Fresh faces on the wet-market scene
IN THE pre-dawn light, Mr Pan Chin Puang's lorry rumbles into the Tiong Bahru Market with baskets laden with the day's haul of fish.
At Pan's Fish stall, his employees scale, gut, debone and fillet the fish for customers to peruse and buy. This can come up to several hundred kilograms of fish a day.
At about 6am, Ms Denise Hu rolls up the metal shutters at the market's Xie Rong Grocery Stall, then sets out a panoply of dried goods and other groceries with her mother.
Later in the morning, over in Pioneer, Mr John Yeo banters with his customers as they buy pork, recommending cuts of meat and even sauces for the dishes they will be cooking.
Around the trio, other stallholders bustle to prepare for the morning crowd, but they stand out as they are obviously much younger.
While many of their peers would prefer carving out a career in air-conditioned offices, the three start work in the wee hours of the morning, in an industry seen by many to be on the decline.
Long before most people get out of bed, Mr Pan, 29, has negotiated with half a dozen wholesalers at the Jurong Fishery Port and delivered the fish to his stalls in four locations. His day ends at around 1pm, when the stalls close, or later if he has business meetings.
When he graduated with an RMIT mass-communications degree, which he had pursued through SIM University, this was not the career he envisioned.
While he has helped his mother at hawker and market stalls since he was 11, he harboured dreams of becoming a journalist or writer. It was his mother who asked him to try running a wet-market stall.
"Like most people, I had the impression that this business was not glamorous...but my mother 'psycho-ed' me to start my own stall," he said.
Some of his relatives thought he would be wasting his education, he added.
But the business was profitable from the get-go and, before the first month was out, he applied for another stall. The thrill of running his own business had him hooked.
The enthusiasm he has for his business is obvious, as he reels off plan after plan for expansion and explains how he has adjusted his business model over time.
"I found out the hard way that philosophies in business books are good to know, but not crucial when you're on the ground doing business," he said.
At one point, he expanded to seven stalls, but has since scaled back due to the difficulty of finding workers he can trust.
"I have to wait for good people to come in, turnover is very high," he said ruefully.
While he declines to reveal how much he makes, he said "the money is not bad". He has no worries about the expenses for his upcoming wedding and renovations for his new home, he added.
And, no, his fiancee has no gripes about his job.
"He might not hold a conventional job like other graduates, but he is successful in his business and takes good care of me and the family. I sometimes get sniggers from friends and colleagues about his line of work, but I am not embarrassed," said Ms Rachel Suan, a SingHealth executive.
As for Ms Hu, 27, she is learning the ropes in a business that her great-grandmother started decades ago, when the market first opened.
While she did some part-time jobs after graduating from Shatec, she decided to join the family business, also at her mother's urging.
She had thought of following in the footsteps of her property-agent father, but carrying on the family business took priority.
"My mum thinks that a girl should have her own business, but guys can go out and work," she said, adding that concern over her mother's health was a factor in her decision.
It is not an easy life, with early hours and few holidays. Ms Hu works six days a week and goes for a short break once a year, usually after the Chinese New Year.
But that would be a luxury for Mr Yeo, 28. He last took a holiday three years ago, when he visited his wife's family in China.
He starts work at midnight, seven days a week, and ends at around midday except on Mondays, when he closes early. He sells vegetables, pork and groceries.
He had attended polytechnic, but dropped out due to a "lack of interest".
For Mr Yeo, it is a family business too, and what keeps him going is his three kids, aged nine months, and two and four years.
He has no plans for expansion, but will not rule it out. After all, one cannot "reach heaven in one step", he explained, citing a Chinese idiom.
When asked if he would prefer working in an office, the answer was a resounding no.
"I've never tried it, and I don't think I ever will," he said.