Monday, November 26, 2012

Kuala Lumpur rated fourth best shopping city after New York, Tokyo and London, ahead of Paris and Hong Kong

CNN came out with its list of the 10 best shopping cities in the world and to everybody's amazement, Kuala Lumpur came fourth immediately after New York, Tokyo and London. In fifth place was Paris and sixth was Hong Kong.

In Kuala Lumpur, 1 Utama was selected as the Shopping Mall of choice, and special mention was made of its "indoor rock-climbing facility, massive rooftop garden with 500 species of exotic plants, and indoor rainforest with koi ponds and freshwater aquarium".

You can read the report if you google for it under The report is followed by reader's reactions, mostly questioning why Kuala Lumpur of all places! Even Malaysians find it hard to believe.

I think 1 Utama stands out by offering attractions that other malls do not. In the rooftop garden I meet people who are delighted to be in a unique garden while their shopoholic spouses are shopping away inside the mall. Otherwise they would have had to hunt for a vacant seat (usually scarce) and struggle to avoid dozing off  in a public place. Mall owners often do not realize that for every ardent shopper there may be a companion who is bored stiff. I also meet visitors from all over the world who have heard about this magical garden and have made it a point to visit when they come to Malaysia.

In the Rainforest in the Mall downstairs, smokers have a pleasant place in which to have a puff. I do not smoke myself but I know people who need to smoke once in a while.

Most mall owners think a dollar spent on a garden is a dollar down the drain and so most shopping malls end up like other shopping malls -- boring, over-commercialized and non user-friendly. It was good of CNN to make the point that the best shopping malls offer more than shopping.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Oriental persimmon, Diopyros kaki, fruiting in Kuala Lumpur

The oriental persimmon, Diospyros kaki, is grown mainly in sub-tropical and temperate climates where the fruits ripen in late autumn and winter when the trees are bare of leaves. In the tropics the oriental persimmon is grown  commercially on mountains at above 1000m, especially in Java and Sumatra. In Malaysia there have been attempts to grow persimmons in the Cameron Highlands but the industry has failed to take off commercially. The persimmon fruits in Malaysian supermarkets are all imported from overseas.

In the tropical lowlands, the oriental persimmon has been grown successfully in Kuching for at least three decades, in a few private gardens. I managed to obtain some seeds from Kuching and planted them in the rooftop Secret Garden of 1 Utama a few years ago. This week, the first batch of fruits began to ripen by turning yellow. The trees are fully leafed because the trees do not winter in KL. The fruits are undersized, measuring only 3.5 - 4 cm diameter, but this is a good start. .

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Secret Garden of 1 Utama compared with best roof gardens in the world

1 Utama has been rated the largest shopping mall in Malaysia and fourth largest in the world. How does the Secret Garden on its roof rate against roof gardens worldwide? In an attempt to find out, I searched the Internet and was initially overwhelmed by the number of roof gardens in the world. However, after imposing just four criteria, the number of gardens that qualify as ‘best roof garden’ was narrowed down to just three.

The four criteria were:

(1) The garden has to be on the roof of a building, at least one floor above ground level.

(2) The garden has to be recognizable as a landscaped ornamental garden.

(3) The planted area must be above a minimum size of 5000 sq ft.

(4) The garden has to be fully open to the public on a regular basis.

Most roof gardens do not qualify because they are private or semi-private, with restricted access.

Here is how the three roof gardens compare with each other. If I have missed any gardens that qualify, please let me know.

Kaiser Center Roof Garden, Oakland, California, USA
Designer: Theodore Osmundson
Year of Opening: 1960
Size and features: 150,000 sq ft park with fountains and ornamental ponds; lunchtime concerts on Fridays in summer.
Open on weekdays 8 am to 5 pm. Closed on weekends. Free entrance.

New Lanark Roof Garden, Lanark, Scotland
Designer: Douglas Coltart
Year of opening: 2011?
Size and features: 9,000 sq ft temperate garden with fountains, sculptures; over 70 species of ornamental plants.
Open daily, 11 am to 5 pm. Entrance by ticket.

Secret Garden of 1 Utama, Malaysia
Designers: Francis Ng & Alfred Cheong
Year of opening: 2009
Size and features: 30,000 sq ft tropical evergreen ever-flowering garden with over 500 species of trees, shrubs, herbs, climbers, epiphytes; water features, shade houses, pergolas.
Open on weekends and public holidays, 10 am to 10 pm. Closed on working weekdays. Free entrance.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

A new agriculture programme in UTAR

I am involved with the development of the new Department of Agriculture in the Universiti Tunku Abdul Rahman (UTAR) at its campus in Kampar, Perak. Our first year class has started with a pioneer group of 4 students: two boys and two girls. The course is conducted in English. Last week I gave two lectures:

The Origins of Cultivated Plants
Understanding Biodiversity through Taxonomy

This was followed by a 'field' tour to the Forest Research Institute Malaysia where the students learnt how Malaysia's reference collections of plants, insects and woods are preserved and used.

University education has changed a lot since when I was a student. Up to the 1970s all medical students had to pass a basic course in botany because of the long historical connection between medicine and botany. The first botanic gardens and the first herbaria were set up for the training of doctors and the first botanists were all practicing medical doctors. A pass in botany was also required for those proceeding to agriculture and forestry. These links are now broken. The teaching of botany has declined to the extent that agriculture and forestry can hardly find new graduates to replace their retiring botanists who served as ecologists, taxonomists, physiologists and plant-breeders. Instead they have to make do with 'biotechnologists' who are totally clueless in fields and forests.

Agriculture itself has almost died as a university degree programme. This was partly because of the success of agriculture in supplying the world with food, fibre and other necessities. People now get whatever they need from the supermarket, which never runs out of supplies. The people who made this possible are now past retirement age but there are no replacements. In another 20 years the old timers will have gone for good. This is the last chance for the old experts to train a new generation of agriculturists that can keep the world alive through the next century, which will carry at least double the present number of people on the same planet earth.

We have to cram within a three year agriculture course, the essentials of agronomy, botany, zoology, chemistry and physics. Students are assumed to have picked up skills in IT but need to be taught how to search for and evaluate information.

I am looking for young graduates to do a Master's programme in agriculture. They will double as tutors while training, and be paid as tutors. After training they will be expected to join the staff as lecturers. They must have a bachelors degree, in any field, not necessary science. The really vital requirement is high competency in English. Academia is about learning and teaching. It is absurd to have academics who have to struggle to read and write in the language that they have to use in teaching and research. Poor competency in English is the deep hole into which many of our universities have sunk into and they will not be able to dig themselves out of this hole for another two generations. We do not want to create the same kind of hole.

Sunday, January 08, 2012

Antiaris toxicaria, Ipoh's terrible tree

I had this article published in the Star Newspaper yesterday and am placing it in my blog for those who do not read the Star.

Ipoh’s terrible tree

Ipoh is named after the ipoh tree, famous as the source of blowpipe poison. When the Portuguese attacked Malacca in 1511, the native weapon they most feared was the blowpipe with its poisoned darts. It was reported that every Portuguese soldier hit by darts died except one.

The Portuguese had cannons. Replicas of such cannons may be seen as decorative items in historic Malacca and elsewhere. These cannons could not be accurately aimed and they ran hot when fired, making reloading difficult between shots. Many early experiments in science by Galileo in the 1600s and Newton in the 1700s were driven by curiosity about how cannons worked—how the balls shot forward while the cannons themselves recoiled backward, how action and reaction were equal and opposite, and how far a cannonball would fly in relation to its angle of lift. All this is now elementary physics, but in 1511, physics was not yet a science. The Portuguese had learnt to use cannons in earlier battles in Europe, and had already used cannons with devastating effect in sea battles in India. Lack of accuracy was more than compensated by power to shock and awe. Each shot generated its own lightning and thunder, causing the earth to shake and hearts to tremble. The din of native war drums and gongs was totally outclassed by the thunder of cannons. Cannon smoke reduced visibility to near zero, interrupted only by blinding flashes of cannon-lightning. The acrid smell of exploding gunpowder became the smell of destruction and death. A native war boat could be sunk with a single hit, and the native war boats advancing in close formation presented easy targets.

After the fall of Malacca, it took the Europeans more than a century to track down the source of the terrible blowpipe poison. It was the latex of a tree growing in deep forests. The German botanist Georg Everard Rumph, better known by his Latinized name of Rumphius (1628-1702), never saw the tree himself though he was stationed in the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia) as an employee of the Dutch East India Company. From information given to him about ipoh trees in the interior of Celebes, he wrote “The tree grows there on bald mountains, and one will know it from afar in that no trees grow near it, and that the soil beneath it is barren and singed. “ Every living thing that got close to the tree would die. Each tree occupied a bald mountain, with feathers and skeletons scattered on the ground around it. To obtain the latex, the collectors covered their bodies and heads with cloth because one drop of latex on the skin was enough to cause the body to swell. The latex was obtained with a bamboo stake sharpened at one end. The sharp point would be used to pierce the bark from a safe distance and the sap would run into the hollow of the bamboo.

Rumphius named the tree Arbor Toxicaria (the poison tree) but the word ‘tree’ is not considered suitable as a plant name. It is actually not allowed under the International Rules for the naming of plants. Arbor Toxicaria was renamed Antiaris toxicaria (the poisonous Antiaris) by the French botanist Leschenault de la Tour in 1810, who Latinized its Javanese name antjar to antiaris. Leschenault’s specimen of the ipoh tree became the TYPE specimen of Antiaris toxicaria, and it is permanently preserved in the Museum of Natural History in Paris.

The scientific names of all plants and animals and even minerals are similarly anchored by TYPE specimens. Type specimens define their species and because they are real, they have more authority than any description, drawing or photograph. Most of the type specimens of the world are preserved in the great natural history museums of London, Paris, Leiden and Washington DC, which have consequently become the major centres of reference of the world’s biodiversity.

When plant explorers finally tracked down ipoh trees in their native habitats, such trees were found to be harmless, growing together with other plants and often festooned with epiphytes. Ipoh latex has been closely examined by chemists and physiologists and found to contain cardiac glycosides that interfere with the heart muscles and cause heart failure. However It has to be introduced into the blood stream to be effective. Even so, it is not strong enough and is often mixed with the latex of another plant, Strychnos, which contains strychnine, to make it more potent. The mixture is concentrated by heating over a fire. In the process, its colour changes from white to dark brown. The tips of blowpipe darts are armed by dipping them into the sticky concoction. Blowpipes are still used by the Orang Asli for hunting, but only for small game such as birds, squirrels and monkeys.

Botanists have gradually pieced together the global distribution of Antiaris toxicaria. It turns out to be amazingly widespread. In Asia, it is found from southern India to southern China and throughout South East Asia to Northern Australia, Fiji and Tonga. In Africa it occurs south of the Sahara from Congo to Madagascar. Curiously, the traditional knowledge and use of ipoh in hunting and warfare has always been confined to South East Asia.

An ipoh tree grows in front of Ipoh’s iconic railway station, but the label in front of the tree fails to do justice to its legend. A bald mountain topped by ipoh trees and littered with animal skulls and bones, as visualized by Rumphius, would convey a better idea of the terror that ipoh trees evoked. The city authorities should consider creating such an experience, perhaps in Old Town, close to Concubine Lane, where one can enjoy Ipoh White Coffee in pre-war kopitiams.

(Orang Asli are aboriginal peoples in Peninsular Malaysia; a kopitiam is a Malaysian coffee shop)