Every so often, the Ghim Moh Food and Wholesale Market would be more hectic than what would usually be expected on a weekend. Saturday sees snaking queues winding outside many of the hawker stalls as families use the time to lunch together, old friends meet up over ice buckets and bottles of chilled beer, and tourists roam the aisles. But this week, the crowd was swelled by visitors who had come for a different sight. Large red-and-white striped shelters had been erected over long white tent flaps that surrounded the market: the pasar pagi was in session today.
The pasar pagi (‘day market’ in Malay) could be considered a somewhat tamer version of its more commonly-mentioned counterpart, the pasar malam (‘night market’). Both are still quintessential, if mundane, features of the local markets and hawker centres that dot the island. On my family’s regular drives down Clementi, I would look out the window at the market under Block 726 and be captivated by the rows of antique ceramics and potted plants put out for sale along the walkways. At some of the larger markets, there would even be small-scale amusement rides: Ferris wheels, inflatable slides, Viking ships. It was if these were the local communities’ answer to a carnival: often they were dirt-cheap, but managed to add a subtly festive air to the areas that they graced.
This particular pasar pagi in Ghim Moh was larger than any I had seen before, even before the market had been renovated two years ago. And yet, in the middle of a weekend afternoon, the shopkeepers carried themselves with a suave nonchalance – befitting, I felt, the transience of their establishments. A long stall with trays of fried chicken and cuttlefish on sticks behind glass counters was emblazoned with the distinct red-and-yellow emblems of the locally renown Ramly Burger: two sesame buns sandwiching a chicken patty, mayonnaise, lettuce and a fried egg. Plastic legs dangled from the ceiling of another stall, displaying a variety of psychedelic stockings. A middle-aged man bent down to assemble the colourful cartoon phone cases he had for sale, while at the stall next to him a woman beckoned a passing family with offers of tumbled stones and silver necklaces set with agate. One shop bristled with rows of crockery, another with plastic clothes pegs and stationery, still another with handphone cover screens.
Despite the sheer ubiquity and mundaneness of many of the items on display, each particular day market bears its own quirks. Many of the clothes stalls focused on a riotous array of sarong kebaya (traditional Malay blouse-dresses) and other traditional garments worn by the Malay-Muslim community, and saw headscarves displayed on mannequin heads under flowing racks of dresses trimmed with lace and intricate floral patterns. The stallholders selling electronic equipment were almost always young, somewhat surly-looking men, looking on at the flow of customers in singlets and bermuda shorts. And then there were, of course, incidences of the latest sales tactics innovated by itinerant shopkeepers. The owners of a fruit juice shop had put up a somewhat elaborate skit to attract customers, involving a bumbling ‘ah ma’ (‘grandmother’ in Chinese) with an established business and her young daughter (both played by young women) who exhorts her to adapt to modern business conditions.
These shopkeepers and little businesses could be seen as nothing more than different iterations of the same classic archetypes – that of the wandering salesmen at housing estates, forming part of the normal milieu of life in those communities. It is these moments, just walking around the stalls and savouring the little curiosities they had to offer, that can be the most gratifying. That afternoon, I, too, found myself content to be part of a faceless, understated of daily life flowing between the aisles.