Street View: Road by day, veggie market by night

A worker with a load of vegetables to be transferred to a waiting buyer’s lorry. Vendors will open up boxes of produce for customers to check if needed. -- ST PHOTOS: LIM SIN THAI
A worker with a load of vegetables to be transferred to a waiting buyer’s lorry. Vendors will open up boxes of produce for customers to check if needed. -- ST PHOTOS: LIM SIN THAI
Wholesalers operate from lorries, and the vegetables are mostly displayed in crates or boxes. Restaurant owners and wet market vendors frequent the place. -- ST PHOTOS: LIM SIN THAI
Wholesalers operate from lorries, and the vegetables are mostly displayed in crates or boxes. Restaurant owners and wet market vendors frequent the place. -- ST PHOTOS: LIM SIN THAI
A customer choosing vegetables at a stall. Produce must be bought in bulk, which means at least 1kg, at the wholesale market. -- ST PHOTOS: LIM SIN THAI
A customer choosing vegetables at a stall. Produce must be bought in bulk, which means at least 1kg, at the wholesale market. -- ST PHOTOS: LIM SIN THAI
There are few customers at the Toa Payoh East vegetable wholesale market at 1am, but vendors say that is its peak hour. Business has dwindled over the decades and the market is a pale shadow of its former self. -- ST PHOTOS: LIM SIN THAI
There are few customers at the Toa Payoh East vegetable wholesale market at 1am, but vendors say that is its peak hour. Business has dwindled over the decades and the market is a pale shadow of its former self. -- ST PHOTOS: LIM SIN THAI

Despite cheap produce, business is slower in Toa Payoh East

ST 20140314 Streetviewm

BY DAY, Toa Payoh East is like any other busy road.

But a transformation takes place 11/2 hours before midnight, as trucks pull up, crates get unloaded and the buying and selling begins in semi-darkness.

"I'm here to help my friend get some vegetables for his restaurant," said Mr Kumar Ramachandran, 60, holding up a bag of fragrant limes. "Outside, 1kg of limes would cost $6. But I bought these for $3."

Welcome to Toa Payoh's deal-in-the-dark vegetable wholesale market, where fresh greens from Malaysia can be bought in bulk and cheaply.

For at least 30 years, this makeshift open-air market flanked by nondescript industrial buildings has served as a kind of satellite market to the Pasir Panjang Wholesale Centre, which is housed in a sprawling 26-block complex.

There is at least one other "alive-by-night" vegetable market, in an Ubi carpark.

The Straits Times understands that as long as traffic is not obstructed, the makeshift wholesalers are unlikely to be violating any traffic laws. Although Toa Payoh East is not closed to traffic, vehicles slow down when they pass the ad hoc stalls.

The small Toa Payoh market, which looked to have about 10 stalls when The Straits Times visited after midnight on a weeknight, has had its moments.

In 1985, the now-defunct Singapore Monitor reported that business in the well-known Pasir Panjang Wholesale Centre had taken a hit from competition in Toa Payoh and Joo Chiat.

Toa Payoh's wholesalers were said to be doing "about 25 per cent more business" than their West Coast counterparts.

But sellers say sales have since dropped compared to the market's heyday in the 1980s and 1990s.

"It is the power of the supermarkets," said wholesaler Jim Ong, 48, sitting by the roadside among bunches of sweet-smelling pandan leaves. "The younger people don't even know we exist."

Mr Ong counts himself as "one of the younger ones" even though he has been working at the market for 10 years.

"There used to be people who had worked here for 20 or 30 years," he said. "But they couldn't find anyone to take over the business when they grew old, so they retired."

The market is open six days a week from around 11pm to 6.30am. It is closed on Sundays.

Vegetables are mostly displayed in crates or boxes, although one seller presides over piles of brinjals, chillies and lady's fingers on the ground.

It seemed like a slow Monday night, with few customers there after midnight.

However, wholesalers said this was considered a busy period.

"You have restaurant owners coming in about this time," said wholesaler Ong Chai Meng, 42. "Then later at about 2am, you have the wet market vendors."

He has worked at the market for more than 10 years, and recalls the severe acute respiratory syndrome outbreak in 2003 as one of the market's busiest times.

"The Pasir Panjang market was closed, so all the hawkers and stall owners had to come here instead," he said.

"There were vegetables everywhere," added Mr Ong.

But it is not just those in the food business who frequent the market.

Bangladeshi construction worker Nur Hossain, 25, comes once a week to stock up on supplies.

"My friend told me there is cheap food here," he said. "Since then, I've been coming for about six months."

He left with at least 10kg of produce including cauliflower,

onions and potatoes, which he strapped onto his bicycle to take back to his dormitory in Balestier.

All are welcome as long as they abide by the rules: Always buy in bulk, which means at least 1kg.

"The first time I came here, I tried to buy like I was in a normal market and I got scolded," recalled Mrs S.K. Lee, 37.

She gets vegetables here almost weekly for her vegetarian in-laws. She bought almost 1kg of kailan for just $2.

Although the market offers a diverse selection, only one or two vendors may be selling a particular vegetable at any one time, said Mrs Lee, who declined to reveal her occupation.

"You don't get to choose. You take what they want to sell you."

But even if it is a sellers' market at times, this obscure Toa Payoh fixture may soon disappear as tired vendors throw in the towel.

Said Mr Ong: "People don't come here any more.

"Two more years and I think that's it, I'll retire."

linettel@sph.com.sg

This article was first published in The Straits Times on April 4, 2014