“Probably long dead before it even reached Singapore.”
The obtrusive exclamation from my smug vegetarian friend across the table made my stomach groan in protest as I sank my knife into the promising piece of grilled chicken before me. A few days after that dinner, his thoroughly unceremonious and unappetizing observation resurfaced in my mind as I weaved through the aisles of a supermarket, absent-mindedly picking up groceries for dinner. Looking around at the colourful mounds of fruit and the glistening piles of fresh seafood curled up atop beds of crushed ice, I realized with a start how true it is that we know little about where our food comes from.
In the later part of the evening, conversation above the casserole swirls around the sore lack of urban space for agriculture or even gardening; the overwhelming proliferation of sky gardens in the last decade’s architectural offerings; frightening thoughts of genetically modified foods ravaging us when we are 60; and strange reminisces and meanderings around the memories of wet markets from our childhoods.
Biting The Dust
Wet markets in Singapore are a dying breed and the last nail in the coffin is being firmly hammered in with the younger generation growing increasingly partial to the air-conditioned and sanitized variant of the supermarket.
But those who grew up in the '80s or '90s would be sure to still hold memories of tottering to the nearest wet market in their neighbourhood and having their senses assaulted by the strange smells of gutted fish innards mingling with the papery scent of gurney sacks filled with garlic; their toes instinctively curling to avoid the grimy water that glistened across the floors.
It is these recollections—which admittedly have been tainted and romanticized with age—that got us all lamenting about the eventual demise of wet markets. And under this veil of gloom and doom, my sister tosses out a random suggestion of visiting Pasir Panjang market—the mysterious bulwark upon which all these soon to be extinct wet-markets rely on for their vegetable supply.
That is how two weekends later, three of us find ourselves bundled together in a car, cruising down the long stretch of West Coast Road in the wee hours of the morning. Taking a right in the middle of nowhere, we enter a row of squat grey warehouses—the nondescript exterior betraying little hint of the flurry of activity I had expected.
Passing the gantry, our wheels grind to a halt as we attempt to orientate ourselves and make sense of the seemingly indignant signs before us—the thick arrows at the end of ‘DRIED FOODS’, ‘FRUITS’ and ‘VEGETABLES’ emphatically shouted directions at us, the uninitiated, guiding us along the byzantine interior that spans almost 20 football fields.
We place our bet on vegetables and drive towards the soft glow of the market in the distance. There is hardly a stir and the stillness is accentuated by the trucks ribboning the side of the road, bearing a desolate air of having been abandoned in mid-journey. Parking before one of these behemoths, our oncoming headlights rouse a half-naked man hidden and snoozing away amidst the pale woven baskets stacked up behind. After an exchange of awkward and startled glances, we scurry out and away from our vehicle to begin properly exploring.
Approaching the market, the scent of drenched newspaper is what hits me first—bylines and headlines were ebbing away into dewy oblivion. Surveying my surroundings, I attempt to figure the best route about the labyrinth but soon realize that we were being scrutinized intensely. Our pathetic attempts of dressing down evidently had not matched up to the outfit du jour of bared chests, dirty jeans and practical rubber boots.
The market first appears deceptively small because our view is obscured by a ceiling-high tarp disguising the chaos of renovation works going on in the centre. But I soon find out that there are over 300 stalls sprawled across the entire complex—overhead fluorescent lighting providing adequate, if slightly scant, illumination of this intricate clockwork.
Curiosity surrounding our arrival dies down quickly enough and feeling more at ease, I squat to take a look at the offerings of the stall nearest to me: drops of water glisten on the surface of a white radish, the last cakey bit of mud clings off a spud. Years of only being in contact with ‘fresh’ foods that have had their origins completely washed away endows a curious sense of wonderment towards the tawdry munificence around me.
The veil of silence that had initially greeted us had been lifted by the cacophony of sounds within the market itself. Shouts ring out across the area as middle-aged men and women haggled away, waving the occasional carrot in the air. It is in the midst of soaking up this chaos that I spot a stallholder seated before a makeshift table, languidly sipping from a can of Coke—what caught my eye was not just his unharried demeanour but also the startlingly realisation that he was most probably not much older than myself.
Down A Well-Trodden Path
Kew Kaijing, 29, turns out to be the son of a longtime stall owner—he had made the decision to follow in his dad’s footsteps just over three years ago and was now manning an entire stall by himself.
“Of course I thought I would end up doing something else,” he retorts when asked if he was doing something he always had in mind. Kew was well into his first year in university when he realized that he had had enough of living up to expectations.
“Our generation has been molded into thinking qualifications is everything and so few of us actually question ourselves if we are doing what we want to do. I may not be a Bill Gates kind of dropout, but I’m pretty contented where I am now,” he says.
After making that choice, Kew spent a couple of years in insurance before deciding that he didn’t want to build his career from scratch and begun to persuade his dad to let him dabble in the business.
“Surprisingly, my dad was the one who was most opposed to me taking over the business. He feels, or rather still feels that there are better opportunities out there,” he says.
Kew admits that adjusting during the first few months had been tough. With working hours starting somewhere around 1030pm and most owners only calling it a night at around 7am, his standard perception of day and night was invariably turned on its head. But he had taken things in his stride, having been long exposed to the perils of the occupation.
“Most of my friends can hardly imagine going into this line. People think of it as novel or unheard of, but its different for me because I grew up around it,” he says.
Dusk Of A Golden Age
Kew’s world may not hold as strong a clout as that of the Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo, but it isn’t completely unknown either. The market made headlines in early 2004 when the murder of Huang Na left the nation in a state of frenzy for over a month. The little girl had stayed on the grounds of the market with her mother and was a familiar face to many of the stallholders. The eventual gruesome discovery that the murder had taken place in one of the market’s large freezers piqued a morbid curiosity that drove throngs down to make a visit.
But the history of the market isn’t all blood and gore and when I ask to learn a little more about the market in the past, Kew hurriedly ushers me over to his dad’s stall where we find him busily scribbling down orders. Without even looking up, he asks, “What do you want to know?” Feeling too much of an intrusion, I mumble my request and that’s when a broad smile lights up his face.
Kew Tong Hoi has been a fixture at the market since it was situated in Chinatown. Then located along Teochew street, the shanty stalls weaved along the Singapore River—a salute to bygone days when produce from China had to be unloaded from sampans lazily cruising along the river’s murky waters. It was only in 1983 when the government declared their plan to cleanup Chinatown that the big move to West Coast was initiated.
“My dad also sold vegetables so I spent half my life in the old market and the other half here. I remember how hot it would get in the afternoon when I had to crouch by a basin for hours just to wash all the mud off the vegetables,” reminisces the older Kew. “It was tougher, dirtier, messier. You don’t see sights like that in Singapore anymore.”
Wholesaling was a roaring trade back then. Everybody from the cooks of small zichar stores to the chefs of large hotel chains took their stock from the market. But, things haven’t been quite as cherry in the last decade or so. Globalisation and efficient freight services have completely restructured the nature of the business and it’s clear that the stallholders are still finding it hard to grapple with the new reality.
“Big chains now bypass us and get their stocks directly from Malaysia or Thailand,” he says, lamenting the trade’s survival even in the near future. “It’s really tough nowadays, the business isn’t nearly as profitable as before. That’s why I always tell Kaijing to concentrate on his yacht business.”
The younger, entrepreneurial Kew has apparently been tinkling with bolts and screws in an apprenticeship to learn how to maintain luxury boats. But the new foray is not indicative of him giving up on what he started on.
“It was just another opportunity I saw in the last few years, ” he says, gesturing in the general direction of the sleepy yachts gently rocking along the glitzy stretch of the nearby Sentosa Cove. “I am still committed to making this stall succeed but I want this to be on auto-pilot in about five years so I don’t have to be around every day.”
Kew obviously has bigger plans in mind; he goes on a long monologue about how he is taking into account the changing market forces and how his dad and himself never see eye to eye because they come to loggerheads with issues like pricing.
With lesser work having to be done to prepare his imports for sale, he is now focusing on sales quantity. “Nowadays, even potatoes come peeled and vacuum-sealed. So you have to make sure your price starts to reflect this change. It’s not impossible to survive,” he asserts.
View From A Corner
The profusion of stalls makes it difficult not to concur with Kew’s point of view and as time edges close to 2am, the crowds begin streaming in even quicker than before. Holler, bargain, pack, repeat—I watch on as multiple deals get sealed. Contrary to the swirling speculations, I couldn’t help but see a glimmer of hope for the market as I observed the mayhem around me.
In late 2008, the Housing Development Board announced a study to investigate the viability of the Pasir Panjang Market in the long run—increasing direct imports had raised the alarm that the need for a centralized market was waning. But till this day, no action has been taken from that study.
“So far so good,” says Kew when I ask him about whether the lease will continue to be renewed. “We still have steady stream of customers from hotel and food chains who don’t want to go through the hassle of the importers—they trust us more. But who knows what will happen ten years from now?”
Mid-conversation, we are interrupted by someone hollering for him in Mandarin from behind. I turn around and come face to face with a grinning Indian who obviously relishes in my surprise.
Affectionately known as, Kenna, the Kews’ right-hand man is just one of the many Malaysians who navigate lumbering trucks across the causeway to deliver fresh produce every day. Whilst in town, him and a significant number of others choose to moonlight at the wholesale market to make some extra cash.
I am cordially introduced to the resident linguistic genius—Mandarin, Hokkien, Malay, Tamil and a smattering of English forms Kenna’s vernacular. “My friends were all Chinese when I was young,” he volunteers gleefully.
I spend the next ten minutes or so watching him banter with a customer in Hokkien without batting an eyelid and see how he has coupled his oratory skills with the art of shrewd negotiation; the woman leaves soon after, slightly disgruntled over the price of her bag of broccoli. The older Kew validates this when he stops by while we are speaking and heartily declares Kenna ‘Employee of the decade’ with a hard thump on his back.
Kenna’s easy-going countenance sobers up when we speak about his family and whether it is possible to continue working almost 14 hours a day. “I just want to provide them a better life, a bigger house; maybe better education,” he says simply and earnestly. Picking up on our conversation, Kew jests about how Kenna’s semi-detached in Malaysia is probably bigger than my house and we all laugh, amused by the irony of the situation.
Beyond The Surface
Working tirelessly every night save for the first two days of the Lunar New Year, a sense of community is palpable around this tight-knit group. It is a common sight for owners to scurry over to each other’s stall to stock up and leave without even as much of a greeting—a tacitly acknowledged tab system evidently in place and in good faith. Cocooned in this little hive of activity, these unsung guardians are the ones who continue to ensure the seamless journey our food takes as it makes its way to our plates.
But beyond that role, varying tensions of history, culture and society play out here—the Kews and the antagonism of generations coming head to head; Kenna struggling to break free from the working-class - middle-class quagmire; and, the market itself as yet another location steeped in memories that would possibly be wiped away from Singapore’s urban landscape in time to come.
Before I leave, the older Kew insists that I pick out some vegetables to bring home and I excitedly crouch down to pick through the old cucumbers, brinjals and red chilli padi while he waxes lyrical about what I should be looking out when choosing each vegetable. The lesson is interrupted when a bicycle precariously balancing an incredulous mountain of food and drink cycles pass the stall and he shouts out for them to stop.
“Coke, or something non-gassy? It’s on me,” he declares ceremoniously with a kindred smile, making me feel like am a guest visiting him in his home.
It is at this moment that I smile, thinking perhaps no demolishment or en-bloc can touch or efface the human spirit and until we find the fine balance between pursuing development and conserving culture, that’s the one thing we can be sure will last.
Words & Images Rachel Xu
A food stall that serves a range of Chinese dishes; popular amongst the heartlanders in Singapore.