Photos by ART CHEN
From bead to pearl
Against great odds, Edward Kong has triumphed to become the country’s only successful pearl farmer. He shares his story for the first time.
HOW pearls are formed has special significance to our lives. A foreign object such as a grain of sand falls into a mollusk, or popularly called an oyster. The creature responds to the irritant by producing multiple layers of nacre around it. Eventually it becomes a valuable pearl, thus, turning what’s a literal thorn in the flesh into something precious!
The illustration applies to Edward Kong, who laboured for 15 years against the odds to become Malaysia’s first pearl farmer.
Pearl culture is one of the cleanest industries as pearls require pollution-free waters. Edward Kong’s farm ison Timbun Mata Island, near the renowned diving paradise of Sipadan and Mataking Islands in Sabah.
And not just any pearl, as Kong cultures South Sea ones that are highly prized as among the world’s largest at average sizes of 13mm with thicker nacre and beautiful shades. Kong cultivates both silver-lipped and white-lipped oysters that bear a variety of coloured pearls, from white to creamy to golden yellow.
Kong’s unexpected venture into pearl farming began when his father David Kong was supplying groceries to the Japanese operated Kaya Pearl Farm at Bohey Dulang Island near Semporna, Sabah, the first pearl cultivation centre in Malaysia since 1963. In 1990, a manager was murdered and another injured in robberies. The farm closed in 1993 and Kong’s father hired two of the Japanese grafters for his new farm on the nearby Timbun Mata Island named Meiko Pearls Co.
The farm ran into endless troubles. The silver-lipped oysters (Pinctada maxima) refused to grow or develop pearls. Logistics were a nightmare out at sea. Theft was an issue as the pearls were easily slipped into pockets by the staff themselves. And piracy was a major security threat, especially so after the infamous kidnapping of tourists on the nearby Sipadan Island in 2000.
In 1994, fresh out of the University of New South Wales, Australia, with master degrees in mechanical and electronic engineering, Kong was expecting a typical 23-year-old’s life with job hunting and a busy social calendar.
Glimmering under the morning sun, these freshly harvestedSouth Sea pearls took four to six years to grow.
Instead, his next 15 years were largely spent on the farm, coaxing oysters to produce pearls. From dawn to dusk, he cleaned or transferred oysters. Evenings were spent peering down a microscope in his laboratory or perched on the watchtower.
“I spent 340 days each year for seven years on the farm. I missed Chinese New Year gatherings. I had no rest, no girlfriend, no life,” recalls Kong, 38, with a smile. He is happily married today with three daughters, aged two, four and six.
It is late September when I visit Kong’s farm with Star photographer Art Chen and multimedia producer Lee Mee Yook to learn about his multi million dollar pearl farm.
Against the tides
Our speedboat hurtles across the choppy waters of the Celebes Sea towards Timbun Mata Island, some 20 minutes off the coast of Kunak, a small town requiring an hour’s drive from Tawau.
A forested island with a cluster of huts comes into view. Our boat stops at a wooden jetty over translucent blue-green waters. As a renowned diving paradise, it’s fitting that such a beautiful site should be the birthplace of precious South Sea pearls.
Edward Kong credits his hard-working and loyal staff of 50 Bajau seafolk for making hispearl farm a success. He takes pride in being the country’s one and only pearl farmer.
Kong’s successful pearl cultivation stems from combining Japanese, Australian and his homegrown Malaysian methods, he says. Since the Japanese first cultured pearls in the 1800s, the techniques and skills have remained fiercely guarded secrets among the Japanese, Australian, and Tahitian pearl industries.
“The rates of failure are very high,” explains Kong. “Each harvest is four to six years away and only half are usually marketable, if we’re lucky. And we are always open to uncontrollable and unpredictable weather conditions.
“I applied for bank loans initially; they all rejected me. One officer told me, ‘If I give a loan to a poultry farm and should it fail, I might recover some eggs. But if your pearl farm flops, I’d get nothing in return!’”
Then a pearl dealer, Rosario Autore, whom Kong befriended in Australia, loaned him US$1mil with a simple handshake.
“He told me I didn’t have to repay him if my farm failed; that pressured me even more not to disappoint him,” Kong says. He returned the loan in one year but his farm was floundering in unchartered waters. The sea refused to yield its secrets easily.
“Every pearl I produce is due to trial and error,” says Kong. “We follow the techniques perfectly, yet the result is entirely up to nature. Two oysters can be borne from the same parents and be taken through similar process. While one oyster produces a pearl worth thousands; the other is worth a few ringgit.”
The peaceful waters belie the constant threat of piracy. A police base beside the farm is a major deterrent. An SOS call once brought forth 10 patrol boats, recalls Kong. Another time, Kong’s radar picked up a boat lurking on another island. They turned out to be timber smugglers.
Kong has invested over RM10mil into his farm with every sen re-invested into ongoing year-round operations. The tides were against him initially.
Many oysters produced inferior pearls. The El Nino weather phenomenon wreaked havoc on the delicate process, killing close to 70% of oysters. Red tide wiped out nearly all his oysters in 1996 and 1998. Many men would’ve given up but Kong continued experimenting.
A guardmanning theradar systemon thewatchtower. There is round-the-clock security as the farm is vulnerableto pirates and robbers.
We take a boat ride to the floating platforms out at sea to view the process from seeding to harvesting. Cultivating oysters sounds deceptively simple. Pairs of male and female parent oysters are used to produce larvae, which become baby oysters that are carefully nurtured until they are two years old and ready for nucleation.
A grafter deftly cuts an incision on the oysters with a scalpel and inserts a small piece of mantle tissue from donor native oysters alongside a nucleus acting as an irritant. Kong uses quality shell beads harvested from the Mississippi River bed in America.
Over the next two to four years of nurturing, the oyster continues secreting nacre over the bead to form a pearl.
“One minute of work will ultimately decide four years of labour!” says Kong.
After nucleation, the oysters are carefully submerged back in the sea on nylon nets strung together from wooden rafts. They are brought to what Kong terms as “the sick bay”, which are shallow waters near the coast.
“The recovery process is a vital step we’ve learned to include,” he explains. “Previously, we placed the oysters in the open sea. But many didn’t survive because they needed calmer waters to recover from the seeding procedure. Here, they have limited food and activity for 45 days. They must be turned over gently several times a day, like a human patient to prevent bedsores!”
The oysters are later transferred to semi-open waters around 30m deep for three months. Finally they are placed in plankton rich open waters around 60m to 70m deep. Workers continuously haul in batches of oysters to scrape off algae, parasites and barnacles growing on their shells throughout the year.
The water must be below 32°, explains Kong. Oysters are notoriously fickle. They can become sickly or starve themselves. Or it would expel its nuclei into the sea or produce inferior pearls.
“Sometimes I feel as if I’m staking in a casino,” says Kong.
No part of theoyster is wasted:its flesh or musselis removed, driedand sold to HongKong at A$600(RM1,409) a kgand its mother ofpearl sold tovarious industries.
Kong’s 50 workers are all native Bajau seafolk and many have been with him for the past 15 years. Their loyalty is priceless, Kong explains.
“They are the best security guards I need. I credit my workers as the most vital part of my operations besides the technical knowledge.
“If I don’t treat my workers right, they won’t bother taking good care of the oysters, which in turn, will produce inferior pearls,” he says. “It’s a cycle. The workers know that a good harvest brings in bonuses for them, from the kitchen staff to the boatmen. They understand that a tear in the fabric rips apart the whole operations eventually so they practise zero-tolerance towards theft.”
Kong’s manager Yamin Amin, 38, explains in halting Malay, “We work here because it’s in our soul. We live and die by the sea. This is good, honest work for us.”
We take another boat ride to the harvesting station on Silumpat Selatan Island. The scene resembles a wet market with workers hauling in baskets loaded with mature oysters still dripping seawater. Encrusted with algae and barnacles, they are certainly un-photogenic, but within their ugly shells will come forth the fruit of a four-year long labour.
Yamin deftly splits open the two halves of an oyster with a knife. Prying the shells apart, he slips his large brown hand inside as if it’s his wife’s handbag.
His hand emerges; his thumb and index finger clutching a lustrous pearl, its intense golden yellow glimmering gently in the morning sun.
My jaw drops. It’s one huge pearl. In that moment, I understand why men risk their lives for such beauty.That single pearl is valued around RM20, 000. Here in lies the magic and motivation of pearl farming.
“After the years of labour, I can finally hold something so beautiful in my hand,” Kong says.
No pearl is identical whether it’s creamy, golden, white or black. The pearl is valued for its lustre where it absorbs light and gleams from within instead of merely reflecting light, a telltale sign of a fake or treated pearl. The presence of dimples shows it is a work of nature and is its unique characteristic.
The mussels are exported to Hong Kong for A$600 a kilogramme (RM1,440) while the mother-of-pearl is sold.
We beg for a turn to harvest the pearls ourselves. I select a pretty oyster and Yamin chops open the shell for me. I eagerly press my hand into the squirming, slimy mass and my fingers enclose around a pearl.
It turns out to be imperfect, with too many dimples on its surface and an ugly little knob due to the pearl sac not having grown in all directions.
“Looks can be deceiving,” says Kong. “Some oysters spend all its nutrition into creating nice shells instead of pearls.”
Art promptly picks out an ugly oyster slathered with slimy algae and unearths a perfect, champagne white pearl that Kong estimates at around RM6, 000!
Nothing less than perfect
The freshly harvested pearls need a simple rinsing in water and they’re ready for grading although expert eyes like Kong’s can already estimate their worth at this stage.
Kong harvests four times annually; however, 2008 rewarded him with eight harvests due to a large “planting” four years ago. During our visit, some 2, 000 oysters are harvested.
On the return trip to Semporna, Kong stops by at Bohey Dulang Island, the site of the original Japanese pearl farm, now sadly abandoned. Kong has applied several times to use 10% of the land as the Japanese had chosen the best site in a sheltered bay, but his applications were rejected.
Kong takes out a bag of pearls and casts them into the sea. These are inferior pearls that he would never sell although they are worth thousands and with faults that can be easily treated.
“I cannot allow myself to sell any pearl that is less than perfect,” he says firmly. “This is the only way I can maintain quality.”
How did Kong, from an ordinary middle-income family, develop the tenacity to work through 15 years on a pearl farm?
“When I was 10, I was sent to live with an uncle so I could be closer to my school. I believe I learnt traits like patience and determination from him. Pearl farming was also a challenge I wanted to win. I’ve learnt that I can’t go against nature but to work with nature if I want to learn and harvest its secrets.
“I think I was also born to be a farmer!” Kong adds with a laugh. “I enjoy labouring all day long and at night, just rest.”
He’d had offers to buy his farm that would enable him to retire comfortably at 30.
“But my father told me, ‘what then would you do with your life?’ Indeed, I would just eat, breathe and die. I believe humans must work for a living,” says Kong.
Kong has earned the distinct honour as Malaysia’s first pearl farmer. He takes great pride in the title as very few have earned the right as it required much toil and labour.
The humble title also belies Kong’s achievement: his pearls have been exported to Japanese and Australian dealers who sell them to international jewellery houses and sold under exclusive brands. Ironically, many Malaysians opt for Japanese pearls, perceiving them to be more valuable, without realising that Japan sources its South Sea pearls from elsewhere, including Kong’s farm!
In Malaysia, his pearls are currently retailed by Jendela KL in Starhill Gallery, Kuala Lumpur.
But Kong is moving beyond pearl farming into retailing next year with his own pearl collection bearing his name. He has invested RM6mil into a bungalow in upmarket Bangsar, Kuala Lumpur, that is being refurbished as his first pearl boutique, which will run on an exclusive, by appointment only, basis.
“All top pearl producers use their own names as the ultimate guarantee of quality,” Kong explains. “Branding experts had advised me to use a French name for my pearls, which I couldn’t even pronounce! Anyone can sell anything under a company name and I don’t want to have a foreign sounding brand for my pearls. I believe my name, my reputation, is the safest guarantee of quality.”
Kong’s jewellery designing is done in Hong Kong. The rule to wearing pearls, he says, is simplicity.
“A pearl needs no embellishment. Their rarity and perfection are sufficient. That’s why the Chinese calls it chan chee (a true pearl). Similarly, pearls should be worn strung on just a simple silk thread. They are elegant and classic. That’s how pearls have endured the test of time to remain nature’s most beautiful gem.”