The wholesalers’ market lay at the end of a long expanse of bare road, and even then its wares weren’t visible under long, sloping metal roofs. The entire site seemed to carry itself with a modest air, though it had the distinction of being the oldest of Singapore’s wholesale markets for fruits and vegetables. My father and I plunged into a maze of cardboard boxes and wooden pallets on our hunt for the cheapest produce.
Unlike other open-air markets I had been to, the place seemed swamped with a thick, stoic silence. There were few other visitors, and though it was the middle of the afternoon work there seemed to be carrying on at a slow, but steady pace. We had to pause every so often for small delivery vehicles that would cut out from sharp corners and hurtle down the concrete passageways, or reverse with a detached business. Shirtless men, ranging from middle-aged to the elderly, pushed trolleys laden with crates of oranges or sacks of onions in their wake. Others were busy unloading more produce from the backs of pickup trucks, oblivious to our approach. Work continued at a subtle, yet relentless pace as if the men were the gears in an invisible automaton that kept the market moving.
But as we ventured deeper, there appeared signs of a deeper, richer culture under its busy facade. Lacquered signboards painted with thick gilded Chinese characters would poke out over the dimly-lit corridors. Sometimes they overlooked a crisscross of wooden scaffolds or an abandoned swivel chair. Most times, they overlooked shops. At one block, piles of dried anchovies in three different sizes spilled out from the storefront of a supplier to traditional Chinese pharmacies, filling the air with a woody scent. They sat next to trays of deep brown Luohan fruit and stringy cordyceps, glistening under a pair of fluorescent lightbulbs. A small, wiry woman smiled at us from over a pair of thick glasses. My father spoke to her in Teochew: “I’m just showing my child what we used to eat in the past,” and though I couldn’t understand the rest of the conversation there was a gentle warmth that suddenly seemed to come between them. Altars to Chinese folk gods were omnipresent–whether tucked away at a low alcove in a corner or seated prominently at the back of the store, with the likeness of a smiling deity offering the grace of good business to its employees. An old man had just finished offering incense at a multi-tiered pagoda altar and walked away in quiet reflection.
The market was, in a way, a string of anachronisms. Tradition rubbed shoulders with modernity, and the old with the new. The pride of the many people who were invested with the market and its business had given the site a quiet pulse. Though heavily commercial, the market also bore the stamp of the generations of people who lived and toiled there, imprinting its concrete exterior with markers of their hopes and dreams. And though their mode of business will change over the years, I don’t doubt that their successors will continue to do the same, even in the seemingly humdrum pursuit of thriving business.