How China’s soaring appetite for Malaysian durians is causing a spike in demand in Hong Kong

Nicholas Ng, the manager of Mali House, a company that sells durians at Sogo in Causeway Bay.
David Wong

A growing number of durian shops has opened in the city as the mainland does not allow fresh durians to be imported from Malaysia

The Musang King could soon join the ranks of milk powder and toiletries that mainland Chinese tourists flock to Hong Kong to buy, as the mainland does not allow fresh durians to be imported from Malaysia.

A number of durian shops have opened over the past year in Hong Kong, with that count growing, and tourists are the main driving force behind the trend, the shop owners say.

“Mainland tourists now account for 30 per cent of our sales and 50 per cent during festivals and promotion seasons,” said Nicholas Ng, general manager of Mali Home, which owns more than 30,000 durian trees in Malaysia and started selling the pungent fruit in Hong Kong a decade ago.

Customers from mainland China bought half of more than HK$100,000 worth of durians sold at Mali Home’s shop in the department store Sogo in Causeway Bay during a 10-day sale in November, Ng said.

The Chinese have grown increasingly fond of the unique taste of the smelly, alien fruit in recent years, with total imports surging 146 per cent to US$635 million in 2016 from five years ago, according to UN data.

A host of durian-related products have emerged across China. On Taobao, China’s biggest e-commerce platform, run by Alibaba, more than 217,000 durian items are being sold, including durian meat, durian cake, durian pastry and dried durian. Alibaba owns the South China Morning Post.

But the Chinese appetite remains unsated, and the most famous variety, Musang King – which boasts an especially strong mixed flavour of bitterness and sweetness – among other Malaysian varieties, remains available only in the form of frozen pulp. China has only opened its doors to fresh imports from Thailand.

This has prompted durian lovers, such as 50-year-old Shenzhen resident Rao Minghui, to travel 1½ hours to Hong Kong and spend HK$680 on an all-you-can-eat fresh Malaysian durian buffet.

“Durians in Hong Kong are fresher and more authentic than those in Shenzhen,” Rao said. “Durians are really smooth, tasty, and very nourishing as well.”

Rao first tasted durians 20 years ago, and now consumes at least one whole fruit every week, with his wife and daughter.

“More people around me are starting to enjoy durians,” said Wang Xianya, a 35-year-old sales professional who came to the buffet with Rao and eight other friends.

“Many people think they have horrible odour, but it only takes the first bite to fall in love with them.”

Over the past five years, the value of durians imported into Hong Kong has soared 170 per cent to HK$3.1 billion (US$397 million) in 2016, according to the Census and Statistics Department. Excluding more than 90 per cent of imports that were then re-exported to China, the city’s pure import also rose 30 per cent to HK$188 million.

An increasing number of mainland Chinese tourists are buying up durians in Hong Kong, said Yuen Ka-kui, founder of Durian BB, which hosted the buffet in Kwun Tong.

“There are no fresh Malaysian durians in mainland China and the closest you can get are in Hong Kong,” Yuen said. “Many mainland customers would order a dozen boxes of durians a time and ship them to Sheung Shui.”

In two separate buffets on November 18 and 19, customers from the mainland made up a third of the 200 attendees in total, Yuen said.

The average price of fresh Malaysian durians in Hong Kong has gone up 30 per cent to around HK$200 per kilogram from two years ago, lifted by rising demand from the mainland and higher costs due to unfavourable climate, according to Ng.