This week, a unique exploration of durian in the history and culture of Singapore is on display at the National University of Singapore.
If you can’t make it to the exhibit don’t worry. I couldn’t either, so Martina and Wanda were kind enough to give me a virtual tour to share with you. Scroll on to get your tour by video, or, if you have bandwidth cap like me, just enjoy the photos.
Wanda, Peiying, and Martina are students at the Wee Kim Wee School of Communications and Information. They could have chosen anything to present for their final project, but they chose durians, because durian is obviously the most interesting topic in the world.
Hence my and your obsession.
The trio called their project Thorns and Beyond, because while eating tasty durian is definitely a perk of the project, what they were really interested in was exploring the way durian seems to excite strong emotions and memories. They realized that even in an extremely diverse city like Singapore, everyone seems to have a story about durian.
“Real community doesn’t come from official rituals or symbols but from the small little every day things that everybody does and we realized that durian (…) spans across all races and cultures” – Martina
Introduction to Thorns and Beyond (Video)
The timing of their project was perfectly aligned with my own efforts to understand and describe what feelings and associations the durian stirs within us that makes some of us love it, no matter our cultural or genetic background (Take the International Survey of Durian Lovers now!).
When I heard about Thorns and Beyond, I immediately wanted to go meet Martina, Wanda, and Peiying and see their project. I was disappointed not to be able to attend in person, but so stoked when Wanda and Martina agreed to take me and all Year of the Durian readers on a virtual tour of their exhibit!
All photo credits go to Thorns and Beyond.
The exhibit is comprised of four booths displaying information about the most important developments in durian consumption in the last 60 years. As I listened to Wanda explain each of the stations, I marveled at the rapid evolution Singapore underwent as it matured from a British colony composed of mostly small villages to the successful mega-metropolis it is today, a cultural shift that has also changed the relationship and expectations that Singaporeans hold for their national fruit
Wanda, Peiying and Martina kept the exhibit thematic. The tables are balanced on wicker baskets that transport durians from Singapore from Malaysia.
Pages of information are pasted inside the styrofoam boxes commonly used to sell durians, and tacked onto the large wooden display shelves you’ll find at any durian stall.
1950 – Early 1960’s
When you visit Singapore now, it’s hard to imagine that as recently as the 1950’s this intensely urbanized island still had small villages nestled among orchards and jungles.
As late as 1973, the census of Agriculture reported 59,123 durian trees growing in Singapore. This map shows where the major durian growing areas were, and where modern-day durian hunters go looking for surviving trees.
Durians caused major headaches for the British colonial government, although not for the reason you’re thinking.
The sudden influx of durian sellers every season clogged the sidewalks and roads. People complained that it was impossible to go anywhere, whether on foot or in a car, through the crowds of people buying and selling durians as well as the mountains of durian shells leftover from all the feasting.
The sheer volume of waste produced by the durian craze was a problem for the new independent government as well.
By the late 1960’s, it was clear that the government needed to step in to control the mess. The exhibit station placard states that it was costing the government upwards of $200,000 SGD every season to dispose of all the durian shells.
In 1972, Minister of the Environment Lim Kim Son suggested imposing a tax on durians imported from Malaysia in order to pay for the high costs of disposing of all the shells. The proposal was rejected.
The durian scene caused mayhem in other ways as well. Durian sellers were notorious for fudging the scales and ripping off customers.
Back then, people primarily bought durians in large baskets weighed using a Chinese unit of weight called a kati, which is equialent to about 600 grams, and weighed out durians on an old-fashioned Chinese scale called a daching. In the early 1970’s, the government began routinely checking for rigged scales.
To this day durian sellers are widely believed to be in cahoots with the mafia and other organized crime, and you can find stories online about people being cheated for durian in Singapore. Rob and I even made headlines last summer when we shared our story!
The late 1960’s and 1970’s saw a shift in the way the government managed the durian shenanigans, but the durian scene itself was about to change.
1980’s Golden Age of Durians
Prior to the 1980’s, durian season was unpredictable. When it arrived, it came in a flood of thorny fruits that dried up in a few weeks. It was a time of wild feasting and enjoyment because everyone knew the season wouldn’t last long.
By the time the 1980’s rolled around, people were starting to get results using agricultural technology to extend the durian season. Suddenly, the durian season wasn’t quite as unpredictable. It didn’t come in a sudden deluge, but a slower, steadier flow.
The durians themselves changed as well.
Prior to the 1980’s, the only durians available at markets were the kampung durians, the wild, unbred fruits of unpredictable quality and flavor. People bought huge baskets of durians and just hoped to find a few really good ones in the mix. Then D24 appeared on the scene.
This was more of a revolution than it sounds like. For the first time, people could buy a durian with an expectation that it would taste a certain way. Other durian varieties entered the scene as well, like D101 or Musang King, for the first time giving people the option to select durians by taste preference.
As the durian scene grew and modernized, so did Singapore. The MRT Mass transit system was finished in 1987, and durians were banned the following year. (How much trouble will you really get in?)
The last decade has seen the rise of durian products – things like coffee, ice cream, novelty cakes, and durian creme brulee – to satisfy our generation’s neophilia.
But I’m not certain the future of durian lies in putting it on pizzas.
To me, what makes durian so special is that it’s always a complete experience.
Personally, I think the future of the durian scene lies in better understanding and describing that experience. What is it that makes the finding, opening, and eating of durians so much more exciting and memorable than eating other fruits?
You tell me.
Tell Your Story
In the last part of the exhibit attendees are invited to write down a memory or a short story about durian and pin it to the board.
|I nearly chopped off my finger trying to open a durian.|
This is my favorite part of the exhibit. Everyone has something funny, or meaningful, or relatable to share. How many of us have nearly lost extremities in the scramble to get at the luxurious cream within?
|I fell asleep after eating it without brushing teeth. The next day was terrible.|
|I used to eat a lot of durians to induce a fever so I can miss school.|
And some remind us of the evil genius that we all have in common, no matter where we grew up. This use for durian had never occurred to me, but it’s brilliant!Participate by sharing your durian story in the comments below or at #mydurianstory.
Where to go
A Brief History of Durian will be showing at the National University of Singapore until 6 PM on Thursday, January 26 2015. You can find out more information at their website or Facebook page.Video Tour
Wanda and Martina were kind enough to show me around the exhibit by Skpe. Unfortunately the video quality is not as clear as I would like, due to a poor internet connection. But Wanda does a great job narrating so if the visuals are a bother just close your eyes and listen.