SINGAPORE: When Ms Chelsea Wan says she has to roll up her sleeves and get her hands dirty to run her father’s business, she means exactly that.
The 33-year-old “frog princess”, as she is affectionately known in the farming community, does everything from packing meat to conducting farm tours and researching new products on her famer’s Jurong Frog Farm.
The 1.1-hectare plot - the only frog breeding farm in Singapore - is home to 20,000 American bullfrogs. Her father started the farm in 1981 and moved it to Lim Chu Kang in 1997. The family live right next to it, in a house her father built.
“In the early 1990s, when I first visited this farm, the whole area was just grassland,” said Ms Wan. “I saw my dad really building on this plot, brick by brick.”
About 20,000 farms once took up a quarter of Singapore’s land area, back in the 1960s. Most have since made way for homes and factories, and today, just 200 land-based farms remain on less than 1 per cent of the land.
Of these, about 180 are tucked away in Lim Chu Kang and Choa Chu Kang, or the Kranji countryside as it’s known. Some face an uncertain future with the expiry of their land-leases in the next few years.
A recent episode of current affairs programme On The Red Dot profiled this community and the younger generation’s worry for their future.
OVER S$1M IN REVENUE
Ms Wan joined the family business in 2006 after graduating from the National University of Singapore, where she majored in Sociology.
“I didn’t want to be on a payroll just doing existing work,” she said. “Product development was something I was very keen to explore. I saw that there was a lot of potential yet to be marketed because my father was busy with the day-to-day work … He doesn’t have time to explore all that.”
She set about expanding products and services. For instance, the farm had been selling dried hashima - made from the oviducts of female frogs, and said to be good for the skin – since 1999. Ms Wan turned it into a bottled ready-to-drink brew.
And just last year, she set up The Royal Frog online shop, delivering their products island-wide. Today, the farm supplies restaurants and supermarkets with about 30,000 frogs a month, raking in more than S$1 million in revenue.
FIRE IN HER BELLY
Also in the Kranji backwater, her friend 25-year-old Stella Tan is helping to give her family’s unique traditional business a new breath of life.
In their backyard lies a 36m-long, fire-breathing “dragon” with a lineage that goes back 2,000 years in China. This pottery-making technology was brought to Singapore by immigrants, and while there were as many as 20 dragon kilns here in the 1970s, today only two remain.
Ms Tan’s grandfather took over the pottery centre in 1965, and his five children helped to keep it going. They made cups for rubber plantation use, water jars for storing bathwater, and later orchid pots.
As for Ms Tan herself, after a short stint as a pastry chef, she decided to return to her roots at Thow Kwang Pottery Jungle two years ago – the only one in the third-generation of Tans still working in the family business.
“I saw (my aunts and uncles) working so hard. And they’re all getting old,” she said. “Thow Kwang is the one and only family-run dragon kiln. So it’s a very unique trade, and it’s important to let the future generations know about us.”
These days Thow Kwang mainly imports and sells ceramics from China, a business which brings in revenue of over S$1 million a year.
But it continues to keep the tradition alive by holding pottery workshops, which start from S$28 a child and draw at least 300 pupils a month. This is now Thow Kwang’s second biggest moneymaker.
And, two or three times a year, the dragon still comes alive - breathing life into the works of art of a community of potters that has rallied around the kiln.
Said artist Tan Tuan Yong: “I think that’s a good thing that we preserve those (kilns), rather than demolishing it or putting it in a museum. We are still producing works from the old kiln, and people are enjoying and appreciating it.”
COMING TOGETHER TO PRESERVE THE LEGACY
Faced with an uncertain future, Ms Wan and Ms Tan decided to join hands with others to increase awareness of farming among younger Singaporeans and reconnect them to the countryside.
Singapore Young Farmers was started in May 2015 as the youth wing to the Kranji Countryside Association. Ms Wan talks about how close-knit the group is: “We know how important it is to preserve the legacy of what our parents and grandparents have started.”
She feels it is important for Singaporeans to understand and appreciate their food sources. “I grew up on a farm and I saw how hard my father worked,” she said. “I know that for a frog to grow to market size, it takes nine months. Few people know that.”
The young farmers want to give young Singaporeans an insider’s peek into agriculture by taking them to farms not otherwise open to the public. They are doing that with the help of a small but dedicated group of volunteers.
One of them, Darren Ho, said: “As much as we can rely a lot on other countries, we still have to find ways to feed ourselves so that we are not at the mercy of other countries.”
‘THIS IS WHERE OUR FAMILIES AND FRIENDS ARE'
Visitor Lili Lim was surprised to discover how young the new generation of farmers was. “They are very different from what I perceived - educated, vibrant. They’ve made a very big sacrifice. I mean they could have worked in an office, a cosy environment. But they’ve continued the family business which, I think, is awesome.”
Indeed, despite her youth, Ms Wan has become an integral part of the Kranji community. Neighbouring farmers rallied when she got married two years ago – loaning tables and chairs, for instance, for the solemnisation held on the farm.
And when she gave birth to a baby boy a year ago, Hay Dairies owner John Hay, whom she fondly calls “Uncle Goat”, sent her a weekly supply of fresh goat’s milk for free.
Said Mr Hay: “I’m impressed with her, because she’s a young girl who’s working in a farm. You can’t find a girl who likes to work in a farm. That’s why I treat her like my own daughter.”
But life will soon change drastically for Ms Wan. In 2014, 62 farms – among them, her frog farm - were told that their leases will not be renewed when they expire between 2017 and 2021.
The farm sites will be given to the military to replace the land the Defence Ministry gave up for the building of 55,000 homes in Tengah New Town. The Government is preparing new farmland that the farmers can tender for in Lim Chu Kang and Sungei Tengah.
Ms Wan says her family has received offers from Singaporeans who own land overseas to relocate their operations to places like the Philippines, Indonesia, China or even Turkey. But she is choosing to stay.
“Singapore is where our heart is. This is where all our families and friends are. This is where we have really put in effort to develop the business over the last three decades. So I can’t see ourselves uprooting to bring the business to a foreign land,” she said.
Watch the full episode of On The Red Dot – Unique Communities, at Toggle.sg