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Gambier a.k.a catechu, a common ingredient used by Asians in chewing betel nut, is prepared from parts of the shrub Uncaria gambier (Uncaria gambir) of the family Rubiaceae. There are two varieties of catechu: pale and black. Gambier is the pale variety, while black catechu is obtained from the tree Acacia Catechu.
Origins and distribution
Native of the Malayan archipelago, Uncaria gambier shrubs are found in Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and the surrounding islands. It probably originated in Sumatra and Borneo. It is speculated that the method of preparing gambier was adopted by the Malays from the Indian way of preparing catechu from the Areca catechu plant. It is believed that lozenges made of gambier were available and traded in Malaysia even in the 17th century.
Gambier plantations in Singapore
When the British arrived in Singapore in the 1819, there were already 20 gambier plantations in Singapore, ran by the Chinese and Malays. The produce was mainly exported to China. In the 1830s, the British encouraged the locals to take up other forms of agriculture but it was found that many spices, which were in demand in the western markets, could not be easily grown here because of unsuitable soil and environmental conditions. The only two crops found to be viable as plantation crops were gambier and pepper which had already been in cultivation then. Gambier and pepper plants tend to grow entwined around each other and share a symbiotic relationship. Gambier leaf remains act as nutrients or fertilisers for pepper plants and protects the latter's roots at the same time. In the 1830s, Singapore's gambier found a big market in the British dyeing and tanning industry. This resulted in increased gambier prices which pushed the Chinese to find fresh land for new plantations, leading to the clearing of the island's interiors, especially in the north and the west.
These plantations were highly successful, providing employment to many locals and immigrants. Gambier and pepper plantations were mainly found in the Nee Soon area along the Seletar River. Among planters who struck rich with gambier were Chan Ah Lak, Soh Tye Whoy, Yeo Ah Chong, Low Ah Choon, and the "king of gambier", Seah U Chin, a.k.a, Seah Eu Chin (b. 1805 - d. 1883). Seah owned huge plantations in Upper Thomson Road, Sembawang and Mandai. He also owned a well-known gambier trading house along Singapore River. It is believed that he was the first person to start gambier and pepper planting on a large scale in Singapore. Gambier and pepper produce was transported to town via the Sungei Seletar waterways. Many shops dealing with gambier were located along the Singapore River. The Teochews reportedly dominated the trade.
A profitable crop, gambier fetched earnings of around $77 per plantation at the peak of the gambier trade which lasted from the 1830s to the 1850s. Plantation workers earned about $57 per annum. Europe was a major market. Unfortunately, after about 10 to 15 years, the soil became exhausted and depleted and the infertile soil could no longer sustain further growth of these plants. The plantations were then moved to other Malayan states, mainly to Johore, from the late 1840s onwards, and more so in the 1860s. In 1883, there were reportedly 4000 gambier producing factories in Johore. Though most of the plantations moved out of Singapore, planters continued to sell gambier to businessmen in Singapore who in turn traded them. Singapore became the main centre of gambier trade, collecting and exporting the produce, and remained so for many years until the dawn of the 20th century. Developments that pushed gambier out of the plantation grid were the introduction of pineapple canning in 1888 which resulted in the expansion of the pineapple industry, and the rapid development of the motorcar industry at the turn 20th century which sparked off a very high demand for rubber. By early 20th century, pineapple and rubber had replaced gambier as the most important plantation crops in Singapore.
Uncaria gambir shrubs are slender woody vines or climbers. In cultivation, they can be seen growing as bushes. The plants grow to around eight feet high. The vine climbs in grapples and therefore the Malay call it kekait which comes from the term kait-kait, meaning to climb in "grapples". During the early stages of growth, the young plants need very wet conditions. They are therefore commonly found in the wettest parts of Malaysia and Indonesia, such as Western Malaysia and West Java. The leaves are oval or oblong in shape measuring 8 to 14 cm. in length with 4 to 5 pairs of nerves. The flower heads measure around 2.5 cm in length and are separated across by 3 to 4.5 cm. The flowers are slender with white coloured lobes and a red coloured corolla.
Traditional gambier is prepared by boiling the young leaves, pressing them to extract juice, making the juice into a concentrated form and drying it. There are different ways of moulding the final produce, in a block, cube or cake form. Different ways of boiling parts of the gambier plant result in different products of a varying taste. For example, the Chinese boil twigs over a prolonged period of time and make the end product as dry as possible resulting in a different kind of gambier. In India, rose water is mixed with cutch to make it aromatic and to give a more pleasant taste to the betel-quid. The traditional way to consume gambier is to apply it as a paste on betel leaves after mixing it with lime and water, wrapping the leaves with some betel nuts and chewing it. It has a mild narcotic effect and stains the mouth red. In Southeast Asia, gambier is sometimes chewed alone as a gum.
In Singapore, the bangsals, a form of dwellings doubled as a place where labourers could prepare gambier. The word bangsal was also used to refer to a gambier-pepper plantation.
Medicine: All parts of the plant have astringent properties. The leaves of the plant contain a tannin called catechin which has a high pH value, making it acidic. Younger leaves of the plant have a higher catechin content than the older ones. In India, gambier was used as skin lotions since, supposedly, remote times. The Malays also use gambier as a lotion and apply it to treat burns. In paste form, it is used to treat scurf. It has commonly been used by the Indians and Malays to treat diarrhoea and dysentery, and as a gargle for sore throat. In Borneo, gambier has been used in the treatment of sciatica and lumbago.
Other uses: Gambier Catechu yields a colour known as "Cutch Brown" which is used for dyeing and tanning cotton, wool and silk. It is also used on leather, such as calf and kip skins. The common 'khaki' colour is obtained from it.
Common name: Gambier.
Scientific name: Uncaria gambir (Synonym: Catechu pallidum).
Chinese name: Er Cha.
Malay name: Kachu, Kekait, Gambir.
Other names: Catechu, Terra Japonica, Japonica, Cutch, Kutch, White Cutch, Gambir, Gambeer.
Naidu Ratnala Thulaja
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List of images
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The information in this article is valid as at 2003 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.