Gambier planting revival in Johor

From text books, Chinese primary school students are learning that Johor was the world’s largest producer of gambier from the 1830s to 1850s.

Replanting saplings in the
compound of SJK (C) Pu Sze, Skudai
The important link between the Chinese and Malay communities in the pioneering era and how pepper and gambier earned its place of honour in Johor for its role in boosting the state’s economy, are in their school syllabus. 

But what is gambier? While students may have a vague idea, most Johorens don’t and hardly anyone has ever seen a gambier plant. It is rather ironic that gambier plants, which were once widely cultivated in Johor, are no longer found here.

The Johor Baru Chinese Association is well aware of it and in 2013, they sent a team on a mission to Indonesia to carry out extensive research into the cultivation of pepper and gambier and uncover how it contributed to Johor’s economic development.

The team made two visits where they discovered that farmers on Kundur Island were still using traditional methods with very little mechanization in the process to harvest, boil young gambier leaves, press them to extract juice and dry the juice concentrate before it was shaped into a block, cake or cube form.

In September 2015, their findings were presented in the Johor Baru Chinese Heritage Museum in an interesting exhibit themed, Sharing of Hardships.

Watering the plants after planting
them in the school compound
The Chinese translation of this phrase described how the pioneers in the Malay and Chinese communities worked together, sharing both bitter and sweet experiences as they built the state’s economy, literally from the ground up.

Through this exhibition, visitors learned that before the invention of chemical dyes, the juice from gambier leaves was widely used for leather tanning and dyeing cloth. With Europe as a major market, Johor was then the world’s largest producer of gambier.

As the chemical industry developed in the early 20th century and synthetic colours were invented, the demand for gambier ceased and the plants virtually disappeared. While we still have pepper plantations here, there are hardly any gambier plants.

The exhibition also provided a further insight into the history of Chinese-Malay relationships which undergirds the strong support between the Johor sultanate and the Chinese immigrant community. 

History recorded that Chinese and Malay farmers were already successfully cultivating gambier plantations in Singapore and the Riau Islands in Indonesia but after 10 to 15 years, their land was exhausted and infertile. So in 1844, when Temenggong Daeng Ibrahim invited the Chinese to move into Johor to open the land for new plantations, they were ready to relocate. 

Teow Kai Fook [2nd from Right] presenting a range of
implements used in gambier farming, which were
donated by a farm he visited in Kundur Island, Indonesia
Immigrant Chinese with a strong pioneering spirit were attracted to the prospect of huge tracts of land, waiting for them to clear for cultivation. The Teochew belonging to the Ngee Heng society, were the dominant clan among the early settlers.

Under the kangchu or River Lord system, farmers who arrived in Johor obtained a permit known as surat sungai from the ruler to cultivate and govern a plot of land.

One of the earliest records showed that the Johor ruler issued permits to two kangchu, Kapitan Seah Tai Heng and Seah Ling Chai of the Ngee Heng society, to develop plantations on the banks of Sungai Skudai.

As pepper and gambier cultivation became widespread, wealth poured into the state coffers. While they prospered, the Chinese farmers gave gambier its nickname, gam mi (Mandarin) a phrase translated as “golden honey.”  

Between 1844 and 1916, over 130 plantations developed successfully throughout the state. But as gambier lost its economic value in the 1920s, gambier plantations were gradually replaced by rubber plantations.

It is indeed commendable that the legacy of pepper and gambier and its contribution to Johor’s economic development is carefully persevered in the JB Chinese Heritage Museum and students are studying it in their school syllabus.

While preserving this legacy, the JB Chinese Association also aims to revive the planting of gambier in Johor for education purposes. One of its initiatives is establishing the Gambier Planting and Education Association with a joint committee headed by president, Ho Kuek Kuwang and vice-president, Gan Ah Tian.

Its first gambier planting project in 2016 was where 40 gambier saplings were planted, aptly in SJK (C) Chian Kuo, situated at Bukit Gambier near Tangkak. These plants were cultivated from seedlings brought back from Kundur Island.

The first in the series of gambier planting projects in and around JB kicked off in June 2017 at SJK (C) Pu Sze in Skudai and this will be followed by similar projects in other schools here.

A group photo showing Gambier Planting and Education Association president,Ho Kuek Kuwang, [5th from Left]
and JB Chinese Association president, Datuk Seri Tey Kin Chai, [6th from Left] holding a gambier plant
Representatives from the JB Chinese Association and Gambier Planting and Education Association toured a mini exhibition led by JB Chinese Association President, Datuk Seri Tey Kim Chai, to learn more about the industry from information buntings.

They also viewed a range of implements used in the gambier production process that were donated by farmers in Kundur Island. This exhibition will also be presented at every gambier planting project held in other schools.

The association representatives were joined by SJK (C) Pu Sze principal, Tan Chow Choo, in a planting ceremony where eight gambier saplings were planted in the school compound.

“I hope to be invited back next year to see how these plants have flourished in your care,” said Ho who believed that the saplings would be well taken care of here.

The revival of gambier in Johor through the planting projects in schools aims to help students better appreciate the essence of Sharing of Hardships. Ho said it was vital for younger generations to value their rich heritage derived from the fruit of labour and hardship that pioneering generations endured when they cleared the Johor jungles and successfully cultivated the land with pepper and gambier.

Ho also announced that the JB Chinese Association, North-West Region Joint Committee, will be publishing a book on the history of the kangchu system since the 1780s, from gambier cultivation to rubber and pineapple plantations and the development of the Skudai area. This book entitled, History of the Skudai Chinese Community, is scheduled to be published by December 2017.

A version of this was published in the August 2017 issue of The Iskandarian