Tropical Spice Garden Evolves to Survive Covid-19

By Kelvyn Yeang

September 2021 FEATURE
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Photo by: Tropical Spice Garden

PENANG HAS NO shortage of eco-tourism attractions. There is the Botanic Gardens, replete with a long history; the Penang City Park, formerly the Youth Park, where celebrations for birthdays are held and youth camps organised on weekends.

Then there is the Tropical Spice Garden, a lush 5-acre exotic Eden tucked away in Teluk Bahang, home to well-curated botanic wonders and various wildlife species.

How It Came to Be

The Garden was the brainchild of David Wilkinson and his wife Rebecca, who after setting up Tiger Rock, an artists retreat in Pangkor Island, decided to relocate to Penang, to an old rubber estate. The couple saw potential in the land and ideas were tossed about before the pair decided to transform the estate into a spice haven. Enough capital was raised and a team of experts, including Lim In Chong from Inchscape and Freddie Walker, known for developing The Habitat Penang Hill, was recruited for the project.

Inch, as Lim prefers to be called, was responsible for conceptualising the design and serene atmosphere permeating the Garden. "Light is important. I studied the sun patterns and pruned some trees to allow enough light in to illuminate the Garden," he explains. Inch also brought in a Marojejya darianii palm, likely to be one of only two in the country, he believes.

Walker also shares fondly, "As a 27-year-old, just graduated from the Royal Agricultural College, Cirencester, I was brimming with energy and bursting with passion to build this iconic Garden. Building my first Giant Swing at its heart was a very special moment. I always feel enveloped by positive energy whenever I'm in the area of the Swing."

Pre-lockdown, the Garden often hosted arts performances. Photo by: Tropical Spice Garden

It took some years to complete the Garden but by 2003, it was ready to welcome curious visitors into its verdant space, where guests could also enjoy an education on Penang's spice heritage and trade. This fitted very well in the overall tourism narrative. "Business sustainability often meant numbers," says current owner Katharine Chua, whose life story is closely entwined with the Garden (she met her husband Kenneth here).

"When I first worked here as a ticket seller and visitor coordinator, guests often wondered why they must purchase a ticket to see a jungle. It was my job to explain to them that it isn't just a jungle, the Garden is where nature meets culture.

"We wanted to avoid falling into the proverbial trap of seeing ourselves merely as a tourism attraction. So about five years ago, we did some soul searching to reevaluate what we are about. But a paradigm shift only really happened when Covid-19 struck. Rather than just being a pit-stop for tourists, we sought to build a community instead, through our value mission Hati dan Bumi (Heart and the Earth), for those eager to form a deeper connection with the Garden."

The Garden's transition into a community space was driven by collaborations, which yielded positive results. Last November, it kicked off its monthly curated experiences, filled with programmes such as nature storytelling for children, Spring Tea ceremony sessions using the Garden's spring water, and camping options. "We are also thrilled to be working with the arts community, and have collaborated with Aida Redza to host her dance performance Mengimbau."

Aida is well known for her artistic and interpretive dance choreographies. "I am of Minangkabau and Melayu Mendaling heritages, which are firmly rooted in the traditions of the Earth. Mengimbau is my ode to the semangat (energy) of life, enhanced by the natural sonics of the Garden, which are symbolic for reconnecting with my roots." Singer-songwriter Isaac Ho also shares his experience from serenading visitors to the Garden. "For a musician who plays mostly non-electronic instruments, the sounds of nature have helped to sculpt my songs and performances. It is an experience like no other."

Becoming Community-centred

Spice Fam members get to enjoy exclusive camping passes. Photo by: Tropical Spice Garden

But the threat of permanent closure became hard to ignore when Malaysia went into lockdown for the third time this May. "I was mentally preparing myself for the worse," admits Katharine. It had pained her to let go some three-quarters of the staff already. "I was contemplating whether to tell the rest if they should come in at all for August. But the funny thing about hitting rock bottom is that now you really have nothing to lose. The team and I got down to work. The more skillsets brought to the table, the better."

An SOS video was recorded and circulated online to alert Penangites of the Garden's plight, and to launch the Spice Fam membership. For RM25, members get to enjoy unlimited access to the Garden, monthly activities and events for children and families, exclusive camping passes, as well as virtual classes and workshops.

The outpouring community support was instantaneous. "It became incumbent that I steward this right and responsibly," says Katharine. But it is too soon to tell if the Garden is out of the woods; its community-centred sustainability model is only halfway to achieving the goal of 1,000 Spice Fam memberships. "The membership is more than just money, it is the Garden's lifeline to stay open."

Community gardening, one of the Garden's many events. Photo by: Tropical Spice Garden

Architect Elida Ong, who signed up as a Spice Fam member, says that "it is preserving the sense of community, the feeling of coming together, that we Penangites are desperately longing for."

"Post-Covid-19, I really don't see tourism going back to how it was. I don't have such an optimistic view. But this is human nature, isn't it?" muses Katharine. "Sometimes you need something big or tragic to really change your cause. What I'm doing now is moving further and further away from tourism. My focus has become very community-centred."

Kelvyn Yeang

Proficient in multiple creative disciplines, Kelvyn Yeang is a musician by night and media content creator by day. When he is not writing, designing, or creating, Kelvyn wanders the streets of George Town in search of a good story and a cup of coffee.