We arrive early one Thursday morning to see Mr Ng sweeping the floor. He pauses, looks over at us and says in mandarin, “Who are you with again? Channel 5, Channel 8? Radio?”
“We’re with the internet,” we say.
With that, he puts down his broom and brings us some freshly brewed tea.
Mr Ng is a chicken farmer turn transportation entrepreneur turn self-taught Chinese herbal medicine expert who grows and gives away medicinal herbs for free. His NTU Community Herb Garden sits on a small slip road off NTU’s Jalan Bahar entrance full of (aside from herbs) fruit trees, flowers and butterflies.
While most people Mr Ng’s age are kicking back and enjoying their retirement, Mr Ng puts on tall yellow rubber boots, a large rimmed hat and a pair of gloves daily to tend to his garden. His weekly routine includes harvesting crops, distributing free herbs, conducting educational tours of the garden, and brewing ‘tea’ for anyone who comes.
Mr Ng is the son of farmers, 6th in a family of 9 children, and grew up a short distance from the herb garden. After school every day, Mr Ng and his brothers would help their parents tend to a garden filled with all sorts of vegetables including Chinese Smashed Cucumbers, Four-angled beans, Okra (Ladies Fingers), and Chye Sim. The family also reared rabbits, goats, pigs, ducks, and chicken.
According to Mr Ng, the secret to his father’s long life (he lived until a ripe old age of 92!) was a sunny disposition and a kind heart. His father worked tirelessly to send money back to his hometown in China for the construction of hospitals and schools. Unfortunately, this would often compromise the needs of his own family leading to tension between his parents that resulted in his mother taking over as breadwinner for the family. Through her example, Mr Ng learnt the value of patience, integrity and perseverance.
Mr Ng has always been interested in traditional Chinese herbs, but it wasn’t until his brother’s cancer that he really started to act on his convictions. His brother’s illness exposed Mr Ng to the many people whose health was weakened by expensive medical treatment. He wanted to find a way to help and saw a solution in Traditional Chinese Medicine.
After growing a few of his own herbs, Mr Ng began investing his money in a garden. He did so despite objections from his family who were concerned about his health and financial well-being.
Sure enough, while working on the garden expansion project in 2008 with a few colleagues and NTU students, Mr Ng broke his finger clearing land. While building up the garden a while later, he fell and had to undergo knee surgery. Instead of taking the three months off that the doctor instructed, Mr Ng went back to the garden three days later to help plant new seedlings. Most recently, Mr Ng suffered a fall and hurt his elbow so his right arm isn’t fully functional, yet he remains unstoppable and continues to work.
When asked why he pushes himself this way, he said, “When you do something that has meaning to you, you don’t have time to think about pain, you forget that it hurts.” To him, the meaning comes from stories of people who have experienced health benefits as a result of the herbs. Being able to hear from and see the progress of his visitors is his motivation. To date, Mr Ng has had shared herbs with more than 4000 people from all over the region who have visited his garden.
Though he gives out the herbs for free to people who come to him, Mr Ng often faces scepticism, opposition and exploitation. The sceptics believe that his generosity is fueled by a selfish hunger for fame and recognition. The opposers don’t believe in the medicinal value of herbs and that he is selling a lie. Then there are those who take advantage of the free herbs by driving up in their expensive cars, collecting the herbs and driving away without contributing a donation. In the face of all these challenges, Mr Ng turns to his mother’s advice to be patient, have perseverance and live with integrity.
While we were at the garden, someone came to collect their herbs. Mr Ng asked for her prognosis and health status. After getting an update, he encouraged his visitor – “Take the herbs diligently. Exercise every day and keep in good spirits. You’ll get through this. Do your best to regain your health.” He then took her to his wall of information to tell her more about the herbs she was taking home. With that, he sent her on her way.
At the end of our time together, Mr Ng made sure we all went away with a piece of the garden - fresh Kailan and bananas. He thanked us for our work because he believed that sharing his story would encourage others to do good deeds too.
Mr Ng is as generous as he is dedicated. He is genuine, unselfish, and freely gives of his heart. He runs on the fuel of his desire to help people and it shows in every interaction he has. He internalised the lessons his parents taught him as a child and for that we are grateful. As the saying goes, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.
If you would like to be a volunteer at the NTU Community Herb Garden, there are many ways to do so including:
- Translating plant information/labels from Mandarin into English
- Overseeing worker safety at the garden
- Coordinating volunteers
- Coordinating orders and requests
Do note that the work can be physically strenuous. Many volunteers with good intentions had come to help Mr Ng, but did not complete their tasks because they didn't anticipate the high level of commitment.
If you would like to make a donation, you can do so through NTU to the NTU Community Herb Garden Endowment.
[A modified version of this story was also featured on Our Better World: https://www.ourbetterworld.org/en/story/the-herb-gardener]