Friday, September 29

Humble plant in the Royal Garden


Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah (left) and Al-Sultan Abdullah watering the Simpor tree, which Their Majesties had jointly planted earlier in the compound of the Istana Negara. — Bernama photo

I WAS quietly chuckling to myself. The front page of The Borneo Post of Aug 4, 2023, showed our Yang di-Pertuan Agong AlSultan Abdullah Ri’ayatuddin Al-Mustafa Billah Shah, together with His Majesty, the Sultan of Brunei Darussalam Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, watering a tree known as ‘Simpor’ (Dillenia suffroticosa) in the compound of the Istana Negara in Kuala Lumpur.

I think the message is that this simple joint act of watering a plant by two rulers symbolises the importance of nourishing the bilateral relations between two countries.

However, I wanted to learn more about the choice of the Simpor by Their Majesties. Why not plant some exotic expensive orchid or something? I know all about the ‘Buan’ leaf – it is used as a plate during jungle picnics.

Surely they are not short of dinner plates at the Istana Negara?

I asked someone to consult Google. According to it, the Simpor is the national plant of Brunei Darussalam; that could explain the choice. Information is subject to correction.

Anyway, what an honoured place for the Dillenia suffroticosa. Its other species are without commercial value, even as household or construction material.

In West Kalimantan, I saw pepper planters there using the Simpor trees as their supports, instead of the much more expensive ‘Belian’ (Eusideroxylon zwageri), the Borneo hardwood. But these hardwood posts are not easy to come by these days; even if available in Sarawak, they would cost an arm and a leg for the farmers.

Trading in the leaves

It is the choice of the plant for the Royal Garden that has especially amused me.

Why? As a schoolboy, I earned my pocket money by selling the fresh leaves of the species called Dillenia indica. The local Sebuyau Iban in Lundu call it ‘Buan’, and the Malays call it ‘Simpor’ (Anderson’s book ‘Check List of the Trees of Sarawak’ – published by Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka Sarawak for Forest Department, 1980).

A lot of trees of such species are found growing wild behind our old house at Stunggang. They grow fast especially in swampy areas.

Matured leaves are thick green; each leaf is about the size of an oblong dinner plate. The flowers are bright yellow. Mousedeer love the fruits.

After school, I would collect as many Buan leaves as possible, tie them into several bundles and sell them to the ‘China Lampu’ for cash, or ‘pusu’, or ‘roti kibin’ (biscuits).

‘China Lampu’ refers to a boat trading in groceries of all descriptions: kerosene, salt, sugar, sweets, flour, soya sauce, cigarettes, ‘Semakau Siam’ (tobacco) – all the groceries that the villagers would buy if they were in town.

Why were they called ‘China Lampu’? Because they always lit up their boats at night with the hurricane lamps. China? Invariably they were Chinese men who got their supplies from the bazaar on credit. The ‘Lampu’ sold the rubber sheets or paddy or rattan bought from the villagers to the ‘towkays’ in town.

After some time of trading in the leaves and ‘Bundong’ (reeds) from the riverbanks, which were used to wrap up fresh produce, I managed to save a bit of funds for expenses during trips to Kuching to visit my mother’s people at Tabuan Dayak.

In 1953, I went to school in Kuching. I was a curious child wanting to know about the town.

I saw how the vendors in the fish market by the Kuching River and the spice traders at Gambier Road used leaves similar to the ‘Daun Buan’ for wrapping things they were selling. No plastics were used as wrappers those days.

Shoppers carried rattan baskets in which they put all their shopping (fresh fish, ‘belacan’, ‘taugeh’, etc) – all wrapped in the Buan leaves.

There were many such Simpor trees on the edge of the rubber gardens owned by Ng Shak Ngee in the old Simpang Tiga area. This could have been one source of the wrapping material.

My relatives Onga and Atin ran a stall selling beansprouts in the ‘chekor’ next to the fish market in town. They got the leaves from this area at Simpang Tiga (where The Spring Shopping Mall is).

On the other bank of the Sarawak River, there were many Simpor trees in the general area where the Normah Medical Specialists Centre is.

I was sure these leaves used by the ‘chekor’ at the bazaar could have been plucked off the Simpor trees at several spots at the jungle there by the Malays who had sold the leaves to the food vendors in town.

I was too busy with school lessons to deal with the leaves in Kuching any more. End of my trading stint in jungle products.

Back in my village, the local hunters of wild boars and mousedeers wrapped cooked rice and sambal in the Simpor leaves. It is believed that cooked rice could remain fresh for several hours longer than the food in a plastic container.

Hunters with a gun know where to go for the meat of the mousedeer. It tastes like chicken.

Trappers knowing where the mouse deer would likely be, set their traps under or around a Simpor tree with ripe fruits.