Iconic pepper & gambier plants

Iconic motifs that feature Johor's economic
crops - pepper and gambier - on lamp
posts throughout the city
When you drive along the streets in the city and on the expressways, do you take notice of the designs that decorate the lamp-posts?  Look closer and you will see that the design features intertwined sprigs of pepper and gambier plants.  This motif is repeated in several variations on lamp-posts at different locations in the state and is consistently used as a Johor icon.  This motif however, has become so common that even many local people may not know the historical significance of these plants.  
Pepper and gambier have earned a place of honour in Johor because their widespread cultivation played a vital role in the state’s economy in the 1800s.  At that time, Johor was the world’s largest producer of gambier because large plantations were cultivated with pepper and gambier as the state’s economic crops.  

This is a mind-boggling historical achievement for Johor and it made me think about the strong relationship between the Chinese and Malay communities in the pioneering era.  When I saw the set of Chinese couplets displayed in the Sultan Abu Bakar Royal Museum within Istana Gardens, presented by Chinese community leaders to the sultan at the inauguration of the Johor Sultanate, I started to dig into history to find out more.
Samples of pepper and gambier displayed in the JB
Chinese Heritage Museum
In the 1800s gambier plantations in Singapore and the Riau Islands were run by Chinese and Malay farmers and the produce was mainly exported to China.  Pepper and gambier plants were usually planted together as these plants share a symbiotic relationship and tend to grow entwined around each other.  The remains of gambier leaves on the ground act as nutrients or fertilizers for pepper plants while protecting the pepper plant roots.  Europe was a major market and the peak of the gambier trade lasted from the 1830s to 1850s.  Gambier had a big market in the British dyeing and tanning industry which resulted in increased prices and encouraged the Chinese to find fresh land for new plantations. 
Pieces of processed gambier in a bowl, cutting tool
and gunny sack hook - tools used in the gambier
industry - are preserved in the JB Chinese Heritage Museum
In Singapore, the Teochew clan dominated the trade and after about 15 years, when the land they cultivated had become exhausted and infertile, they cleared more forests for fresh land.  In 1844, when Johor’s ruler, Temenggong Daeng Ibrahim, the father of Sultan Abu Bakar, invited the Chinese from Singapore and Riau to open up land in Johor for pepper and gambier cultivation, Ngee Heng society leader, Tan Kee Soon, led his followers to settle in Tanjung Puteri, the place we now call Johor Baru. 
At that time Temenggong Daeng Ibrahim, adopted the kangchu system that was first introduced by Sir Stamford Raffles in Singapore.  As the waterways was the main mode of transport to Johor from Singapore, early settlers arrived by boat up the infamous Sungai Segget into the heart of Johor Baru.  Under this administration, Chinese planters who arrived from Riau and Singapore obtained a permit known as, surat sungai, from the ruler to cultivate pepper and gambier. 

A road in Johor Baru is named after the
prominent Ngee Heng society
The Teochew clan was the dominant Chinese clan who made Johor their new home and they settled in designated areas to cultivate pepper and gambier plantations in the kangchu system.  Kang means “river” in Teochew dialect, while a kangkar is the disembarking point, usually its middle or upper reaches along the river.  The permit holders were called kangchu’s or river masters and their plantations were named after them as Tan chu kang or Lim chu kang
Even though the Ngee Heng society started as a quasi-military revolutionary brotherhood that was opposed to the Ching dynasty, their activities in Johor Baru gradually evolved into valuable social, political and administrative work which contributed to Johor’s early economic growth.  Tan Kee Soon was trusted by Sultan Abu Bakar who recognised the strength and solidarity of a brotherhood like the Ngee Heng society but Tan died in 1864 and did not live to see his society legalised by the sultan as an association in 1873.  This Chinese association, with its membership opened to the other Chinese clans and assigned to take charge of Chinese community affairs in Johor, was the forerunner of the Johor Baru Tiong Hua Association.  

The pepper and gambier motif is carved into a wooden
design that adorn the entrance to the Johor Chief Minister's
office in the Sultan Ibrahim Building at Bukit Timbalan
Gambier was traditionally prepared by boiling the young leaves, pressing them to extract juice and then drying the juice concentrate and moulding it into a block, cake or cube form.  For a glimpse of how processed gambier looks like, visit the JB Chinese Heritage Museum to see some samples of gambier in the displays.
Plantations in Johor sold their gambier to businessmen in Singapore, the main centre for gambier trade in collecting and exporting the produce, until the dawn of the 20th century.  The introduction of pineapple canning in 1888 resulted in the expansion of the pineapple industry in Johor and the rapid development of the motorcar industry sparked off a very high demand for rubber.  By the early 20th century, gambier was replaced by pineapple and rubber as the most important plantation crops in this region.

The pepper and gambier motif rendered
in pewter is beautifully applied to the decor
in the Johor State Assembly Hall in the
Sultan Ismail Building, Kota Iskandar
Some of Johor’s prominent kangchu’s were Tan Kee Soon, Tan Hiok Nee, Lim Ah Siang and Wong Ah Fook.  The roles of these people and the Ngee Heng society in Johor’s history are recognised by roads in our city like Jalan Wong Ah Fook, Jalan Tan Hiok Nee, Jalan Ah Siang and Jalan Ngee Heng.  

Today, areas in Johor Baru that were once huge plantations still use names like Kangkar Tebrau and Kangkar Pulai as a legacy of this plantation culture.  The Tan chu kang, established by Tan Kee Soon in Kangkar Tebrau, is the oldest known Chinese settlement in Johor.  Incidentally, Yeo chu kang and Choa chu kang in Singapore, also retained their plantation names even though the sites have been redeveloped into modern precincts. 

So the next time you pass a lamp-post designed with the pepper and gambier motif or saw it on other Johor emblems, you know how these humble plants earned its place of honour in this state.  While its cultivation contributed significantly to Johor’s economic progress, it also represents the legacy of the strong relationship between the Chinese and Malay communities in Johor.

A version of this article was published in the September 2014 issue of The Iskandarian  

1 comment:

  1. Nice post, thanks for the history lesson.