Stanley Ho - The man who made Mao Shan Wang famous.
Updated: May 1, 2020
Stanley Ho is a well-known business magnate in Hong Kong. Known by the nickname, Godfather or King of Gambling, he is a prominent billionaire who owns 19 casinos.
In 2010, without him even realising, a random durian purchase by him led to a regional durian sensation, casting the spotlight on Mao Shan Wang. Prices of Mao Shan Wang skyrocketed, making many durian farmers rich seemingly overnight.
I know many of you are curious about the rise in stature of Mao Shan Wang. From 2006, the price of Mao Shan Wang has increased by a whopping 3300%.
In this article, I attempt to track the events leading to the sudden rise of a fruit that once upon a time, was little known outside of Southeast Asia.
Durians were well-loved by Singaporeans since the dawn of this nation.
Even when I was a kid, I could still remember those days when I could smell durians from two storeys away before reaching home from school. And that always got me excited, hoping that it was my dad who bought some home. If it wasn't, I would pester him to buy every day after that.
There are many festivals that Singaporeans look forward to each year. And one of the most well-loved festival has got to be the durian festival.
Well, we don't really celebrate durians as a festival (although we really should). But durians have such a special place in all our hearts, if someone were to propose a Durian Festival, I'm pretty sure many Singaporeans will not say no.
Durians were not really branded in the 90s.
In the 1990s, durians were not branded like we see today. Most people had never even heard of Mao Shan Wang.
Prices of durians ranged from $2 per pieces to around $15 per piece. It was uncommon to see sellers sell by the kilos. Only the highest quality durians will be sold by the kilo. Prices averaged at around $6 - $10 per kg for these top quality durians.
Back then, D24 was King!
In the 90s, the most branded durian had to be D24. Every durian stall you walked past, you will see promotional banners promoting D24. More fanciful names then started to emerge- Sultan King, XO, XXO etc.
D24 prices was averaging S$7 - S$10 per kg, which was pretty expensive, considering that my dad's income then was a little over S$1200 per month. A trip to a durian stall would have set us back $90 easily for around 6 durians.
That's why durians were considered a very special treat even till this day.
You won't believe Mao Shan Wang used to sell for RM5-8 per kg.
Good weather in 2006, together with excess harvests from hectares of new durian plantations, sent durian prices crashing to the ground.
Durian fruits, upon reaching maturity, will snap from the branches and fall to the ground. No farmers could control the timing of this process. From the fall of the first durian to the last, the whole process takes typically 14 days.
During the 2006 durian season, many durian trees matured and fell at about the same time. At that time, there were no facilities to freeze down or store the harvested durians. The markets could not consume that many durians. Harvested durians have a very short shelf life - 2 days - before they start turning watery and lose its appeal. All these factors combined, caused durian prices to plunge to unthinkable levels.
At the lowest point, Mao Shan Wang was going for RM3 per kg. Yes, don't rub your eyes, you are not seeing things, RM3 (SGD 1 per kg). Including transportation costs, Mao Shan Wang was retailing at around S$4 - $6 per kg in Singapore.
And that's for MSW, what about D24 and other lesser known breeds?
D24 was selling at 60 sen to 80 sen per kg at farm price, that's equivalent to S$0.20 to S$0.30/kg. The demand was so low that some farmers were forced to dump perfectly good durians into rivers.
Blast freezing technology saves the day.
For durian fanatics who wish the prices of durians will one day to fall back to the 2006 levels, well, tough luck. There may be some short term price fluctuation throughout the season, but by and large, prices are unlikely to fall to the levels we saw in 2006. I'm sure the farmers will not want to relive that nightmare again.
Excess durians that are unsold can now be blast frozen to extend its shelf life. These blast frozen durians can then be stockpiled and allocated for the export market.
This way, prices of durians can remain stable throughout the season.
Good news for farmers and traders, bad news for consumers.
One man gave new meaning to Mao Shan Wang.
In 2010, a man bought 88 Mao Shan Wang durians from a durian stall in Singapore. Nobody in the durian trade would have expected that this purchase would change the fate of thousands of durian farmers in Malaysia.
That man, is Stanley Ho, nicknamed Godfather or King of Gambling. The prominent Hong Kong business magnate owns 19 casinos in Macau including Grand Lisboa.
According to Sinchew papers, on 23 June, Stanley Ho was invited to attend the grand opening of Marina Bay Sands in Singapore.
He had 5 close friends who took an earlier flight to Singapore and they went looking for a durians. They tried Mao Shan Wang and were absolutely captivated by the aroma and taste. So they introduced this heavenly goodness to Stanley Ho. The next morning, Stanley dispatched his subordinates to scout out the best Mao Shan Wang they could find in Singapore.
They swept up 88 high quality Mao Shan Wang in total, and packed them into 6 boxes. Stanley Ho then chartered a private jet and flew the durians straight for Hong Kong. (You are not expecting anything less from a casino billionaire right ? )
10 Mao Shan Wang Durians were delivered to Li Ka Shing.
Once the durians arrived in Hong Kong, Stanley had his men delivered 10 Mao Shan Wang to Mr Li Ka Shing, another famous Hong Kong billionaire and philanthropist.
When this information leaked, all major tabloid newspapers and magazines published this story. Durian, which used to be little known outside of Southeast Asia, suddenly gained instant fame. Now everybody wants to try Mao Shan Wang - a fruit so unique, so good that Stanley Ho spared no expense getting them back to Hong Kong fresh! A fruit so damn delicious that it is worthy as a gift to a fellow billionaire friend.
Price of Mao Shan Wang will never be the same again.
Following the widespread press coverage about Mao Shan Wang, price skyrocketed from around S$8 - S$12 per kg to around S$18 /kg. Almost every Chinese and Hong Kong tourist want to try out this fruit.
When there is a sudden spike in demand, and when the supply cannot catch up, the price goes only in one direction - UP!
In 2017, Mao Shan Wang recorded its highest price in Singapore - $38 per kg!
Those 88 durians might have long been digested, but the legacy stayed on for years. Both MBS and RWS have been hosting durian events year after year - treating their special guests with durian buffets.
In 2017, due to bad weather, the supply of durians fell short. However, due to prior contractual commitment to supply MBS several tonnes of Mao Shan Wang, the traders have no choice but to outbid other buyers by a wide margin. This pushed up Mao Shan Wang price to a record $38 per kg in Singapore.
$38 per kg! That's close to $80 for just one Mao Shan Wang (and you cannot even guarantee it is perfect!) The price was so ridiculous, it attracted yet another wave of press coverage. That further boosted Mao Shan Wang's publicity, gaining it yet another wave of global attention.
Here's a relief to all Singaporean durian lovers - the crazy prices in 2017 was an outlier event. It is unlikely we'll see such madness again! Or at least, I hope we won't...
Durian prices will fall this season because of Covid19.
The Covid19 outbreak will most definitely dent demand significantly. Luckily for farmers, China was able to somewhat contain the outbreak. Cities that have been locked down have gradually reopened.
Industries that were closed a month ago, were given permission to restart operations. And some durian contracts that were previously made before the outbreak will be honoured (but some contracts, unfortunately, were terminated).
Overall demand will fall, both domestically in Malaysia, as well as Singapore, as we see companies cancelling their traditional annual corporate durian parties.
This will certainly result in a drop in durian prices. I'm predicting that prices will stay between $15 - $24 per kg this season, averaging around $17 per kg.
Demand from China and Hong Kong have been increasing steadily.
Because durian is such a difficult fruit to cultivate, one has to travel down to either Malaysia or Singapore to be able to taste the freshest Mao Shan Wang. Moreover, you will have to time your travel accurately. A week too late and you will have to wait till the next season.
Every year in China, the demand for Mao Shan Wang durian has been increasing. Even if every Chinese were to eat just one seed of durian once in their lifetime, there wouldn't be enough durians to satisfy their insatiable appetite.
Many farmers have jumped on this opportunity to reinvest their windfall, gotten from the high prices of durians, in new durian plantations. From 2016, we are seeing a 3% increase in Mao Shan Wang production year on year.
This increase in supply will hopefully help to stabilise prices in the near term.
My estimate is that prices for Mao Shan Wang should stay between S$14 - S$24 per kg for the next 2 to 3 years.
Since the 2006 durian price crash, Mao Shan Wang's value has increased by a whopping 3300%, or 12 times its value (based on an average farm level price of RM36 for the past 2 years).
Hopefully when more plantations start to mature, prices for Mao Shan Wang will fall to around $12 - $15 per kg. Then Singaporeans will really have a reason to rejoice and durian farmers will get to enjoy a decent payout from their hard work.
Sources: Anecdotes from farmers and fellow durian tradesman that I knew. They provided me with accurate pricing information at farm levels. The story of Stanley Ho's durian purchase was well documented in various newspapers and magazine.