Seminar on “Soft But Spiky Power: Can the Durian Go Global?”

In this seminar, Dr Gaik Cheng Khoo talks about China’s growing appetite for Malaysia’s durians and explores aspects of the Malaysian durian’s identity that differentiates itself from Thai varieties that dominate the global market.


Urbanisation, Consumption and Culture Seminar Series

Monday, 25 November 2019 – The ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute invited Dr Khoo Gaik Cheng to give a seminar on the Malaysian durian commodity chain. Dr Khoo is an Associate Professor of Film and Television at the University of Nottingham (Malaysia). She also serves as the Director of the University of Nottingham’s Asia Research Institute (Malaysia).  Her research interests span food, film, civil society, citizenship and migration.

Dr Gaik Cheng Khoo (right) gave a fascinating talk about China’s growing appetite for Malaysia’s durians. Dr Geoffrey Pakiam moderated the session. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

Dr Khoo began her lecture by outlining the rising popularity of Malaysian durians, in particular the Musang King variant, among Mainland Chinese consumers. In recent years the Chinese government has signed numerous trade deals to import Malaysian agricultural products, and has permitted the import of frozen whole Malaysian durians. Durian festivals are also organised in China, typically officiated by high-ranking Malaysian and Chinese politicians. Apart from traditional brick-and-mortar stores, Chinese e-commerce platforms are also responding to consumers’ appetite for durians. The Malaysian government plans to capitalise upon durians as an avenue to boost Mainland Chinese tourist arrivals. Durian farms in Malaysia are becoming increasingly popular among foreign tourists, and there has been a rising tendency for small-scale durian farms to establish tourist facilities appealing to Mainland Chinese customers. Further downstream, manufacturers are targeting the Chinese market with durian-flavoured potato chips and even durian-flavoured whiskey.

Dr Khoo argued that in contrast to China, consumers in Western countries are much less receptive towards durians. Apart from smelling pungent, durians are portrayed in the media as tasting “disgusting” and “vomit-like”. Paul Young, a London-based internationally-renowned chocolatier, has even described eating durians as being akin to “domestic abuse”, since both experiences allegedly linger long after the first encounter.

Dr Khoo cautioned that durian monocultures could potentially contribute towards ecological degradation, especially if forests are cleared on sloping terrain to accommodate new plantations. Flooding could become more frequent and intense once the forest cover is eliminated, as illustrated in the 2014 massive floods in the eastern half of Peninsular Malaysia. Kelantan had high rates of deforestation prior to 2014, including forests that made way for durian monocrops. Aboriginals dependent on the forest for their livelihoods have also been displaced as a consequence, with Temiar (Orang Asli) in Gua Musang as one of the more prominent cases.

The seminar concluded with a dynamic question and answer session. One participant inquired about the ecological impact of durian plantation as compared to palm oil, as well as how climate change would affect the yields of durian trees. Another participant inquired if the new regime under Pakatan Harapan had adopted a different approach towards frozen durian exports. The seminar drew close to 30 participants from diverse backgrounds, including academia, the private sector, NGOs, and the general public.

The seminar concluded with a dynamic question and answer session. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)