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Wednesday, July 17, 2019
Decades ago, he stole a tree branch. Now he is the Durian King
Recall that this type of life is occuring globally as modern agricultural knowledge is been applied to almost any plant that may have a chance.
Today it is possible for me to buy Durien and even Mangosteens as well at a reasonable price in Vancouver. That capacity to transport tons of produce makes all forms of food novelty a worthwhile premium product in the global market.
This is a great story.
Decades ago, he stole a tree branch. Now he is the Durian King
before he was the Durian King, Tan Eow Chong was canvassing rural
Malaysia for plants he could farm when he stumbled on a roadside stand
selling a curiously golden-fleshed variety of the fruit.
seller, an elderly woman, urged Tan to have a taste, boasting that her
durians were the same color as the local sultan’s palace.
took one bite and was transfixed. Apart from the notorious aroma, which
is often compared to rotting meat, it was nothing like the fibrous
durians with large pits that he grew at home 200 miles away on Penang
Island. This one was meatier, creamier and bittersweet — everything a
durian connoisseur would want.
“The flesh melted in my mouth,” said Tan, who decided then that he had to grow the durian himself.
fruit came from a nearby orchard. Tan asked whether he could have a
branch to graft onto one of his trees, but the woman shooed away the
idea. So that evening he returned with a villager armed with a rifle. At
Tan’s instructions, and for pay, the man pruned a footlong branch with a
Thirty-five years after his heist, Tan is reaping the rewards.
tree limb provided the genetics for an award-winning durian known as
the Musang King, which has become Malaysia’s next cash crop and made
Tan’s family durian royalty.
Above, a customer, in green shirt, orders durians at a roadside stall
during the Durian Festival in Georgetown, Malaysia. At right, a worker
opens a durian for customers at a roadside fruit stall. (Suzanne Lee /
For The Times)
success, however, came only recently — thanks to his perseverance
through hard economic times and a magnate who happened to spark a Musang
King obsession in China, a country whose 1.4 billion stomachs have the
power to move markets.
durian is no ordinary fruit. Its thorny cantaloupe-sized husk looks
like a hedgehog crossed with an avocado. Locked inside are lobes of
fruit that have the look and texture of foie gras and are usually eaten
raw, but can also be mixed with rice or added to pastries.
defines durian fruit, however, is its overpowering sulfuric scent,
which has led to bans from public transportation and the occasional
evacuation of buildings. The odor is strong enough to penetrate the
fruit’s thick shell. When the shell is cracked open, the scent can
buckle a neophyte’s knees. But for the fruit’s admirers, the stench is
part of the allure.
“If it doesn’t stink, it’s not durian,” Tan said.
world’s biggest emerging consumer market appears firmly in favor of the
smell. China’s massive unmet demand for durian is the prime reason the
Hong Kong consulting firm Plantations International predicts that the
global market for raw durian will reach $25 billion by 2030 — up from
$15 billion in 2016.
A growing share of that is
expected to come from Malaysia, where the fruit is thought to have
originated and the average person eats 24 pounds of it each year — far
more than anywhere else in world.
Tan, 58, has seen his revenue grow tenfold in the six years since he began exporting durians to China.
Now, among locals on this lush island west of the Malay peninsula, Tan is the Durian King.
Clockwise from top, at a farm owned by Tan Eow Chong, his son Tan Chee
Keat climbs a tree to tie a Musang King durian and keep the fruit from
dropping prematurely; a freshly dropped durian, whose thorny
cantaloupe-sized husk looks like a hedgehog crossed with an avocado; Tan
Chee Keat looks up at an award-winning 29-year-old Musang King durian
tree on his father's farm. (Suzanne Lee / For The Times)
story of how Tan earned his crown begins with his father, a pig farmer
from China’s coastal Fujian province. Before migrating to Malaysia in
the 1940s, the elder Tan had never seen a durian.
He noticed the fruit growing wild on his property in Balik Pulau, a bucolic corner of Penang, and decided to farm it.
then, there was mostly one variety of durian, the Kampung, the Malay
word for village. Though still sought after, it is unremarkable compared
with today’s hybrid varieties.
learned to farm as a boy in the early 1970s alongside his father. But
he didn’t particularly like it and as a young man became a
self-described gangster — a dai goh, or big brother in Cantonese parlance — overseeing a band of hoodlums.
his early 20s, though, he began taking farming seriously after his
father explained how he planned to bequeath his farmland one day. Tan’s
two brothers would split the family’s coffee plantings and hog farm.
would inherit the durian plantation, a nod to his passion for the
Frankenstein science of grafting. The skill allowed him to improve on
the Kampung by cross-breeding it with richer and meatier durians he’d
“If it doesn’t stink, it’s not durian.”
Tan Eow Chong
was the technique he used when he brought back his prized limb from
behind the roadside stand in the northeastern state of Kelantan and
joined it to a mature tree.
It took Tan three years
for the grafting to bear fruit and two more years of plantings to come
up with a durian he was willing to sell.
He called it
Rajah Kunyit, Malay for Turmeric King, on account of the meat’s bright
yellow hue. Growers on the Malaysian mainland developed an identical
hybrid, but called it the Musang King, which means Mountain Cat King.
The latter name stuck.
The new variety brought Tan a modicum of fame, but at only $1 for about 2 pounds, no fortune.
Clockwise from top left, durians in baskets at a roadside stall; Tan
Chee Wei, center, chooses durians for his customers at a roadside stall
owned by his family; a customer holds a piece of Musang King durian at
Durian Kaki, a roadside stall owned by Tan Eow Chong; and Teoh Nai Aun
opens a durian at his roadside stall during the Durian Festival in
Georgetown, Malaysia. (Suzanne Lee / For The Times)
market for Malaysian durian was mostly domestic, providing little
opportunity for major growth. It was difficult to compete with Thailand,
the world’s biggest exporter of durians, mostly its ubiquitous
Monthong, or Golden Pillow.
Tan took full control of
his family’s durian business after his father died in 1998, just as the
market for the fruit was about to enter a deep, multi-year slump.
Meanwhile, another crop was taking off: the palm oil plant.
in everyday products such as candy bars and cosmetics, it accounts for
half the agricultural economic output of Malaysia, the world’s No. 2
producer behind Indonesia. Viewed from above, the cylindrical trees
organized in equidistant rows can make great swaths of the country look
like it’s made of Legos.
Combined with government
incentives, the crop has lifted millions of rural dwellers out of
poverty — and become a significant contributor to climate change as the
country’s dense rain forests, which absorb carbon dioxide, were cleared
to create palm plantations.
In 2005, Tan seriously considered ripping out his durian trees and joining the trend.
But he had no experience growing palm or passion for the plant and decided to stick with what he knew best.
“My life has always been with durians,” he said.
for Tan, Stanley Ho, a legendary casino tycoon from the Chinese
territory of Macao, also happens to be a durian devotee.
In 2010, he sent a private jet to Singapore to pick up 88 Musang Kings from a seller there. He wanted 98, but stock was low.
Ho reportedly gave away 10 of his beloved fruits to an even richer billionaire, Hong Kong developer and investor Li Ka-shing.
The story, which was originally reported by a Chinese-language newspaper in Malaysia called China Press, quickly reached China.
Soon 4.5-pound Musang Kings were selling for up to $60 each on Chinese e-commerce sites such as Taobao.
are prized in China, not only for their unique flavor — as sweet as
ripe banana and simultaneously as bitter as raw garlic — but also
supposed health properties. Nursing mothers are encouraged to eat the
fruit. And it’s believed to keep you warm during winter.
No variety is more prized than the one Tan pioneered.
Musang King is my favorite,” said Teh Bin Tean, a Singaporean
researcher who has studied the durian genome. “Don’t try it first
because the rest is all downhill.”
Clockwise from top left, workers check the quality of durians and
prepare them for flash-freezing and export; durians are flash-frozen at
the plant using nitrogen gas before they are exported to countries such
as China; Tan Chee Wei wraps a section of durian to be vacuum-packed for
a customer to take on a flight. (Suzanne Lee / For The Times)
seized on Chinese demand in 2013 by finding a distributor in China and
ways to flash freeze the freshly picked fruit with nitrogen for
Since then, the family’s durian plantings
have increased to 1,000 acres from 80. Last year, the business exported
1,000 tons of the fruit to China.
“We couldn’t dream business would go so high,” said one of Tan’s sons, Tan Chee Keat, who has been learning the business.
Now corporations are looking to cash in on China’s latest culinary fixation.
Malaysian palm oil interests such as the publicly traded IOI Group and
the state-owned Federal Land Development Authority are exploring durian
planting, according to an industry official who spoke on condition of
anonymity because he was not authorized to disclose his talks with the
organizations. Neither responded to requests for comment.
Their interest comes at a time when global palm oil prices have declined steadily because of new regulations and boycotts.
Environmental groups hope any durian boom doesn’t repeat the mistakes of the palm oil industry andexacerbate the depletion of forests.
has always been one of our favorite crops, but we’ve got to have a
balance,” said Sophine Tann of the Malaysian environmental protection
group PEKA. “With rising demand from China we’re worried they’ll say
‘Let’s get rid of all our forests for durian.’ Do we need to be the
when Chee Keat was 11 and the family farm was struggling, his father
made him stand in the center of a plantation to get used to the
mosquitoes, which are often so numerous they can be confused for pollen.
“I was a blood donor,” joked the younger Tan, who wanted no part of the farming life and wanted to be a paleontologist.
later, the mosquitoes no longer bother him. All that time on the hilly
farms has inured him to boars, monkeys, eagles, flying squirrels, deadly
snakes and other critters that live there.
worry,” he told a Times reporter when a crimson and black snake appeared
a few feet away. “That one is only a little bit poisonous. It will make
you pass out for a day. You get to rest.”
Chee Keat came to relish durian farming after discovering a passion for
grafting, much like his dad did. If all goes as planned, the younger
Tan will share the family business with his two brothers.
the cusp of the peak durian harvest, which starts each June, he often
sleeps in a hammock on the family plantations, guarding ripening fruits
from thieves. Durian farming is a cutthroat business. Rivals are
suspected of poisoning some of his experimental durian trees.
biggest fear, however, is that someone steals a branch from one of his
new hybrid trees, just like his father did so many years earlier. Tan
Chee Keat is developing a durian that has an even smoother texture than
his father’s Musang King. He hasn’t named it yet, but he suspects it
could result in change on the family throne.