Travel Malaysia

Going For The Big Money–Bird’s Nests In Malaysia

“Vicki and I visited a tiny fishing village on the northwest coast of Malaysia,” writes Intrepid Correspondent Paul Terhorst. “While we were there, a local guy named Chin befriended us and showed us around.

“Chin recently retired after 20 years working in Singapore. He was a buyer for a company that makes motherboards for cell phones. But Chin says margins are too small, it’s too tough a business. He decided to retire, move back to his village, and go for the big money: bird’s nests.

“Consumers buy the nests and boil them to make bird’s-nest soup. The thick broth supposedly strengthens the lungs, immune system, libido, and more. Wikipedia says bird’s nests are ‘among the most expensive animal products consumed by humans.’

“Chin mentioned several times that bird’s-nest soup helps the lungs. I asked Chin if the soup could cure lung cancer. ‘Paul,’ he said patiently, ‘if bird’s-nest soup could cure lung cancer, we wouldn’t have people dying of lung cancer, would we?’

“Certain kinds of swiftlets make the valuable nests with their saliva. Chin’s village borders on a huge mangrove forest that produces a steady supply of what swiftlets prize most: mosquitos. Swiftlets have been nesting in the area for years.

“Chin built his first bird house about six months ago. While standing nearby, I heard a steady racket coming from the bird house, birds singing and squawking.

“I said, ‘Your bird house seems to be full already. Just listen to the noise.’

“Chin said, ‘No, I’ve had very few birds so far. What you hear is an MP3 player I hooked up. It plays bird sounds 24 hours a day, although I turn down the volume at night. My neighbors need to sleep.’

“Buyers who export to China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and the United States show up regularly and pay 4,000 ringgit (US$1,250) a kilo. About 130 nests make up a kilo. Chin hopes to produce a kilo a month beginning in a year or so. And that’s just a start. Swiftlets tend to return to their place of birth to set up their own nests. As long as Chin can attract birds in the first place, with a fine setting and the right bird sounds, volume should increase exponentially. And there’s very little cost.

“Chin needs only to harvest the nests and to disinfect and carry off the bird droppings. The droppings can carry disease, which could kill off the bird’s-nest business, not to mention the birds themselves.

“As soon as he can tap into his retirement fund, Chin plans to build a second bird house. He’ll go into business with his brother, who owns a cafe in the village. They’ll tear down the cafe and build a new, four-story building with a ground-level cafe, an apartment on the floor above, and then two levels for birds.

“Chin has never married. I told him he should look for a young wife. That way, when the business gets going, Chin will die and leave all his bird’s nests to his rich young wife and kids. Chin laughed, a hearty, full laugh, but I suspect he took me seriously. People, and generations, come and go. But bird’s-nest production is forever.”

Kathleen Peddicord

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