Archive | December 2016

Pasir Panjang Wholesale Market


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.


The top of an altar hidden behind a stack of plastic baskets.


Dried shiitake mushrooms and packets of peanuts for sale at a traditional Chinese medicine supplier.


Piles of dried anchovies.


More dried varieties of dried fish, to be used as seasoning or added to soups.







Conversations Over Kway Chap


My father returned from the queue with a plate of cuttlefish meat and eggs. My momentary surprise was quickly broken by the arrival of the familiar dishes. Two bowls of thick rice noodles, topped with fried onions and sitting in a thin brown soup, were set on the table next to a large dish of sliced intestines, gelatinous pig’s skin and sliced pork belly steeped in a thick dark gravy. It was an unusual breakfast, but also one of my all-time favourites. The chewy, savoury, saucy toothsome goodness of all manner of pork coupled with the slippery kway (the chap refers to the soup used for the rice noodles) was a flavour that never failed to make me feel at home.

We had set foot at a small un-named coffeeshop on our way to the wholesalers’ at Pasir Panjang. A narrow grey tiled platform poked out indiscreetly from under a row of condominiums, scattered with foldable tables over which bent hungry customers. A stocky bespectacled man in a white singlet and Bermudas had approached our table and asked us if we wanted any drinks–standard procedure for drinks stalls at local coffeeshops. My father asked him in rapid-fire Hokkien for ‘snake-grass water’, and he returned with a cup of ice cubes and a tall grey can that read ‘Sparkling Oldenlandia Water’. (“I don’t drink it for the taste, but because it’s good at clearing heatiness in the body.” It tastes like carbonated water.) An odd quiet permeated the thick, humid afternoon air.

The murmur of chatting customers was punctuated occassionally by the crisp cries of the drinks-stall-man in fluent Mandarin, and the squeals of the young nephew of the vegetarian-food-stall-lady. He trundled around coyly asking customers if they’d like him to help clear their empty plates, and received two pieces of fried beancurd skins from a large tin on the countertop for his effort. The cuttlefish was a dish I’d never tried before, and I was surprised at the tangy sweetness that entered my mouth after I’d slathered each piece in dipping sauce. A fondness shone in my father’s eyes. “This dish actually takes me back to when I was a young boy eating with my father and grandfather,” he began.

“We used to live in a shophouse along Merchant Road. My father used to own one of those traditional Chinese medical halls. We used to go to eat Teochew porridge across the road. We would eat things like the cuttlefish, but now they hardly make it anymore. Last time Teochew porridge used to be a buffet. There will be steamed fish, like the ngoh hu (Indian threadfin) and also the ngeng. I don’t know what you call it, but it’s like the, you know, the mackerel. There will also be steamed crayfish, and steamed crab. It was very expensive in those days. They also had meat section, like kway chap, and vegetables. Not like stir-fry, but those salted vegetables. When my father was alone, he would just order porridge and maybe a fish and another dish. When there were more people, we’d order a lot more. Simple but elegant: that is the flavour of Teochew cuisine.”

“We used to eat from there very regularly. The man who made the Teochew porridge had many, many workers working for him, not like this one with only one or two workers per stall. But now the shop is closed down. It became an underground tunnel connecting the CPE to Chinatown. His son didn’t take over the business. He went to join IBM. Such a pity. It’s because he thinks his dad’s business is low-class. If I were him, I would have stayed on and become a billionaire from the shop. True, you need to be in the kitchen from 4a.m., but he doesn’t really have to cook. He can just have his workers do it for him. I was aware as a child that his father was a prosperous man. But his son didn’t take over.”

“Maybe they should have competitions to motivate people to learn hawker cooking! I had one colleague who studied beer-making in university. It’s very complicated because they have to learn about chemistry and pressure and all these things. They would have to make beer to compete against each other, and he was the reigning champion for many years. But he didn’t start a brewery. He also joined IBM. But after he retired, he began making machinery for microbreweries. He also has a very rich life, full of expression, because of music. He can play the piano very well, like jazz style. Whenever we’re anywhere with a grand piano, he’ll go to it and play. His playing was so good and everyone would be clapping afterwards. He and his wife were in Bosnia during the war and saw the killings on TV. So he went to the border and picked up an orphaned baby from the street and raised her as his daughter. Okay, not really the street, but from the Red Cross. He said, ‘I can’t save all of these babies, but I can at least save one.’ You know, these people lead so fulfilling lives because they’re a lot more sensitive to their surroundings.”

“I think a bad thing about me is that I always cling on to things from the past. Progress can be good, but sometimes you end up losing things in the society. Food is one. Language is another. I heard a saying once, that the quality of life is determined by how many times you have your breath taken away. Amazing isn’t it?”


Christmas at the Open Farm Community Market


The first time I visited the Open Farm Community (OFC) Market last year, vendors were selling their wares out of the boots of their cars. The informal, leisurely atmosphere hadn’t diminished when I visited again–though the cars were this time replaced by multi-coloured tents and an entirely new variety of home-grown goods on the 3rd of December for the market’s Christmas edition. Despite the Open Farm Community being tucked away beyond a swathe of trees along Minden Road, it had managed to attract a sizeable crowd, some even with families in tow to enjoy this lively collection of independent stallholders.

Besides two of the OFC’s gardeners having a stall on-site selling gardening tools, the regular fixtures of other small stallholders selling locally-grown vegetables, seafood and other natural goods was testament to the site’s goal to promote the incorporation of sustainable living into an urban landscape. “Most of the food we grow goes to the kitchen,” one of the gardeners told me, referring to the restaurant standing next to the vegetable garden on the grounds. Though space and volunteering constraints limits the amount of food that can be grown for the kitchens, the gardeners are hoping to expand their operations. “We also have five chickens,” he added. “We got them four months ago, just to run around and keep the soil fertile.” 

But before I would visit the grounds’ resident poultry, I decided to explore the other goods on offer. In the spirit of community, the market was also a place where small business-owners could advertise their wares with more conviviality than competition. Tall white racks stood heavily-laden with leafy greens and seed packs. Two guys selling mead (flavoured with hops or navel oranges) hawked their goods in between a woman selling thick colourful cubes of artisanal marshmallows, and a couple with dainty pastries for display (the first offering that caught my eye was their ‘Brinjal Cake’–an odd ingredient for a dessert!). A beekeeper invited me to come closer to observe sting-less (and two sting-bearing) bees flitting around tubes of honey made from trees in the Malaysian rainforest: ranging from light amber (cinnamon) to a deep golden-brown (tea tree), from sugary-sweet to mildly tangy.


A pair of Apis cerana attracted to the scent of their own honey at the Nutrinest stall. One of the staff, Xavier, gave me handy tips on how best to photograph them. “I also have an interest in photography”, he explained.


A small showcase of the variety of products that can be made from the hard work of a bee and the bounties of tropical rainforest trees. Xavier explained that they took care to ensure the bees produced honey in an environment that had not been poluted by herbicides or agrochemicals.



A corkboard displays the variety of foods that can be spiced up by the addition of nut butter, from muesli to milkshakes. “We tried making all of these ourselves,” the owner, Ming, said. Unable to sample any of his goods due to my nut allergy, we settled for a conversation instead. “The best thing is to do something you like. If you want to be a music composer, you know that you might not be earning a lot of salary. But there are composers out there who can become famous, like Liang Wenfu.”

I threaded my way among them, holding back the temptation to buy everything I saw, to find out what motivated some of the stall-owners to venture into the niche position of selling home-made artisanal goods. I couldn’t resist stopping by when I saw Wholesome Paws’ doggie treats, enamoured by the unique flavour combinations (their dog cookies were made of gazpacho flour, banana and coconut, among other ingredients).


“The three dogs on the packaging are actually my own dogs. The black one is the one with the yeast problem. I picked her up from Tuas. She has only three legs. But apart from her allergies, she’s doing okay. I adopted the other two from SOSD (Save Our Street Dogs) as puppies, but not the black one. Human’s intestines are like,” and here the owner made a squiggly gesture with one finger, “but dogs’ intestines are straight, so they can’t really digest gluten well. My grandmother used to feed him bread all the time–eat one bite, then throw–until one day we noticed he started to smell. I ended up starting the bakery because my dogs can’t eat the commercially-produced treats.”

Actually, apart from the allergies, I don’t think strays are particularly unpredictable. The allergies are because they didn’t get enough nutrition from their mothers, as puppies. It’s just like the difference between you and me. There are many different dogs at the shelter. Of course there will be one or two that have some trauma or sheng jing bing (Chinese slang for ‘mental problem’) but most of them are okay.”

By the time I’d traversed most of the shops, the mid-noon sun had begun to wear on me. The last stall I stopped by was run by a young woman selling coconut water concoctions, gaily coloured with various tropical fruits and flowers. The storefront itself was a chromatic array of glass bottles, which were mixed and matched to produce equally psychedelic drinks. Though the vivid indigo of their blue pea flower flavour was tempting, I opted for the owner’s personal recommendation of rose-and-dragonfruit. The watery crunch of dragonfruit flesh, coupled with the snap of minute dragonfruit seeds and the subtle fragrance of rose petals dropped into a cup of cold coconut water, made for a surprisingly refreshing combination.


“This is the first time we’re trying this,” she said. “We wanted to try something new. You can normally find us at Maxwell Road Food Centre.” 

At this point, my attention was diverted to a squirming black bunch of fur tethered to the edge of the stall with a leash. “His name is Bubba! He’s ten weeks old.” Though, she also admitted, she found Rottweilers adorable. What was stopping her from getting one, I asked? She giggled and pointed at Bubba.


Bubba amid a crowd of admirers.

And before I left, I crept round to the back of the garden to check on the aforementioned chickens in the coop. There were three massive roosters and a pair of hens, one of whom was already sitting on a clutch of eggs. I couldn’t help but feel a burst of excitement at the newest additions to the garden, and maybe the thought of newer additions to come once those eggs hatched into tiny chicks.


At the end of the day, I came home trudging under the weight of two glass bottles of coconut smoothie and a bag of dog treats, the aromas of dragonfruit and rose still pleasantly tingling on my palate. The murmur of friendly chatter died away behind me, and I pondered how this market didn’t just gather a group of business-owners, but also a chance to partake of a common philosophy for the spirit of an open community.

Sandy the Bubble Pirate


Outside the National Gallery, a crowd caught my eye. Many rapt gazes were fixed on a tall, sinewy man; a psychedelic scarf worn at a rakish angle under a dark wide-brimmed hat. Adults and children alike watched with a wide-eyed eagerness as he immersed the tips of a pair of long sticks into a vat of green liquid. “When I say ‘bubble’, you say ‘attack’!” he yelled to the crowd, drawing enthusiastic cries. Then, he unleashed a stream of bubbles—glowing rainbow in the setting sun, floating tantalisingly close to the crowd before vanishing as suddenly as they appeared. He thanked his audience and swept off his hat to a wave of applause.

He was a bubbleologist: Sandy the Bubble Pirate. Having only caught a glimpse of one of his performances for the Gallery’s inaugural Night to Light Festival, I was determined to catch the whole of his next show. Even before the performance started, he was answering the questions posed to him by the DJs with a warm, effusive charm. When asked about the composition of his bubble solution, he joked, “If I tell you, I’m afraid I’ll have to kill you,” flashing a winsome smile. There were three components to his performances, he said. First was for children—and children-at-heart—to pop the bubbles. The second was sharing the big bubbles—not popping them, but letting everyone enjoy them, because “not even the richest person can possess a bubble.” The third was outdoors performances—even considering Singapore’s finicky humidity. His mission was to spread fun and joy through the art of the bubble.

And what better place to carry out this philosophy than a bare, open space? He didn’t need many tools for his trade: three vats of mysterious bubble solution, a couple of giant bubble blowers affixed to poles, and a pair of hands (which could become very handy bubble blowers too!) But simply by engaging the audience, he transported them into a moment of joy, whether it was by eliciting excited squeaks when he accidentally rained bubble solution down over the audience, to gratuitously creating more large bubbles if the previous ones had popped just after they were created. The timid requests of children to take a picture with him and the hearty congratulations of grown viewers were testament enough to the atmosphere he had managed to create. Yet a question remained in my mind: how had he decided to become a bubbleologist in particular?

“I started with Smoky Bubbles,” he told me, producing a small blue tube from inside his jacket pocket. While he had lived in Singapore for 14 years, he had only begun performing with bubbles for the past 5 years. “It was a passion. Got into a bit of trouble on the MRT—became an incident in the news.” Nevertheless, he was able to find his calling. “I didn’t think I’d become a cook; I became a cook. I didn’t think I’d become an athlete; I became an athlete. I didn’t think I’d become a bubbleologist; I became a bubbleologist. It’s about finding purpose. Sometimes what you do is not what you’ll end up doing later.”

And why bubbles? “Bubbles are ethereal. They’re profound. They’re the meaning of life.”

Beyond the fun of bubble-blowing, perhaps one wouldn’t be hard-pressed to find a metaphor for similarly ephemeral human lives in the greater scheme of the world. But the bubbleologist’s main purpose would be to entertain, and his bubbles have the power to create positive memories that can never be bought by the richest person in the world.