SINGAPORE: Weeks before Britain’s Prince Charles and his wife Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall, came to visit the Tiong Bahru Market, some stallholders were told, in secret, that they would be hosting the royal couple.
For about a month, the excited stallholders were gearing up to give their royal visitors a peek into a heartland wet market - but not without giving it a thorough scrubbing first.
When the time came, crowds of people lined the narrow aisles of the market on Wednesday morning (Nov 1), snapping photos with their mobile phones and hoping to catch a glimpse of royalty.
What happens behind the scenes of a royal visit? Channel NewsAsia spoke to some stallholders to find out.
A BOUQUET FIT FOR A DUCHESS
It was about three weeks ago when staff from the British High Commission came to see Pishon Toh, who helps run his mother’s flower stall at the market together with his girlfriend, Alicia Chua. The stall, which is situated just at the entrance to the market, was the royal couple’s first stop on Wednesday, where the Duchess received a bouquet of flowers arranged by Alicia.
“They said, hey, I’ll tell you something, but you can’t tell anyone,” recalled Pishon, 26. “They said, Prince Charles and his wife are coming to visit.”
“They must have seen the way we approach our customers, and it was also unusual to have a young couple running the stall,” he added. “So they chose us.”
The couple, who were trained as teenagers to work with flowers by Pishon’s mother, then took to Google to look for ideas on what flowers to present to the Duchess.
“We decided to use roses in pink and purple, because roses are England’s national flower, and we also looked around for examples of nice bouquets Alicia could try putting together,” he said.
“She was very happy to receive it,” added Alicia, who is 24. “And I’m glad she liked it.”
A THOROUGH SPRING CLEANING
The fishmongers’ stall is generally the wettest part of a typical wet market. But the morning of the royal visit, fishmonger Russell Leong said he saw cleaners mopping the floor of the market at least three times before the couple’s arrival.
“The floor around the stall was so dry,” he said. “I saw them mop it once at 6am, once at 8am, and once at 10am.”
His family business, Ah Chuen Fishmonger, was also chosen as a stop for the royal couple. And because of that, Russell and his parents gave the stall a thorough spring cleaning.
“We got the fans cleaned, changed the lights, and tidied the stall,” said Russell. “I was a little excited, and a bit star-struck, because it’s not every day that you get to meet actual royalty.”
“Our market condition is already quite good, which was probably why it’s chosen,” added his father, Leong Kam Chuen. “But we wanted to do a bit more to prepare for them.”
“When I was young, my siblings and I went down to Keppel to see Queen Elizabeth when she came to Singapore,” he recounted. “We did not have money for bus fare then, so we walked all the way. Now, her son is coming to visit us.”
“I feel special, like I struck lottery.”
“A lot of people came and showed me photos after the visit, to ask if it was me the Prince was talking to,” he added.
DRESSING UP TO MEET THE PRINCE
Dried goods stallholder Jasmine Zhuo is usually togged out for comfort, in a blouse and loose, comfy shorts. But on Wednesday, she swapped out her usual attire for a pretty black dress.
“I swept my store and wiped my shelves,” she said in Mandarin. “But I also wanted to dress up a bit more.”
She added that she was informed of the visit about a month ago, and told to prepare someone who could speak English to answer any questions the royal couple might have about the goods she sells.
“They came by at least six to seven times to decide on the route the couple would take, and which stalls they would stop at,” she said. “I think they felt some of the things I sold would be more interesting to the Prince.”
Those who were chosen, she added, would also have to display a red floral decoration on their storefront to mark their stall.
But despite the advance notice, she admitted she and her helper for the day – the fruit stall owner’s English-speaking son – were nervous.
“I was really excited about meeting him,” she said. “And it really was exciting ... and crowded!”
ALL IN A DAY’S WORK
Chairman of the Tiong Bahru market and hawker centre association Loh Teck Seng remembers being happy when he was told – almost two months in advance – that the market would be hosting the royals. But nervous and excited, he was not.
“I was happy that they chose this market,” he said in Mandarin. “But we’re used to it.”
After all, he said, the complex has played host to many VIPs: Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, MP for the area Indranee Rajah and former Thai Prime Minister Samak Sundarajev, who had visited in 2008.
Making the arrangements was a routine task for Mr Loh, who sells soya bean milk at the hawker centre above the market.
“Ms Indranee had suggested a lion dance welcome for them, so I made the arrangements,” he said. “I’m used to it, because there are always events over here, so we just called the same company we usually call.”
Meanwhile, he said the National Environment Agency had arranged for the entire complex to be given a thorough scrub-down ahead of the visit. “There was a lot of extra cleaning – at least three to four times – on Monday and Tuesday. And on Wednesday morning, the entrance of the market and the path the royals would take was also cleaned at least two to three times more than usual.”
His highlight, however, was being able to accompany the royals on the tour.
“He’s royalty, and I’ve only ever seen him before on TV,” he said. “So to meet him up close and get to walk with him was a privilege.”
And when asked if he was worried anything would go wrong on the big day, Mr Loh smiled and shook his head.
“I wasn’t nervous at all,” he said. “Maybe I would’ve been the first time I hosted a VIP, but I’m not anymore.”