The Nineteenth Annual Berkeley Undergraduate Prize for Architectural Design Excellence 2017
Berkeley Prize 2017

[ID:1575] Wet Market

Singapore

“Aheraherahhhhh....” when I was a child, I liked to mimic the rumbling sound produced by the trolley as it was pushed across the canal. All my life, I have lived on the west fringe of Jurong East, separated from Jurong West only by a canal that runs roughly one kilometre through. Two bridges carrying motorways and pedestrian walkways span across the canal to connect the two areas. People cross the bridge on foot for their daily activities. Every other day, my mother would walk for about ten minutes, across the bridge to the wet market at Jurong West Street 42 for fresh groceries.

Despite having several wet markets in the vicinity, my mother prefers that particular wet market because my aunt and uncle work there. I used to accompany my mother to the wet market when I was a secondary student. On festive seasons like Chinese New Year and Hari Raya, I would help out at my aunt’s stall as the market would experience an overwhelming crowd all day. The intricate web of social connections of the communities is reflected through the morphology of the wet markets. My study deals with Jurong West Street 42 wet market because it holds the strongest meaning for me and my family.

The wet market is commonly known as “pa-sat” in local dialect, borrowed from the malay word, “pasar” which is related to bazaar of Persian origin. The synthesis of languages clearly demonstrates our multi cultural condition and a place where everyone comes together.

The emergence of wet market began in kampongs, when agriculture was prevalent. They probably congregated at strategic locations in the streets, forming a mini market place catering to hundreds. When the authority developed high rise flats, the wet market was seen as important public amenity that was mandatory for each estate. It was an innovative model that strived to continue the traditional lifestyle of Singaporeans while adopting modern architecture to improve building standards.

Densely populated ten-storey flats outline the periphery of Jurong town centre, which comprises of eight four-storey buildings of different lengths, orientation and shape. Three rectangles form a jagged triangular profile. The facades of the buildings face the exterior of the rectangles. At the heart of the triangle where a corner of each rectangle meets, lies the wet market, woven nicely into everyday landscape. The architectural components relate harmoniously to the scale of people passing through the streets. The wet market is not confined within one building but overflows to the spaces between the facades. Under the tropical sun, open ground expose pedestrians to unbearable heat. To gain stall space, vendors must improvise and create shade for their customers. Canvases are stretched overhead; extensions from the interior spaces are made using make-shift tables, saturated with merchandise within minutes. Morphologically, the current spatial configuration is a modern extension of the old tradition of markets in the streets. At different times of the day, this living environment is enriched with vibrancy injected by the different users.

Boundaries are constantly being redefined every morning, as the stalls are set up and dismantled daily. The stalls overflow into the street, serving as a spacious extension, becoming the setting for informal spontaneous conversations. The spaces emerge as a connected street, one with many routes. Pedestrians can alternate between the blocks without restriction, without the fear of incoming cars. Movement is liberated within the spaces, facilitating communication and interaction between people.

The wet market includes a myriad of phenomena, smells ranging from raw poultry to exotic spices, babbles of housewives and the dampness of the floor. Alternating between dark small passageways and the brightness of the bustling market square gives accent and stimulates our experience of the wet market. The module for this experience has to be appreciated via the footstep that gives proportion to the wet market.

Modular design based on intimate human dimension helps people to relate and understand the built environment. Four-storey is the maximum height at which the entire building can be perceived at a glance. The distance between the facades is intimate, enabling the possibility to recognise the facial expressions and body gestures of a person. Most stalls are essentially tables or boxes stacked to waist level. Customers bend over and scan for the best deal while interacting with the vendors. Most importantly, the stall does not block the view and isolate spaces. One can see all the stalls within the market. Vendors can serve customers on a personal level.

“Ah Huat! Is this fresh?” My mother checked the gills of the fish while waiting for a confirmation.

“Hello uncle.”

“Of course! Oh, your daughter? It has been so long since I saw her.”

It is always fascinating to watch the vendor execute his moves, as if it was choreographed beforehand. He removes the scales of the fish swiftly, followed by a few knife cuts of high precision at specific parts of the fish to remove the internal organs. To end it off, he dipped the fish into tap water to rinse off the blood, before handing it over in a plastic bag. All this was done in less than thirty seconds.

“So how’s business?”

“It’s not as good as before. Nowadays people tend to eat out. Even if they intend to cook, they will go to the supermarkets to shop for groceries.””

Singapore had flourished from a humble village into a dazzling city state. Pragmatism and efficiency are the iron hands needed to sustain the odds defying feat. The supermarket was introduced in the 1970s, probably seen as a finer model of grocery shopping. However, Singaporeans were more familiar with the wet market. Now that supermarkets have fitted well, authorities perhaps feel that wet markets are not as important as they used to be and have started increasing rents according to market rates. A record kept by the National Environment Agency, which manages wet markets, shows a 17 per cent drop in the number of stalls since 2000. There are 11,000 stalls operating in 101 wet markets. The attrition rate of about 2,000 stallholders could be indicative of a diminishing feature of community commerce. “Times are changing, the model of markets here has to change too,” said the president of the Federation of Merchants' Associations. But is this change necessary?

While it is true that the supermarket is able to sustain itself economically and a proportion of Singaporeans like shopping there, human relationships cannot be computed. Instead of cherishing intangible values of the wet market, investment in supermarkets is favoured as it can easily produce convincing statistical results. Over time, it seems inevitable that the Jurong wet market will witness atrophy simply because the owners will find it harder to compete on price and variety, and the sprouting of more supermarkets in the vicinity within the estate only aggravates the situation. Should we leave the fate of the wet market entirely in the invisible hand of market operations?

The fact that the wet market is still packed with customers on weekend mornings proves its relevance in today's context. When an article on “The Straits Times”, the national broadsheet, on October 11, 2009 compared the prices of some popular produce in wet markets and supermarkets in different districts, the wet markets apparently do not have the edge over prices. The wet market is deemed smelly, dirty and surprisingly, not cheaper. It seems illogical not to patronise the supermarket. Where is the allure of the wet market drawing from?

Perhaps it is the atmosphere and the community bond that the wet market is able to provide.

In the wet market, vendors remember their regulars’ preferences and automatically reach out for the items once they notice the customer. Customers get to touch and smell the items before deciding their choices. Local slangs and gossip fill the atmosphere of the whole market. The personal interaction between the vendor and the customer in the wet market is socially much richer than the customer browsing coldly impersonal price tags over huge shelves in clean supermarkets. The camaraderie that the stall owners and residents share can never be found in a supermarket despite its comfort and cleanliness.

Grocery shopping is no longer the sole purpose of visiting the markets. It is as if one is going to visit a friend, and Madam Lily Tan knows it best. As reported by The Sunday Times, October 11, 2009, where she patronises a wet market stall owned by Mrs Letchimi Sitharajoo. “'My English is not so good and I can't pronounce her first name, so she tells me to just remember that it sounds like 'luncheon meat',' Madam Tan said with a laugh.”

It is such a personal touch that makes the wet market attractive, and to a certain extent, nostalgic. Such camaraderie would not be uncommon a few decades back, where people living in kampongs work together and knew each other well, where the neighbours felt like relatives. The clean and orderly public housing does not facilitate confrontations and interaction between people. Our social network is in the school or the workplace, seldom within the proximity of our direct community. Inevitably, the loss in social connections among neighbours resulted in residents confining within their own units, reluctant to mix with the stranger next door. Each generation seems more distant than the one before. Our apartments are lodgings rather than places we belong, places to call home. It seems that the wet market is one of the few places that are reminiscent of the past, where the authentic Singapore tradition lives on.

In contrary, supermarket does not encourage interaction. People browse through towering shelves, which create repeated rows of detached spaces that separate shoppers. Products are then scanned by the machine, informing them about the amount they have to pay. Conversations are discouraged, as longer serving time per customers causes longer queues, which breaches on the principles of efficiency, and compromises the professional image that the company is trying to portray. Thus, one does not get to hear any dialogue in supermarkets, but only beeping scans of barcodes. There are no avenues to pause; customers flow in and out like products on an assembly line too. The paradox of having so many people but few interacting is reflected.

It has been criticized that the tabula-rasa approach of redevelopment in Singapore has resulted in a society that experiences cultural amnesia, with little relevance of the past. The homogeneity of our sterile built landscape represents the pinnacle of functionalism. Alas, when authorities finally realised the importance of identity and history as a nation, renovation and preservation of old districts, such as Chinatown and Little India began, in the hope to enhance one's heritage experience. But much of the settlements had been modified, to the extent of being merchandises of cultural tourism. One questions the authenticity and ingenuity of these reinvented places, as there seems to be a discrepancy between the heterogeneous “lived culture” and the idealized “recorded culture”. The activities do not resonate with the current way of life. Tourism thrived along streets of old shells devoid of original spirit. Rather, they have stood testimony to the negligence of the past and a naïve belief that social life could be resurrected through sole preservation of physical artefacts.

Once again, we have arrived at another crossroad where the Jurong wet market would suffer the same fate if nothing is done. The supermarket, an imported version, had slowly been accepted by the younger generation while wet market has become a passé. Our culture of patronising the wet market could die by the next generation if the perception holds. Therefore, we need to remind fellow Singaporeans the value of our wet market. It will be preposterous to insist that all wet markets remain even when demand for it has dwindled. Instead, we could focus on certain wet markets and enhance the experience of visiting one. An example will be the Jurong wet market, where its primary function is to serve as a supplier of fresh groceries to the neighbourhood while it also acts as a site for casual interaction, including recreation, conversation and entertainment.

It has been suggested that one way the wet market can avoid elimination is to work on its overall image, such as installing an air filtration system to expel the fish and meat odours. The proposal is rational, yet it seems apparent the wet market would eventually metamorphoses into a replica of a supermarket, rather than becoming an evolved wet market. Trying to imitate the supermarket’s operation framework would only result in the wet market losing its significance and originality. Instead, one should take advantage of the unique characteristics of the Jurong wet market. Culture and social implications should be considered in the assessment of wet markets. For example, the quality of customised customer service, the number of relationships and the number of regular customers are indicators of the social role that the wet market plays besides supplying food.

Creating a united corporate identity requires a standard operational framework that results in the homogeneous outlook in supermarkets nationwide. In contrary, the Jurong wet market has its own character because individual stallholders are given the autonomy to manage their stalls, producing dynamic environments. Decentralisation enables each individual stall in the wet market to become localized, accustomed to daily interaction between the sellers and residents. Thus, it acts as the social hub of the community, a catalyst for social cohesion to take root and create unique identities to each town. Thus, this should be seen as a way for ensuring the sustainability of the wet market in the future. By encouraging emancipation, independent vendors have greater incentive to improve business, as opposed to a top-down approach displayed by supermarkets.

Heritage conservations largely focus on artefacts that speak of traditions that are already lost. Even though the wet market is a relatively new building by heritage conservation standards, it is a modern heritage that is intimately related to our way of life. Despite its comparatively young age, it embodies an important chapter of Singapore’s history. We should seek to maintain the Jurong wet market before it is displaced, because one can never reproduce a community.

The dichotomy between supermarket and Jurong wet market is inherent; the former belongs to the company, while the latter coexist with the community. Undoubtedly, supermarkets add value to the community through lower prices and longer retail hours. However, sustainability has multiple layers; by focusing on the economic aspect alone, one could neglect social and cultural dimensions. Through further research into its morphology, we hope to have unraveled values of a wet market as a socially and culturally rich heritage. If one remains oblivious to this asset, it will soon be misunderstood as obsolete.

“It has been a long time since I ate kacang puteh. I want to buy some! ”

“Oh, the store had closed down. The uncle has retired, I heard.”

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