of our usual tropical rainstorms. Or protected with insect netting and sprayed liberally with pesticides because they are too weak to resist pests.


Inuka lying on concrete. Source: mothership

I can’t help but think of Inuka, Singapore Zoo’s beloved and recently deceased polar bear, that became green from algae because of the high temperatures. Likewise, the Chinese leafy greens that do manage to grow here are a pale comparison to their original selves. I’ve heard of a Singaporean family that was living abroad in China for some time. Upon returning home, they found the Chinese greens in Singapore bland compared to those in China, even though both were home-cooked in the same way. Perhaps that’s why Chinese eateries here are notorious for their liberal use of MSG to enhance flavour.

As a natural farmer, I try to work with nature, not against her. Often I come across farmers that proudly proclaim that they have successfully grown something that doesn’t naturally grow here. Strawberries, grapes, carrots, dill, arugula, Middle Eastern figs. It seems to me an egoistic issue and a reflection of our relationship with nature. Why are we proud of our ability to manipulate, outsmart and trump nature? What are we trying to prove? To have conquered nature and stand above her?

The idealist in me can’t help but imagine: what if we all grow what naturally grows well here? We will need less labour, freeing up time to make music, art, and love. We will need less farming land, leaving more space for other beings that we share our planet with. Less water needed, more forests, more top soil, more carbon sequestered. Organically grown food can be made more affordable.

Reality Check

A big reason why farmers here are still growing temperate vegetables is simply because it makes economic sense. People are growing affluent and can afford to pay more for what they feel like eating. And purchasing power is something that the overseas Chinese definitely do not lack. However, end consumers are disconnected with farmers and their farming practices. They do not see the chemicals needed to keep these weak vegetables looking unblemished, the water being squandered, or the exposed soil being eroded.

I recently came across a page Disappearing Hills. It talks about the 2013 Bertam Valley Floods in Cameron Highlands, Malaysia that left people dead and homes destroyed. The Malaysian government responded decisively with a military task force codenamed “Operation Gading”. Their mission is to eradicate unauthorized farms to prevent future floods and mudslides. To the unfamiliar, this begs the question of: what has the farms got to do with the floods?

Cameron Highlands is a plateau discovered by William Cameron in 1885. Because of its elevation, the temperature averages 18 degree Celsius and is much lower than the rest of tropical Malaysia. The coolness allows exotic crops from temperate regions like strawberries and certain vegetables like the Chinese leafy greens to be grown here – the tropics. Despite the cool temperatures there, the rainfall is not at all temperate. Cameron Highlands receive 2,700mm of rainfall annually, like the rest of Malaysia. To resolve this issue, farmers erect plastic polytunnels so that the rain does not get to the plants and soil. Instead of soaking into the soil, the rainwater gets channeled instantly and straight to the rivers. Coupled with widespread deforestation to make space for these highland farms, rainfall that previously infiltrated soft spongy forest grounds now gush into rivers hard and fast. Water gifted by the sky to proliferate life now becomes a dangerous destroyer.


It’s an uncomfortable but undeniable fact that our collective desire for vegetables ill-suited for tropical conditions have driven the farmers up to cooler highlands. Up there, these farmers clear forests and erect polytunnels to grow food for us. As more people become rich and more able to afford these non-tropical foods, the highland landscape has transformed to a sea of plastic sheets. Soils no longer store and moderate water flow. Rainwater mixed with eroded silt is discharged rapidly downstream. Down there, the flood waters damage property and take lives. Who can imagine that the most common and innate desire of putting food on one’s family dining table causes floods that destroy other families far away?


Scene of the mud flood at Bertam Valley near Cameron Highlands. (Source: The Star)

We live now in a world where the consequences of our actions are too distant for us to see. Globalization with its complex supply chains has made possible for us to attain goods from all over the world. However, its pitfall could be the lack of feedback. End consumers are involuntarily made complicit in actions they do not want to take part in. Fashion with child labour, diamond with conflict, palm oil with haze. Gone are the days where our actions lead to consequences that can be felt locally. A farmer of the past that deforests a steep slope to plant vegetables will get feedback. The river will soon turn muddy or worse, the slope slides and buries him and his house in the middle of the night. Likewise, liberal use of pesticides and herbicides in a family-operated farm might lead to a very sick family. Gaining feedback is one of the principles of permaculture and an advantage (or disadvantage!) of going local.

What Then?

It’s always tough when one has to pick between their heritage and being responsible. I cannot say that I’ve completely stopped eating Chinese leafy greens. But when I’m ordering my food or choosing what to grow in the garden, I try to pick what grows well naturally in our climate. I used to think that simply buying locally-grown produce is an appropriate and sufficiently responsible choice. But that has changed now that I know exotic produce like kale and lettuce are being grown locally in air-con rooms with LED lights.

Making food choices aligned with one’s personal moral values can be difficult in our highly globalized and complex world. Should I buy the non-organic kang kong from a local farm, or the organic carrot from California? Dried mushrooms from China that doesn’t need fossil fuel-guzzling refrigerated transport, or local ones grown in air-con? Which is the lesser of two evils?

I like to draw clues from the traditional cuisines of tropical cultures. Malay, South Indian, Indonesian, Orang Asli (the indigenous people of Malaysia), southern Thai, etc. They give a glimpse of what grows easily in the tropics before the advent of chemicals, polytunnels, and other high-input methods. We seldom see in their traditional cuisines Chinese leafy greens, cabbage, lettuce, carrots, radish, and tomatoes. For one, it does not seem that they have original names for these vegetables. In the Malay language, the Chinese leafy greens are all broadly categorized as “sawi” without the differentiation given to things commonly used. Cabbage is “kubis” which sounds like a recent adaption from English. The Malay name for carrot “lobak” sounds the same as its name in Cantonese, a southern Chinese dialect. And Chinese white radish (“lobak putih“) means white carrot. Lettuce is simply known as “salad“!

What more, cuisines from these tropical cultures have been tried and tested in so many kitchens over the centuries. What we inherit from these innumerable mothers and grandmothers are ways to make tropical ingredients both delicious and nutritious.

The vegetables we do see commonly in these tropical cuisines include sweet potato (leaves and tubers), fern shoots, coconut milk, kangkung, petai (stinky bean), banana flower, sweet leaf (sayur manis), eggplant, fermented durian, tree vegetables (turi, moringa), and many other unheard of stuff!

Interestingly, if you now walk into a Malay eatery in an urban area, you are likely to encounter cabbage and carrots; urbanites aspire for higher-status food as they get richer. The privileged class that already grew up with cabbage and carrots might then aspire for Western vegetables like lettuce, kale, arugula, and beetroot. Colonialism is very much present and alive today.

Changing the way we eat is probably harder than changing the spots on a leopard. People that have relocated from the homeland of their culture usually stick stubbornly to their ancestor’s diets. Look at the Australians. They are known to be big on green and recycling. They also know that eating kangaroo is much more sustainable than cows and sheep.

  1. Kangaroos are so abundant that they are considered a pest and hunted down by the government.
  2. Kangaroos eat less, resulting in less grazing pressure. When they do eat, they munch on hardy native grasses. Cows and sheep eat high-quality grasses that need irrigation and fertilizers.
  3. Kangaroos have padded feet that are much gentler on the land than the hooves of livestock that cause soil compaction.
  4. Their guts are different and barely emit any methane, a potent greenhouse gas.

Yet, the general Australian population still struggle to make the change.

There’s a glimpse of hope though. Some Australians now follow a new diet called kangatarianism, which is a vegetarian diet with the addition of kangaroo meat based on environmental and ethical concerns!

A Different Farm

When the Portuguese discovered Brazil in 1500, they noticed that the natives did not farm. Yet, the expedition reported, “they are of a finer, sturdier, and sleeker condition than we are for all the wheat and vegetables we eat“. Little did the Portuguese know that they were standing in the middle of the farm! The farm looked like a forest with tall trees and many layers of vegetation. The natives were practicing agroforestry, which is the intentional combination of agriculture and forestry. Not understanding that, the Europeans then implemented their own way of agriculture and we are where we are today. It’s the same story in many other tropical places all over the world.

Marten Food Forest Fig 6.2

Typical food forest in Indonesia.

Marten Home Garden Fig 6.5

Typical home garden in Indonesia.

I hope the image of farming in the tropics will change. The current image that comes to mind is a few acres of ankle-height vegetables all of the same height and size. It’s a manifestation of a human intellect that does not learn from the great master – Nature. A farm that mimics the ecosystem of its local habitat can be productive without degrading the environment. Here in the humid tropics, the dominant ecosystem is the forest.

Instead of a simple, single-strata, and uniform monoculture of annual plants at an industrial-scale, may the farm of our future be a complex, multi-strata, and biodiverse polyculture of perennial plants at a community-scale.

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