The International Steam Pages

Penang's Rubber Heritage

Click here for the Rob and Yuehong Life in Penang, Malaysia index.

This is part of a series of pages on relics of Penang's rubber industrial heritage. First uploaded in mid-February 2019, additions were made until mid-March 2019 when we returned to the UK and field research was necessarily suspended. Since then further visits have seen the total rise to just over 200. I would welcome additions from fellow hikers, there is an email address at the bottom of the page. The pages available are:

This page gives some historical background and today's situation. I should stress that my knowledge is 'empirical' by which I mean it is based on observation rather than printed and web sources, as such it should not be considered as 100% reliable.

I would like to thank Yuehong while I indulged myself in this research also William and Susan Knox for their help in rendering Chinese characters into local Hokkien Pinyin - which is anything but an exact science.

Anyone approaching Penang, whether it be by land, sea or air cannot fail to notice the green hills which cover much of the island. At first sight, they may all look similar but broadly speaking the northern ones are covered in jungle and the southern ones in orchards, other farms and rubber estates, the latter mainly now abandoned. At one time, the extent of rubber cultivation was much greater as most of today's orchards were formerly rubber estate as were most of the lower slopes of the northern hills.

To appreciate how significant rubber must have been to the island's economy, you have to hike the hills and my reports make frequent reference to old rubber trees and the terraces they were planted on. Compared to the rolling hills on the mainland of the then Malaya, establishing production on the steep slopes must have been back breaking work done without any mechanical assistance. To ensure stability many of the terraces had to be supported by walls of small boulders and I believe that most of the work was done by Hakka immigrants, whose descendants are today's durian orchard owners. There were no roads into the hills, not even sealed paths and access was by simple tracks whose traces today may sometimes be recognised by a series of stone steps.

The larger estates were broken up or abandoned some time back. When we first started there were few traces of them left. On the left is what I believe is a former manager's bungalow in Jalan Chai, Balik Pulau and on the right former coolie's quarters (now demolished) off Jalan Gertak Sanggul.

Near the bungalow above is what appears to have been a store for the rubber sheets as within it is a weighing machine, marked as being 'Henry Pooley, London and Birmingham'. It has since disappeared. probably into an enthusisast's collection (not mine!).

Perhaps more typical of Penang was this Chinese house near Pantai Acheh with 'coolie quarters' next door:

Next to the house was a covered area with two pairs of disused rubber rollers, confusingly they were 'cross paired' for some long forgotten reason

By 2011 when we started hiking, commercial production of rubber in Penang was insignificant and the last rubber processor, the Lee Rubber Factory at Paya Terubong, closed in 2012. Its passing evoked little sorrow, it was surrounded by later housing whose residents did not appreciate the pungent smells and the site is now being 'covered in concrete'. 

As it happens, that time saw a historic spike in rubber prices and the availability of cheap migrant labour meant that old trees, way beyond their normal economic life span were being tapped informally, something which served to keep open some of the marginal paths in the southern hills. At the same time, some (re-)planting also occurred, an optimism which did not last and many of these trees, often untapped, are now being cut down. Today in Malaysia, 90% of rubber production is from smallholdings, these are at least as cost efficient as large estates because they have access to almost free additional family labour. 

Over the years, there have been changes in the hills. Today's durian orchards are largely former rubber estates, the remains of whose terraces are often apparent. Demand for durians, like rubber, has gone up and down. By 2020, they were flavour of the month with a seemingly insatiable demand from mainland China which has led to a rash of clearances, again using migrant labour. Since the 'gestation' period for a durian tree is of the order of 10 years, the chances of it all ending in tears are quite high. Wise orchard owners understand the need for diversification and the best grow a wide variety of other fruits as well as nutmeg. The other former favourite, clove is even more threatened than rubber, you have to look very hard to find these trees, clove oil has largely been replaced by the man made alternative.

It is still possible to find rubber trees being tapped in Penang, we don't see much of it going on but we are here mainly in the dry season when it is traditionally suspended.

These pages seek to record for posterity one aspect of the island's rubber heritage, the cast iron rolling machines which every smallholder had at the back of their houses in the hills. When I first saw them, I regarded them as no more than a curiosity, now I seek them out, the most interesting examples are those that bear additional information although it's largely in Chinese (we are working on this) and raises even more additional unanswered questions. They were used to produce sheet rubber on a small scale, it would have been impractical to carry the liquid any great distance so it was coagulated near its source up in the hills. By the time the Lee Rubber Factory closed, an article about it at the time (the comment on price trends is very dated) indicated that their supplies now came as 'cup lump', an indication that that most had been left to coagulate and that tapping was irregular. As such the quality of it would best be described as 'variable', we have seen rubber which has clearly been left lying around for weeks if not months. As of early 2020 a farmer could expect no more that MYR 2.50 a kg for his cup rubber. One durian farmer with four machines suggested they were abandoned when the processors went over to accepting the cup lumps ca 1970, something I cannot readily confirm.

Invariably, they came - and normally remain - as pairs, the first used was the plain one to squeeze out water and then the striated one was used to give the ribbed finish - it is said that this will increase the surface area so they will dry more quickly, it will also make them easier to stack and work with. They were adjustable for sheet thickness. Such machines are still made today in places like India, at a time when technology is moving at lightning speed it is amazing to see a design almost unchanged in over 100 years.

By the time we went back to the UK in March 2019 we had recorded  no less than 111 extant rollers (not 113 as I stated earlier). As of 15th March 2020 the revised total was 190 (not 194 as I stated earlier). Click here for an updated map showing their distribution (the thumbnail has not been updated since March 2019). After a pandemic enforced two year hiatus, by 11th January 2023, I had added a further 4 specimens and a single amazing day in January 2024 brought 5 more and took the total to 204, it's now 206.

Most likely none had been used for the last 30-40 years, one farmer gave us a date of 1995-6 but this would have been exceptional. I have tried to present them so that similar machines appear together which works reasonably well when original pairs are still together but less well when they have become 'mixed'. Unfortunately, that is not always the case and given this is an ongoing project some shuffling will occur but perfection will be impossible. Take a deep breath and now read on using the links at the top of the page.... 

For a description of a rubber small holding in Malaysia 'back in the day' - read - link dead by July 2020.

For a 30 year survey of rubber prices - read

For a view of the distribution of recent rubber production in Malaysia - link dead by July 2020.

These videos are historic and show the industry around the time of independence:

Malaysian rubber industry in 1970 

Rubber Industry In Malaysia, 1950s - Film 16056, HuntleyFilmArchives 

Malaya Tin & Rubber industry in 1956. A documentary film which shows these industries as they were at the time. 

Rubber rolling machines such as these continue in operation, I assume they are not unknown within Malaysia, but so far I have failed to find a YouTube Video like the following:





Rob and Yuehong Dickinson