Pasar malam vendors turn to permanent stalls as Singapore's night markets at standstill

Mr Keith Hoo said business was good when his stall at Wave 9 building in Woodlands opened in September 2020. ST PHOTO: CHONG JUN LIANG

SINGAPORE - Those who miss the hustle and bustle - and close contact - of pasar malams here have a long wait ahead, as even long-time vendors have set up permanent stalls.

The once-familiar sight of night markets in the heartland looks unlikely to return soon, with safety measures tightened ahead of Chinese New Year amid an increase in community Covid-19 cases even as vaccines are being rolled out.

Not knowing when roving fairs will return, some, like popular pasar malam brand Teochew Meat Puff, have moved on from the nomadic nature of the trade. But even well-known vendors have not been able to count on steady demand like they did at bazaars.

Mr Keith Hoo, 53, the second-generation owner of the savoury fritter shop, said business was good when his stall at Wave 9 building in Woodlands opened last September, as many loyal customers of the 30-year-old business made the trek to satisfy their cravings.

But the strong sales lasted only two months. Since then, he fails to break even on some months.

Two other industry veterans, Mr Ivan Ho, 65, and Mr Tay Khoon Hua, 64, who have been organising pasar malams for about 20 and 10 years respectively, said the sight of sizeable crowds back at malls have left those in the night bazaar trade feeling forgotten.

"Many vendors feel abandoned, invisible," said Mr Ho, who also runs a tentage business.

Those who have moved into permanent spaces like Mr Hoo are in the minority, according to industry players. One in five of the 100 regular vendors that frequently collaborate with operator Singapore Night Bazaar have started permanent shops, said its chief executive Wayne Lim, 36.

Despite doubts over the wisdom of signing a new lease during the pandemic, some vendors made the leap to continue doing the business they know.

Mr Hoo said business was good when his stall at Wave 9 building in Woodlands opened last September, as many loyal customers of the 30-year-old business made the trek to satisfy their cravings. ST PHOTO: CHONG JUN LIANG

One, who gave his name as Mr Lee and has been in the trade for two decades, said: "We sell finger food - it's good for pasar malams but not so suitable for coffee shops or hawker centres that patrons visit to get a substantial meal."

Still, Mr Lee, who is in his 50s, took the plunge.

After a series of delivery jobs since the pasar malam gigs stopped last year, he opened a stall selling pasar malam staples like takoyaki and tea leaf eggs for takeaways at Victory 8 building in Sembawang on Jan 22.

Mr Lee, who agonised over the decision, said: "If my sales are bad and I'm tied to a rental stall contract, I might be financially worse off."

Mr Lee's stall at Victory 8 building in Sembawang. ST PHOTO: NG KENG GENE

Other vendors who moved into permanent stalls have cited a drop in sales of about 30 to 40 per cent compared with their bazaar days.

Ms Dennie Ong, 40, who sells another pasar malam mainstay, kueh tutu, said she gets only a trickle of customers at her new space in Yishun compared to before. Her four-year-old business, Chub Tutu, has landed at Block 759 Yishun Street 72 since October.

A temporary, roving fair is its own draw, said Ms Ong.

"At pasar malams, the longer the queue, the more people would join. Now, even if I have a short queue, they would rather not buy and come back another day because I'm always here," she said.

Some expanding, others trying to survive

One former nomadic stallholder who has quickly adapted is the owner of The Original Vadai, who in a span of nine months set up two permanent stalls.

Mr Suriyah Selvarajah said of the push: "We were informed on March 24th that we had to close two days later. It was barely two weeks into the month-long bazaar, and we had yet to make rent, so we lost quite a lot."

An attempt at a home business for the savoury doughnut was short-lived, when such businesses were disallowed after circuit breaker measures were tightened in April.

That same month, the 32-year-old set up shop in a Golden Mile Food Centre unit which he now occupies, just in time to catch the Ramadan demand.

"We didn't even have a signboard or proper equipment, and I had to make do with temporary equipment we used at pasar malams, but we started with whatever we had."

Since then, the 30-year-old bazaar business that Mr Suriyah inherited from his mother has not looked back, and in December opened a second stall in Joo Chiat.

Mr Suriyah at his stall in Joo Chiat. ST PHOTO: ARIFFIN JAMAR
The Selvarajah family at their stall along Geylang Road in May 2018. PHOTO: ST FILE

Mr Suriyah now dreams bigger. "I wish for us to be a household name like Old Chang Kee," he said.

But success stories like The Original Vadai are in the minority.

Many vendors have been trying to stay afloat as they await clarity on the future of their trade. Going online seemed like a natural step to take, but this has its challenges.

Singapore Night Bazaar's Mr Lim said he has been helping his vendors market their products live on his business' Facebook page, and to sell a plethora of products from mops to Chinese New Year decorations.

During the circuit breaker, Mr Lim started a website where customers could order food from about 10 of his regular vendors. Business was good moving into phase one in early June, but demand died down when dining out was allowed again in phase two. The website is currently being revamped.

Similarly, event organiser Siti Aminah Abu Bakar, 43, started the Pasar Malam SG website for customers to patronise about 20 vendors, but business has fallen to where she is considering closing it.

With the Ramadan month coming in April and the usual Geylang Serai Hari Raya Bazaar called off for the second year in a row, she is keeping her options open.

Safe resumption proposed

Meanwhile, operators Mr Tay and Mr Ho have petitioned the authorities to allow them to reopen.

Mr Tay, who is secretary general of The Federation of Trade Fair Traders' Association (2016) which represents about 100 members, said he drew up a proposal last year for a trial allowing pasar malams to resume.

It involved barricading the bazaar space, regulating crowd size to no more than 50 at a time, and to bar eating and drinking within the fairground.

Vendors continue to incur expenses such as storage space rental for the equipment and maintenance costs, the duo emphasised.

He presented the plan to the authorities at a meeting in November, but the ban remains in place.

In response to these concerns and proposals, the Ministry of Trade and Industry (MTI) said it has been in discussions with various business groups on how they can resume their business activities in a safe manner, and encouraged self-employed vendors to seek support under the Covid Recovery Grant.

On not allowing pasar malams to resume, an MTI spokesman said public health and safety remain of utmost importance and are a key consideration in the resumption of business activities.

Asked about its engagement with operators and involvement in the operators' proposals, the People's Association (PA) - the parent organisation of various Citizens' Consultative Committees that frequently organise pasar malams - said: "PA stands guided by the Multi-Ministry Task Force on Covid-19 on the resumption of fairs and have suspended physical festive bazaars and trade fairs till further notice.

"For the well-being and safety of our residents, PA decided not to proceed with these activities as bazaars and trade fairs typically attract large crowds."

While food and beverage vendors have found it easier to move into bricks-and-mortar stalls, those selling goods like household products or clothes have found it more difficult due to lack of differentiation of their products from those in heartland shops.

Yet, it is the heartland that has provided a home of sorts for these travelling hawkers.

Mr Teo Beng Koon, 60, who has been hawking various wares in booths at pasar malams, mall atrium sales and in sub-leased outdoor display areas in various neighbourhoods, said the ban on the first two due to Covid-19 have driven outdoor display area rentals up.

Mr Teo Beng Koon and his sister Ah Gim at their stall in Ang Mo Kio Avenue 10. ST PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN

Such areas, commonly known as yellow boxes to those in the trade, are where shopkeepers or their sub-tenants can display goods along public pathways.

The yellow ground markings are a fire safety regulation. According to the Housing Board's website, shops may sublet this space, subject to conditions.

"A yellow box rental for one morning could cost about $70 at Chong Pang Market a year or two ago, but now they go for at least $100," said the seller of watches and trinkets, who has been in the trade for about three decades.

The day-by-day rental arrangement means such hawkers, who mainly sell non-edible items, have very irregular schedules, more so even than pasar malams, which would last at least a week.

No light at the end of the tunnel yet

Amid the uncertainty, industry players are unsure if pasar malams will return with the same scale or vigour post-pandemic, if they return at all.

The industry has been struggling for years, buffeted by stiff competition from heartland malls and rising rental costs due to bidding wars between a handful of operators.

Two industry veterans have left the scene in recent years, citing regulatory difficulties and the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, leaving just three known regular operators - Mr Lim, Mr Ho and Mr Tay.

Two of them are in their mid-60s and intend to hand over their respective tentage and festive decoration businesses to their children, but are unsure if they will continue organising pasar malams.

And vendors who have moved into permanent shops do not miss the roving fair, where work was more strenuous and earnings inconsistent.

Mr Suriyah said: "At pasar malams, it was stressful and we were living from month to month, but now I have a predictable income and although it is lower, I'm more contented and happy."

He is optimistic that pasar malams will be back, at least for the festive seasons, given global recognition for Singapore's hawker culture and the growing value of such heritage.

But when they eventually resume, Mr Lim said gathering vendors will be a challenge, with many now bound to contractual rental agreements.

But vendors and customers alike say they miss the pasar malam's energy.

A pasar malam in Serangoon Central in 2016. PHOTO: ST FILE

Kueh tutu seller Ms Ong said: "We were like a family, everyone looking out for each other, and there was a feeling that we were all in this together."

Woodlands resident Thien Jun Tong, 26, who frequents Teochew Meat Puff whenever the fair was in his neighbourhood, said: "Nothing represents Singapore more than good old pasar malam snacks."

The hot, squeezy and almost chaotic atmosphere that makes the pasar malam a familiar comfort will almost certainly disappear, said Mr Muhammad Shahrin Shariff, 21, who formerly ran milkshake business Potionlabz at such bazaars with partners Demi Ng, 22, and Mohamed Fazil Shahul Hamid, 37.

Despite the odds stacked against them, operators Mr Ho and Mr Tay remain optimistic.

"All we are asking for is a chance to prove that we are capable of operating while ensuring the safety of all - vendors and customers," he said.

Join ST's WhatsApp Channel and get the latest news and must-reads.