Workers loading and unloading produce at the fruit and vegetable section in the Pasir Panjang Wholesale Centre. Business has never recovered since the Sars crisis in 2003, say stall owners. -- ST PHOTOS: MARK CHEONG
WHEN Pasir Panjang Wholesale Centre opened in 1983 to centralise the distribution of fruit, vegetables and dried goods, the grey complex with hangar-like buildings also served an unlikely purpose - as a place where couples went on dates.
"The sea used to be next to the centre. Couples would buy durians and stroll along the sea," said Mr Tay Khiam Back, 58, chairman of the centre's association.
Thirty-one years later, durians can still be bought there but love is no longer in the air: The land next door has been reclaimed and business at the once-bustling centre has quietened down.
Over the last decade or so, the centre has had more than its fair share of tragedy. In 2003, at the peak of the severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) outbreak, the centre was closed for 15 days when a wholesaler became infected. In 2004, Malaysian vegetable packer Took Leng How murdered eight-year-old Huang Na from China in a storeroom there.
Physically, not much has changed.
Some 1,405 stalls, shops, offices and cold rooms are housed in 26 blocks in a complex as big as 20 football fields. The site has its own canteen and an auction hall where hundreds of wet market vendors and restaurant owners gather during the wee hours to bid for the freshest groceries.
In the day, though, the place is almost like a ghost town. It is quiet except for a handful of workers loading and unloading goods and shopowners milling about. Few customers walk in.
Sellers said the centre never recovered from the hit it took during Sars.
"I lost half of my customers," said Mr Ong Chor Keng, 53, owner of dried goods store Goh Yeow Heng. Stacks of dried mushrooms, shrimps and an assortment of nuts are placed outside the store. Inside, rows of made-in-China canned food lined the shelves.
Consumers would rather go to their nearby supermarkets to shop in comfort and at their convenience, he said. Gone are the days when housewives would buy in bulk to feed big families.
"New housewives don't cook as often," he said. "People eat canned food less because they're worried about MSG. They see that my canned food is 'made-in-China', they don't trust it." MSG, monosodium glutamate, is a flavour-enhancing food additive.
His clients - owners of small shops in wet markets - also visit less often. "Twenty years ago, they would make three trips a week here. Now, once a week or every two weeks," he said.
Ms Xie Li Fen, 39, who runs Bee Seng Fruit Supply, agreed that the plum days are over. "Our lifestyles have changed and the trend is for customers to shop in supermarkets instead. The minimarts are affected, and we are also affected," she said.
Mr Lee Desmond Bernavey, 40, director of fruit and vegetable wholesaler FreshDirect, said retailers now have more places to get supplies from.
Businesses are bypassing them and getting supplies directly from Malaysia, he said. Trucks would just pass through Customs and deliver straight to wet markets or restaurants.
Things are not all bleak though. There are still regular customers, like Ms Amy Foo. The housewife, in her 50s, buys fruits and dried goods at the centre about once a month "because they are cheaper and fresher than at supermarkets". "I normally buy in bulk to share with my friends," she said.
Plans are in the works to improve the centre's operations and accessibility. For one thing, a common pool of delivery vehicles will be put in place to make deliveries more efficient, said the association's Mr Tay.
The Housing Board will also be carrying out upgrading works such as replacing the cold room system, constructing linkways and creating a new entrance and exit from Harbour Drive, a spokesman told The Straits Times. No time frame has been fixed.
But some, like Mr Ong, are not excited by the prospects of renewal. "My children are not going to take over my business. It's only a matter of time before I close my shop," he said.