Bonsai lover bucks trend

At the very millennial age of 30 and understanding neither Chinese nor Japanese, in which many bonsai websites and magazines are written, Mr Mas Kamalludin is not your average bonsai owner.

But over the past three years, researching English-language websites for bonsai enthusiasts and through trial and error, he has amassed six miniature plants, including a $3,000 70-year-old kishu juniper which he bought last December.

His plants are displayed outside his four-room HDB flat in Yishun, where he also grows other plants such as rose, mulberry and chiku.

He says the bonsai are great conversation starters with neighbours, flyer distributors and aunties selling Yakult, who are usually surprised the gardener is Malay.

On days when he is working as a manager in a luxury shoe boutique, he spends about half an hour watering and trimming his bonsai. On rest days, he can spend up to seven hours shaping and admiring his plants.

He calls it a therapeutic activity. "It takes my mind off stresses at work and reminds me that achieving success - whether it is with bonsai or life in general - takes time."

Almost all his bonsai are imported from Japan. Most are junipers as he likes the "ancient-looking" designs that can be achieved using this species. He lives in the flat with his wife, 28, and their two sons, aged four years and five months.

Although he first saw a bonsai in the 1984 film The Karate Kid, he never had the chance to buy one until 2013, while he was shopping for seeds at a nursery with his wife.

He says: "They came in many designs, some very carefully cultivated. It amazed me how neat and charming these tiny trees looked.

There, he bought his first bonsai - a 12-year-old Chinese elm - for $30. But it died within a month after he mistakenly cut off part of its roots.

To critics who say the relentless snipping and moulding of a bonsai is cruel to the plant, he says: "We do this to achieve the plant's potential beauty and correct its imperfections. It's like braces - you won't say wearing braces is cruel, right?"

He adds that bonsai lets him exercise his creativity. "It is a living thing, yet you can shape it. It becomes my creation and I am the artist."

His homemaker wife Fazlin Abdul Fadzil says: "When he started on this hobby, I was concerned because I didn't know any young people doing it. But I support it because it makes him happy."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 25, 2016, with the headline 'Bonsai lover bucks trend'. Print Edition | Subscribe