Sharing Our Pepper & Gambier Heritage

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JB Tiong Hua Association President, Datuk Seri Tey Kim Chai [2nd from Left] showing Yayasan Warisan Johor Deputy Director, DVS Kamaruddin Ab Razak and others the tiny seeds of gambier plant

I was at Muzium Tokoh Johor, within the historic Datuk Jaafar Building at Bukit Senyum to attend an event organised by Yayasan Warisan Johor (YWJ) or Johor Heritage Foundation.

Dubbed, ‘Bicarawara Tokoh – Lada Hitam dan Gambir’, this was a talk by guest speakers on Johor’s pepper and gambier heritage. One of the speakers was cultural activist, Tan Chai Puan.

In the courtyard, I met history teacher Florence and her Sixth Form students from SMK Dato Jaafar. We recently met at their school’s Book Talk where I introduced my book to their student leaders.

She said she’s here to learn more about this proud heritage and will compare it against what she read in, ‘Our pepper and gambier heritage’, from my book, My Johor Stories: True Tales, Real People, Rich Heritage!

The event aptly opened with a symbolic planting of gambier plants by guests-of-honour, Yayasan Warisan Johor Deputy Director, DVS Kamaruddin Ab Razak [2nd from Left] and JB Tiong Hua Association President, Datuk Seri Tey Kim Chai [3rd from Left] while cultural activist, Tan Chai Puan [Right] looks on

At the registration desk in the event hall, the gentleman asks me, “Dari muzium mana?” [From which museum?]

A glance at the list reveals that besides students, attendees were representatives from various museums, academic and government agencies. As I’m from “None of the above” categories, I proudly registered myself as, “My Johor Stories.”

I felt a tremor of excitement as this was a significant event where I’m witnessing the joint participation by representatives of YWJ and the Johor Bahru Tiong Hua Association – probably for the very first time – to discuss a shared heritage in pepper and gambier.

From a rare document, Tan Chai Puan translated records of a conversation between China’s first Ambassador to the UK, Guo Songtao and Maharaja Abu Bakar on 12 March 1879, when they met in Singapore

Friends from the Johor Bahru Chinese Heritage Museum had set up an exhibit to display implements used in the gambier processing industry, including samples of gambier and its products, with some photographs of typical pepper and gambier farms in Indonesia.

Another exhibit of ancient documents, handwritten in Jawi and typewritten in English on old-fashioned manual typewriters, were also on display. These, I later learned, were from a collection provided by guest speaker, UTM Associate Professor Dr Hj Kassim Thukiman.

The guests-of-honour representing YWJ, Deputy Director, DVS Kamaruddin Ab Razak and JB Tiong Hua Association President, Datuk Seri Tey Kim Chai, aptly opened the event with a symbolic planting of gambier plants.

The moderator, Md Zin Idros, gave Tan a glowing introduction before he was invited to give his presentation entitled, The Chinese Story of Gambier and Pepper that traced the Chinese’s role in Johor’s development into the world’s largest producer of gambier from the 1830s to 1850s.

Since 2014, the JB Chinese Heritage Museum has carried out extensive research into the pepper and gambier heritage in Johor and their findings are preserved in an exhibition called, Sharing of Hardships.

UTM Associate Professor Dr Hj Kassim Thukiman shared interesting information on Johor history, specifically about the concept of the surat sungai document in the Kangchu system

Tan welcomed visitors to this exhibit which provided further insight into the history of Chinese-Malay relationships that undergirds the strong support between the Johor sultanate and the Chinese community today.

He reiterated that when Temenggong Daeng Ibrahim invited the Chinese to relocate to Johor, farmers who arrived here obtained a permit known as surat sungai from the ruler to cultivate and govern a plot of land in the Kangchu system.

The earliest records showed that permits were issued to two kangchu or River Masters, Kapitan Seah Tai Heng and Seah Ling Chai of the Ngee Heng kongsi, a Teochew society, to develop plantations on the banks of Sungai Skudai.

To preserve the gambier legacy, the JB Tiong Hua Association revived the planting of gambier in Johor for education purposes. They established the Gambier Planting and Education Association and carried out a series of gambier planting projects in Chinese schools in 2017 [The Iskandarian, Aug 2017, Gambier planting revival in Johor].

Tan explained that the traditional relationship between the Johor ruler and the Chinese immigrant community was firmly established when a plot of land was awarded to the Chinese to build their place of worship at Jalan Trus.

This temple, uniquely named Johor Gu Miao or Johor Old Temple, united the five main Chinese dialect groups and bears the name of the state in honour of the Johor ruler.

As part of the temple’s annual Chingay tradition, each kangchu would send two Chinese lanterns by tongkang (small boat), to the temple to pray for good harvests.

These paper lanterns, painted with pepper and gambier motifs and the kangchu’s name, would be paraded in the annual procession. This Chingay tradition continues to this day as Johor uniquely ends its annual Lunar New Year celebrations with this grand parade on the 21st day of the first lunar month.

From a rare document, Tan Chai Puan translated records of conversation between China’s first Ambassador to the UK, Guo Songtao and Maharaja Abu Bakar on 12th March 1879, when they met in Singapore, then part of the Johor Empire.

The ambassador’s comments reflected Johor’s cordial relationship with the Chinese emperor and his pleasure at how Johor has made the Chinese farmers welcome here.

In his presentation, Associate Professor Dr Hj Kassim echoed some of Tan’s points, in particular on how the Johor ruler acknowledged the Chinese tradition of ancestor worship, where he not only presented land for their temple but also for their cemetery.

When Kassim discussed the surat sungai, he highlighted that along with this official document, the Johor Government awarded the kangchu with two lengths of cane (rotan) and a spear as symbols of power to be kept in the kangchu’s home!

While we are familiar with the sight of the pepper and gambier motif that decorates lamp-posts and public places, Kassim showed a photo to give non-Muslims a glimpse of how this same motif is also used on the carpet design inside Johor mosques!

His research proved that the kangchu system was not monopolised by the Chinese as the Javanese were also encouraged to cultivate pepper and gambier in Parit Jawa and Padang in Muar, Johor.

Besides the Chinese and Javanese, Johor’s economy was also driven by the Arabs in the cultivation of land awarded to the Syed Mohammad Al-Sagoff family under the Kukup Land Concession.

From the well-researched presentations by Tan and Kassim, I’m grateful for the new knowledge and cannot help but feel saturated by a wealth of information on our shared heritage in pepper and gambier.