My Grandfather, Pulau Ubin's Betel Planter

Hi all,

Today I would like to dwell back onto the personal aspects of WUJ as I share my findings about my late grandfather, Sulong bin Yunos (or more affectionately known by the people of Ubin as Awang Minyak). My late grandfather worked many jobs in the past, and today I would like to share with you about his life as Pulau Ubin's betel planter.


The betel (Piper betle) or more commonly known as 'Daun sirih' in Malay, was something my mom associated my late grandfather with if I asked her to help describe him to me. What astounded me though was when everyone on Ubin whom I have interacted with, would also echo in saying that the betel is something they remembered my late grandfather of among many others; and it wasn't too difficult to see why.

On Ubin, nearly every single villager would have their own garden in their plot of land. Some are known for owning simple fruit orchards, while others would also be remembered for their beautiful flowers. My late grandfather was famous for the simple fact that he was the only one on Ubin who owned a huge betel plantation around the house. It was known to be half the size of a soccer field, while some other residents claimed that it could have actually been a little bit more than a whole soccer field too!

When I asked my mom about it, she described the betel plantation as having "rows upon rows of them; each row containing between 8 to 11 X-shaped columns where the betel would crawl all the way up" She also helped me to visualise a little better on where these rows were relative to the location of the house as seen below:

Each X represents a column of betel, so there are roughly 386 - 400 individual betel vines each with probably 50 leaves.

It was no wonder why my mom, her siblings and nearly everyone on Ubin came to remember my late grandfather for his betel plantation. But yet again, why did he grow so many betel? I came to know that my late grandfather used to grow them as a form of side income, with Pak Ahmad once suggesting that the "returns from the side income outweighed his main source of income as a mosquito repellant oil sprayer".

The betel is actually more than just an average vine that make your teeth red when chewed, it was and still might be a very significant part of Malay customs and traditions. During Malay weddings, the betel would be presented as 'gubahan/hantaran pengantin' or bridal gifts during the solemnisation ceremony. I later understood that the Indian community also share a similar custom and view highly towards the betel as well. Therefore it was no wonder that betel was always in high demand.

Betel leaves used as decoration for bridal gifts in Malay weddings. Photo courtesy of Pesona Pengantin

But my late grandfather did not really sell it on Ubin, as he knew that it could not sustain itself even despite the island's population at the time still comfortably in the thousands. Instead, he sold his betels to a client who worked in the Old Geylang Serai Market (spanning across Joo Chiat Complex to Darul Arqam in today's time). My mom remembered the client as "being a man of Indian Peranakan descent who was close friends with her late father." She even told me that his son, Ibrahim, currently owns a stall in the Geylang Serai Market today; which means that the son had carried on his late father's legacy quite possibly for more than half a century.

My mom fondly remembered helping her late father with the harvest. She shared with me how an average harvest would go like:

The actual harvest normally would span across two mornings, with the entire process spanning 4 days in total on a weekly basis. It would begin with my late grandfather informing my mom and her sister that it was time for harvest, to which my mom would greet with glee. My late grandfather would then proceed into his shed and prepare the equipment which included specially handwoven baskets and a customised iron thumb shears that resembled a ring with an extension of a semi-sharp nail.

My mom drew out a rough sketch of how exactly the customised iron thumb shears looked like and this is how I managed to draw it out. My mom told me that my late grandfather would make quite a number of these so that anyone who wished to help out with the harvest may do so too.

By 8 a.m. on Days 1 and 2, both my mom and aunt would be in the plantation ready for the harvest. My mom recalled that my late grandfather taught her how to select the best leaves just by looking at its size and shade of green; and how to harvest them. Usually, she would harvest those nearer to the ground and would alternate the following week by using a ladder to harvest the ones on top while new leaves grow again in the bottom.

The only photograph ever taken of my late grandfather's betel plantation, with my aunt (left) and mom (right) presumably after a harvest.

After the baskets were filled to the brim around noon, my mom and aunt would head back to the shed and evenly distribute the leaves out on the ground for my late grandfather to count on Day 3. An average of over 10,000 leaves would be harvested each time, each bundled into cylindrical-like stacks of 1,500 to 2,000 each; where each leaf would be delicately arranged in an overlapping spiral manner. After stacking them up, my late grandfather would keep the betel leaves in place by tying them up using banana bark - which when left to dry, would serve as a makeshift string (I managed to find a video on YouTube that somewhat showed how it's made if you're interested, from 00:00 - 02:45)

The overlapping spiral motion of stacking the betel leaves (as shown above) allows the stack to take on the form of a nice cylindrical shape. Photo courtesy of Brilio.net

The following morning on Day 4, my late grandmother would take over together with my uncle and mom with loading the stacks up onto my late grandfather's sampan docked at the stream (which was named after him: Sungei Awang Minyak). My uncle would row the sampan out of the stream, across Sungei Durian and the Serangoon Harbour. They would then dock at Changi before flagging a taxi to deliver the leaves to the Old Geylang Serai Market as mentioned earlier. While they were there, it was also the perfect opportunity for the family to stock up on their weekly food supply, often with the payment made from Ibrahim's late father; which was around $10 - $15 ($40 - $80 in today's currency). By the afternoon, the three of them would head their way back home with the goods and extra income earned to be saved for a rainy day.

My late grandfather worked hard in maintaining the betel plantation. My mom recalled that while they rested from the harvesting, her late father would be busy applying fertilisers to keep the vines fresh and healthy. Unfortunately, as he contracted an illness in his final years, the plantation was not really as well taken care of any more; though my mom still painfully remembered watching him still tending to it even as he started coughing profusely and turning frail. After new responsibilities were shouldered by my mom and her siblings to raise their new families, not many were able to commit to maintaining their late father's betel plantation. Eventually, following my late grandfather's passing in 1981 at the age of 59, the betel plantation died along with him and Ubin lost a significant betel plantation hardly documented in the archives today.

40 years ago, this whole area was clear of vegetation and my late grandparents' house would be standing tall and strong in the background, with the betel plantation just slightly to my mom's right in this picture. Today, it's just a dense forest.

Even as recently as today, I could no longer find betel surrounding 818K; despite how much I wished to even come across a single vine that might have survived against the test of time and harsh undergrowth of the reclaiming forests. But I still find comfort in knowing that my mom and everyone else whom I have interacted with on Ubin, still fondly remembered my late grandfather, his betel plantation and his hard work in maintaining it - a testament to his love for his family and community.

Thank you Arwah Tok, for your amazing contribution and I hope that this post serves even the slightest form of justice in bringing recognition to your labour. May Allah SWT grant you the highest level of Jannah and spare you of any reckoning in the grave and Judgement Day. Amin.

الْفَاتِحَة Al-Fatihah
Sulong Bin Yunos (Awang Minyak)
1922 - 1981



May Pulau Ubin thrive again, with its people in its heart.



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