Lady Rubber Tapper

Rubber trees stand tall and straight in neat rows, bright rays of the morning sun shine through the leaves. Madam Chong Sew Cheen stoops slightly to score a rubber tree with the pull-type rubber tapping knife in her hands, milky-white latex sap flow downward the diagonal cut. Madam Chong inserts a metal spout to allow the latex to drip into a collection cup held in place by a galvanized wire.

In the 20th century, there was a massive boom in rubber trade, Malaya became the world’s largest producer of natural rubber, which attracted swarms of British capitalist investors. As Malaya gained independence from British rule, plantations were divided and sold upon British capitalists leaving the country, several locals spent their hard-earned money to buy over and became smallholders. Mambau, where Madam Chong resides, was mainly consisted of rubber plantations. At eleven years old, she followed in her mother’s footsteps to tap rubber at a British-owned plantation. Over the next six decades, she moved around to work under different smallholders. 

The rapid economic growth since Malaysia’s formation led to urban sprawl, property developers acquired plantations in Mambau and surrounding areas to build new townships such as Seremban 2 and Bandar Sri Sendayan. In order to sustain a livelihood, Madam Chong had to work at remote Malay reserved lands, making daily trips alone via motorcycle for about twenty minutes, passing by residential and commercial properties which used to be rubber plantations, to reach her current workplace. 

The switching of workplace brought on changes to Madam’s Chong working mode, where she now rents rubber trees from the landowner for a fixed monthly fee, and she is free to arrange her own working hours and workload.  Due to the amount of latex sap produced by rubber trees being limited, she divided the six-acre plot into two patches to be tapped alternately, the downscaled working area means that she no longer need to rush to work before dawn, as it can be completed throughout the morning.

Around seven in the morning, Madam Chong arrives at the rubber plantation on her motorcycle, ties on her apron and headscarf, lights a mosquito coil to hang upon her waist, then goes around the rubber trees with her bucket of tools. A regularly used tapping knife, a spare one, some metal spouts, a parang to collect firewood, and spare spark plugs in case her motorcycle misfires. After completing her work around noon, she goes home to have lunch and rest, later in the evening she sharpens the tapping knives and gets ready for the next day’s toil.

Mambau’s rubber industry dwindled in line with weakening global demand, smallholders converted to palm or durian plantations. Local rubber tappers either change their jobs or retire, only a handful remain persistent lke Madam Chong. Big cities offer more opportunities, younger generations rather flock to urban areas than tap rubber. Nowadays rubber plantations face workers shortage, even in hiring foreign labour. Local Chinese rubber tappers are becoming increasingly rare. 

Septuagenarian Madam Chong has been working as a rubber tapper for the majority of her life. Although she occasionally suffer leg pain from walking on slopes, she remains jovial and have no plans to retire yet, as she may pass time and exercise through her work. Despite the decline of the rubber industry, Madam Chong still manage to make a living.

有你 UNI Production
Producer : Daniel Lim
Cinematographer : Amelia Lim / Evon Pang / Michael Lerk
Drone : Daniel Lim
Video Editor : Evon Pang
Copywriter : Pua Hui Wen


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