Are wet markets drying up?

Business slow due to 24-hour supermarkets and online grocers, say stallholders

Dotted with food stalls, the ground floor of Bukit Panjang Hawker Centre and Market is buzzing with the breakfast crowd on a weekday morning.

But at the wet market on the floor above, the scene is quite the opposite.

"This place is quieter than a library - even libraries have children running around," said fresh chicken seller Lek Soon Huat.

After nearly three years of sluggish sales, the market stallholders have been given until April next year to decide whether to stay on.

NTUC Foodfare, which manages the centre, told The Sunday Times that 21 of the 28 stalls are rented out, and their leases were renewed for six months from Oct 31.

This was done in consultation with stallholders to give them "the flexibility to assess their business viability before committing to a longer lease term", a spokesman said.

VERY QUIET

This place is quieter than a library - even libraries have children running around.

MR LEK SOON HUAT, a fresh chicken seller at Bukit Panjang Hawker Centre and Market.

PEOPLE UNAWARE

It's a good location and very clean, not like a normal wet market. But after one year, there are still people who don't know there is a market here.

MR NG WEE KEE, who sells dry goods at Jurong West Hawker Centre.

NEGLECTED

Everything is about hawker heritage, hawker problems. What about us? Do we not have heritage?

MR GOH, a fishmonger at Jurong West Hawker Centre.

BLEAK FUTURE

Nowadays, young people all pack food; they don't cook. Who wants to work in this type of business? It's a very tough job; you have to wake up early... I think in 20 or 30 years, there will be no more wet markets.

MADAM MARY CHEONG, who runs a pork stall at Tiong Bahru Market. She plans to give up her stall when she retires. 

The centre, completed in 2015, was the first wet market under the National Environment Agency (NEA) to be built in 30 years. The second and most recent is the Jurong West Hawker Centre, which opened last year. Market stallholders at both places say business has been bad, due to two reasons: management issues and fewer customers, who tend to be older folk.

Escalators and elevators breaking down, poor locations and a lack of signs to indicate the existence of the market were some of the problems they raised.

The number of NEA-licensed hawkers selling market produce has fallen to a near-decade low, from 5,972 in 2007 to 5,479 last year, figures from the Department of Statistics show.

The convenience of 24-hour supermarkets, online grocers, food delivery and packed food, coupled with the rise of dual-income families, has led time-strapped Singaporeans to turn their backs on the wet market, stallholders say.

Veteran produce sellers said that while business at the cooked food stalls tends to be brisk, few young people venture to the market side, which typically opens early in the morning and closes by lunchtime.

There are 83 markets in hawker centres managed by the NEA and NEA-appointed operators, most of which were built between 1967 and 1985. There are also 18 private markets.

Foodfare, which was appointed to operate the Bukit Panjang centre, said in 2015 that it hoped to "revitalise the wet market" by operating a clean, dry environment and keeping the market open into the evening.

It let out the market level to NTUC FairPrice, which opened a Pasar Store there to sell complementary sundry items.

After the first month, stallholders were given the option to close earlier because customer traffic was low in the evenings, Foodfare said.

The Pasar Store closed when its lease expired in October, worsening the market's already poor footfall.

Sited on the second floor, the market is less visible and accessible to older people since the elevators and escalators tend to malfunction at least once a month, stallholders said.

Mr Lek had a second stall selling halal chicken but gave it up in October.

"I can sustain the first stall because of regular customers and I deliver to nearby homes. It's quite tough... but I make enough to survive," said the 53-year-old.

At Jurong West Hawker Centre, eight out of 14 market stalls were vacant when The Sunday Times visited the centre on Wednesday.

Again, stallholders pointed to the market's location within the centre as a factor for the slow business, as it is tucked away in a corner on the second floor.

  • 5,479

    Number of NEA-licensed hawkers selling market produce last year. It has fallen to a near-decade low, from 5,972 in 2007.

  • 83

    Number of markets in hawker centres managed by the NEA and NEA-appointed operators, most of which were built between 1967 and 1985. There are also 18 private markets.

Several stalls threw in the towel after a few months, said Mr Ng Wee Kee, who sells dry goods at the market.

"It's a good location and very clean, not like a normal wet market. But after one year, there are still people who don't know there is a market here," said Mr Ng, 49.

A fishmonger, who gave his name only as Mr Goh, expressed frustration with the recent attention on cooked food hawkers, with wet market sellers seemingly neglected.

"Everything is about hawker heritage, hawker problems. What about us? Do we not have heritage?" Mr Goh, 43, said in Mandarin.

At Tiong Bahru Market, one of the oldest markets in Singapore, business is brisker than at some of the other markets, said Madam Mary Cheong, who runs a pork stall there.

 

Still, sales are half those of its heyday, when they could sell meat from two pigs a day.

"Nowadays, young people all pack food; they don't cook," said Madam Cheong, 62.

Like many others at the market, she will give up the stall when it comes time to retire as her children, who work in the corporate sector, have no wish to take over.

"Who wants to work in this type of business? It's a very tough job; you have to wake up early, debone the pig. I think in 20 or 30 years, there will be no more wet markets."