Tuesday, December 11, 2007

59 gunny sacks of pepper

Pepper,the green gold of Sarawak, and the world, has only been an exportable commodity from the Rajah Brooke Period (1842 - 1946) of Sarawak history, although it was a known agricultural crop since the Middle Ages.

The Chinese were interested in its cultivation in Sarawak. It was a cash crop first grown by the Chinese in the areas surrounding Kuching when the Brookes brought more peace to Sarawak in the 1840's and later, when the Foochows arrived in Sibu in 1903, more pepper was grown in the Rajang Basin. the Ibans and other natives also grew pepper but their production was not very well documented, although many Ibans have actually become very wealthy in the 1960's because of their hardwork and diligence in the production of both black and white pepper.

In many ways, it is the Foochow who gained the most from the growing of pepper at the beginning of the formation of Malaysia.

However pepper gardening also suffered a slight blow from the Communist Insurgency around the beginning of independence.

My story of my cousin and her hardwork was taken from this historical chapter of Sarawak.

My cousin, Moi Leng, (not her real name) was already a successful rubber planter and tapper in the 60's just ten years after she arrived in China. Still at the prime of her life, and her children just toddlers, she embarked on pepper growing because she was strong and enthusiastic. She and her husband planted altogether 1000 pepper vines. And within a few years these vines started to bear fruit. The couple harvested some pepper and sold them by the gunny sacks. The measurement of pepper was in the Chinese ton, or dan, using the daching or balance or chen.

However, life was not smooth for the family as her husband was reported to the Police as a collaborator. He therefore spent about 13 months in the Kuching Chinese Re-education Centre.

While away, Moi Leng, worked herself to the bones. The children were school going age, but she herself was determined to make a go of both rubber and pepper, the only way, she and her family could survive.

The eight sheets of rubber she could tap each day went to their daily food and fertilizers for the pepper. She worked in the pepper garden in the afternoons after processing all her rubber sheets in the morning.

At the end of 13 months, she had harvested 59 gunny sacks of pepper, all ready to be sold. When her husband came home, the couple was ready to build a new house from the sale of the pepper which was fetching a record high price. If they had waited for the price to increase, they could have made a bigger fortune.

She said that she harvested the pepper bunch by bunch, standing for more than 8 hours on the three legged ladder, sometimes only going home when the sun was already too far gone in the horizon. She never failed to fertilizer the 1000 vines. The sun burnt her skin until it glistened like a silver sheet from a distance. Her determination finally paid off when in later years, she would just shake her head and said it was definitely an amazing feat. Who could have thought that a child bride, less than five feet tall, could build herself a big house, and from the sale of 59 gunny sacks of pepper.

She had also been frugal with food, sparing in clothes, and extras. All she had to help her was her old faithful of a Japanese made motorbike to transport herself and rubber sheets to the market and to transport fertilizers and food stuff back. Every other day, people could see her on the road in this manner and complimented her for her stoicism and determination.

From her year's toil and sacrifice every one knew that she alone had harvested the pepper and as a result built herself and her family a new two storeyed house with three bed rooms,a kitchen and a toilet and other modern fixtures. She was the toast of the town. People all around congratulated her for her capabilities and staunch family values.

Her husband came home to enjoy the fruits of her labour after spending 13 months in prison. He was actually wrongly accused as he had not inclination at all towards communism.

She was glad that he was home and that she had "managed to do all that". In a very humble way, she said that it was just her duty as a wife to plan,organise,lead and control her family resources.

She did ask once,who could actually believe that someone like her, with no education at all (she is illiterate), from a village in China, could achieve so much. She herself did not believe in herself at first. But she did it.

Unfortunately our country does not have a medal for a resourceful woman like her.

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