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“Only the older generations come to the market, because young people these days don’t cook. There are fewer old people around to cook now. So it’s very hard to keep the business going.” Mr Koh, 65, and his wife. Fish stallholders at Marine Parade wet market for THE PERSONALITIES OF SINGAPORE’S WET MARKETS over 40 years.

Madam Anne Tee Chun May with her mother: yong tau fu stallholders at Tanjong Pagar wet market for 30 years. MADAM ANNE TEE CHUN MAY, 57, and her mother, who wanted to be known only as Ah Hee, 87, have been manning their hawker stall for three decades. They started out selling mixed rice in 1984 and later moved on to sell what has now become their famous yong tau fu dish (a Chinese Hakka soup dish with signature ingredients such as bean curd stuffed with meat or fish paste). As the Tanjong Pagar wet market was about to close in March 2013 for a year of renovations, we caught the pair early on a Friday morning on the eve of Chinese New Year, conscientiously preparing for the day even before sunrise.


“We get here around 3.30am or 4 in the morning every day, and we make almost everything by hand,” Madam Tee tells us. “All by hand!” Ah Hee echoed in Hokkien as she chimed in proudly from behind us, sitting at a table filling a tray of fresh bean curd triangles with their homemade fish paste. While hunched over with age and shuffling slowly to and fro from her preparation table to the stall, Ah Hee remained incredibly sharp and in tune to our conversation with her daughter. “Have the both of you eaten? Do you want to eat?” she said to my

photographer, Ivan and me. Despite our mild protests and the fact that it was seven in the morning (yong tau fu was usually a lunch or dinner affair). She grabbed a couple of empty bowls and tried to encourage us to have our fill.

from scratch. Do you know how much work it is to make fish cake by hand? If it’s not handmade, it won’t taste good. If it doesn’t taste good, who will want to eat it?”

So we did.

She pointed to her yong tau fu stall.

As we ate (and boy, was it really, really good yong tau fu), I asked Ah Hee if she had ever considered teaching anyone else the art of making yong tau fu, to which she immediately replied:

“Every day we have queues. Every day, people wipe out the food until everything is cleaned out,” she tells us, beaming with pride. “Our customers are very sad when I tell them that we are closing. They tell me, where am I going to eat yong tau fu now?”

“It’s not about teaching. Even if I teach you, can you make it taste this good? We make everything



Madam Tee says her mother is going to retire now that the market is going to be closed for a year. For herself, she says she will probably be back when the market re-opens, so the tradition will continue for another generation at least. However, like many of the other stallholders we talked to, it is likely that this tradition will end with her. When asked if she was intending to pass on her business or teach her recipes to her 12 -year-old daughter, she smiled and told us:

“All women must know how to cook, so my daughter does know some cooking. But to take over the stall? Which mother will want their child to work in a market? Every mother sends their children to school so that they can have a better life.” “We have to flow with the times,” she tells us as she tosses a fresh batch of bean curd triangles into her wok full of oil, which crackles loudly above the sound of her voice. “But if anyone wants to learn, of course I can teach, I’ll just charge them course fees!”


Mr Ang Li Hiang, 50, and wife. Pork stallholders at Marine Parade wet market for over 20 years.

“I’m 50 years old and I’m one of the youngest stallholders in this market. You won’t find anyone in their 20s or 30s working in the wet market.” 20

“Before they regulated how we sell meat in the market, we used to sell live pigs. Based on how much meat we consume in Singapore now, if we were still selling live pigs, it would come up to about 6,000 pigs slaughtered a day. Back then, we [pork sellers] were doing about 2,000–3,000 pigs daily. How good was the business then? At least 10 times better than now!”


“Who will have the time to learn what we do anymore? To learn the ropes of how to handle the meat properly will take at least three years.�



Mr Tan and his wife: curry rice stallholders at Tanjong Pagar wet market for over 13 years.

MR TAN, 67, and his wife Madam Tan, 68, have been selling curry rice at Tanjong Pagar for over 13 years. They had formerly worked at Bugis Street for over 10 years, helping Mr Tan’s father at his very first stall.

“Back then, it was just a push cart. Everyone just parked their carts by the roadside.” We asked Mr Tan if anyone had ever approached him to learn how to prepare his curry rice. “Yes, but they don’t seem serious about it,” he says as his wife busies herself with the cooking. “It’s all very hard work. There isn’t really a recipe to it. Everything I’ve learned, I just looked at what my dad did and followed him. It’s all based on 24

experience. It’s difficult to learn. I can teach, but it doesn’t mean you can learn.” Like many of the stallholders we spoke to, the Tans also had no intention of handing down their recipes to the next generation. As the eldest son, Mr Tan took it upon himself to take over his father’s business, partially because of the lack of adequate formal education. “Back in our time, the eldest child seldom had the opportunity to pursue much schooling,” his wife explained.

“If you were one of the younger children, you had a better chance at having anything more than basic education. But the eldest usually had to help support the

family, so you’ll notice that many of us from our generation who are very poorly educated are usually the older children.” With both their children married and university-educated, it was clear to them that there would be no future hawkers in the family. When asked if they thought it was a pity that their recipes would potentially be lost, Mr Tan shrugged and gave a small smile. “It’s part and parcel of life. There’s nothing very special about what we do actually,” he tells us humbly. “It’s exactly the same as what my father sold, that’s all.” “There’s nothing much to remember or regret. Once you reach a certain age, you see things differently,” Madam Tan interjected. “You know, between the both of us combined, we’re already 135 years old!” Mr Tan pauses, deep in thought. He finds it odd that we considered the potential loss of his father’s recipes to be “a pity”, and tries to find the words to explain to us why he did not view it that way.

“To be honest, you can say that you find what we cook to be traditional. But I’ll tell you that the food that we had when I was your age tasted better and more authentic than anything we have now,”

Mr Tan says as he gestures at the food he’s packing for a customer. “You can’t even find the things that we used to eat when I was young anymore. I can’t even begin to tell you what most of them were, but if you take for example, soya bean drink. It used to taste so different from what it tastes like today. You can’t find that taste anymore. No one makes it the old way anymore.” “That’s why there’s nothing much to be nostalgic about, it’s just how life is,” Madam Tan says, turning back to her wok and signalling the end of our conversation.



Mr Ow-Yong Peng Keong, 67, and his son. Mr Ow-Yong has been running the business for over 50 years, continuing the business his father first started in the 1940s. Mr OwYong is opting not to move back when the Tanjong Pagar wet market re-opens and has accepted the $18,000 compensation for giving up his stall.


“We still manage to do a bit of business, but things are definitely getting worse. It’s just the result of progress. How people make their purchasing decisions is very different from before. Previously, there weren’t 24-hour places to do your marketing. These days, people don’t have the time to buy things during the day. They do their marketing in the evenings after work, so it’s easier to shop at the supermarkets where you can go anytime. To shop at a wet market you have to come at a definite time. People didn’t used to have a choice about this, but now that they have so many other options, they no longer have to come here.”




Madam Chang Wan Huay, 65, dried goods stallholder at Marine Parade wet market for 30 years.

“Business used to be very good. There were a lot more old people. People don’t do their marketing in the mornings anymore, they’d rather shop in the supermarkets after work in the evenings.” 32





MR SIM HAN BOON (not pictured), 59, has been selling fish for so long, he can barely remember a time when he wasn’t. “I’ve been selling fish even before this current (Tanjong Pagar) market existed,” he says. Having helped his father with the business since he was a small boy, he continued to help his elder sister after his father passed away. These days, he runs the stall alone since his sister retired due to the pain she developed over the years from long hours of standing in the market. Like all the stallholders we talked to, Mr Sim’s eyes lit up as he talked about the good old days when business used to be a lot more lucrative.

“Whenever the boats came into the port, all the sailors and people from the ships would come here to buy their supplies,” he tells me excitedly. “Even the orang laut would come ashore just to do their marketing here. Business was good for my father and our family was very content.” Glancing around the quiet market of the present day, on the eve of what was traditionally supposed to be the one of the busiest periods of the calendar, he sobered slightly. “These days, suppliers go directly to the harbour to sell to the boats. No one comes to the market anymore.”

He then begins to tell us of his father’s humble beginnings as a Chinese migrant who started out by selling fish by the roadside.

“Every day we would be trying to avoid getting caught by the authorities. If we got caught, all our goods would be confiscated, but it was better than getting arrested, so we would run away whenever the authorities came.” When asked if he thought the wet markets would disappear by the next couple of decades, an opinion held by some of the older stallholders, he went silent for a moment. “No, no, it won’t be completely gone,” he said, shaking his head. He seemed to be reassuring himself more than he was trying to convince us. Like many of his generation and their parents who worked in the wet markets, the paths they took had never been a matter of choice but necessity. Choice was a luxury not afforded to those who received very little education and grew up having to support the family from a young age. “I’m sure the government will do something about it, they won’t abandon us market folk,” he tells us, a hint of uncertainty in his voice. “We still need to make a living and pay off our houses, we still have bills to pay too.”



“The market is not as lively as before. People would rather go to the supermarkets. They sell everything we sell, and at a cheaper price. The heyday of this market is over.” Mr Lim Kim Say, 51: yong tau fu and dried goods stallholder at Marine Parade wet market for over 30 years.




Mr Ching Cheong Enn and wife: biscuits, coffee and joss paper stallholders at Tanjong Pagar wet market for over 26 years. Mr Ching has been manning a stall in Tanjong Pagar wet market for over 26 years. Previously in the construction industry, he switched to manning his own stall after the industry became less profitable as cheaper foreign labour drove his market value down. He started out selling biscuits and coffee powder, and later took over another unit selling joss paper when the previous tenant moved out.


When asked if business is good, he smiles and tells us simply that what he earns is “enough to eat�. Back when he was in his 40s, Mr Ching would deliver biscuits to the offices in the area by manually pushing his trolley to their buildings, sometimes with up to 10 large tins of biscuits in tow. He then smiles and tells us that now, in his 60s, it is not something he can do anymore. As far as the future of the market is concerned, he feels that stalls like his

that sell dry goods and provisions are faring a little better than their fresh food counterparts. “You look at the market now, there’s only one vegetable and one fish stall left,” he tells us as he packs a large order of joss paper for one of his regular customers.

“You see some of the empty stalls here – back then when the market was busier, if you didn’t open your stall for a month, the government would take back your stall. If you didn’t want to open for business, you weren’t allowed to just sit on a stall space.” Like the other stallholders in Tanjong Pagar wet market, he cites the next door 24-hour NTUC supermarket as the main reason for the steady decline of the market. “For the items I sell (biscuits and joss paper), business still isn’t as bad as it is for some of the other stallholders in the market,” he says. “But we are still too near to NTUC. They can bring in large wholesale volumes and cut way below our prices. Supermarkets can buy in bulk, they have storage, and they can earn more. We buy less, but they earn more. We buy from the middlemen, but supermarkets can bypass them and go directly to distributors, so they are able to undercut us a lot.” As far as Mr Ching is concerned, market stallholders like himself will slowly but surely disappear.


As we speak to him, his customer returns, a smiley lady in her 50s. This is Madam Annie Lim, 51, who has been buying joss paper from Mr Ching for seven years. A Singaporean now based in Thailand, Madam Lim comes back to Singapore twice a year to burn offerings for her parents, and comes to Mr Ching’s stall without fail each time to get her supplies. “I’m Catholic, so I don’t actually know enough about the right traditions or items,” she explains as Mr Ching packs two large red plastic bags full of paper iPads, credit cards, money, playing cards and various other-worldly luxuries, one for each of her parents. “I trust him to do it for me. He’s very good! He always settles everything for me.” Like most, Madam Lim agrees that the magic of the wet market comes from the kampong feel that you cannot find duplicated in supermarkets. “There is a strong personal touch,” she tells us.

“For example, if you are buying vegetables and you are making a dish that only needs one or two small chili padi, you can ask the stallholder and he will willingly give them to you free of charge. Sometimes they even make recommendations or throw in other free things for you when they know what you are planning to cook. You’re never going to get that in a supermarket.” 44


“I started learning when I was in my teens. None of us (in this industry) received much education. We’re here because we have to be.” Anonymous fish stallholder at Marine Parade wet market for over 30 years.



Mr Hasan Kutus: Indian spice stallholder at Tanjong Pagar wet market for over 40 years. MR HASAN KUTUS, 65, has been at Tanjong Pagar wet market for over 40 years. Like many of the other stallholders, he is the second generation of his family to man the business, established by his immigrant parents many years ago. Mr Kutus started helping his parents at the stall from a young age, proudly telling us how everyone used to have their own, simple carts in the days before the market was built. According to him, stall licence fees in the past were also a mere $10 per month. As though reminiscing the old days, he starts to tell us excitedly about the Tanjong Pagar of the past and the history of the market, casually mentioning road names such as Cheng Cheok Street, Cheng Tuan Street 48

and Narcis Street, roads that no longer exist in current day Singapore. He talks about the Metropole Theatre that has now become Fairfield Methodist Church, and the Muslim Improvement Club that he is still actively a part of, founded in the early 1930s by his father’s generation of immigrants from their village in Tamil Nadu. “You must remain active and contribute to the nation,” he tells us in his grandfatherly voice. “Most of our community [immigrants from his village] lived in Tanjong Pagar. Even though most of them have moved away, we still keep in touch. We support the children when they are getting married, or when there is a death in the family.”

To prove his point, he takes out a handwritten address book, its columns filled neatly with family names and addresses of members of his community that have since moved away from Tanjong Pagar to other parts of Singapore. “We try our best to keep in touch and support each other. As elders, we help to support ceremonies and celebrations.” On the topic of the market, Mr Kutus tell us that the entire area surrounding the current Tanjong Pagar wet market used to be littered with market stalls till the government started moving everyone to a temporary market in Yak Kit during the 1970s, before finally building the market we are familiar with today.

“People had to ballot for their stalls, business was very good,” he tells us.

“We had a lot of business from the port. Many sailors used to come to the market, and there were a lot of people living along Tras Street. Flats here used to cost around $17,500.” “That was in the 1970s, of course,” he added as an afterthought. “Prices started shooting up in the 1990s, everyone sold their flats and went away, so this place stopped being so lively. The government also turned the port into a container port, so we lost our biggest pool of customers.”


If there is anything he will miss, or already misses, about the market, it would be the sense of community (the oft-cited kampong spirit) that exists among the stallholders and their customers. “Everyone is very friendly. We have no trouble and no security problems. Everyone considers their neighbour’s stall as their own stall,” he tells us.

“If one of us needs to leave for a short while, run errands or deliveries or go to the toilet, we will help look after each others’ stalls, and sometimes do transactions for each other.” As he talks to us, he proudly takes out a photo to show us his family, both his children decked in their graduation gowns. Then, rustling through his belongings, he takes out a worn, handwritten chart with numbers and letters scribbled on the surface. 50

“My own formula,” he says. “I mix the spices and create my own spice blends. A lot of people buy it; it is unique to my stall. My friends who own restaurants come here to buy my spices to make their curries. They are used to the flavour of my formula.” Before we can snap a photo of the chart, it disappears back into his stack of organised papers. Looking around as though deliberating what to show us next, he takes out his small stack of handwritten accounting books. It was time for some life lessons. “Every thing I purchase for my stall, I pay in full,” he starts, showing us all the receipts from his suppliers. “I don’t have any debts. It’s all paid. The suppliers are happy, I am happy.” He pauses, looking at me squarely in the eye.

“So if I ever need anything at last minute’s notice, when I call my suppliers, they will come – because I always pay in full,” he emphasised.

“If you want to run a business, you must always pay in full, don’t keep debts, don’t buy and chalk up credit. That’s what my mother taught me about running the business. If you stay debt free, your business will be good, you will be happy, and your conscience will be clear.” On the future of his business and the wet markets, Mr Kutus had another gem of a life lesson.

They don’t have the patience,” he said, looking at me with a knowing twinkle in his eye.

“Nowadays, everyone wants to make fast money. You can’t do that in a market. You cannot get rich in the market, but you can make enough. We only go for a small profit,” Mr Kutus pauses to make sure it sinks in. “This is the kind of place where if you’re good, people will come. If you are courteous and honest in your heart, you will be able to do business.”

“Young people these days, they will not do brick and mortar businesses like ours.









An ode to Singapore's wet markets. Lizzy Lee and Ivan Tan slip on their flip-flops and pad through Singapore's quickly disappearing pasars t...