Pepper & Gambier Heritage

Ancient seal of the Gambier & Pepper Society that
features Jawi and Chinese characters and the
pepper and gambier motif [Right]
If you are in Johor, you cannot miss seeing the iconic motif of intertwined sprigs of pepper and gambier plants used consistently throughout the state on royal regalia, official crests and as part of the decor on public buildings and lamp-posts along the expressways.  Invitation cards and souvenir programmes for official events and print material from the Johor royal household often carry a similar motif. 

This pepper and gambier motif is used so consistently as a state icon that its significance may inadvertently be lost and many do not know how the cultivation of these crops contributed to Johor’s economic progress.  That’s why the Johor Baru Chinese Heritage Museum embarked on a project to present the historical importance of these two crops in an exhibition on gambier and pepper entitled, Sharing of Hardships, now on till 18 Sept 2015.

Archive photo of gambier cubes drying in the sun [Right] while a supervisor [wearing white top] oversees a worker
at a gambier farm in Johor in the 1800s
Pepper and gambier have earned a place of honour in Johor because their widespread cultivation played a vital role to boost the state’s economy in the 1800’s.  With Europe as a major market, the peak of the gambier trade lasted from the 1830s to 1850s when Johor was the world’s largest producer of gambier.  Before the invention of chemical dyes, the juice from gambier leaves was widely used for leather tanning and cloth dyeing.  This industry put Johor on the world map and brought wealth to the local community. 

Tan Chai Puan sharing his knowledge at the Johor Baru
Chinese Heritage Museum
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 and with the development of chemical industries, the demand for gambier ceased and the plants virtually disappeared.  While we still have pepper plantations here, there are hardly any gambier plants and not many Johoreans know what gambier is or have ever seen a gambier plant.

The History

At the museum I meet Johor cultural activist, Tan Chai Puan, who declared, “This was probably the most beautiful part of Johor’s history.”  He explained the Chinese phrase for the exhibition title, Sharing of Hardships, and described how the pioneers of JB shared bitter and sweet experiences through their hardship in unity as they successfully built the State’s economy literally from the ground up.  From documents he has seen in the Johor Archives, Tan suggested that Johor probably has the longest history of the 1Malaysia-concept because the Chinese and Malay communities in Johor shared a strong relationship since the 1800s.

Old map of Johor showing rivers and kangchu settlements
marked in dots (1849) and squares (1859) with shaded
areas that indicate holdings owned by Tan Hiok Nee in 1874
Back then, gambier plantations in Singapore and the Riau Islands were successfully run by Chinese and Malay farmers.  After being cultivated for 10 to 15 years the land around Kranji and Sembawang in Singapore was exhausted and infertile.  So when Temenggong Daeng Ibrahim invited them to move to Johor to open the land for new plantations, the Chinese were ready to relocate.  Immigrant Chinese with a strong pioneering spirit were attracted to the prospect of huge tracts of land, just waiting for them to clear for cultivation of pepper and gambier under the kangchu or River Lord system.  Under this administration, planters who arrived from Riau and Singapore obtained a permit known as, surat sungai, from the ruler. 

A list of kangchu locations in Johor
in the 1800s
In the kangchu system, the River Lords could collect taxes and govern Chinese communities in their areas along the rivers.  The permit holders were called kangchu’s or River Lords while kang means “river” in Teochew dialect, and a kangkar is the disembarking point, usually its middle or upper reaches along the river. 

Not long after Iskandar Petrie, (JB’s former name) was established in 1855, the Chinese accepted Temenggong Daeng Ibrahim’s permits to establish plantations in Johor and they started to arrive by cargo-carrying barges or tongkang through Sungai Segget or Segget River.  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. 

At that time Iskandar Petrie was just a frontier outpost with a few huts occupied by fishermen and charcoal-makers near the river.  It was surrounded by jungle and mangrove forests and a flagpole flying the Johor flag near a police post on a hill represented the presence of a government.  Its capital, Tanjung Puteri, was situated at a coastal site that had the most convenient boat access to Singapore – opposite the end of Bukit Timah Road in Singapore.

I remember seeing some of the sultan’s hunting trophies preserved in the former Royal Abu Bakar Museum, in Istana Gardens, and this gives me an idea of the types and sizes of wild animals that once roamed the dense Johor jungles.  Besides being confronted by wild animals such as elephants and tigers, immigrants lost lives to strange diseases and the harsh environment as they braved physical challenges to clear the jungles and open up land through the rivers into Johor’s interior.  

The Exhibition

Black and White pepper exhibits
I have never seen a gambier plant but dried gambier cubes are displayed in the JB Chinese Heritage Museum along with a gambier plant cutter and a hook used to grab sacks of processed gambier.  This is all I’ve seen but six months ago, the museum initiated a project to find out more about gambier cultivation and processing to set up an interesting and informative exhibition here.  The teams from the museum made two visits to Indonesia where they discovered that farmers are 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 is shaped into a block, cake or cube form.

Gambier is a tropical shrub that can grow up to about 2 meters in height and has oval shaped leaves that can grow up to 8 or 14 cm in length.  In plantations, 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.  Plantations in Johor sold their gambier to businessmen in Singapore, the main centre for trade in collecting and exporting the gambier produce, until the dawn of the 20th century.  When Temenggong Daeng Ibrahim was succeeded by Sultan Abu Bakar, he continued his father’s legacy in developing Johor into a thriving metropolis. 

Cubes of gambier laid out to dry on trays, the traditional way
Tan, who is also the Administrative Director and Head of the Art Gallery in Southern University College, said that he read archive documents on how Teochew leader, Tan Hiok Nee, was appointed Kapitan Cina by the sultan to collect taxes from gambier planters.  As wealth poured into the state coffers, Chinese planters gave gambier its nickname, gam mi (Mandarin) or “golden honey.”  With pepper and gambier as Johor’s main economy crops, traders formed a Gambier & Pepper Society.  When I look closer at the society’s ancient seal, I see a design with Jawi and Chinese characters and I believe the present day iconic pepper and gambier motif was probably inspired by this original design.

This rare gambier plant is growing at the museum!

The legacy of the cultivation of pepper and gambier and the economic development of Johor is carefully persevered in the JB Chinese Heritage Museum.  Now the Sharing of Hardships exhibition provides more insight into the history of Chinese-Malay relationships that undergirds the strong support between the Johor sultanate and the Chinese community today.  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.  And when you visit the museum, don’t miss the chance to see a rare gambier plant cultivated in a jar at the museum’s rear entrance!

Fast Facts

The JB Chinese Heritage Museum at 42, Jalan Ibrahim, Johor Baru, is accessible from two entrances at Jalan Ibrahim (front) and Jalan Tan Hiok Nee (rear).  It is open daily from 9am to 5pm and closed on Monday.  For group tours and enquiries, Tel: 607 – 2249 633, Fax: 607 – 2249 635 or email:

A version of this article was published in The New Straits Times, Life & Times on 13 November 2014


  1. Hi Peggy,

    I'm interested to find out more about the history of Pontian and Kukup, especially when the area started becoming known as pontian rather than kukup. You showed a map in this post, would you happen to know when the map is dated from? It looks like it could be a reproduction of an old map, do you know when the original was made (if any)?

    Thanks and regards

  2. Hey Nic, Thanks for your interest in this old map. Please take a closer look at it at the JB Chinese Heritage Museum and ask for David the curator, who will be more than happy to answer your queries about the old map. Tell me about the outcome and more on your quest for more info into the history Pontian and Kukup. Sounds interesting!

  3. Hi Peggy, I agree with Nic Wong, maybe u could u write some story regarding pontian & kukup esp about Kukup Plantation and Johor first printed banknotes that they used at Kukup Plantation

  4. Hi Peggy
    Where can I see Gambir plant or farm in Johor?
    Thank you

    1. The Johor Bahru Tiong Hua Association team visited pepper and gambier farms still operated the traditional way in the nearby Indonesian islands and brought back some gambier plants. These plants are being cultivated and preserved in the compound of some Chinese primary schools in Johor.

  5. Anonymous1/17/2024

    hi Peggy thanks for your sharing, may I know where do you get the logo of the society? I am a student which doing the research about it.

  6. The research on Pepper & Gambier was done by the Johor Bahru Chinese Heritage Museum. You should contact them for further information.