For many young Singaporeans, our first port of call for groceries is the supermarket or even an online delivery service like RedMart. However, for the true-blue Singaporean, there is no better place for fresh produce, meat and fish than the wet market. Every bargain-hunting Singaporean aunty will have her favourite wet market and make her rounds to haggle and banter with her favourite vendors.
However, with the latest COVID-19 cluster appearing in Jurong Fishery Port and leading to the temporary closures of many wet markets, the wet markets may struggle to stay alive, much less thrive, in the post-pandemic era.
The Rise Of Supermarkets
Even before the pandemic, the wet markets have been threatened by the increasing dominance of supermarkets. Fairprice, Giant and Sheng Siong have become the default grocery shopping location for most Singaporeans with their convenience and air conditioning. Shopping for fresh meat and fish has moved from the domain of the wet (and sometimes smelly) markets to the air-conditioned comfort of the supermarkets. Even the most ardent wet market aunty supporter would be hard pressed to say that the supermarkets cannot offer products that are as good as her wet market deals. After all, it is hard to beat the cold chain logistics of the supermarket chains or their bulk purchasing power.
Increasingly, new HDB towns are designed around supermarkets instead of a wet market. For example, old towns like Toa Payoh are designed around multiple smaller town centres with a wet market and food centre. In contrast, Punggol, a new town, has Waterway Point as its central point, which naturally also has a supermarket, Fairprice Finest, as an anchor tenant.
The Rise Of Online Deliveries
The explosion in the online delivery space really happened during the pandemic. While online deliveries have existed before the pandemic, it was really only during and after the Circuit Breaker that most households started using online deliveries to supplement and in cases, replace their grocery runs. While most young couples have adopted online deliveries earlier, it really took the Circuit Breaker-induced supermarket runs and overall restriction of options for older households to start using online deliveries.
Once you start, you never look back. While it really took the pandemic for me to convince my mum to start online shopping, once she started, she could not be stopped. We have been receiving deliveries on a regular basis, ever since. The convenience of comparison shopping, lure of a good bargain, the ability to stack coupons, vouchers and rewards are a siren’s call for any Singaporean aunty.
Even wet market stalls have gone online to sell direct to consumers in a fight to stay relevant and circumvent the restrictions on operations during the various periods of lockdown. In fact, this has led to multiple platforms that offer online wet market options, such as SG Wetmarket, MarketFresh, Tada Fresh, etc.
Pre-packaged, Pre-Chosen Produce
The rise of both supermarkets and online deliveries have also created a trend towards pre-packaged, pre-chosen produce. For online deliveries, packers would determine the produce you receive. There is no way for you to choose a particular fruit for its appearance or scent.
While convenient, we may also lose some of the joy of grocery shopping. As a child, I used to follow my mum to the local wet market and be totally absorbed into the bustling scene. The wet puddles and smell of the fish and meat section would induce the “ewww”s from me, while I would tug my mum towards the fruit sellers for my favourite fruit of the day. It was there that I learnt the art of choosing fruits and vegetables: how to identify whether a fruit is ripe and to avoid bumps and imperfections. I even learnt how to pick fresh fish by looking at the gills and eyes.
With our produce delivered to us, prepackaged and already picked for us, how many of us will learn how to pick fresh produce? In fact, most of the time, our delivered meat and fish already come to us pre-cut. If we find ourselves in a wet market, most younger Singaporeans may find it hard to come out victorious with a bag of fresh produce compared to a seasoned aunty.
Past Pandemics Have Affected The Wet Markets
The wet markets are no stranger to pandemics, having undergone multiple swine and avian flu pandemics. The Nipah virus in 1999 was a severe swine flu outbreak that led to a significant change in the wet market operations: all pork meat had to placed in display chillers, instead of being left in the open.
Over the years, the wet markets have adapted to different changes and have improved their hygiene and cleanliness standards. Older generations of Singaporeans may even remember the sale of live chicken and pig’s blood in the wet markets. However, today there are no live animals for sale in our wet markets. In fact, the only live pigs available for slaughter locally and sold as chilled pork are located in a farm in Pulau Bulan, Indonesia and one farm in Sarawak, Malaysia.
Wet Markets And Hawkers Are Part Of Singapore’s History
Wet markets and hawkers share a similar history in Singapore. As mentioned above, the older HDB estates were built around wet markets and food centres. However, unlike hawkers which are added to the Unesco Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, wet markets don’t have that cultural protection.
Similar to the challenges of maintaining hawker culture, the wet markets are facing challenges pre-pandemic. As older wet market vendors retire and fewer successors step up to replace them, the wet markets are already facing renewal challenges. Newer market vendors are also choosing pivot to online operations, or even to push forward to rebrand themselves as similar to the more upmarket concept of farmers’ markets. With the current pandemic situation, the growing Jurong Fishery Port cluster and temporary closures of more markets, we may be seeing the end of the era of the traditional wet market.
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