Gambier, or pale catechu, is an astringent extract prepared from the leaves and stems of Uncaria gambir, a climber native to Sumatra and Borneo.1 Gambier, along with tapioca and pepper, was one of the most important crops grown in Malaya in the 19th century.2
Origins and distribution
Uncaria gambir shrubs are found in the wettest parts of Malaysia, Borneo, Sumatra and the western half of Java as the young plants need very wet conditions for early growth. It was speculated that the method of preparing gambier was adopted by the Malays from the way Indians used to prepare cutch (extract) from the wood of the Acacia catechu plant. It was also believed that lozenges made of gambier were abundantly available and traded in Malaya at the end of the 17th century.3
Gambier plantations in Singapore
When the British arrived in Singapore in 1819, there were about 20 gambier plantations in Singapore, run by the Chinese and Malays. Most of the produce was exported to China. In 1836, a group of enthusiasts, mainly Europeans, started to experiment with growing crops in Singapore. The only two crops found to be viable as plantation crops were gambier and pepper.4 These were always grown together, as gambier waste provided an essential fertiliser for pepper plants. Similarly, boiled gambier leaves also were also used as fertiliser for pepper.5
There was much demand for Singapore's gambier in the British dyeing and tanning industry in the 1830s. Increased gambier prices boosted the opening of new plantations by the Chinese, who occupied and cleared the land, especially in the northern and western regions of Singapore.6 By the late 1840s, there were 600 gambier and pepper plantations under cultivation, employing some 6,000 Chinese labourers.7
Gambier and pepper plantations could be found in the Nee Soon area along the Seletar River in the mid-19th century. The "king of gambier", Seah U Chin, or Seah Eu Chin, had huge plantations in Upper Thomson Road, Sembawang and Mandai. He also owned a well-known gambier trading house along the Singapore River.8 Seah was deemed the first person to have cultivated gambier and pepper on a large scale in Singapore.9
Unfortunately, within 15 years, the soil in the gambier plantations became infertile; it could no longer sustain further growth of the gambier plants. Consequently, from the late 1840s onwards, the plantations were moved to other Malayan states, mainly to Johor; more were moved in the 1860s.10 In 1883, there were reportedly 4,000 gambier-producing factories in Johor.11 Around 1905, gambier and pepper lost favour among the Chinese planters, who turned to growing pineapple and cultivating rubber due to the increasingly high demand for these crops.12
Uncaria gambir is a slender climber that forms a bush in cultivation, and can grow to around eight feet (2.4 m) tall.13 The vine climbs by grapples; hence the Malays call it kekait which comes from the term kait-kait, meaning to climb in “grapples”.14
Gambier leaves are either oval or oblong in shape, measuring 8 to 14 cm in length with four to five pairs of nerves (leaf veins). The flower heads measure around 3 to 45 cm across with peduncles (the stem or stalk bearing a flower or fruit) that are 2.5 cm in length. The petals are slender and red, while the lobe is oblong and white.15
Traditionally, gambier is prepared by steaming the leaves which are tied into a bundle. Boiling water is then poured through the bundle in small amounts. Subsequently, the diluted juice is squeezed out, after which the leaves are dried and moulded into cakes. Gambier made this way can be spread with lime on betel leaves to be chewed.
The Chinese adopted a different way of making gambier. They boiled the twigs for a prolonged period of time, and made the end product as dry as possible. This resulted in a different kind of gambier compared to what was produced through the traditional method. There were different ways of moulding the final produce – in a block, cube or cake form; its form gave some indication of the quality of gambier that was sold.16
In Singapore, gambier-pepper plantations were called bangsal. It also referred to a form of dwelling that doubled as a place where labourers could prepare gambier.17
Medicine: In India, gambier has traditionally been used as an ingredient in astringent lotions for the skin. The Malays also use gambier as a lotion to treat burns, and as a paste to treat scurf. It is also used to cure diarrhoea and dysentery, and as a gargle for sore throat. In Borneo, gambier is used in the treatment of sciatica and lumbago.18
Other uses: Gambier is used for dyeing and tanning cotton, wool and silk. It also acts as a tanning agent on leather, such as calf and kip skins.19
Scientific name: Uncaria gambir
Malay name: Kachu, Kachuk, Gambir.
Naidu Ratnala Thulaja
1. Hsuan Keng, The Concise Flora of Singapore: Gymnosperms and Dicotyledons (Singapore: Singapore University Press, 1990), 162. (Call no. RSING 581.95957 KEN)
2. James C. Jackson, “Chinese Agricultural Pioneering in Singapore and Johore 1800–1917,” Journal of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society 38, no. 1 (207) (July 1965): 77. (From JSTOR via NLB’s eResources website)
3. I. H. Burkill, A Dictionary of the Economic Products of the Malay Peninsula, vol. 2 (Kuala Lumpur: Ministry of Agriculture and Co-operatives, 1966), 2238–239. (Call no. RSING 634.909595 BUR)
4. C. M. Turnbull, A History of Singapore, 1819–1988 (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1989), 44. (Call no. RSING 959.57 TUR-[HIS])
5. Reena Singh, A Journey Through Singapore: Travellers' Impressions of a By-Gone Time Selected and Arranged in a Complete Narrative (Singapore: Landmark Books, 1995), 186 (Call no. RSING 959.57 REE-[HIS]); Turnbull, History of Singapore, 1819–1988, 44.
6. Turnbull, History of Singapore, 1819–1988, 44; Jackson, “Chinese Agricultural Pioneering in Singapore and Johore,” 77–78.
7. Turnbull, History of Singapore, 1819–1988, 44.
8. Nee Soon Constituency Citizens' Consultative Committee, A Pictorial History of Nee Soon Community (Singapore: The grassroots organisations of Nee Soon Constituency, 1987), 15, 22. (Call no. RSING 959.57 PIC-[HIS])
9. Song Ong Siang, One Hundred Years' History of the Chinese in Singapore (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1984), 20. (Call no. RSING 959.57 SON-[HIS])
10. Jackson, “Chinese Agricultural Pioneering in Singapore and Johore,” 80, 81, 83–84; Turnbull, History of Singapore, 1819–1988, 44.
11. Burkill, Dictionary of the Economic Products, 2242.
12. Jackson, “Chinese Agricultural Pioneering in Singapore and Johore,” 77–105.
13. Keng, Concise Flora of Singapore, 162; Singh, Journey Through Singapore, 186.
14. Burkill, Dictionary of the Economic Products, 2236.
15. Keng, Concise Flora of Singapore, 162.
16. Burkill, Dictionary of the Economic Products, 2240–241.
17. Nee Soon Constituency Citizens' Consultative Committee, Pictorial History of Nee Soon Community, 21; Song, One Hundred Years' History of the Chinese in Singapore, 35.
18. Burkill, Dictionary of the Economic Products, 2243.
19. Burkill, Dictionary of the Economic Products, 2244.
20. Burkill, Dictionary of the Economic Products, 2238.
The information in this article is valid as at October 2019 and correct as far as we can ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.