Magazine article New Internationalist

Gek's Rebellion: Perhaps Real-Estate Developers and Their Thugs Thought It Would Be Easy to Get Rid of the Old Peasant Woman Who Grew Vegetables on the Piece of Land They Wanted

Magazine article New Internationalist

Gek's Rebellion: Perhaps Real-Estate Developers and Their Thugs Thought It Would Be Easy to Get Rid of the Old Peasant Woman Who Grew Vegetables on the Piece of Land They Wanted

Article excerpt

GEK SIM is now nearly 60. She lives at Ayer Itam on Penang Island in Malaysia. Her family came from China 70 years ago, driven by poverty. They settled in what was then wasteland, but proved to be fertile agricultural land where they grew vegetables for sale in the markets of Penang. Her father built the house, originally of wood, but over the years this was enlarged and reconstructed into a spacious structure of concrete and corrugated metal. The family became moderately prosperous, growing leaf vegetables for local consumption; they were never rich but gained a secure sufficiency.

Since that time, Penang has become a major tourist destination and is now studded with golf courses. With the future of Hong Kong uncertain, many rich Taiwanese and Japanese now own apartments in high - rise condominiums. The island is becoming more and more urbanized.

The vegetable growers from Ayer Itam became an obstacle to the development of real estate. Over the years they all left, persuaded, bribed or threatened by developers. Gek Sim refused to go. Her piece of ground -- shaded by fruit trees, close to the Chinese cemetery, where birds and butterflies were once plentiful -- has been encroached upon; her livelihood has been eroded, her vegetable garden reduced to a small plot, where she grows only enough for her family's needs. But she will not leave.

Her rusty roofed house now looks shabby, diminished by the 15 - storey apartment blocks that were constructed on the gardens of her neighbours. I first met her four years ago, when the flats were being built. Pieces of concrete, bricks and stones regularly peppered her roof, sometimes piercing the metal and narrowly missing her grandchildren. But she would not go.

My grandfather was allowed to farm freely here. It was unused land. They simply came and squatted. No - one suggested to them that the land belonged to anyone else.' Gek Sim was growing vegetables from the age of ten, after five years of schooling. The vegetables -- kangkong, cabbage, spinach, chai si - were sold to intermediaries. That is why they never became rich. But they kept pigs and chickens, and the garden fed the whole family. …

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