Monday, June 19, 2006

My Unforgettable Rubber Tapping Experience

I feel sorry for those poor rubber tappers on whom I blogged about in Malaysia's economic backbone - unappreciated & marginalised!, more so for their children as some rubber estates are placed fairly remote from decent schools and other facilities.

Rubber tappers are multi-ethnic in composition, though there is a greater number of Malay tapper-owners of small rubber plots of land, a few Chinese, and probably none or an insignificant number for Indians. The ratio of tappers-employees is probably in the reverse order. But the profession by virtue of its relationship with the plantations means in the general case a rather difficult life with few amenities, especially schooling for children.

When I was a young lad, I went to stay on a rubber estate somewhere in Perak during the school holidays to experience what it would be like. My uncle was an estate manager and welcomed my request to bunk at his huge bungalow during the two weeks’ school holiday.

After a couple of days of driving around the plantation with my Unc in his landrover, and visiting its various buildings, I was feeling bored after seeing the 12,176th tree, or was it 57, 902nd? I told Unc that I would like to accompany one of the tappers on his morning tapping. Hmmm, my latent socialist nature was already urging me to check out the harsh life of a rubber tapper at my tender age.

He looked at me with surprise, initially, and then broke into a grin but warned: “Are you sure?”

I replied in the affirmative, thinking I might have a go at milking the trees with my stupendous sizzling skill at slashing, slicing and slitting. Straightaway I fantasized impressing the tapper at how deft with a knife I could be, with my neat little penknife. One of my weaknesses, and I must confess I have many, has been allowing my imagination to run away at FTL (faster than light speed) once I have begun my fantasy.

My cousins who were there and knew something about estate life, declined to accompany me, with such alacrity that should have alerted me to what was in store, but then I was what the majority of my girlfriends had all along criticised me of – too bloody naïve.

Unc assigned me to a young lady instead of a man that I expected. She would call for me at 4-ish. “But Unc, don’t they tap in the morning?” He laughed and replied that it was 4-ish in the early morning, and not late afternoon as I had initially thought.

4 a.m? Gulp, what had I gotten myself into?

Anyway, she came for me very early the next morning (to me it was still ‘last night’), standing just below the verandah of Unc's bungalow. I recall she was all wrapped up from head to toe, though wearing pants. She stood there silently and patiently, waiting, I suppose, for me to descend down the few steps to be with her. All I could see, and barely too, were just her eyes. They seemed to smile at me, so I gave a tentative smile back in the dim light of the Bungalow’s porch. She uttered not one single word.

She naturally led the way, carrying a small oil lamp and various implements, which I had no clue what they were. I asked her in broken Cantonese why she didn’t carry an electric torch instead. She turned to look at me, held that look for a few seconds, again that piercing look from her eyes, as if she was wearing a wry smile, maintained her intimidating silence, and continued her walk. I felt I must have said the wrong thing, which of course I did. Electric torch for a rubber tapper? If I thought I was deft with a knife, I most certainly was daft with my suggestion.

By then, I was virtually half running just to keep up with her as she strode most determinedly towards wherever she was headed to.

By now, the plantation EWS (early warning system) hooted “intruders, intruders, intruders” – oh, by the way, that’s me and the lady tapper. Responding to the EWS, swarms of mosquitoes scrambled to intercept us. No, wrong, just to get me because either they recognised her or they didn't like me. Some did a couple of loops and barrel rolls while others did defying stunts, maybe to impress me, but all were angrily buzzing their intention to get KTemoc. They went into battle formation as they selected on their IR (infra-red) sensors which the Americans and Russians were to invent for their warplanes some years later.

I realised then why the lady tapper was wrapped up real tight. Even though I had long pants and long sleeves on, my head and neck and hands were unprotected. Some of those mossies pretended they were airline jets, circling over my head as if they were at Kennedy Airport on an early foggy morning. They were in tight formation, forming a black halo over my head, depicting me as a young Anti-Christ, a scene I am sure the director of Omen: 666 would love to have captured.

Zoom, a squadron of Aedes zipped in to attack my neck, while a wing of Culex flew low level to strafe my hands. I responded desperately by waving frantically at the black swarm, hoping I would hit some of them, or at least cause massive air collisions among the mossies. I slapped my own neck, barely killing any as those intrepid mossie fighters changed tactics by converting themselves into helicopters to hover undetected over various juicy morsels of my exposed body.

Before I could evolve any effective air defence tactics, I was distracted by a flight of Anopheles which zeroed in on my poor sensitive ears. Even as I tried to react to that sneaky assault, an air flotilla of Mansonia came for me, with all guns and rockets blazing away. Probably all 366 species of 20 genera of Malaysian mossies took part in Air Operations 'Get KTemoc'.

Oh, those nasty bitches – for those who don’t know, only female mosquitoes bite animals for their blood while the males are vegetarians, sipping the sap of plants –wimps! It’s not the bite that makes one itch but the saliva they inject into the penetrated skin. The saliva is teeming with digestive enzymes and anticoagulants, to enable your blood to flow freely so those teeny weeny vampires would enjoy their 'Bloody Mary' cocktails.

Apparently the first time a person is bitten, there is no reaction. With subsequent bites, the person becomes sensitized to the foreign proteins, and that’s when hell occurs. It seems with repeated bites, some people would become insensitive again, but I haven’t reached that stage that early morning.

That morning the plantation was alive not with the sound of music but frantic slapping. All creepy crawly denizens would have slithered away silently in utter disgust as one noisy KTemoc made his way through the lines of silent mocking rubber trees. “Hush” they seemed to say, in vain. Eventually I sort of surrendered to the aerial assaults and tried to concentrate on what was going on. The lady of course ignored me all these while as she went about her job.

I noted that she tapped the trees with such ruthless efficiency that I dared not impose on her my request to do some tapping. Using her tapping knife, she rapidly cut (sort of scraping away) the tree’s bark in a V-fashion, using yesterday’s and earlier cuttings as guidelines. Even as the latex started to flow down the V-cuts to a centre vertical cut that ended with a metal guide which drained the latex into a collection cup, she gave each clay cup a quick clean with a rag. Occasionally she came across a broken cup and replaced that with a new one which she carried in her bag strapped by her side.

Every now and then she would glance back to check whether I had abandoned her or was being swallowed up by a python. Again those mysterious eyes would stare at me with, I thought, great humour. Then she carried on.

From time to time she would adjust the wick of her crude oil lamp, just by using her fingers, to ensure there’s adequate lighting. She was so much the very example of sheer economical efficiency that I was intimidated into remaining silent, and not to attempt engaging her in meaningless chatter. Never was a movement wasted nor delayed, other than to check I still wasn't dragged away by a hungry tiger.

As I grew used to the mossies and the tempo of her activity, which to be frank had mercifully allowed me to catch my breath, I began to do what I do best, evaluate her … eh … physique, mind you, a completely scientific study to assess the correlation between the health benefits of her work regimentation and her ... eh ... muscular development. Despite her thick wrapped up she looked very trimmed and nice in all the correct places. I began to enjoy my sojourn with her.

After the tapping was done, a wee too soon I thought, she left me at the bungalow. Before she departed, she gave me her laser-like penetrating 'eyes special’ again. She hadn’t said a single word from ‘collecting’ to ‘depositing’ me back at the house. She left so suddenly that I didn't have the presence of mind to thank her.

I knew she would return to the trees later to collect the latex once the sun warmed everything up and stopped the sap from flowing. So I waited to catch her again, because I intended to follow her and this time, hopefully chat her up. But I waited forlornly because she must have taken a different and probably more direct route from her place, just a quarter mile away from Unc's bungalow, to her sector.

I thought I would never see her again or find out who she was – I was too shy to ask Unc. The evening before I left the estate to return to Penang, my Unc informed me I was invited to dinner by her family. After all the usual briefing from Unc on behaviour and manners, that the tappers were very simple but sincere folks, and not to criticise the food, he dropped me at her place at 4:45 pm and would pick me up in two hours time. Rubber tappers have their dinners and then would retire early because of their early work schedule at a most unearthly hour.

My thoughtful Unc provided me with two large bottles of Guinness Stout and a box of cream biscuits as gifts for her family. Her father was at the door to invite me in. They spoke Cantonese and Hakka, and I spoke Chiuchow (Teochew) and Hokkien, so I was a bit like a recently landed illegal immigrant asking rubber tappers for directions to Kuala Lumpur. But the dialects had some common words so I wasn’t entirely lost. I resisted the temptation to show off my versatility at Cantonese or Hakka obscenities.

As I entered her house, I saw her standing by the kitchen door, recognising her immediately by her mysterious eyes. The fact that she was the only one there besides her parents helped too. She was smiling a la Mona Lisa at me, this time with her sweet lips instead of her beautiful eyes. I kid you not, but to a 15 year old kid she was gorgeous. Her porcelain complexion (protected from the harsh elements, no doubt, by the wrapped up) stood in contrast to her rosy cheeks. She was the typical outdoor healthy big-bone tall Hakka woman. I eventually found out she was only 17, just an insignificant 2 years’ difference with yours hopefully.

Throughout dinner we exchanged love messages with our eyes, so I imagined, but yes, she did smile enchantingly and look at me frequently. I hope it wasn't to count the pimples on my face, or more probably the scars marks left by my vigorous scratchings at the mossie bites. Again, she didn’t say a single word. Oh, how I loved and still do the silent type. Wish my girlfriends had been like her.

Her dad and mum encouraged me to eat more of this and that. Their hospitality was truly the genuine kampong type, wonderful and warm. I conducted some polite conversation with her parents, assisted by comical hand gestures because of the barrier of 4 different and unshared dialects, and sneaked numerous glances at her. Each time I did so, I saw her smiling sweetly at me. I was rapt but alas, before too long, my Unc came for me.

Just as I was able to leave the house, she finally spoke to me, “Please come again”. When I heard her sweet musical voice for the first and only time, an excited chill shot up my back (I was falling in love) while I experienced stomach cramps (I was experiencing love-sickness at the thought of leaving her then).

I turned around to look at her, she with the sweetest smile and gorgeous enchanting eyes, and considered sweeping her flamboyantly into my arms for a deep passionate farewell kiss before I confessed eternal love for her, but all pathetic me did was to nod and mumble a confused thank you.

Sadly, we were but passing ships in the night. I never saw her again. I do think of her sometimes, especially when many many years later I drove by that plantation, thinking to myself that if only she had the opportunity to study, perhaps even go to university or whatever, she would have droves of men going after her. But undoubtedly she was doomed to a life of tapping rubber in a forsaken plantation somewhere in Perak, my mysterious Mona Lisa.

But wherever she is, I wish her all the best, and hope she would sometimes think fondly of that young bloke who did the crazy calypso slapping beside her one early morning.


  1. Poor thing, this Mona Lisa of yours. I once lived in a rural area where my civil servant dad was posted and befriended many rubber tapping families. One family's life was particularly tragic. Their daughter had leukemia and died. Their son worked in a workshop and before long lost part of his eyesight due to a freak accident involving acids. Fortunately, their youngest son was very intelligent and did well in his studies. I have since lost touch with these people and I sincerely hope that their son made it to the university and lifted his family out of hardship.

  2. Their lives are harsh and always have been, living in semi-poverty. Yet these are the very people who had contributed enormously to Malaysia's wealth. I wish them all the best and hope one or more of their educated children will lift them from the morass they are in, like a blooming lotus flower.

  3. I'm 17! I wonder how my life would be like if I had been born in such a family. I'm a oversized-town/city girl to the core. Your article was informative as I'm doing a wee bit research on a rubber tapper's life for an essay idea I have. It's pretty amusing too...just for accuracy's sake, how long ago did this happen? Would they have used oil lamps say, in the 1940s?

  4. ... oversized town/city girl ...?

    You must be a town/city Hakka sweetie then ;-)

    More than 15 years to your 1st Q -
    1940s? I would imagine so, as that's the cheapest form of lighting.

    Also see Star Online on 06 July, just a few days ago. I've extracted two links for you

    The above was the great grand-cub of the tiger that failed to get me ;-)

    Above is income and lifestyle of today's rubber tapper. Life has changed since then when a rubber tapper could afford the luxuries this bloke enjoys.

    Don't foeget to read through some other Malaysian historical accounts, and see if the RRI can help your research.

    Good luck - I hope you get an A+

  5. here's another Star Online news info

    It's about the benefits of an increase in rubber price (don't forget the DPM is a politician so he would spin the best there is, so you need to verify his assertion) and the DPM's 5 strategies for FELDA.

  6. Much thanks for the reply and for finding links for me as well:D Actually I did do my research, if you can call it that, and have read those few articles but I think it's a coincidence that happened just because I've had a lot of free time to pore over my newspaper nowadays. My essay idea, left in the cold for a few days, seems to have withered a little but I'll try to revive it again. Work, brain, work!

    Oh, btw, my oversized-town/city is actually a city-so a Perak Quiz- which certified city in Perak still retains the quaint, slightly musty atmosphere of a mining town? (big hint there)

    And another btw, I am half-Hakka..but about sweetie I don't know. Hakka women are famous for having unbound feet (back then), muscles rivalling their men, and a loud and 'cho-loh' (what is that called? uncouth?) tongue.

  7. Well, I'm pretty bad at geography, especially that of Perak, but I'm guessing it would be Taiping.

    Lovely place - As a kid I lived there during the hols when my dad was working there for a while.

  8. Not a bad guess, but no. Taiping IS clean, quiet, perfect retirees' retreat..but I don't think it's a city, yet. The capital city is the answer.

  9. KTemoc,

    I read this and is so touching. Almost feels like falling in love with your mona lisa!

  10. yes, she was sweet and mysterious, but now ... sob ... only a memory!

  11. KTmoc,

    No need to sob. Cherish the sweet memories and the numerous times you had cataclysmic O DIY with her sweetie imprinted in your innocent-but-at-times guilty(?) mind.

    I would not have done anything less.