There’s more to Singapore’s wet markets than just food.

Most Singaporeans would have made a trip down to the wet market at least once in their lives. Be it to buy some vegetables or to get fresh seafood from the fishmonger, wet markets hold an important place in Singaporeans’ hearts.

Wet markets were first established in Singapore during the 1800s. The term, ‘wet market’ came about from the markets’ wet floors due to vendors using water to wash their stores before calling it a day, and also due to the melting of ice used to preserve the freshness of the seafood sold.

Wet markets did not have proper store fronts during the 1800s. Vendors sold their goods by laying them on the ground or in baskets.

One of the earliest wet markets to open its doors in was Lau Pat Sat. Established in 1824, it gained prominence due to its distinctive octagonal structure.

Transformation of wet markets

Wet markets began transforming during the 1950s and 60s, when public housing and the relocation of street hawkers were the government’s priority. As street hawking became more prevalent, the lack of hygiene and poor sanitation were of high concerns.

These markets had a more structured organisation after Singapore gained independence in 1965. The street hawkers were relocated to purpose-built facilities which are known today as wet markets cum hawker centres. These wet markets were non air-conditioned and had a clear segmentation of wet and dry areas. They were located at all over Singapore, serving the needs of every local.

The wet area with each market houses fresh meats and seafood, while the dry area has vendors selling fresh produce such as fruits, vegetables, and spices. Vendors usually start their operations before dawn at 2am and they remain open until around 2pm.

The local market scene welcomed new competitors with the opening of Fitzpatrick’s supermarket at Orchard Road in 1958. Supermarkets were distinctively different from wet markets as they were air-conditioned, had longer operating hours and offered a wider range of items. It wasn’t until the 1980s that wet markets faced tougher competition from supermarkets. The aggressive store openings saw a decline in the number of people going to wet markets.

Symbolism of Singapore’s heartland heritage

Rarely can you find places in Singapore where people are willing to get up bright and early to do their food shopping. While the younger generation enjoy doing the grocery at supermarkets, the older generation prefers to purchase their ingredients at wet markets.

On one hand, wet markets are places where transactions occur on a daily basis. While on the other hand, wet markets symbolise Singapore’s heartland heritage. Stall owners of different races are all under the same roof, selling their specialities to customers.

The wet market is filled with hustle and bustle in the morning, where one hears shouts for cheap bargains and morning greetings between regular customers and stall owners. Heart-warming gestures, such as store owners packing more vegetables for regulars at no extra charge; regulars buying store owners a cup of coffee are of common sight. These kind gestures go a long way, further strengthening the bond among customers and vendors.

As wet markets are integrated with hawker centres, people often catch up with their friends at hawker centres after doing their food shopping. They talk over a cup of coffee or while having breakfast. Wet markets have gone beyond just being a place where people drop by for food ingredients. It is a nexus for social interaction, allowing people to forge strong and deep bonds among one another.

Preservation of local heritage

According to the National Environment Agency (NEA), there are 83 wet markets in Singapore. This number pales in comparison as compared to the 1950s. As local demographics changes, wet markets hold less significance in young Singaporeans’ hearts too.

With the rising number of new supermarkets all across Singapore, there is a gradual shift in shopping patterns. For working adults who can only do their grocery shopping after work in the evening, the longer operating hours of supermarkets is a huge draw. Moreover, the younger generation is less interested in becoming a stall vendor. As a result, there is a danger of this local marketplace becoming a dying trade.

Yet, there are still young Singaporeans out there who have a strong interest in preserving this heartland heritage. One example is Pamela Chia, a 29-year-old Singaporean chef turned author of the book, ‘Wet Market To Table’. The book written in 2019 showcases tantalising dishes made with ingredients gotten from wet markets. It is her attempt to encourage young locals to give wet markets a try.

While Singapore is a metropolitan city, there are places which stood the test of times, maintaining its rich culture over the years. Not only do these places represent the heart and soul of Singapore, they also serve to educate subsequent generations on Singapore’s history. Hopefully, with the help of the government and the younger generations, wet markets will be able to maintain its viability for years to come.

WORDS: Sarah Lee

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