Friday, April 18, 2008

Pulau Kerto and "Rubber Bowls"

Pulau Kerto or Ke Lo Toh, a pottery making and a very unusual meander just slightly outside Sibu has long been a haven for many Hokkiens especially the Ng Family of the Pottery Culture of Kerto. But to me it has always been like a little kept secret place at the backwaters of Sibu, away from the hustle and bustle of a city in the making.

The original clay or kaolin deposit , not yet studied to perfection by geologists as yet, from this little place provided a simple, family based business with a small direct outlet (by boat only ) from the 30's until very recently. Most importantly, Kerto provided almost all the rubber tapping latex bowls for the Foochows of the Rajang Valley, and may be even the fourth and fifth divisions of Sarawak.

Some bigger rubber garden owners even made these latex bowls to order and have their names "burnt" on the latex bowls. A few collectors of antiques have in their hands some of these latex bowls which bore good names of towkays from Sarikei, Sibu and even Miri. It was indeed a genuine enterprising spirit which made the rubber garden owners put their names on their latex bowls. Foremost of all, this would reduce pilfering and day light robbery.

However little has been written about this small industry which probably did not catch the attention of mainstream business but in view of varying circumstances of economics, this it went into social oblivion. If only it could have been more developed, then Sibu would have a strong ceramic base. The pottery culture of Sarawak went to Kuching and the developers of the special Sarawak Vase, which today is so well known that even Harrods of London carries a few items. The Kuching born Viscountess of Cornwall has also helped to promote the Kuching ware in the UK to the delight of her friends from near and far.

Nowadays our shops are filled with ceramics from West Malaysia and even Chentechen, China!! Chentechen, China, is THE world ceramic centre and has a few thousand years of excellent history, by the way.

These little ceramic rubber "bowls" were glazed on the inside and unglazed on the outside and measured only about 3 inches on average. According to one of my great friends, a grande dame of rubber tapping days, there were two sizes of rubber bowls. A bigger one for the speical grafted rubber cloned trees of the 1950's and 1960's which could produce more each day and a smaller one for the older seedlings. These bowls were bundled and sold in tens, and a few cents only at prices in those days. And most bowls were made to order.

All rubber tappers would know that these bowls come from Pulau Kerto , even though there was no brand name marked at the bottom of the bowls. These bowls have simply called rubber "bowls". These bowls sit nicely on the stem of a rubber tree and collect the latex which flow easily out from the moment the tree was tapped until the rubber tapper collected the bowl in mid morning. Most of the time the bowls were just left by the tree as rubber gardens were not ravaged by marauding thieves. But I am not sure today whether the same thing is still being done.

One very unusual and amazing story from my family was that of a relative who prematurely and suddenly gave birth in the rubber garden and the umbilical cord of the baby was cut by breaking and getting a sharp piece from the latex bowl. The baby was healthy and bouncing. His life was tough but happy. Such was a legend amongst the hardworking Foochows of those long ago days. Thanks to a rubber "bowl" from Pulau Kerto. I am sure there are many familiar and similar stories.

My first student day visit to Pulau Kerto was a very long time ago. We had a picnic on the sandbank in the middle of the river and using a borrowed prahu from one of the families. We had a lovely time there, and got very sunburnt. In those days we were not aware of safety at all. So we just gave ourselves a great time in the river, without really knowing the undercurrents. Today, I would shiver at the idea of swimming in an unknown river. Perhaps ignorance is bliss.

Another one of my earliest recollection of buying flower pots was a trip to Pulau Kerto when a friend wanted to buy some pots for her orchids and we decided to take a slow wooden boat journey to visit Pulau Kerto. By taking a slow boat to Pulau Kerto, she would have bought the pots at factory outlet price and besides, it would be a very nice outing for her and her friends too. To me that was quite an adventure, as Sibu was so quiet and life was slow.( I often wonder if that factory is still around.)

We walked a little inland from the jetty and came upon a ramshackle kind of factory which produced all sorts of pots and of varied sizes. The workers were distinctly simple and taciturn and definitely not Foochows. A small altar to a diety was at a corner and incense was still burning. The kilns must have been more than 40 years old then. Production was very basic and it was a very home based kind of industry. Little children ran out to watch us buy and after a short while we were again seated at the jetty, waiting for the next boat to come along.

At that time, the river was already quite small, a small branch from the main Rejang River.

A few women were washing their clothes at the jetty and this was about nine o'clock in the morning. Laundry must be done before nine I suppose so that the housewives could catch the best of the sunshine and most probably these ladies had done a good day's work already, feeding pigs, chickens and doing most of the gardening. Such multi-tasking women!! One bicycle was waiting with two kerosene tinful of water. That was how most women carry their water home after their washing.

In a way, every clay pot will remind me of Pulau Kerto and its slow paced lifestyle.

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