Hong Kong Woman Pursues Agriculture in Japan to Realize Dream Sprouted from Rooftop Gardening

The Japan News
Elaine Wong speaks about her future plans in a greenhouse at Chiba Prefectural Agricultural College in Togane, Chiba Prefecture.

Three years ago, Elaine Wong began tilling the soil of a rooftop garden she rented in Hong Kong as a pandemic hobby. Little did she know it would plant the seeds for a career change into agriculture via Japan.

Wong, a former trading company employee, is currently studying at Chiba Prefectural Agricultural College in Togane, Chiba Prefecture. Away from the bustling metropolis, the 33-year-old is adjusting to life in rural Japan as the two-year institution’s first international student.

Her dream is to connect Chiba with Hong Kong and beyond through vegetables and edible flowers. “I never thought I would be professionally growing plants until just a few years ago, but my love for plants and fresh vegetables brought me here,” said Wong, who started her studies in April.

In Hong Kong, Wong worked for a company that imports Japanese cosmetics. Some products were made from organic plants, which drew her attention to Japanese natural products.

In 2020, gardening gained popularity among Hong Kongers amid tight pandemic regulations, as well as the national security law enacted that year by the Chinese government in response to the 2019 pro-democracy protests in the city.

Wong also turned to gardening as a refreshing outdoor hobby, renting a roof-top gardening space for 600 Hong Kong dollars (about ¥11,000) per month. She grew cucumbers, bitter gourds and other vegetables.

Courtesy of Elaine Wong
A block of space for a rooftop garden that Elaine Wong rented in Hong Kong to grow vegetables during the pandemic.

“When I first ate a cucumber that I had grown, I was blown away by the richness of the taste,” Wong recalled. “It was completely different from what we buy at supermarkets.”

As her interest in farming grew with the vegetables, she found out about the Chiba college through a friend of Hong Kongers living in Japan. It is almost impossible to find agriculture land in Hong Kong, and after the Japan-based Hong Kongers told her of labor shortages in the Japanese agriculture sector, it sparked her interest in studying and eventually working in Japan.

Wong has long been a fan of Japanese culture. As a child, she self-taught herself Japanese through anime, manga and games. After taking basic Japanese classes, she passed the top N1 level of the Japanese Language Proficiency Test while in junior high school.

In 2022, she brushed up on her Japanese and passed the Chiba college’s entrance exam that was taken by Japanese high school students.

At the college, students first learn how to cultivate a variety of vegetables, flowers and fruits, then work on a graduation theses. Wong lives in the college’s on-campus dormitory with classmates who are mostly teenagers straight out of high school.

“It’s a whole new lifestyle,” she said. “The life here is close to nature. The air is fresh, and the stars are gorgeous.”

In Hong Kong, Wong never cooked as she lived in an area packed with restaurants. After work, she would go out with friends and colleagues and often stayed out until midnight.

In Chiba, the campus is surrounded by woods and rice fields, and the dormitory door is locked at 10 p.m. Central Tokyo is a two-hour train trip away, so she usually stays on campus. During her free time, she plays games with her younger classmates or experiments with cooking. “It’s fun to think of ways to use up a whole daikon radish or carrots that we grew ourselves,” she said.

Japanese agriculture products are extremely popular in Hong Kong, and the city is a major importer of fresh vegetables and fruits. After graduation, Wong hopes to start greenhouse cultivation of edible flowers and salad vegetables in Chiba and export them to her homeland.

Edible flowers were grown on the Hong Kong rooftops, but are not yet popular in Japan. Wong, however, thinks there is a market for them both here and abroad as they can make dishes more appealing.

“I have learned here how Japanese agricultural products are grown with advanced techniques and exquisite care,” Wong said. “I want to use that to produce tasty and unique products and send them out to the world.”