Growing up in Australia in the early 70’s, it was a common Saturday afternoon treat to go to the cinema (we called it ‘the pictures’). There was the main feature, of course, sometimes a double feature, and usually preceding this, a short film followed by intermission – a chance for the candy bar to increase profits. The short was often a documentary produced by the Canadian Film Board. It was often about the rubber industry. Often. Odd. We saw how the trees were tapped, and the latex collected in small coconut cups. The collectors were always wearing pointed hats from some generic South East Asian country. The formal voice over in a plummy, trying to be British, but with a Canadian twanged accent, explained the process. I knew all about rubber. Well that was my memory of it anyway.
Having spent several years now in South East Asia, escorting tour groups – I too have been explained this process again by our local guides, as they have shown my groups around rubber plantations in the various countries I have visited. I have seen the sticky latex collected, poked my finger into the gooey liquid, and let it dry, then peeled it off. I’ve wondered if it hurt the trees as they bleed. I’ve even slept in dark and smokey longhouses in the jungles of Borneo surrounded by stacks of the stinky semi processed rubber matts. It was not until recently that I have learnt more about this process and seen the next steps in the production, as one of our trips take us to Glenmore plantation in East Java, Indonesia.
Glenmore, an incongruous name for an Indonesian village, was began (so one story goes) by Scottish mercenaries who had been in the service of the Dutch some time in the mid 18th Century. As they had been fighting the British crown, they were no longer welcome in their homeland, and exiled to make a new life in the Dutch colonies. Today the plantation here is still the largest employer in the village, and the rubber processing factory continues to operate much in its original condition.
I love stepping into the ‘living museum’ of an office here to pay for our tour. The time machine takes me into a room where the fan whirls slowly as a uniformed lady always types out my receipt. Yes, types clickity clack with an actual typewriter. With ribbon. And carbon paper. Often a group of uniformed men sit around smoking and drinking coffee. Yes, smoking cigarettes in the office – this is Indonesia where the anti-smoking laws have yet to take effect in many areas.
Our tour of the factory begins in a large airy white room. The cement floor is wet and the whir of the rollers occasionally override the constant hum of the machinery in the adjoining room. Workers, both men and women, are dressed in faded flowery sarongs and stained T-shirts. Some of the woman have headscarfs. All are wearing flip flops. Large water filled vats line one wall, and a watery conveyor belt ends with a series of rollers. A few ancient looking safety posters adorn the wall warning workers not to trip on the belts and machinery.
Our guide jokes that we are in the “condom factory”. He lifts one of the frames from the vat of water and revels a large spongy white sheet about 3cm thick. He explains that at this stage, acid has been added to the latex, and after several hours, it coagulates into this form. The sheets are then transferred to the belt, and are fed through the series of rollers. A worker aiding its journey by guiding it with his bare hands pushing the sheet into each roller, no safety guards to stop if his fingers accidentally follow the path of the sheet.The rollers wring out the excess liquid, and leave a criss cross ribbed patten, branding the mat with the Glenmore logo.
These thinner, firmer matts are now carried to the adjoining building, the door is opened and a blast of acrid heat whooshes out. This is the smoke-room. Underneath we can see the wood fuelled furnaces burning, heating the room to 50° C. The matts already hung drying for up to a week, have changed from opaque white, to a translucent golden brown, like flayed skin hanging over the bamboo poles. It looks like a serial killer’s storeroom. The smell and the heat are overwhelming, and our guide quickly shuts the door. The building opposite, also a similar drying room houses the poor quality rubber, the froth that’s skimmed from the tops of the vats. It’s black and bubbly, more like a filthy kitchen sponge. This will be used for the local market to make flip flops and foam mattresses.
Our tour continues to the sorting and packing room. A hand painted sign in beautiful calligraphy announces ‘Bersih itu Sehat’ Clean is Healthy. We must remove our shoes before entering. The now dried and smoked rubber ‘hides’ are inspected on the surrounding light-boxes. Small deformities are discarded using a blade cutter. The sheets are then graded, and sorted. There are two baling machines in the opposite corner where stacks of the rubber sheeting are compressed into large cubes. The huge vice is turned by a shirtless muscled man, the sweat beading across his shoulders. This is hard manual labour. Everything is manual here.
The whitewashed bales are causally placed on the slightly raised whitewashed wooden platform, like cubed chess pieces in a contemporary art installation, ready for export. Each one is worth several months wages for the workers.
The heat of the day becomes too much for the group, so we exit and walk towards the shady forest of rubber tress. They are planted in even rows, and all bend slightly in the same windswept position, as though they are made of… rubber. Our guide expertly scrapes a slither of bark with his pocketknife, and the tree begins to bleed. I am back in the cool cinema of my childhood, all that is missing is the Canadian voice over.