Making the cut (rubber and the forgotten art of rubber tapping)

6 06 2017

The cultivation of rubber, once the mainstay of the Malayan economy, has left a mark not just on our northern neignbours, Malaysia, but also here in Singapore. Clusters of aging rubber trees or even individual trees in Singapore’s less developed parts mark former rubber plantations, the largest of which are found on Pulau Ubin and Pulau Tekong. In the northwest, a pier turned sea pavilion, built to move rubber out of a long isolated area of Singapore in the 1920s, also recalls a business on which many fortunes were made (and lost) and in the west, two surviving dragon kilns speak of the pottery making trade fed by the demand for clay latex cups from the many plantations. There is also a little corner of a former rubber plantation in the northeast in which its past is commemorated by five old rubber trees found in a corner. The five are all that remain of hundreds that a Japanese monk had planted to acknowledge the donation of the plot by the plantation’s owners – to be used as a burial place for hundreds of karayuki-san who died penniless.

Latex being collected in a clay latex cup – many kilns were established across Singapore, including the two surviving dragon kilns at Jalan Bahar, to produce these cups.

One of the things I found fascinating as a child was the sight of rubber tappers moving from tree to tree that I would catch on the many drives to Malaysia. From comfort breaks taken in and around rubber estates – due to their isolation – I could see the results of the tappers’ actions. The cuts made on the trees’ bark were quite visible as were the cups of latex. What I was not able to see close up however was how the tapper actually made the cut; that is, until just a few days ago when I was able to catch a demonstration of the art. The live demo (see video below) was performed by a retired rubber tapper, Uncle Ah Ha, as part of an Outward Bound School (OBS) UBiNavigate 2017 trail organised for Pesta Ubin 2017.

An old rubber press in the OBS area of Pulau Ubin – in surprisingly good condition.

UBiNavigate also gave its participants the opportunity to explore the western part of Pulau Ubin. An area in which OBS operates, the area is normally off-limits to the general public. Once where Ong Seng Chew owned a rubber estate, this corner of the island is still filled with many reminders of that past such as an old rubber press lying in a bed of tree fall, broken bottles that once held the enzymes required for the rubber production process, and rubber trees that have long been abandoned.

Part of the UBiNavigate trail taking participants through the relatively unexplored western side of Ubin.

Several aspects of Ubin’s much storied past were also in evidence, some of which were related to the quarrying activities that provided much of the granite used to build modern Singapore. Besides the sight of a former quarry – just beyond the fence of OBS Camp 1, two concrete storage rooms could be seen, fitted with heavy steel doors. These storerooms were apparently used for the storage of dynamite that the nearby quarry used for blasting.

A dynamite store that used by a nearby quarry.

Several other interesting “discoveries” tell us of the the island’s previous inhabitants: a solitary tomb of a Madam Goh that is still tended to by her descendants, a disused well, a concrete communal stove, and the concrete base of a Chinese village-style dwelling. More on UBiNavigate, which was held on 3 June 2017, can be found at https://ubinavigate.wixsite.com/2017.

Latex dripping into a clay latex cup.

Remains of narrow necked enzyme bottles used in rubber processing.


Other rubbery posts:


More views around the western end of Pulau Ubin

An abandoned well.

Coconut shells were also utilised as latex cups.

The OBS Reservoir.

A beach on the southwestern shoreline of Ubin.

A solitary tomb of a Madam Goh.

Remains of an old communal stove.

A shrine built in 1979.

Another of the shrine.


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