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Entertainment, Food & Beverage

Facelift for Tanjong Pagar Plaza Market

The lunchtime crowd packs the hawker centre, which thrives on residents, tourists and office workers. Eighty per cent of the stallholders have opted to return once the upgrading is completed
The Straits Times - February 25, 2013
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Facelift for Tanjong Pagar Plaza Market

 

SPICE seller Sahban Beevi, 62, has seen better days at Block 6, Tanjong Pagar Plaza Market and Food Centre.

She used to do brisk business selling assorted ground spices, such as star anise, cinnamon sticks and crushed chillies, to about 1,000 customers every month.

Then, the centre - now 35 years old - not only catered to residents from nearby housing estates and the kampung at Palmer Road, but also fishermen and sailors who had docked at Tanjong Pagar Terminal.

The wet market was packed elbow to elbow and was so popular that stall-keepers often had to jostle with patrons.

"It was incredibly lively and vibrant for more than two decades," said her husband, Mr Hasan Kuthus, 66, who joined her at the stall in 2002 after retiring from the postal service.

Now, the couple serves just 20 customers a day.

Before the plaza came to be, pre-war shophouses, pushcarts and ad-hoc traders sold fresh and cooked food and other commodities along Cheong Cheok Street.

But the melee of customers is now a thing of the past.

With supermarket chain NTUC FairPrice opening its doors there in the 80s and the introduction of Electronic Road Pricing in the vicinity in the 90s, the number of customers dwindled and business took a dive. "We used to be a thriving market, but now we're barely making 50 per cent of what we used to," said 75-year-old fishball seller Chan Chew Lan, who earns $800 a month.

To spruce up the ageing centre, the National Environment Agency (NEA) will be renovating it under its Hawker Centres Upgrading Programme. The aim is to make old markets and hawker centres more spacious, pleasant and hygienic.

Renovation works will start next month and occupants must hand over their stalls on Feb 28.

The refurbished centre is estimated to be ready in the first quarter of next year. There are 108 market produce stalls and 52 cooked food stalls. The wet market is on the first floor, the hawker centre on the second.

While business is mediocre for most wet market occupants, the hawker centre is thriving. Customers include residents, camera-toting tourists who come by the busload and office workers at lunch hour.

About 80 per cent of stallholders have opted to return once the upgrading is completed.

Typically, renovation works include installing new wash areas, adding new tables and seats and fire safety provisions.

Most stallholders who plan to return next year told The Straits Times they are looking forward to a fresh start.

Mr Choo Piak Hong, 58, the owner of a soya bean and grass jelly drink stall, said it is best to be out with the old and in with the new. "I understand the reasons behind the renovation. This is a dirty and rundown building which contrasts with the hotels and office buildings that are springing everywhere," he said.

"The Government is just trying to make the aesthetic match. Otherwise, it looks very out of place." But he added with a tinge of sadness that he will miss the place.

"You can't be in a business for so long and not make friends with your customers. When I come back one year later, it won't be the same and it won't feel the same," said Mr Choo.

Mr Thomas Tan, 60, the owner of Pandan Leaf Nasi Lemak, said he will miss his regulars.

"Sometimes, they buy me coffee and chat with me. I have customers who started buying from me as children and I've watched them marry and return with their own children.

"When my youngest son got married, I even invited some of them to the wedding," he said.

Customers The Straits Times spoke to expressed regret that they will not be able to patronise their favourite stalls for a year.

The hawker centre is home to well-loved stalls such as Annie's Peanut Ice Kachang, Herbal Kitchen and Kazan Japanese Cuisine. Annie's and Kazan will be relocating, but Herbal Kitchen plans to return.

Business manager Sharon Yeo, 49, who has been patronising the centre for the past two decades, said she grew up eating hawker food, which is fast being replaced by foodcourt fare.

"At such hawker centres, you can see them actually make the fish paste by hand. The taste is unique and the food is of high quality," Ms Yeo said, adding that she hopes her favourite hawkers will choose to return.

Mr Benny Lim, 32, who sells char kway teow, said he will miss the centre's charm. But having to forgo his earnings for a year is his most pressing concern.

With no plans for a temporary centre to be set up, some stallholders have rented units at neighbouring blocks, while others said they will be taking a break.

Said Mr Lim: "The notice the NEA gave us was too short to make plans for the interim. Foodcourts which allow for one-year leases are too expensive and hawker centres elsewhere require us to commit for at least two years."

Some also said they fear that fewer customers may patronise them in time to come.

"I am afraid that my customers will disappear when I move back as they might have got used to other markets and supermarkets in the area," said vegetable stall owner Roger Khoo, 48.

Madam Tan Buey Kee, 49, the owner of a popular, brightly lit fruit stall, said she hopes NEA will allow them to remain on the street front.

"Our fresh and colourful fruit display has been drawing in the crowds for the past 35 years. We brighten up the market and are a welcome sight for customers.

"It makes sense for them to give us back the same spot and allow us to return bigger and brighter."

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