I remember... When orchids were status symbols

Flowering of S'pore's most exotic exports

Dr Teoh Eng Soon in his home garden at Bukit Timah, cupping one of the Brassolaeliocattleya Pink Diamond orchids he has lovingly nurtured. The former president of the Orchid Society of South-east Asia was first beguiled by these exquisite flora more
Dr Teoh Eng Soon in his home garden at Bukit Timah, cupping one of the Brassolaeliocattleya Pink Diamond orchids he has lovingly nurtured. The former president of the Orchid Society of South-east Asia was first beguiled by these exquisite flora more than 50 years ago.ST PHOTO: AZIZ HUSSIN

In the 1950s to 1970s, orchids were like Lamborghinis or Ferraris, said Dr Teoh Eng Soon, a former president of the Orchid Society of South-east Asia.

"There were a lot of rich individuals becoming interested in orchids, in owning a famous orchid. It was a status symbol," said Dr Teoh, an obstetrician and gynaecologist now in his 70s.

A stalk of coveted orchids, such as the prize-winning Vanda Tan Chay Yan, could cost $5,000.

The period from the 1950s to the mid-1970s was the springtime for orchid-growing here.

Orchids cultivated in Singapore won prizes at global fairs and were in demand overseas.

Scarce land and high labour costs put the squeeze on orchid farms here, which numbered about 50 in the 1970s but now come to about a dozen, said Dr Teoh.

In 1954, the Vanda Tan Chay Yan - a peach-coloured hybrid named after the grandson of philanthropist Tan Tock Seng - was awarded a prestigious first-class certificate by the Royal Horticultural Society at the Chelsea Flower Show. In 1957, it won a prize for being the best Vanda at the Second World Orchid Conference in Hawaii.

English newspapers of the times urged readers to join the circle of orchid lovers. "With orchids, you will always be in good company, you will enjoy life surrounded by beautiful flowers, and you will find that orchid people are friendly people," said a 1961 article from The Singapore Free Press.

Many orchid shows were also held here, including the one opened by President Yusof Ishak at the Singapore Turf Club this week in 1965, where some 200 species of Malaysian orchids were put on display.

Orchids were fast becoming an important export here - in 1964, such exports came to $270,000.

Indeed, orchids are very robust and can last for six weeks to three months, compared with, say, the hibiscus flower, which lasts just a day, noted Dr Teoh. As they could be sent overseas, interest grew in cultivating them as commercial crops, he added.

Singapore was a leader in Asia when it came to the growing of orchids in the 1950s to 1970s, but the Republic was later overtaken by Thailand and Taiwan.

Scarce land and high labour costs put the squeeze on orchid farms here, which numbered about 50 in the 1970s but now come to just about a dozen, said Dr Teoh.

Fewer people are interested in growing orchids nowadays, as lifestyles become more hectic and fewer people live in landed properties with gardens.

Orchids used to fetch high prices, but today, most people would not pay more than $100 for an orchid plant.

For Dr Teoh, a grandfather of one, orchids have been his passion since his days as a research fellow at the University of Singapore some 50 years ago. He stayed at a hostel next to a nursery and often dropped in there to see the orchids.

Noting that orchids have medicinal uses, especially in traditional Chinese medicine, where they are used to treat fever or headaches, for example, Dr Teoh said: "I like orchids as the subject is very complex. You can approach it from different angles."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on September 20, 2015, with the headline 'Flowering of S'pore's most exotic exports'. Print Edition | Subscribe