In 2014, I became obsessed with finding the man who named the Penang Red Prawn durian. It took 3 years.
Everyone seemed to know of him.
“He was very famous,” durian farmers told me. “People called him the Durian King.”
But know one seemed to actually know him. Where was he?
“Oh, he’s still around,” people said.
“Do you know how to contact him?” I asked.
Surely someone had a friend or a cousin or a cousin’s friend’s cousin who knew the mysterious Mr. Lee Tek Hin.
The answer was unanimously No. No one knew. The Red Prawn man had disappeared.
So I kept looking, and one day found him by accident in an old newspaper.
The Durian Grower with A Winner’s Touch
Lee Tek Hin was 45 years old when his Red Prawn variety won first prize among 83 contestants at the 1989 Penang Durian & Fruit Festival, which happened to take place 9 days before I was born.
The New Straits Times newspaper was enamored with Lee.
Barefoot, his hair wild, Lee Tek Hin looked every bit the simple farmer who, through his own hard work, had made something amazing.
He’d not only won first prize, but second prize and third prize too. And, the newspaper noted, the year before a friend had entered Lee’s durians and won the top prize.
There was something special going on.
How to Identify Red Prawn Durian
Since that contest in 1989, Red Prawn Durians has become an icon of Penang. It’s a small durian with this unmistakeable football shape, little bitty thorns and a shell so pale brown it’s almost grey with hues of lavender.
It’s one of the easiest durians to learn to recognize.
But it’s also one of the most mysterious.
For one, it doesn’t have a shelf life. At all.
You can’t send Penang Red Prawn to Kuala Lumpur without the thing collapsing into vinegar.
They tried in the late 1980’s, chartering private planes to bring the ultra-delicate durians to Singapore.
But even that was too far — Red Prawn is that fragile.
The tender flesh has a membrane so thin it easily ruptures, spilling the fiberless, pale cream. When you open a Red Prawn, you have to be careful not to rupture the skin with the knife or you’ll make an unpicturesque mess.
If you want to “bang” it to get some wrinkles, you have to be gentle or again you’ll make Red Prawn soup.
But the best is when it’s eaten super duper fresh, before it’s had time to developed any wrinkles or folds, when the flesh is still sticky and so swollen a finger-poke will explode it.
The best pieces are often the palest, almost pearly with just a hint of pink and some grey mottling.
There’s nothing red about Red Prawn.
As I was soon to find out, Mr. Lee named Red Prawn for the pinky-white color of COOKED Red Prawns, not their bright red shells. (A Red Prawn is a type of shrimp.)
Finding Red Prawn Lee
After finding the newspaper clip about Mr. Lee, I kept digging. Eventually a friend showed me an old book from 1994 with the exciting title of Durian Clones of Penang, by Mr. Lim Boon Teong of the Botanical Garden.
The cover featured Red Prawn!
But unfortunately it was in Chinese, and I couldn’t read it.
I carried this book around for a couple of weeks, looking for some poor Chinese-reading soul who would read it with me.
So one day my very patient friend Lee Choo (who published our book, The Durian Tourist’s Guide to Penang) sat down and read the whole thing to me, page by page, photo caption by photo caption, like a librarian at Story Time with an overeager toddler during the “why?” phase (but why is 668 a lucky number?)
Halfway through the book we found an old advertisement for Mr. Lee’s Durian Nursery. There were two phone numbers.
Would anyone keep a phone number for 23 years? I wondered.
Lee whipped out her cell phone. And then we were on the phone with Mr. Lee Tek Hin’s wife.
Meeting Lee Tek Hin
Mr. Lee Tek Hin is now 75 years old. He’s restless; a man of constant action, few words, and no shoes.
He agreed to meet with us at the family’s machinery shop in Kampung Genting, which in the 1990’s was a large and successful Durian Nursery.
We sat at a small table surrounded by broken engine parts as he deftly sliced open a Red Prawn durian while Lee Choo peppered him with questions.
The Story of Penang Red Prawn
Mr. Lee was born in Pondok Upeh in 1945 to immigrant parents from China. His family had a small farm with durians and other fruits, but mostly they worked as rubber tappers on other people’s farms.
Mr. Lee began working a rubber tapper when he was only 13 years old. It was not his favorite occupation. He promised that when he grew up he would do something different.
When he was 16, he learned how to graft durian trees from a friend and started practicing. When the grafts took, he sold the small trees. Soon he had his own small nursery.
That same durian season, he began collecting durian fruits from the properties where he tapped rubber to sell in the evenings in Balik Pulau Town.
It was 1961 or 1962, and the teenager had noticed one very special durian that he always tried to hide from customers to eat by himself. It had a strange, pale-pinky flesh and a fizzy, rose wine flavor.
He called it Red Prawn.
Lee was likely influenced by the recent growth of freshwater shrimp farming around Balik Pulau in the 1960’s.
When he finally bought his own land, he grafted around 40 Red Prawn trees.
And then he let his durian obsession take hold. He traveled all over Malaysia and even to Thailand, hunting good quality durians to graft at home.
His son James remembers these adventures with his father. He was too young to appreciate it at the time, but today James is one of the few people who actually visited the Musang King Mother Tree in Kelantan.
By the time of the Penang Durian & Fruit Festival in 1989, the Lee Family’s Red Prawn trees were already 25 years old, the oldest Red Prawn trees on the island except for the Mother Tree.
After the newspapers picked up the story about Lee, a media frenzy created a huge demand for Red Prawn.
Lee’s tree nursery grew quickly, and soon he was supplying Red Prawn trees to Johor and even Sabah. Singlehandedly, Lee spread thousands of Red Prawn throughout the country.
But then the durian market crashed in 1995. People stopped buying durian trees, and the Lee family closed their nursery.
According to James, it’s only been in the last 3-5 years that people have come looking for the original Red Prawn again.
So the family has started the nursery again.
VIDEO: Meet the James Lee and
Where to find the original Red Prawn
These days Lee Tek Hin and his son James Lee fly under the radar. While other farms have Instagram accounts and feature in the local newspapers, the family lives quietly in the hillside of Bukit Genting.
But if you stay at Nature Fruit Farm and ask for a Red Prawn from Mr. Lee, I’m sure he’d be happy to oblige.
Call or WhatsApp James to book Red Prawn or other varieties: +60-017-427-0879