WHEN second-hand machinery dealer David Ho Kwan Meng first accepted the deal from a Japanese researcher to plant 200 gaharu or agarwood seedlings, with the condition that he had to wait 15 years before seeing any returns, his friends thought he had gone crazy.
Undaunted, Ho, then 37, was driven by stories about gaharu that he used to hear from his primary school teacher. The tales narrated by the teacher, who was originally from China, had left a deep impression on David.
It was a story about a Chinese emperor who was so obsessed with the idea of attaining longevity that he ordered all his imperial doctors to research herbs, minerals and animals to find an ingredient that could grant him good health.
Gaharu, also known to the common Chinese as Chen Xiang, was the main ingredient used in concocting such a formula for the emperor.
But the emperor, fearing that the formula would be easily replicated to give another person just as much longevity, demanded the deaths of his imperial doctors.
One of them managed to escape and never returned. He settled down in Japan, taking along the gaharu formula with him.
And as fate would have it, the descendants of the imperial doctor came to Malaysia in 1992 as Japanese researchers and met David.
The meeting marked the beginning of the famous tourist destination Gaharu Tea Valley in Gopeng.
Today, what used to be 200 seedlings of gaharu trees found in the plantation, has expanded to 200,000 trees planted on a 133ha site owned by David, now 60, and his family.
Ho bought the land in Gopeng with the intention to plant oil palms and rubber trees, as the crops were expected to start yielding within a few years.
Relating the story to MetroPerak, David’s son, Nicklaus, who is now the plantation’s chief executive officer, said anyone would have easily dismissed the 15-year wait as a ridiculous condition.
“When you start planting crops, you need to keep planting more and make products out of them to ensure a sustainable supply, and 15 years is too long a wait.
“But my dad accepted it anyway and started planting gaharu instead of oil palms. That’s why his friends thought he was crazy. But he kept quiet and continued to do what was asked of him.
“There were also other conditions he needed to follow, such as planting them using only organic gardening techniques.
“He was also not allowed to use mixed-crop farming. They wanted him to plant only gaharu seedlings,” said the 36-year-old.
A year later, Nicklaus said the Japanese researchers returned to monitor the progress, and they were satisfied because his father had followed the stipulated conditions.
“My dad was then invited to go to Japan with them. He went over and was shown the formula for proper gaharu cultivation.
“He learnt that there are 17 documented gaharu species, and only 12 of them can be consumed.
“Thousands of years of research showed that different parts of each gaharu tree has different properties. But without proper development of the seed, consuming something from only one part of the tree can have adverse side effects.
“The 200 seedlings given to him were hybrids of those 12 consumable gaharu species. Although gaharu typically starts producing seeds after three years, these hybrid seedlings would not be stable enough to achieve full growth,” he said, adding that this was the reason why his father had to be patient and wait 15 years before using their seeds for replanting.
On the tree’s health benefits, the Japanese researcher explained to Nicklaus’ father that gaharu tea is believed to help increase the body’s metabolic rate and regulate blood glucose.
“On our family’s part, we have proved that this is true through research partnerships formed with Universiti Sains Malaysia and Nottingham University in Semenyih.
“Since our seeds were hybrids, we needed to form such partnerships to verify the medicinal benefits of gaharu tea and other extracts independently,” he said.
Branding their gaharu tea as Hoga, which stands for hollistic gaharu, to symbolise the combination of 12 different gaharu species in its seedlings, Nicklaus said their research also found that gaharu tea has anti-diabetic and anti-inflammatory properties.
Another product cultivated from gaharu is Bao Ren powder, which Nicklaus said is believed to be beneficial for the cardiovascular system.
He also explained that the existence of gaharu was mentioned in Islam’s Hadith where it is said to have seven benefits.
“It states that gaharu is good for the throat and nose, but the other five benefits were not specifically mentioned.
“So gaharu is not something new to this world as it has been used in human history.
“But of course, during the times of the dynasties in China, it was a controlled item.
“Only the Imperial Palace and the wealthy could have it, as it was considered a precious ingredient in Chinese medical practice,” he said.
With the opening of the plantation in Gopeng in 2011, it is the Ho family’s wish to promote the use of gaharu and help more people learn about it.
David also wanted to ensure the continuation of the gaharu species, as the gaharu tree is listed as an endangered plant species.
Visitors can take a tour around the verdant gaharu plantation for RM10.
There is a three-storey viewing deck that provides a magnificent view of the plantation as well as great photography opportunities.
Visitors can also hug a gaharu tree at the Tree Hugging Park as it is believed to be an auspicious act.
They can also visit Lover’s Park, where an age-old pair of intertwining trees grow together in the valley’s tranquil environment.
Legend has it that when lovers make oaths to each other under this tree, they will be blessed with everlasting romance and will not be separated from each other forever.
Those interested in purchasing the Hoga tea and other gaharu-based products can drop by the shopping area at the plantation.