Vendors greeted me cheerfully with smiles on their face, ever willing to introduce you to their freshest products. That is the kind of atmosphere in the wet market community that is so heartwarming, and something that we should preserve and let it flourish, especially in today’s society where people are too busy to even stop to give others a smile.

This visit to the Chinatown Complex Market has allowed me to chance upon a very unique stall and a friendly helpful stall vendor who believes in the survival of our traditional wet market, but by adapting to changes yet retaining the specialty. Anthony Leow, stall owner of Anthony the Spice maker. He is one not only highly experienced in spice making started since the 1980s, but also had a unique business experience. From this interview done with him, we could compare the difference between supermarket and wet market and how wet market should be further improved on to cater to the new demands. Anthony grew up besides his mom who started the spice business, when he took over the family business as the 2nd generation, he decided to mass produce the spices in factory and introduce their family spices to the supermarket, where his spices were on many big supermarket chains’ shelves. What brings him back then to the wet market environment in the late 2000s?

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Picture 1: Anthony with his relatively high tech and well layout stall.

“I prefer the wet market environment so much better than the supermarket environment, there is a huge different in the two places. The main difference is the service, more individualized service, ability to cater to each customer’s needs, and I end up not just selling spices, but also sharing my personal cooking experience. I teach them how to cook with my spices that I mixed and made myself. In supermarket, besides information on the bottles, there is no way a customer could know more, and I believe in passing on to others the knowledge of spices and way of using them.” It is the very intangible ties between the customers and him, together with the ability to pass on knowledge through face-to-face interactions that brings him back to the wet market environment that his mom started out in.

Attitude is the most important aspect that vendors have to tackle in order to bring more customers in the future. “I think what is very important is the attitude the vendors put on to sell their ware, that will attract more customers, regardless of age group and social backgrounds,” Anthony shared with me when asked about the future of the wet market. “We need a wet market that moving forward. We need one where it’s equipped with newer technology, better attitudes from vendors; after all it’s a service industry. If vendors give u black face, would you buy from him? This is especially so to the younger generation, attitudes from vendors will deter them from purchasing from wet market and going to supermarket instead where staffs are friendly and purchasing of goods is in a better environment.” This is also the very draw he believes could attract the younger generation to both take up business in the wet market and to patronize the wet market more frequently. On a side note, his son is in this family business too, being the 3rd generation. And he is different from other stall vendors, who do not believe that their children should take up business in the wet market, he believes in the next generation continuing the family business, but to constantly change and cater to new demands.

Architecturally, it definitely plays a role in attracting the people to come and bond in a space, Anthony added. Having experience from a supermarket environment setting, he knows people enjoys shopping in comfort, and he believes that wet market should be a place for comfort shopping too, minus the air conditioning. “Easy and visible display and clean and neat display is very important for customers to see and choose what they want.” What he advocates, he shows by doing it first in his own stall. Clean and neat arrangement of spices allows one to see from one glance all the products that are available. This encourages more customers to stop and look and enjoy buying from his stall, even when customers do not purchase he is happy to share.

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Picture 2: Neat and clear shelving.

In terms of encouraging more spontaneous bonding to take place, he believes that more tables should be in placed and more countertops free from products in each stall. “Why don’t u imagine a scenario where u put lots of seating at the side of the stall or at open spaces mixed with stalls, more people are going to be seating and resting, away from the vendors. However if giving each stall more table spaces or countertop for customers to put down their groceries for a short while, will allow one to take a breather and then encourage interactions and prolonged stay at the stall. I always have customers wanting to repack their brought groceries into one main bag and obviously people would not want to put their food on the floor, it is what they going to put into their mouth at the end of the day and market floors aren’t very clean and dry either.” It is through these small moments where interactions both between vendors and customers starts, and where neighborly and community ties strengthens.

Good and well ventilated wet market together with sufficient walking spaces between stall fronts are the next few important aspects Anthony pointed out that will encourage more interactions to take place. “Ventilation is a important aspect in designing a wet market, I mean look at this market, and obviously ventilation wasn’t very well thought of. For me its okay, but for stalls selling fishes or meat, the smell is going to be real strong.” After hearing this from him, I take a look around me and realized many stalls especially locked up stalls like his, install fans to provide better air circulation.

“Enough spaces between stalls are very important, if you give the vendor more space in the stall there will be less over spilling out of the stall. And I personally think over spilling out of the stalls will discourage one to interact with the vendor, especially during peak period, with more people and lesser space more squeezing and pushing, would u want to slow down to take a look at the products, let alone talk to the vendor?”

Lastly, “directions and map of stalls location is really important in guiding where one should move towards, other than this I think is okay to not have to put more information at the entrance to the market.” Clear directions and good accessibility will enhance customer’s shopping experience greatly.

New technology could also been seen at this particular stall, where customers are greeted with a computerized screen and recipes for different spices decorating the stall frontage. “With easier mode of purchasing and more information loaded for younger generation who are more educated, they will feel safer from buying from wet market and encourage them to come for the fresh products, or products with specialty that could only be found in the wet market.” Anthony always thinks ahead 5 years he said, always think in customer’s perspectives what they would like and see if he can provide for that, one way of doing this through constant Research and Development that he carries out in his stall of only about 6 meters square. This shows with passion, anything is possible.

“I believe why wet markets trades are dying is because the older generation vendors do not know how to improve, with lack of information on technology and new trends. Hence, they are deemed as backwards, and hence not in line with current modern context. Thus explains the dying trade, and once the trade is dying, how are they able to pass down to the next generation? The next generation will not be interested to pick up a dying trade that is not moving in line with modernity,” Anthony continues to speak with great enthusiasm.

To end off my interview with him, he left me few thoughts that made me feel that wet market can always remain relevant to people’s new lifestyle and should always be there as it provides a platform for spontaneous community bonding to take place. “Whatever is changing will be changing, I believe in taking the problem at hand, and adapting to it, to cater the newer demands. I deem these as challenges and willing to take on it. I see making spices as a family business, and as a career for a lifetime. I think the attitude people have with their trades determines a lot whether they will be succeeding with changes in demands.”

Why not start by taking a walk in the wet market? You will be able to discover many community assets in this close knitted community, if it is not already a community asset.

 

 

 

References:

Anthony Leow, Blk 335 Smith Street, #B1-169, Chinatown Complex.

Website: http://www.anthonythespicemaker.blogspot.sg/

Photo Credits: Author’s own