The Edible Birds’ Nest Commodity Chain between Sarawak and East Asia [Daniel Chew]

The Edible Birds’ Nest Commodity Chain between Sarawak and East Asia

Daniel Chew (University of Malaysia Sarawak)

 Edible birds’ nest, which are moulded from the saliva of the aerodramus swiflets, forming white and black nests, are a highly prized culinary food product reputed to have health benefits. The uniqueness of the appeal of the nests is its association with the dynastic past of China as a special food for rulers and the wealthy, an appeal which carries on to this day as an expensive and prestigious food product for the ethnic Chinese wherever they live. The nests are collected from cliffs in caves and man made structures in maritime and mainland Southeast Asia. The process of collecting the nests in Southeast Asia for consumption in China and by the Chinese diaspora can be described as a commodity chain. The concept of commodity chain was first used by Wallerstein and Hopkins in the 1980s to describe and analyse trade and capital movements in the global economy before 1800 ( Wallerstein 2008). The framework of commodity chains has been used in the study of global networks and movements of products and services. In a review essay, Bair (2005) identified two distinct types of commodity chains, value commodity chain analysis (VCC) and global commodity chain (GCC). VCC looked at the range of range of activities in the process of bringing up a product or service to its final destination as a consumed product or service, whereas GCC examined power relations and the roles of producers and consumers in a product chain.
  Daniel Chew (左) と Albertus:black cave nestsの採集地Gunung StaatのふもとにてSiniawan, Sarawak  (photo by courtesy of Albertus) / Daniel Chew (L) and Albertus:the collecting point of black cave nests at the bottom of Gunung Staat, Siniawan, Sarawak  (photo by courtesy of Albertus)
 The framework of producers and consumers in a product chain is broad, a point recognized by Wallerstein when he said that the commodity chain “…is a total phenomenon that we cannot see no matter what we do. The point is to figure out how this total phenomenon operates, what are its rules, what are its trends, what are its coming and inevitable disequilibria and bifurcations. It requires imagination and audacity along with rigor and patience. The only thing we have to fear is looking too narrowly” (Wallerstein 2008). The process of the birds’ nest commodity chain, when approached with Wallerstein’s suggestion of not “looking too narrowly”, is extensive. In this preliminary write-up, I take up the perspective of relationships and networks, which are historical and have embedded economic and social contexts, a framework which may not be adequately covered by the VCC and GCC approaches mentioned above. Besides, birds’ nest are a commodity chain which is ecologically grounded as procurement depends on the “production” of nests by swiflets in suitable habitats, and this ecological factor is mediated by the actions of human actors in collecting and trading in the product, which is in turn stimulated by demand. As a process of high value trans-regional trade, political ramifications in the commodity chain come to the fore and affect production and consumption when decision and policy makers take an interest in the commodity.

 The historical backdrop of the birds’ nest commodity chain lies in the longue duree of economic relations between insular Southeast Asia and China. Lim and Earl of Cranbrook (2002:62) and Chiang (2011:410-411) have highlighted the search for birds’ nests in the caves of maritime Southeast Asia for the imperial court of 16th century Ming China. Chiang (2011) referred to references on the therapeutic value of birds’ nests in old Chinese medicinal texts for the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties and linked the demand for the prized commodity with the social production of cave nests in Niah and Baram in Sarawak. The tropical rainforest and littoral coast of Borneo and adjacent islands such as Java, and even on mainland Southeast Asia where the swiflets built their nests, were known for their natural emporium riches of birds’ nest and other products which attracted traders from China, India, the Middle East and Europe. The intensification of these procurement activities took place during the high noon of European colonialism in the 19th century and the arrival of the Chinese who played a middleman role in trading activities. At the source of products in Southeast Asia, the interactions of three principal actors, the colonialists, the Chinese and the indigenous inhabitants were played out, with the objective of exporting the valued commodities to markets elsewhere in China or Europe.

 Taking Sarawak as a local example, birds’ nest collection and trade is a case study where birds’ nest were significant to the 19th century Brooke raj as a source of taxable revenue, with trading in the hands of the Chinese, and the work of procuring the nests on cave cliffs the specialty of indigenous cave owners and collectors. The line of the commodity chain extended to Singapore in the 19th century, an island entrepot which tapped into regional trade. The entrepot trade which dealt with jungle and marine products was in the hands of the Chinese with the links further extended to Canton which became a western treaty port in the mid 19th century, together with the ceded island of Hong Kong to Britain. These ports of Canton and Hong Kong capitalized on the China-Southeast Asian trade. Birds’ nest were a suitable low volume and high value product collected and transported from the caves of maritime Southeast Asia across the seas to China, fitting the bill of exotic tropical emporium riches for the China market. This commodity chain continues to the present with Hong Kong as the world centre for trade in birds’ nests for internal consumption, and exporting to China and the ethnic Chinese diaspora such as in north America.

 The most significant change which impacted on the commodity chain on the supply side has been the decline in birds’ nests due to relentless harvesting which does not allow the swiftlet population to reproduce itself sustainably. Niah caves in Sarawak which is one of the main local sources of cave nests, has experienced a rapid decline in nests and swiflets over the years due to over and careless harvesting. The decline in cave nest supplies is matched by an ever increasing demand by consumers in Hong Kong and China where the nests, regarded as prestigious health food products, may be consumed daily by those who believe in their therapeutic value, are served in restaurants, or given away as expensive and high status gifts.

Gunung Staatの洞窟内、竹を組んだ足場を登って壁面の巣を採集する。
  (photo by courtesy of Albertus) / Collecting bird nests on the cave wall, climbing up bamboo scaffold  (photo by courtesy of Albertus)
Gunung Staatの洞窟内、竹を組んだ足場を登って壁面の巣を採集する (photo by courtesy of Albertus)
 A fortuitous discovery that swiflets could build nests in buildings and houses in Java besides just in caves, led to enterprising traders turning man made structures into nesting havens for the swiftlets. An industry based on swiftlet “ranching” in buildings sprang up in Java in the early 20th century, and spread to Peninsular Malaysia by the end of the century, and then to Sarawak. With natural cave nests suffering from declining quantities due to over harvesting, the birds’ nest industry in Sarawak, and indeed in the rest of Malaysia and in neighbouring Indonesia is now reliant on buildings specially designed or converted from existing ones to entice swiftlets to build nests.

 This end of the product chain where existing and new buildings accommodate the swiftlets has become an industry (Lim 2012), even a capital intensive one requiring high financial outlay. A ‘knowledge’ industry on how to attract swiftlets to build nests in buildings has developed, with trade secrets well guarded. Experts and those professing to be experts organise seminar circuits, promising hefty returns on investments. Tan Jak Kuang of Daro, Sarawak who converted a shophouse into a swiftlet farm attended paid seminars on the subject in Jakarta. There are other links which connect the adjoining regions of Sarawak and Kalimantan. Chai Poh Kiong, a successful swiftlet rancher in Samarahan, Sarawak, who owns about twenty swiftlet buildings has a few swiftlet farms in Pontianak. As the cleaning and processing costs of birds’ nests are cheaper in Kalimantan, nests are over sent from Sarawak for this labour intensive work.

アナツバメのためのハウス Daro, Sarawak / A bird-farm house for swiftlets: Daro, Sarawak まるで要塞のような外観のツバメハウス, Daro, Sarawak / Fortress-like bird-farm house, Daro, Sarawak
 Although the character of the industry has transformed from relying on house instead of cave nests, relationships and networks underpin the commodity chain linking Sarawak and the rest of Southeast Asia with the intermediary and end points of the commodity chain, be it Singapore, Hong Kong or China. Local and regional examples highlight the nature of these relationships which are economically and socially embedded. The Loh family in Kuching, comprising Loh Siaw Kuei and his father is a two generation family trading in birds’ nest, who began with the collection and trade in cave nests and are now concentrating on, and even investing in the construction of buildings to accommodate swiftlets, with a processing factory to clean nests being planned. The Lohs export the nests to Hong Kong and even had a family member, an uncle of Loh Siaw Kuei living there since the 1960s until his recent demise, who dealt with the import and trading of nests. The types of natural products handled by the Lohs mirror the economic changes taking place in Sarawak in the procurement and trade in commodities. Before the outbreak of the second world war, Loh Siaw Kuei’s father established a shop at Main Bazaar, Kuching dealing with jungle produce such as damar, gutta percha and cave nests. These products are rare nowadays, and cave nests have been replaced by house nests. There are others too like Liu Thian Leong, a trader and property developer in Kuching, who switched from cave to house nests by constructing buildings as swiftlet farms.

Daroの市場上空を舞うアナツバメ達/Swiftlets flew over the market of Daro. 人の手を使っての掃除・清浄作業、Siniawan, Sarawak / The clean-up by hands: Siniawan, Sarawak
 Winnie Hon, a wholesale birds’ nests trader in Hong Kong is a personal friend of Liu Thian Leong in Kuching with a longstanding trading relationship in the import and export of birds’ nests. When I visited Hon’s office in Sheung Wan, Hong Kong, the hub of birds’ nests trade, in March 2012, she informed me of her personal connections to swiftlet ranch farmers in Peninsular Malaysia and Indonesia, making regular trips to Southeast Asia to inspect swiftlet buildings and to meet her suppliers. Hon is very much aware of the supply and market conditions in Indonesia and Malaysia such as the costs of “producing” the nests, the quality of the nests, and knows where to go for what she wants. Another wholesale trader, Hing Kee Java Edible Bird’s Nest company which has its own processing facilities has a network of and suppliers and exporters in Indonesia and Malaysia, including Sarawak. The company staff regularly visit Southeast Asia to ensure continuity of supply and quality assurance on products. Hing Kee company has an Indonesian Chinese lady on its staff, who speaks Indonesian, useful for communicating with Indonesian clients.

 The point to belabour here is that the networks, personal and built up over time, facilitate dealings across the region to ensure a steady and continuous supply of nests. These personal relationships in facilitating commerce are known as guanxi in Chinese. The ethnic Chinese element in guanxi can be illustrated by this example in China street, Kuching, a heavily ethnic Teochew quarter where there are tradespeople dealing in traditional Chinese medicine (and birds’ nests). A hidden and not apparent part of the product chain is itinerant travellers, tourists and traders from China who come to Sarawak and elsewhere to buy nests in tourist or big commercial quantities. Teochew from Shantou (Swatow) will make a beeline for China and adjacent Carpenter streets in Kuching where Teochew are found, to look for nests to buy. According to my informants in Kuching, the Chinese visitors buy nests by the bagfuls amounting to many kilos. Teo Teo Khoon runs a traditional Chinese medicine shop in China street, Kuching and although stocking limited birds’ nests for retail sale, is not a full fledged birds’ nest trader. But when Teo is approached by Chinese visitors looking for birds’ nests, as an enterprising trader, he will source for the nests through his network of contacts. The Chinese government has attempted to stem this kind of trading by disallowing Chinese travellers going overseas from bringing back commercial quantities of birds’ nests. Another concern for China is the extra-official or extra-legal channels for the import of nests across the Hong Kong-Shenzhen border, trade which may be regarded as illicit. Hong Kong traders we talked to, alluded to these “networks” of illegal trade, but are not prepared to talk more or divulge details. This could be, in Wallerstein’s (2008) words cited earlier, “…a phenomenon we cannot see, no matter what we do…”. There is a robust trans-border trade between Hong Kong and the Chinese mainland in birds’ nest, and Hong Kong traders attributed the size and growth of the industry in recent years to demand from China. Hence the Hong Kong traders are wary of Chinese policy changes which can have negative consequences for the industry.

ツバメの巣を扱う香港の商店。Sheung Wan, Hong Kong / A marcantile store of bird nest in Sheung Wan, Hong Kong
 This brings me to my next point on the product chain, the political ramifications on the trade in birds’ nest. A health scare erupted in China in 2011 over the contents of imported birds’ nests, said to contain unacceptable high levels of nitrite, with the nests alleged to be imported from Malaysia. The Chinese government took drastic measures to regulate the import of birds’ nests with new regulations and requirements on nitrite composition in nests. This caused a sharp drop in demand and prices as the nests were unable to meet the new requirements, and this created a crisis for the swiftlet ranching industry in Malaysia for entrepreneurs who had pinned their hopes on what was perceived to be a profitable business. Over a period of months, there was high level government intervention from Malaysia, with visits by government ministers and senior officials to China to sort out these issues. When our research team members comprising Noboru Ishikawa, Ryoji Soda, Tetsu Ichikawa and myself were in Hong Kong in March 2012 to talk to birds’ nests traders, we experienced at first hand the fall-out from these trade concerns between China and Malaysia. In our discussions with the Hong Kong traders, they were quick to distance themselves from nests originating from Malaysia, and everyone we talked to, said that they only imported nests from Indonesia. Nests from Malaysia had earned a bad name and therefore had to be avoided. Previously when there were bird flu outbreaks in Indonesia and nest exports to China were stopped from the former, the industry in Indonesia suffered.

 From our brief visit to Hong Kong, what was becoming apparent to us as researchers looking at this end of the product chain were the spin-offs from the industry. What was brought to our attention during discussions was how and why Hong Kong came to this pinnacle position of being a world centre for birds’ nest trading. The reasons given were Hong Kong was a free port, had efficient banking services, had vast experience in dealing with the China market and the Chinese diaspora and with suppliers in Southeast Asia, and there was R & D (research and development) on quality assurance, as well as ethical business practices such as not adulterating or faking products. When asked how the Hong Kong experiences are useful and an advantage in the birds’ nests trade, Winnie Hon gave this example on how Hong Kong businesspeople would deal with the Chinese restrictions placed on nest imports from Malaysia, the later giving media publicity to high level government visits and lobbying. Hon said Hong Kong traders would keep a low profile, identify the Chinese officials responsible for decision making, visit them, organize lavish banquets and work on the issues. She believed that a low key approach can achieve better results than the high level government ministerial intervention emanating from Malaysia.

香港にあるツバメの巣の売買の中心地区。 Shueng Wan, Hong Kong / The central area of bird nest trade in Shueng Wan, Hong Kong
 The scope of the birds’ nest commodity chain is indeed broad. This kind of research stretches the reach of the local-regional interfaces in the product chain. The framework of the commodity chain delves into the roles of local and regional networks and relationships in the collecting, processing, trading and consumption of this culinary and therapeutic food product. It examines the part played by humans in the context of human-nature interactions in a high biomass environment. Research into the birds’ nest commodity chain requires a multi-pronged approach at different linkages which make up the chain.

Bair, Jennifer. Global Capitalism and Commodity Chains:  Looking Back, Going Forward, in Competition and Change, Vol. 9, No.2, June 2005, 153-180. accessed 20 December 2012.

Chiang, Bien. Market Price, Labor Input, and Relation of Production in Sarawak Edible Birds’ Nest Trade, 407- 431, in Tagliacozzo, Eric and Chang, Wen-Chin (eds.), Chinese Circulations, Capital, Commodities and Networks in Southeast Asia (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011).

Lim Chan Koon and Earl of Cranbrook. Swiftlets of Borneo, Builders of Edible Nests (Kota Kinabalu: Natural History Publications, 2002).

Wallerstein, Immanuel. Protection Networks and Commodity Chains in the Capitalist World-Economy. accessed 20 December 2012.

Interviews with Lim Chan Koon, September and October 2011, Kuching and Ah Kong, November 2011, Sarikei; interviews with Loh Siaw Kuei, Liu Thian Leong, Teo Teo Khoon and Chai Poh Khong, August 2011 and March 2012 in Kuching.

Interviews with Winnie Hon, Wilson Ng, March 2012, HongKong and discussions with committee of Birds’ Nest Association*  (wholesalers) Hong Kong, March 2012.
 (*affiliate of Hong Kong Chinese Medicine Merchants’ Association, Hong Kong)

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