Changing the face of the wet market to appeal to new customers
How local traders are changing the way they do business as the number of wet markets in Singapore continues to dwindle.
SINGAPORE: It’s just past lunchtime on a Saturday afternoon and the pace is picking up in Chinatown, with tourists training their camera lens on religious landmarks and weekenders out for a spot of cafe-hopping.
At Chinatown Complex wet market, things are winding down. For most stallholders, who have been up since 3am, another long day has finally come to an end.
Not for Anthony Leow, who runs a decades-old namesake spice business. After closing up his stall at the wet market, he takes a five-minute walk to Kreta Ayer Road, where he sells the same spices to a different set of customers.
The boutique version of Anthony the Spicemaker is not much bigger than his stall at Chinatown Complex, but it’s air-conditioned, the tiled floors are dry and clean, and it’s open until 6pm on most days.
Spice blends like garam masala, Singapore chilli crab and smoky pepper are sold in clearly labelled, vacuum-sealed packs with recommendations for storage and preparation. On one of the shelves sit jars of spice samples for the curious to sniff and examine.
It is a haven for young or inexperienced (and hence, shy) cooks, foreigners wanting a taste of local spices and, as it would appear, world-famous chefs.
Since it opened about a year ago, the shop has hosted visits from chef and restaurateur Emmanuel Stroobant and multi-Michelin-starred chef Anne Sophie-Pic.
In the seemingly traditional business of wet markets, Mr Leow is a trailblazer.
He first picked up what he calls “granny recipes” for spices as a 19-year-old helping out at his parents’ stall at Chong Boon market.
“We stayed in a kampong then we shifted to a HDB flat in Ang Mo Kio and that’s how we had the spice shop,” said Mr Leow, now 59. Three years later, he ventured out on his own and started his own brand Liao Jia Xiang, which he distributed to mini-marts across Singapore.
For Mr Leow, having two different physical concepts gives him the best of both worlds.
“Some foreigners like to go to the wet market because they want the experience. Tour guides often bring their clients to my stall,” said Mr Leow. “Also, when you go to the wet market, you can ask shop assistants to recommend products for your dishes.
"If you go to the supermarket, who’s going to teach you? Then when you don’t know what to buy, you give up and don’t cook anything. If you do buy something, often you’ll go home and cook and the results are not good, and you give up."
“But there are people who don’t like to go to wet markets because it’s hot, wet and smelly. In this shop, it’s more comfortable and so these people tend to buy more," he adds.
Most of Mr Leow’s new customers are here because of the brand’s online presence and for that, Mr Leow has assistance - his 25-year-old daughter Leow Min Ling, who helps the business adopt more modern approaches to branding and marketing.
“People like nice packaging,” said Ms Leow, who masterminded the minimalist, retro-style bags that hold the brand’s hand-mixed spice blends.
These bags are now a common sight at food emporiums such as Five Spice at Jewel Changi Airport. Anthony the Spicemaker also sells pre-mixed pastes for cooking local dishes like laksa, rendang and assam fish, plus gift sets.
The Leows say they are aware that the wet market scene in Singapore is changing.
According to figures from the National Environment Agency (NEA), there are 83 wet markets in hawker centres - like the one Mr Leow grew up in and where he runs the original Anthony the Spicemaker outlet.
Of these, 81 were built before 1985. Only two were built fairly recently, before 2011, following requests from the local community.
Responding to CNA's queries, NEA said "wet markets in their current form are generally not as popular as before" and may not remain viable in the long term due to "changes in demographics, consumer behaviour and the availability of other fresh produce options in supermarkets and malls".
It is a change the father and daughter duo is ready to embrace.
“My dad and I talk a lot about wet markets in Singapore, about how we can help to preserve it. We think there is potential,” said Ms Leow.
One way, perhaps, is to reinvent the concept of the wet market. “I hate saying ‘wet market’ because it reminds you of an unhygienic place. Maybe we use the phrase ‘grocer market’ instead, with stores selling things like cheese,” she said.
“The older generation usually don’t have a concept. They feel like they cannot improve because they either don’t have the capacity or the ability. The young generation has to step up with new concepts so the wet market doesn’t die.
“When we visit markets overseas, like in Australia, it’s so nice. It’s a wet market, but it’s dry. People are more comfortable shopping there. They also offer some other interesting things beyond fresh produce. In Singapore we do have fresh produce (and) cheap, fresh seafood, but how things get done need to be improved and then I believe they can be sustain it,” she added.
Mr Leow is prepared to hand over the reins - he was preparing for it all along.
“Spices won’t die - everyone will need them. But I do worry about the future because it sounds like (everything will be automated) and many people won’t have jobs. It’s one reason I built this business - it’s for the future,” he said.
Joining Mr Leow and his daughter on their quest to make the wet market more accessible is Dish the Fish.
A catchy moniker already sets it apart from other wet market fishmongers. But Dish the Fish has done much more to reel in the customers, many of them with little cooking experience and no time for the leisurely pace of wet markets.
“Most fishmongers don’t even have a signboard, much less a website. We had a website since day one, even before we were selling fish online. Most fishmongers are just known as the ‘fish stall near the toilet’ or the ‘fishmonger with blonde hair’,” co-founder Angeline Ong told CNA.
“We started Dish the Fish with the aim of being accessible to everyone who wants to eat fish,” she said. That includes younger consumers cooks, who may not have been exposed to cooking fish growing up.
“We wanted to provide assurance and confidence to our customers and everything we’ve done is to that end. On our website, we provide a lot of information about the fish, cutting charts to be clear, and this information is replicated at our shops.
“Many of our customers read up about us and our products before coming down so we always make it a point to keep our information online updated and relevant,” Ms Ong added.
At a glance, the offerings at Dish the Fish are not much different from what you would expect at the wet market. Pop by either of their stalls at Tiong Bahru Market and West Coast Plaza, and you will likely see fish like Chinese pomfret, red snapper and threadfin. But the selection comes down to a lot of research.
“We experiment with different products, study sales volume over time, conduct polls and gather direct feedback from customers,” said Ms Ong. “We also research on global trends. This is in contrast to most traditional fishmongers, who simply rotate among a fixed set of products over the year.”
Such research has allowed Dish the Fish to diversify its offerings and services, catering to the specific needs of those who would otherwise not step into the wet market.
For example, you could buy a bag pre-packed with seafood suitable for a barbecue or steamboat dinner. Mothers can also buy bags suitable for confinement or with the content cut into small cubes for young children.
For even less fuss, you could buy a recipe pack, filled with most of the ingredients you need for dishes like fish head curry and sliced fish soup. All that's needed is to drop the contents into a pot and you’re practically done.
And you can order all of these online, where the products are classified according to type, cooking style and even health benefits.
If their customers don’t feel like cooking, Dish the Fish also has them covered. At their West Coast Plaza “cooking studio”, you can pick from the day’s catch and have someone braise it or turn it into sambal fish.
Like Ms Leow, Ms Ong and her husband and co-owner Jeffrey Tan feel that the demands of the newer generation mean the situation for wet markets will change.
“There will be fewer wet markets. The more popular ones will remain, like Tekka Market and Tiong Bahru Market,” said Ms Ong.
“Maybe in future, wet markets can also be a place where performance arts including busking is encouraged. We already have big crowds of people browsing at the stalls and eating breakfast, why not get them to stay longer with some good music?”
An Australia-style farmers' market with music might not be such a far-fetched option. NEA said it is "constantly looking at ways" to improve Singapore's hawker centres, including their market sections.
"In future, markets will have to evolve to take into account demographic trends and changes in consumer behaviour."
NEA noted that some wet market businesses are embracing the change, like Anthony the Spicemaker and Dish the Fish.
"(They) are already leveraging online sales and delivery models, while others differentiate themselves through the quality of their produce or leveraging long-term relationships with suppliers and customers," said the agency.
Married couple Renga Vellasamy and Sophia Smith left their jobs in advertising to go into butchery - traditionally a wet market trade. Instead, The Meatery is an air-conditioned space with mood lighting, hanging plants, a dining area and a retail section, where they stock local products like Mr Leow's spices.
"We wanted to focus on more premium and ethically raised meats. For the price you're paying for the cuts, you'd want a comfortable environment that allows you to browse at your own leisure and engage with staff," said Ms Sophina, 37.
The Meatery's options also respond to the other needs of the new generation of customers, such as cage-free chicken, sous-vide service, samplers and sharing sessions on diets such as keto.
For technical skill, Ms Sophina and her husband looked to - where else, but - butchers at the wet market, asking for advice and supervision during their own hands-on sessions.
And there is something else.
"Personal relationships were key in the wet markets and have gotten lost with the emergence of the modern-day store. We try to replicate this at The Meatery," she said.
Not everyone is ready to let go of the traditional wet market.
For Ms Pamelia Chia, wet markets should be appreciated as they are - at least for as long as they continue to exist. It was her work as a line cook at Michelin-starred Peranakan restaurant Candlenut that stoked her passion for the subject.
“I figured that the best place to grow some roots as a Singaporean chef would be to go back to the wet markets and start cooking with the ingredients I found there.”
That was when the 28-year-old realised that the wet market tradition should be preserved simply for their significance in the Singaporean identity. Wet markets offer produce unique to the region that are often not found in supermarkets, she noted. Even the wet market smell is iconic, said Ms Chia.
To entice the younger generation to pay a visit to their local markets and help them navigate them, she found and identified Southeast Asian produce in the markets, and researched ways to prepare them in innovative ways. And her first cookbook, Wet Market to Table, was born.
While most cookbooks tout time-saving recipes with on-trend ingredients, Ms Chia's walks a different path, with photos of local ingredients like jambu and taro, and even tips on communicating with the older generation of sellers.
“I want to show people that there is so much beauty in the humanity and warmth that lie beneath the wet markets' 'dirty' and 'smelly' image.
“I also want readers to be proud of the strange, wonderful regional produce in the wet markets that deserve as much attention, celebration and imagination as imported produce such as cherry tomatoes on vine or endives."
Ms Chia also believes that wet markets encourage people to slow down and become less wasteful.
“I still go to the supermarket, but if I were getting Asian ingredients, I would go to the wet market. It is more economical and just makes more sense because I can buy exactly what I need. I also prefer getting my meat, fruits and vegetables from wet markets because this does away with the excessive packaging used at the supermarkets. Certain types of produce are also always better and fresher at the market, like tofu, noodles and grated coconut,” she told CNA.
“I do believe that good cooking is trouble. This is something we have almost forgotten in an age that prioritises comfort and convenience above all else.”