The story of pepper in Kuching is not much different to the one of early Chinese settlers in Peninsular Malaysia, with the main difference here being the commodity in question.
Instead of silvery tin ore, the Chinese in Sarawak were harvesting a precious element of a different kind – pepper.
The prominence of pepper may have peaked under the British Rajah rule in the 1900s when the Borneo Company streamlined the pepper trade, but the seeds were planted close to three centuries back by the early Chinese settlers.
Fast forward to the 21st century, and pepper remains one of the state’s biggest foreign exchange earners, producing 95% of Malaysia’s pepper and maintaining the country as the Top 5 pepper-producing nations of the world.
Locally, the crop currently sustains more than 67,000 farming families and households, providing them with employment and income.
Although the majority of pepper farmers in the state are those from indigenous communities aided by the Ministry, the Sarawak pepper story is very much a Chinese immigrant story – one of trials, tribulations, and perseverance.
The Land of the Hornbills is the country’s biggest producer of pepper, boasting a history as rich as its taste
Piper nigrum, the botanic name of Sarawak pepper actually originates from southwest India, where it is still extensively planted.
However, nobody actually knows how the pepper’s Bornean chapter began, with some records saying it was the Majapahits who brought it over. However, a publication called Sarawak Long Ago reports it was introduced to the state by one W C Crocker in the 1860s.
No matter the origin, no records conflict on the important role the Chinese immigrants played in uplifting the crop in the country.
Driven by how lucrative pepper was in the spice trade (as well as the gold rush), the Chinese immigrated to Kuching and other parts in Sarawak many centuries ago and quickly began planting pepper on borrowed land.
The harvest turned out great, the tropical weather being conducive for healthy pepper plants. In fact, Sarawak is also home to its own indigenous variety of pepper, from the plant piper sarmentosum, which is more renowned for its leaf than its fruit.
By the time the British came around, Kuching as a port city played a big role in the pepper trade. Seeing its vast potential and the efficient farming methods of the Chinese, the Brookes imported more farmers from the surrounding areas, including Kalimantan, Singapore, and China, effectively sealing the deal for Sarawak to be known as Pepper Central in Malaysia.
The local native population have since kept the trade going, farming with their Chinese brethren side by side before eventually taking over the “profession”.
Right now, the average pepper farmer is very much affected by the volatile prices of this commodity. Be it black pepper or white pepper, much of the farming and selling activities necessitate the aid and intervention of government bodies, including the Malaysian Pepper Board (MPB) and the Ministry of Agriculture and Agro-Based Industry.
In addition to market factors, as with any crop, farmers face the threat of pests as well, with the most dangerous being “foot rot”, that is capable of wiping out entire plantations.
With most pepper plantations in Sarawak being pesticides-free or using pesticides only minimally, pests are a real threat.
Although many from the younger generation of Chinese pepper farming families, have left the family business for greener pastures, some have still remained and continue to farm their lands.
Others meanwhile have found ways to put their lands to other use, such as cultivating organic farms and doubling it as beautiful event venues.
Either way, the mark left behind by the Chinese immigrants in Sarawak’s pepper history will remain in our books for centuries to come.
Did you know Sarawak pepper was one of the main components of Sarawak laksa?[Source: “Pepper: Sarawak’s king of spices” published by FreeMalaysiaToday.com]
Photo Credits: FreeMalaysiaToday.com