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The Origin of Kapur, Sirih, and Pinang

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In the life of Malay people, there is a tradition known as berkapur-sirih, a tradition to munch sirih (betel leaf) served together with kapur (lime) and pinang (areca nut). This is practiced also by Vietnam’s Malay community. In fact, among the Malayo-Vietnamese, there have long been told an interesting story about the origin of kapur, sirih, and pinang. It is believed that they are incarnations of twin handsome men and a gorgeous woman. Why they transform? Find it out in the following story.

* * *

Once upon a time in some place in Vietnam, lived a couple with their twin boys, Tang and Lan. Both of the twin brothers were handsome and smart. Their noses were aquiline and eyes were round and bright. They loved each other. Wherever they were, they were always together.

One day, their father was seriously ill. Many healers had come to cure him, but he did not get better and finally died. The family was drowned in grief, especially Lang and Tan’s mother. The sorrow that was so deep deadened her appetite, making her sick. Not long after, she died, making Tang and Lan orphans.

Despite losing both of their parents, Tang and Lan never gave up living. Having no relatives in the village, they decided to go to town and seek for a good friend of their father’s whose name was Hakim Luu in a hope that he would find them jobs.

After preparing, they set off for town. Having never been there before, they asked people as to where to find Hakim Luu. They sought for some time before finally arrived at the front gate of the man’s house.

“Hey, this is it. This is Uncle Luu’s house,” Lan said to Tang as he pointed his finger on the door plate.

“Hello!!!” shouted Tang, knocking the door right away.

“Wait a minute!” said a voice from inside the house.

Then, a big fat man opened the door. Behind him, appeared a bright-skinned little girl, peeping through.

“Little Tang and Lan! Come on in!” Hakim Luu welcomed them.

“Thank you, Uncle!” said the two boys.

Before letting them have a seat, Hakim Luu introduced his daughter to Tang and Lan. She was a clever little girl, yet shy. When she had acquaintance with Tang and Lan, her cheek turned red.

“So what made you come here?” asked Hakim Luu.

The question did not get any answer, Tang and Lang could only look at each other.

“You two seem to have a problem. What is it?”

“We do, Uncle. We feel really sad. Two weeks ago father died from illness,” Tang answered in a sorrowful voice.

“What!? Died!? Why didn’t you let me know?” Hakim Luu was surprised.

“So where is your mother now?”

“After father died, mother didn’t want to eat until she got very sick. She passed away several days later,” Tang told the sad story.

“It is very bad, my condolences go to you boys. Now that you don’t have any more relatives, you two can stay here in this house with us,” said Hakim Luu.

“Thank you, Uncle!”

Since that day, Tang and Lan lived in Hakim Luu’s house. They worked hard helping Hakim Luu in his store. Hakim Luu loved them as if they were his own sons.

Time went by. Tang and Lan grew up handsome and clever men. Their behavior and manner made people love them. Meanwhile, Hakim Luu’s daughter now had turned into a very beautiful girl. Both Tang and Lan had long put attention to the shy girl, but covertly. They were too timid to express their feeling to her.

Some day, Hakim Luu planned to marry his daughter to one of the two young men. He couldn’t decide which one, however, because they both had very similar appearance and attitude. He then called Tang and Lan to discuss the matter.

“Here’s the problem, sons. I have an intention to marry my daughter to one of you. But I cannot decide whom,” Hakim Luu revealed his concern.

“Marry her to Tang, Uncle!” Lan said.

“No, Uncle! Lan deserves her more than I do,” denied Tang.

Hakim Luu got more confused looking at the twin brothers finger-pointing each other. He had to pick one of them, nevertheless. To do that, he wanted to know first which one was older. He asked his daughter to serve food in a bowl along with a couple of chopsticks for Tang and Lan. When Hakim Luu told them to eat it, Lan was the first to take the chopsticks, but then he gave them very politely to Tang, who then took the chopsticks and started eating. Seeing this, Hakim Luu concluded that Tang was older and so he was to be his daughter’s husband.

It was a joyful wedding party. There were a number of art and dance performances. The guests came from various states. There were even many dignitaries coming from the palace to the celebration. They were all happy for the married couple who were sitting next to each other on the bridal dais.

Their life was felicitous. Tang wrote many love poems and sang the lines to express his happiness. However, his family life made him forgot about Lan. He did not share stories and have a chat with his younger brother anymore. Lan himself could at first understand the situation. But then as time went by Tang became more and more indifferent to him. Lan started to feel lonely.

“Oh poor me. Now my brother has put me behind. What am I being here for if he doesn’t even care to speak to me?” Lan lamented his sadness.

To wipe out his grievance, Lan decided to set out alone for a journey. He left the town without Tang and Hakim Luu’s family knowing. He wandered here and there, not knowing where his feet were taking him to. Woods, mountains, and rivers had he passed by but his sadness never subsided.

One time, at dusk, he arrived at a beautiful and breezy beach. Lan was looking for a place to stay overnight but he could not find one. He was very hungry too after spending some days without food at all. Finding nothing, his body was getting limper and he eventually died at the place. There, his body turned into a pure white limestone.

Meanwhile, Tang so regretted that his brother had gone. In sorrow he sought for Lan. After several days walking, he finally came to the beach where his brother died. He was so exhausted. He sat down on the shore, watching the waves pounding ashore.

“Lan, my poor little brother! Where are you? I am sorry I had neglected you brother,” he said as he wept.

Two days and two nights he remained sitting on the shore, weeping. He did not eat and drink and became so feeble. Tang died on the shore and his body transformed into an areca palm.

Tang’s wife could no longer bear waiting for her husband. She went to find her husband, walking tirelessly until she came at the beach where Tang breathed his last. She found herself so fatigued and she took a rest, leaning on an areca palm on the shore, shedding tears incessantly. She became very weak and finally died. Her body turned into a betel palm, twisting on the areca palm that was actually her husband’s incarnation.

* * *

This is the story of the origin of kapur, sirih, and pinang from Vietnam. To commemorate the story, the locals built a place of worship on the shore, in purpose of Tang, his wife, and Lan’s sincere love to be followed. Among the Malayo-Vietnamese people, kapur, sirih, and pinang are symbols of affection.

The story falls into the category of legends containing moral messages. At least there are two messages in the story, namely about the importance of loving each other and what could result from being carried away in pleasure.

First, the importance of loving each other. This is depicted in the attitude and manners of Tang and his wife who would take any risk to find the person they love. However, it should be understood as well that there is another message in the scene that is one should not love someone too much because it can carry him/her away and risking his/her life. In Malay life, affection to each other comes first, but somehow it should not go astray. Such is said in the following lines:

wahai ananda dengarlah peri,
berkasih sayang sifat terpuji
pandai-pandailah menjaga diri
hati orang jangan disakiti

(listen child to the fairy
loving each other is a noble deed
always take care of yourself kindly
other hearts hurt not to be)

Second, what could befall someone who gets carried away in happiness. Tang is too engrossed in his family that he ignores Lan, his brother. It turns out that Lan feels so lonely and leaves him. From here we can take a lesson that happiness in household life could also make one forget his/her brother and people around him/her.


Translation by Reza Daffi (terj/03/02-10)


  • The story is an adaptation of a story told by Anonym. “www.pnm.my” accessed on 19 June 2008.
  • Anonym. “Vietnam,” (http://id.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vietnam, accessed on 19 June 2008).
  • Effendy, Tenas. 2006. Tanjuk Ajar Melayu. Yogyakarta: Center for Malay Culture Studies and Developments in cooperation with AdiCita Karya Nusa publisher.
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