Durian hunters

SINGAPORE - He prods the dense undergrowth with a broken branch while taking each step like a hunter on the prowl. Every so often he stops, looks up and sniffs the air.

"It must be here somewhere. I can smell it," mutters Mr Lim Cheng Meng in Mandarin.

Then true enough, the 51-year-old bends over, parts some leaves and pulls out a durian that has just fallen off the tree minutes earlier.

Mr Lim, who is unemployed, is one of the many regulars who make the biannual pilgrimage into the forested area along Old Punggol Road in search of the king of fruits.

Durian season typically lasts for a couple of months in the middle and end of the year.

Prices for the pungent fruit hit a low this season due to a bumper harvest in Malaysia. But this has not stopped the Punggol durian pickers who come armed with boots, mosquito repellent and bags of food.

"Once you have tried the durians here, you would never want to have a Malaysian durian again," says Mr Peh Eng Choon, a renovation contractor who has been picking durians in the area for the last three years.

"It's also organic that's why it tastes so good," adds the 53-year-old.

While some are driven by the taste of the fruit, others join in for the thrill of the hunt. Mr Lim says: "It's really a matter of interest. Sometimes, you don't get much but I see it as a form of exercise."

Patience is key as pickers can wait for up to eight hours for a single fruit to fall.

There are also unspoken rules to abide by. "When a picker turns up and there are already others there. You either find another tree or wait in line," explains Mr Peh.

"It's like taking a queue number when you go to the doctor," he adds in Hokkien.

But the draw of the velvety yellow flesh from the fruit can sometimes lead to thorny situations.

Regular picker Mr Low, who declined to give his full name, recounts years ago when durian picking in Punggol was more territorial and fights between rival groups were not uncommon.

Several trees in the area also bore deep gashes on their trunks. Regulars say they were inflicted many years ago by feuding groups of pickers trying to kill each other's durian trees.

But Mr Low says pickers are now more cordial and often share their spoils with others.

It may also be one of the last few durian seasons for Mr Low and his Punggol durian kakis.

The area around Old Punggol Road has been slated for development and it is unclear if the durian trees will remain. Soil testing has already begun in some areas and portions of the forest have been cleared by bulldozers.

Mr Low says: "I hope the durian trees will be preserved. I have been picking durians here since I was 17. It will be a pity if they have to go."


This article was first published on July 30, 2015.
Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.