Pasar malams still banned, so vendors start permanent stalls

Mr Teo Beng Koon and his sister Ah Gim at their stall in a sub-leased outdoor display area in Ang Mo Kio. He says the ban on pasar malams and mall atrium sales has led to higher rentals for outdoor display areas.
Mr Teo Beng Koon and his sister Ah Gim at their stall in a sub-leased outdoor display area in Ang Mo Kio. He says the ban on pasar malams and mall atrium sales has led to higher rentals for outdoor display areas.ST PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN

Those who miss the bustle of pasar malams here will likely 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.

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 popular vendors have been unable 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 has failed to break even in some months.

Two other industry veterans, Mr Ivan Ho, 65, and Mr Tay Khoon Hua, 64, who have been organising pasar malams for about 30 years between them, said the sight of sizeable crowds back at malls has 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 who frequently collaborate with operator Singapore Night Bazaar has started permanent shops, said its chief executive Wayne Lim, 36.

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

EXPANSION AND SURVIVAL

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

In April, Mr Suriyah Selvarajah, 32, set up shop in a Golden Mile Food Centre unit that he now occupies, just in time to catch the Ramadan demand.

"We didn't have a signboard or proper equipment, but we started with whatever we had," he said.

Since then, Mr Suriyah has not looked back, expanding the 30-year-old business he inherited from his mother with a second stall in Joo Chiat last month.

His dream is now bigger. "I wish for us to be a household name like Old Chang Kee," he said.

But success stories like The Original Vadai are not common.

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.

During the circuit breaker, Singapore Night Bazaar's 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.

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 Merchants' Association, which represents about 100 members, said he drew up a proposal last year for a trial allowing pasar malams to resume. It included safe management measures such as banning eating and drinking in the fairground.

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-19 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.

While food and beverage vendors have found it easier to move into brick-and-mortar stalls, those selling non-edible goods have found it more difficult due to a 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 sub-leased outdoor display areas in various neighbourhoods, said the ban on the first two due to Covid-19 has driven up the remaining avenue's rentals.

"An outdoor display area rental for one morning could cost about $70 at Chong Pang Market a year or two ago, but now it goes for at least $100," he said.

Mr Teo now sells goods such as accessories and knick-knacks, and has been in the trade for about three decades.

NO LIGHT AT END OF 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.

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

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," Mr Tay said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on January 24, 2021, with the headline 'Pasar malams still banned, so vendors start permanent stalls'. Subscribe