SINGAPORE: Apprehension would best sum up my thoughts prior to trying my hand at being a butcher’s assistant at a wet market in Sengkang.
Aside from the smell of raw meat and blood, I was worried about a butcher’s knife slipping in my wet hands with disastrous consequences. I decided that I would count my experience as positive if I completed my stint with all my fingers intact.
Standing in front of a wooden chopping block, with a huge, 1.5kg stainless steel meat cleaver in one hand while holding a 30cm-long lump of beef in place with the other, I braced myself for the worst. I had already botched a prior attempt due to my caution and nervousness. It was time to be bold and wield the huge blade with a degree of force and confidence!
It was a simple task in principle: Cut the big lump of meat into several medium-sized portions that customers can use for their daily needs.
However, to actually do it with the necessary force was a significant challenge. “This is it, this is it,” I told myself, as I hesitated nervously while trying not to mangle and destroy any more valuable meat.
Mustering as much dexterity and power as possible, I heaved the blade down with more force than my earlier try, as metal and stubborn meat collided with a dull thud on the wooden board.
“Success!” I exclaimed, admiring the clean incision on the meat from the good cut. Upon closer inspection, however, I was also millimetres away from lopping off my left index finger.
Sensing the close shave from just over my shoulder, fellow meat stall assistant Mr Roslan intervened and relieved me of my chopper. He then wielded it with a level of confidence and competence that only a man with three decades of experience could possess, as he expertly diced up the remaining meat slabs into neat pieces in under a minute.
A DYING TRADE?
The inherent risk of handling sharp knives as well as having to be on your feet for a seven-hour stretch are just some of the reasons dissuading people from venturing into the meat business, my boss at the stall told me.
“I would say that cutting raw mutton would be the most difficult as its texture is tough,” said owner Rasheed of Rasheed Meat House at Sengkang New Market. “It requires some skill to it, and for me, I took at least five months to learn how to carve away mutton fat.”
Revealing a 2cm-long scar near the tip of his left index finger, the 43-year-old meat merchant explained: “As you can see, there are instances where I accidentally injured my finger on the job. Even though you're alert, the stress from dealing with many customers in addition to exhaustion from waking up early - all it takes is just one moment to be lulled into carelessness."
He added that the risks and the endless early mornings mean that not many people want to venture into this trade.
According to the National Environment Agency (NEA), the number of NEA-licensed market produce hawkers suffered a 12 per cent decline in the past decade. It fell from 6,264 wet market hawkers in 2006 to 5,485 in 2016.
It is a trend that is unlikely to improve in the future, according to Nanyang Technological University (NTU) Assistant Professor Charlene Chen. “Most wet market stalls are family-run businesses. With increasing education among the children of these stallholders, succession has become a problem,” she said. “Furthermore, given the physical labour and odd hours involved, fewer people are willing to work in this line.”
This means that many stallholders end up closing their business for good when they cannot cope with the daily demands, said the Nanyang Business School lecturer.
Having inherited his late father’s stall in Jurong a number of years back, Rasheed is something of an anomaly. “I was formerly from the aviation industry and back then it didn’t cross my mind to take over my dad’s business. I found his job smelly and not as glamourous as my work back then,” he said.
“When my father got sick (before his death), I helped out and found that I was quite good at cutting meat.”
Doing reasonably well after taking over the business, he then decided to expand about a year ago by buying another wet market meat stall in Sengkang. “I find that the money is better than my previous job,” said the former air steward.
“For the Sengkang stall especially, being the only halal meat stall at the wet market, I’d say that the customer traffic is not too bad,” he added.
A SLOWING BUSINESS
During my stint as a butcher’s assistant over two weekdays, I estimated there were about a hundred customers each day, most of whom were maids and senior citizens.
I also observed that quite a number of Filipino and Chinese expatriates - who presumably live around Sengkang - patronise the stall for their meat needs.
Younger Singaporeans were, however, thin on the ground, and this presents another challenge for wet market stallholders.
“It’s quite uncommon to find young Singaporeans buying meat from wet markets these days,” observed stall assistant Majid Babu, 60, who has been a butcher for over four decades. “It’s usually the elderly plus a good number of Chinese and Filipino foreigners, who are more familiar and used to wet market shopping.”
Having worked at other meat stalls in his career, Mr Majid recalled how things were in the 1970s before supermarkets became so widespread.
“In those days, and even in the years before that, the wet market business was booming,” he said. “Stall owners ruled the roost – if a customer bargained too low, some sellers would even be fierce enough to toss the goods in their direction and tell them to take it or leave it.
“Nowadays, there are fewer wet markets in Singapore and even relatively newer ones have closed down. A good example is the market next to Pasir Ris West Plaza, where I used to work. It opened only about 20 years ago, and recently closed down to make way for a bigger supermarket,” he said.
It is the cleanliness and convenience of supermarkets that have spelled the end for a good number of wet market hawkers, according to Nanyang Polytechnic (NYP) School of Business Management deputy manager James Sim.
“The trend is in favour of supermarket chains. Singaporeans enjoy being able to purchase everything they need easily in a comfortable environment – air-conditioned and very sanitised,” he said.
“Popular eateries and other retail outlets are also located in malls where the supermarkets are – making it a winning combination, especially during the weekend. As such, this trend is likely to continue,” he added.
Still, the social aspect of shopping in a wet market is arguably something that supermarkets struggle to reproduce and remains a key advantage for many customers.
When I mistakenly placed chicken gizzards instead of chicken hearts into a plastic bag for weighing, I was met with chuckles and facepalms from a customer.
“You’ve got to forgive him. It’s his first time at the job,” said stall assistant Mr Roslan as he came to my rescue once again.
“Ah, it’s okay … you’ll be an expert in no time lah, bro. I'm sure of it,” replied the customer, amicably calming my self-doubt as he handed me payment for his rectified order.
One-on-one interactions like this are commonplace in wet markets.
Often filled with the sounds of merchants wooing customers and shoppers haggling for a bargain, these experiences are hard to reproduce among the ordered shelves of supermarkets. “Customers in the neighbourhood who regularly patronise certain stalls form lasting relationships with the stall holders, and appreciate the friendly and personalised service,” said Nanyang Business School lecturer Prof Chen.
She added: “Additionally, wet markets provide a very unique sensory and cultural experience. The sights, sounds, and smells give a sense of nostalgia. You can see different cultures coming together and mingling in these common spaces - an exemplification of our multi-cultural society.”
Playing an important role in the community, wet markets used to be a hive of social activity as new friends were made while families bonded over morning trips to get groceries. “(Wet markets) were a cornerstone of community life in Singapore – a place where people would spend time together with their friends and loved ones as they did their errands,” said NYP School of Business Management lecturer Mr Sim. “It still plays a huge part for a large section of baby boomers.”
He added: “The social role played by the wet market will diminish over time as the demographics of Singapore change. The declining population of baby boomers who form a large percentage of wet market customers will possibly reduce the significance of the role that wet market plays socially.
“Culturally, it is important to acknowledge that wet markets play an important role so that the younger generation can still appreciate its existence.”
WILL WET MARKETS BECOME EXTINCT?
Despite some doubts about the long-term future of wet markets, they still offer advantages over their cleaner, cooler supermarket rivals, especially when it comes to cost.
Having reached inside the refrigerated display to grab two slabs of beef shin, I laid them out on the counter for an elderly Chinese customer who wanted to inspect the quality before buying.
With my limited command of Mandarin, I showed her a S$10 note, together with four S$2 notes to communicate the price. After she had made her choice, I then packed the beef shin – also known as ‘golden coin muscle’ - into a yellow plastic bag and exchanged it with two S$10 notes she handed over.
“Thank you very much,” I replied in broken Mandarin, as I handed over her change.
A popular meat cut among Chinese and Filipino customers, beef shin can be more costly for customers who do not buy from wet markets. “You can check in supermarkets – you’ll find that they sell (golden coin) muscles for S$24,” said stall owner Rasheed. “Here it’s only S$18, and you can observe many Chinese and Filipino buyers who purchase it to cook stew.
“For wet market stalls, our overhead costs are not as high as that of supermarkets. That is why we can price certain things cheaper,” added Rasheed, whose stall rental in Sengkang is S$10,000 per month.
“I also only choose the best brands of meat to sell, based on my years of experience. Many customers return because they get the best and tastiest cuts from my shop,” he said.
Despite rising competition from supermarkets, Rasheed believes such dynamics account for the survival of wet markets in Singapore in the modern era. “People will continue to shop at wet markets because it involves a simple transaction that is easy for all ages – you can choose what you want based on quality, you pay in cash immediately, and you’re done,” he said.
As such, wet markets are here to stay for the moment at least, according to Nanyang Business School’s Prof. Chen. “Many people living in Singapore, including expatriates, still see the benefits of buying their produce and goods from wet markets,” she said. “Items from wet markets are perceived to be cheaper and fresher.
“I foresee that stall numbers will continue to dwindle, but given current efforts to conserve wet markets and their longstanding appeal among many consumers and visitors, I doubt they will disappear completely,” she added.
Armed with improved knife-handling skills and a better insight into the meat business, I could not help but wonder if I would make a good butcher who could somehow arrest the falling numbers.
Thumbing my still-intact index finger, however, I decided to best leave it to the experts.