A common sight in the Jambi Province is rubber plantations. It’s also common to see people have their own private plot of rubber trees close to their homes. For outsiders, the sight of a tree that’s been tapped, and latex that’s in the process of being collected is very interesting. Locals are amused at the outsider’s curiosity with something that is so common to them.
The rubber tree was said to have made its way to Jambi from the Malaysian peninsula and Singapore around the end of the 1800s. Chinese merchants are accredited with bringing the seeds to Jambi, as they saw their great potential. (Seeds originally came from Brazil.) The major initiative for planting rubber trees in Jambi, however, came from the Dutch colonial authority in Jambi (O.L. Helfrich: 1906-1908). He organized the distribution of 30,000 seeds to the public for free.
In the early 1900’s there was plenty of land available and the seeds were easy to obtain, plant, and care for. This led to the wide planting of trees, which produced great expectation for both the farmers and ultimately the Dutch, since they would eventually be able to reap the tax benefits. Only six years after planting the trees were ready to be tapped.
The Chinese Indonesians, with their acumen for business, also foresaw the financial opportunity and invested heavily in rubber’s potential. One notable Chinese immigrant heavily involved in Jambi’s rubber production was the renowned Tjoa The Hok.
The Dutch’s colonial authority assigned each person in Jambi the duty to plant 500 trees. This task was overseen and managed by the village leaders. Due to this foresight the rubber production boomed correspondingly as the trees matured.
♦ In 1911 Jambi produced .5 tons of latex.
♦ In 1924 Jambi produced 22,851 tons of latex.
♦ In 1925 Jambi produced 30,511 tons of latex.
♦ The number of rubber trees at that time reached 21,209,413.
The years of 1924-1926 were considered the “Golden Era” due to tremendous prosperity from latex. A major turn of events took place in 1931 when the value of rubber dropped. In fact, in 1932 Jambi only exported 1,464 tons. It should also be mentioned that there was tremendous corruption with this business, as “sand, stones, bits of iron, old soles, and on occasion even dead monkeys” were added to the latex to increase its weight. Water was also a significant problem, because in 1926 Jambi rubber was said to contain 46% water.
After that disappointing market fluctuation many replanted their land with other crops. Others held out, and today the rubber market, though fluctuating, is still profitable, though mostly for the exporters. Many farmers claim they are being severely undercut by the exporters.
The downtown building that was previously the offices of the popular rubber business, Hok Tong, is no longer in use. In the days gone by that building was extremely famous and was like an icon in the city, wherein everybody knew of its location and importance. Though that business is still in operation, its original building sits idle, and people passing by it on the street don’t really notice it, even though the street in front of it is almost always jammed with traffic.
At the top of that building there is clearly spelled out, with raised letters, “Hok Tong.” Those letters are as legible now as when the building was first built.
Information for this post came from the books “Mencari Jajak Sangkala” by H. Junaidi T. Noor, and Sumatran Sultanate and Colonial State. Information was also obtained through interviews with several latex harvesters.