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PEPPER: A Sarawak Story

Mr Liew is the 65-year-old patriarch of a pepper dynasty with a model plantation near Lachau. His grandfather was the first to establish the line in Sarawak, travelling from China with his wife, and now they are into their third generation in the trade. He is a model farmer in more ways than one; his experience much the same as the generations before him. Chinese himself, he married an Iban with land in Lachau. Armed with only 300 tiang belian (ironwood pepper poles) from his father and 65 ringgit in his pocket, he and his new family carved out his farm from 30 acres of dense native jungle, growing primarily pepper alongside vegetables and rubber. Now hundreds of vines stand sentry in the sun, pendulous with the green berries that will be ready for harvest by hand for one frantic month in the year. Their orderly appearance belies the back-breaking work to clear the land and then trim and tend the vines and the patience needed to bring the first crop to fruition.

His product is synonymous with Sarawak and, in many ways, so is his story. It is a story of migration and marriage, of trade and exchange, of conquerors and collaborators, all centred around the search for spices. This spice route of old fed the world in more ways than one, carrying along with it the lifeblood of ideas, knowledge, beliefs and customs, borne by the people that practiced them, to infuse the places they landed with flavour. So, if you’ll forgive the conceit, this is the story of Sarawak told through the medium of its most famous spice – pungent, piquant pepper.

Pepper is one of Sarawak’s oldest exports, carrying its name beyond Borneo along the spice route that has plied its route from China, driven by the trade winds through the South China seas and onto India, the Middle East and, eventually, to Europe on the other side of the globe. These tiny kernels have been commodity and currency for thousands of years with Kerala in Southern India, where pepper nigrum originated, already a major spice trade centre as early as 3,000 BC. Even to this day, a third of all worldwide maritime traffic passes through the South China Seas, causing the rise of trading luminaries like Singapore and Malacca, and also Sarawak.


      Mr Liew, pepper patriarch, tends his vines as generations of his family before him

The Sarawak spice story begins as early as the 7th Century in Santubong, with its majestic mountain to act as a beacon for seafaring navigators searching for fresh water and an array of jungle produce provided by the indigenous people like camphor and bird’s nests and possibly even pepper. Indigenous pepper, such as pepper sacromentum, still grows wild across the island, clinging to mighty trees in our age-old rainforest, but with only small seeds, it is largely the roots which provide that pepper punch of flavour and medicinal value. The peninsula is littered with archaeological evidence of this early passage. Researchers even debate whether Santubong was the site of the city of Poni, with 10,000 inhabitants and enough wealth to warrant tribute to China, though it eventually disappeared from the records around the 13th Century for reasons unknown as empires rose and fell around it. The Hindu-Javan Majapahit empire came to prominence, only to yield to the Muslim Malays at the end of the 15th Century. But throughout, the trade remained and sustained Borneo as a magnet for travellers, settlers and would- be rulers alike. To this day, glimmers from these great empires and their ambassadors can be seen in Sarawak’s indigenous culture, evidence of their influence and transit through the ages.


                                      Not much has changed in the methods of pepper cultivation over the centuries

The Sarawak spice story begins as early as the 7th Century in Santubong, with its majestic mountain to act as a beacon for seafaring navigators searching for fresh water and an array of jungle produce provided by the indigenous people.


It was the Chinese, however, who had a unique and inventive approach to the spice race that was to embed pepper in the Borneo landscape for the years to come. According to one report in Sarawak Long Ago, pepper nigrum was introduced to Sarawak by W C Crocker in the 1860s, others say the Majapahits long before him, but European visitors such as John Hunt report the Chinese established in pepper production in Borneo as early as the 16th Century. With only a small area at home hospitable to pepper cultivation, it seems the early Chinese turned globalization on its head, transporting a workforce with all its inherent knowledge into foreign lands to live, love and labour; just as with Mr Liew’s family so many years later. Hugh Low in 1848, put Chinese numbers in Brunei at 30,000, already engaged in pepper cultivation and Spenser St John’s account in the 19th Century has references to established pepper cultivation and trade by the Chinese in Limbang, using belian poles much as today. On borrowed land, they shared their skills and established a commodity that would draw in a new wave of hopeful rulers of the region, seeking control of this cash crop.

Unlike the Chinese, the next influx, the Europeans, had a very different view, with domination of the region in mind. The Dutch, arriving as early as the sixteenth century, were particularly keen to wrest control of the trade in pepper, finally brokering agreements with the Sultans of Banjermasin, Pontianak and Sambas to quell direct trade with China in favour of the Dutch East India Company. But even as their grip tightened as they later sought to establish themselves permanently in Kalimantan, the steady stream of Chinese continued, drawn not just by the spice route but also the gold rush. They came to mine but also farmed wherever and however they could, boosting the commodity that fed so many along its chain.

But, it was the British Brookes who spearheaded the modern story of Sarawak and a new wave of Chinese immigration. James Brooke, with only a small group of officers to support him and no colonial machinery behind him, forged alliances locally, creating a stable Sarawak that was ripe for a new agricultural economy. Both James, following his childhood experiences in India, and his two kinsmen who ruled the state after him feared the dispossession of the native groups and so rejected the creation of a European planter class in the newly independent nation. So it was that only one British company, established in 1856, was allowed into Sarawak - the eponymous Borneo Company.

Pepper crop planted organically by IRONWOOD VALLEY FARMS

Green: The green peppercorns are the ones just harvested and seperated from the stalks.

White: With white pepper the dark outer skin of the pepper is removed by soaking before the seed is dried.

BLACK: The black corns have been dried in the sun for a few days.

RED: The reddish-black, unlike green peppercorns, are from ripe red peppercorns.

Sarawak still produces more than 95% of Malaysia’s pepper, maintaining it as one of the top ten pepper producing nations of the world.


Indigenous pepper grows wild in Sarawak's ancient rainforest and even in the centre of town, outside the Telang Usan hotel, Kuching

Yet, the economy had to be served and the state coffers filled. There was gold to be mined, land to be cultivated, trade to be conducted. Spenser St John wrote: ‘I am convinced that no cultivation will have great success in Borneo which does not at first depend on imported labour, and as China is near, the supply could be easily and regularly obtained,’ adding that ‘the Sea Dayaks are very acquisitive, and would soon imitate the Chinese methods of cultivation.’ Charles, the second Rajah, seems to have shared his opinion, openly admiring Chinese industry, and in 1872, with his Gambier and Pepper Proclamation, he set the stage for a new era in pepper production. Determined to boost trade, he gave free passage from Singapore to small-scale planters, land to local Chinese traders to develop for pepper gardens and, importantly, kept the price of opium low. And come they did, boosting earlier immigration from Kalimantan, with migrants from Singapore and eventually from China itself. Rent was paid in peppercorns when that really meant something and the economy began to boom.

             Labour- intensive but low on technology, pepper is perfect for smallholders

So, the chain began in reverse. True to St John’s somewhat euphemistic prediction, the Chinese had ‘no difficulty in amalgamating with the native inhabitants’ and the Sea Dayak certainly did acquire. Pringle, in Rajahs and Rebels, wrote of Iban in Saribas already planting pepper in 1892. A new wave of Foochow Chinese started a new wave of planting in the Rajang basin in the early 20th Century and the Borneo Company’s Sarawak Steamship Company was plying the waters between Sarawak and Singapore. The network of interior planters, upriver traders, Kuching exporters and worldwide consumers began to grow and the cultural exchange continued. By the 1950s, Sarawak was exporting over 300,000 hundredweight of pepper a year through the great trading ports around the South China Seas.

For modern day Mr Liew, the vagaries of pepper production have been lived out in his life. Prices rise and fall around the world as new competitors enter the arena and the dreaded ‘foot rot’, which wipes out entire plantations, drives some out. From his grandfather’s generation, all 6 brothers were pepper farmers, while from his, only two out of six remain in the business – an example of diminishing returns. He tells how his family first settled in Engkilili but the crop failed, so they moved to Pantu and began planting tobacco. It was only later, when the pepper price rose, that they went back into its planting.


    A pepper separator is a rare example of the use of machinery

Tough and tanned, with a slow smile and a steady pace, Mr Liew has outlived it all. Now he makes more money from swiftlet nests for a considerably lower outlay. The birds’ reeling screams fill the air as they come to roost in the squat bunker built for them, the skeleton of a second rising from the ground nearby. But, for pepper, while many of his contemporaries have fallen by the wayside, Mr Liew proudly states that he ‘never gave up’ and now is in a position to crest a new price wave. Despite the toil to clear the land, the years to nurture the plants and the uncertainties of the market, the fondness for pepper is ingrained. Many Hakka families, even long after they have left the land for other employment, will nostalgically maintain three plants for cultivars, just in case.

Sarawak still produces more than 95% of Malaysia’s pepper, maintaining it as one of the top ten pepper producing nations of the world. It is, after palm oil, the second biggest foreign exchange earner for the state, supporting over 70,000 families. Its cultivation is equally now in the hands of the indigenous Dayak smallholders who farm vertiginous patches of hillside or roadside strips on their ancestral lands for this cash crop. Labour-intensive but low on technology, pepper is perfect for smallholders who still grow it in the style described by St John in the 19th Century, spreading it out to dry on woven mats in the Sarawak sun. Despite this, the spice seldom features in Dayak traditional fare or in their customs or rituals. For them, pepper has been an acquired taste, in more ways than one, bartered with land and labour over centuries of exchange and, in the modern world, it has provided them with that most modern commodity: money.

In return, Sarawak has served pepper to the world. The spice bearing its name graces dinner tables across the globe, described by connoisseurs like a fine wine – mild flavour, fresh aroma, hints of citrus or chocolate, licorice and resin. It is our equatorial environment that has given it life and depth of flavour, but it is our society that has nurtured and raised it. Through centuries of sharing, we have collectively cultivated it, growing our society in the process into the multi-cultural, pioneering place that we know and love. Mr Liew shared his long-held belief that pepper always originated from Sarawak - it was a recent visit to the Pepper Marketing Board that advised him otherwise! In fact, it was arguably pepper that had a role in bringing the world to Sarawak and through it, it has taken a position as part of a larger whole. What mighty contests rise from trivial things? A history of the world from the smallest seed springs!

Karen Shepherd recently assisted a documentary crew from French- German television channel Arté to prepare a piece on pepper, their excitement piqued by her own story as part of a Hakka family who emigrated to Sarawak in the late 19th Century to farm pepper at 8th Mile. Her great-grandmother finally married the son of the second Manager of the Borneo Company – a perfect example of Sarawak’s pepper melting-pot. Her thanks go to Laure Michel whose idea she has shamelessly stolen! But, as the English say, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery! Thanks also to the late John Michael Chin Shing Chang for his book - The Sarawak Chinese.

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