The Garden Whisperer

An international award-winning landscape architect talks about designing Zen gardens and meditation pavilions, and being captivated by the natural world.

By | January 31, 2021

I found myself in a little forgotten corner somewhere in downtown Kuala Lumpur, right down a row of quaint pre-war shophouses, some well-preserved, some glaringly not so. However, the dappled light of the early morning sun became a saving grace and enlivened the neighbourhood with enchantment and good energy. Staring up at a beautiful huge tree that marks Inchscape, a restored double-storey shophouse office cum residence where I am to meet this enigma named Inch Lim a.k.a Lim In Chong, I mentally run through the quick facts I found on Google: multi-award winning landscape architect, including a string of global awards in China, Singapore and a feat of four Gold medals at the prestigious Japan Gardening World Cup, an alumnus of United World College and Trent University in Canada, entered the landscaping business late into his forties with no official qualifications, and first Asian to be a judge in a prestigious British gardening show. Funnily, it took me many minutes to figure out the door to the building, because like a little puzzle, Inch had it hidden behind a green trailing vine-heavy metal attachment. How clever!

As we settled down in his timber-clad office cum loft, which also doubles up as a living room, he fiddled with his phone to show me some pictures, palpably excited when telling me about his new project in the Shenzhen Bougainvillea Show 2020, at Lianhua Hill Park in Futian District, China. He calls it “a reinterpretation of the classical Chinese garden”, with a blend of contemporary design principles, seeking to encapsulate and retain the essence of the traditional Chinese courtyard home.

Two clear frustrations quickly stood out as we proceeded to chat. The first, he couldn’t find the pictures in the extensive folders of his iPhone and secondly, because of the movement control restrictions that Malaysia were under at that time, he was deeply disturbed that he could only rely on the progress pics sent by his team on the ground rather than being there personally to supervise the site construction. But in the end these were all needless worries, shortly after this interview, this wonderful project titled ‘Nan Kwang Ting: Garden of The Southern Light’ had been awarded the Gold Award for Overall Category and Best Design Award for Special Feature Category.

Inch Lim’s latest gold-awarded design, at the Shenzhen Bougainvillea Show 2020. Photograph: Courtesy of Inchscape.

Tell me about your other projects, I asked. One of Inch’s first projects is the Spice Garden in Penang and he also had a hand in helping with the plant acquisition process for the landscaping needs of Disneyland Hong Kong. He spoke fondly of a recently completed playground “made seamlessly of steel and woven bamboo for kids to climb and crawl from one interesting space to another”, a condominium garden that “examines our relationship with still clear water and biodiversity”, and a little tiny house perched on stilts away from a large main property for the gentleman of the house, “a true man cave”.

The condominium garden that explores the synergy of living with still water and biodiversity. Photograph: Courtesy of Inchscape.

He recounted his three projects that are listed in the most recent edition of the hardcover coffee table book, ‘The Tropical Malaysian House V2’ by Robert Powell. The first being House No 68 in Petaling Jaya where the primary features are a modern bamboo pavilion floating in a body of still water and an awe-inspiring rooftop rock garden. The second being the romantic honeymoon venue Villa Sang Turi in Hulu Langat where Lim designed a walled garden based on biophilic principles, and the last being the stunning Meditation Pavilion which initially was constructed as a treehouse for kids in the shape of a giant bamboo basket. The breathability and lightness of the structure eventually led the Buddhist owners to use it as a meditation pavilion.

Part of the rooftop rock garden, and furniture, all designed by Inch Lim. Photograph: Courtesy of Inchscape.

The meditation pavilion in Taman Duta, originally designed as a bamboo basket-shaped children’s treehouse. Photograph: Courtesy of Inchscape.

Inch then shows me a whole Middle Eastern-influenced pavilion that he is building in a private garden, with dramatic gates that leads from one garden to another, where symmetry takes everything to a higher plane with the pavilion itself being hand carved out of an entire block of marble by craftsmen in India.

The modern bamboo floating pavilion, a design signature of Inch Lim. Photograph: Courtesy of Inchscape.

We talked about what it takes to be a good creative architect. He is adamant that “an architect can only be successful if he/she already has the aptitude and passion for it and the desire to learn everything about the world. About nature, plants, psychology, philosophy. (They) read Nietzsche and Jung, read about Buddhism, Islam, how people live, how they react to the reality of life, all that is part of design. Apart from learning about all the hard things like floors, staircases and space planning.” It seemed like he had practically described himself.

The accomplished, enigmatic, and charming Inch Lim.

We spoke about reinvention. How did you reinvent yourself just like that, I wanted to know. How did you quit the family business—manufacturing paper stationery—after 20 years to start fresh in a whole new industry, even moving to another town. “You must have been very brave, taking the plunge!” I said in awe.

“I don’t think you take a plunge, you just do it!” he exclaimed.

“When I first started obviously it was a very hard journey, I was 45, it was 1998, after the crash, I had no income, no savings,” he reminisced. “I wanted to relook my life. The first thing I did was to look at the minimum we could live on, so we rented a house for RM500 in Batu Pahat, the children went to local schools, there was no air conditioning. I thought actually a bit of poverty isn’t bad for anybody, while you don’t want to remain poor for the rest of your lives, poverty teaches you a lot of lessons. And a lot of it is about how you use these lessons to enrich your life.”

He recalled happy memories of those years where the richness of it came from waking up his children at 3am to see a pangolin that had wandered into the house and the laughter of his little boy frolicking in a wheelbarrow filled with feed, hundreds of chicken obediently tagging behind.

As part of the transition, Inch spoke at length about “coming to design by osmosis rather by qualifications”, about starting to design gardens, collecting plants, acquiring his deep, almost encyclopaedic knowledge about plants, and immersing himself in nature and nature-related projects—a little known fact was that he was the Johor branch chairman of the Malaysian Nature Society and was involved in the earlier expeditions into the Endau Rompin area, which resulted into it being gazetted into a full National Park. “The design work just got more and more. It’s funny that my design and architecture degree came much later,” says Inch, who eventually earned a Masters in Design (Architecture and Design) from RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia, in 2017.

A private residence that incorporates nature into design. Photograph: Courtesy of Inchscape.

As a child, Inch loved drawing, frequently doodling flying dragons, birds and other exotic animals, and he loved watching people draw. “I remember very vividly that seeing people drawing things was like magic to me,” he recalls. Definitely an unusual child, never the academic one, he preferred looking at nature, playing in mud, exploring and catching things, frequently having a toad in his pocket, and he loved, still loves dragonflies and can talk endlessly about these bejewelled creations and their flight patterns. The passion for drawing continued into university, even his early university mates fondly recalled that he was always sketching houses or something related. Inch said of those years, “I studied politics because I got bored with my economic classes and I studied philosophy because I got bored of everything else.”

We took a break, he made me tea from an electric stove in his tiny kitchen and excitedly showed me his compost bin and some rare palms he was germinating from seeds. We talked about how Chinese feng shui principles prohibit having a tree in front of your front door. “I don’t believe in feng shui!” he laughed, pointing to the large tree outside, “How can it be bad feng shui when I provide a home for the most number of birds in the neighbourhood!” and proceeded to tell me about a millionaire in Singapore who sleeps in a dog kennel as advised by a feng shui master.

The office of Inchscape on Jalan Sin Chew Kee, well hidden behind plants and a remarkable tree. Photograph: Chong See Ming.

What’s next, just like the shoemakers whose kids have no shoes, Inch lamented sadly how he had neglected his own garden since he moved to Kuala Lumpur. His 10-acre garden, ‘Langkah Suka’ with views of rolling hills and the sea, in the southern town of Batu Pahat, where he “grow things for birds and animals, where you will see southern pied hornbills, giant black squirrels, slow loris, pangolins, porcupines, monkeys, over a hundred species of birds, because I grow things especially for animals” is now overgrown with his quintessential tropical plants collection consisting of gingers, palms, heliconias, alpinias, aroids, and myriad forest trees including the hardy chengal, which he complained that has hardly grown much in the decades despite much care and fertilising.

Inch is determined to go back to rework his garden, pondering, “Maybe I will be infusing English gardening typology into the tropical environment.” His travels around the world have enabled him to meet many interesting people and he has been absorbing skills and their way of thinking. “I think it’s very important to see things through other people’s eyes, be it the Japanese garden builders or the English, French, German, Italian, Indian even the Chinese,” he muses.

The stunning show garden at Wuhan. Photograph: Courtesy of Inchscape.

And Inch has definitely been meeting very interesting people. A tongue-in-cheek sketch showed a picture of him with Lee Hsien Loong, and one with the Sultan of Selangor with captioned, “How to meet the rich and famous, be a Gardener!” For his sixtieth birthday, the mayor of Hokkaido booked an avant garde restaurant high up in the mountain with spectacular views, and the chef laid a splendid feast just for him and his entourage.

A doting father, he speaks about cooking a different meal every day for his grown kids during the Movement Control Order and simple things like a hand sewn hat by his daughter brings a big smile.

I wondered aloud if he will be attempting to create one garden as part of his legacy one day, something like the Bawa gardens in Sri Lanka, but he reminds me of one of the laws of the universe “that everything is but ephemeral.” One last advice Inch is happy to share on facing the challenges of life, “In a way you have to roll with the punches, everything is in a flux, nothing remains the same, and that life is about reacting to these changes and being able to impart what you have learnt to people who are not there yet.”

Chong See Ming

Chong See Ming

Chong See Ming is a stay-at-home mum who believes in the healing powers of gardens and flea markets. She has contributed garden stories to Haven, The Edge.