Struggling around rubber trees

The rubber industry is of much significance to our countries. For millions of our smallholders, the rubber tree is a tree of life, serving as a crucial source of income for earning a living and raising families.

– Thaksin Shinawatra, Thai ex-prime minister

Longhouse kids nowadays spend a very much different daily life than ours in the 50s and 60s.

There are only a few, if any, who still tap rubber. And there may be none who can pride themselves for being participants in wet or hill paddy farming. This is due to the simple reason that their parents no longer practise both of these two activities — as opposed to the days of our childhood and later when we were teenagers.

I started rubber tapping at the age of eight, usually led by both of my parents and at times, my brother Jon who was then 14. We were then residing at our rubber plantation known as Bukit Tinggi, about two hours on foot from our Kedap longhouse in Saratok.

Nanga Assam Primary School was between Bukit Tinggi and Kedap but only about a 30-minute walk to the school.

Apart from the rubber trees at Bukit Tinggi, we had another one at Sungai Belung just about a 15 minute-walk from our simple residence at the former and very close to Munggu Embawang, dad’s birthplace.

Dad, then 52, usually led mom and Jon to Sungai Belung leaving me and my maternal grandma, then in her 70s, at the Bukit Tinggi garden. Starting as early as 4am, he would tap the trees near our residence and then leave with the other two to Sungai Belung.

Grandma and I were to collect the latex around 9am. Later the rubber processing would be done at Sungai Belung because Jon would come back for our collected latex at Bukit Tinggi.

My most memorable albeit a hilarious moment collecting latex at Bukit Tinggi was when I rushed to collect from one big tree known for its abundant rubber sap. The rush was to ‘win’ over poor grandma in terms of the volume of the rubber fluid collected on that day as that very tree filled wholly the ‘chuban’ (collecting container) assigned.

Unfortunately, as if some unseen entity intercepted, a misstep occurred during my ascent to the tree at the hilltop causing me to stumble. This led also to unintended pouring of the rubber sap to the ground — and worse, on my hair when I tripped. I was too ashamed to cry in front of grandma who was already in her 70s.

Luckily, we were towards the end of the collecting line and stopped immediately. My beloved granny subsequently used comb plus cooking oil to free my hair of the already clotted rubber.

It was certainly a pitiful, yet laughable sight. I can neither forget that very moment; nor can I forget grandma who lived till the age of 97.  

There were also attempts by both Jon and I to increase the volume of our collected latex — I initially thought such folly was mine alone — only to be scolded by our mom as it took much longer for the coagulation process after adding in the formic acid if the latex had too much water content.

Coagulation, latex and formic acid are items only familiar to the rubber tapping fraternity.  Other familiar terms are mipis (flattening of the rubber sheet by rolling a specially made stick over it) after it has coagulated inside a custom-made open contained.  

After the mipis is done, clay needs to be smothered over a surface of the sheet. This is to avoid it from being stuck to another sheet when piled together.

By the time I was studying in Lower Six (1973), I was already tapping alone (during school breaks) at our roadside (we started using the Sibu-Kuching trunk since 1966) rubber garden near our longhouse — just across the old Iban graveyard (pendam) at Nanga Burui. Because of being takut malu, I had to start from Kedap as early as 5am but upon reaching the roadside garden, I would wait at a comfortable site waiting for daylight. Who isn’t scared of shadowy pendam Iban?

The year 1973 was our longhouse Gawai Antu year when the price of rubber was only 48 sen per kati. I usually earned slightly over one ringgit per tapping day.

A year later, my trip to the venue was historic. During our second term school holidays, I was joined by a Sibu beauty to Kedap. On our second day, she accompanied me to the garden and tapped only about 100 trees with most of the time romancing.

It must have been a weird but awesome trip for a tycoon’s daughter. She earlier gave me RM500 meant for dad that he received with trembled hands. It was a glaring conclusion to my ngerejang getah days.