Fishmongers are considered a dying trade in Singapore.
According to the National Environment Agency (NEA), the number of NEA-licensed market-produce hawkers have decreased from 6,264 in 2006 to 5,485 in 2016.
Changing consumer behaviour in particular, is a huge contribution to this 12.4 per cent decline.
Nowadays, Singaporeans prefer to shop at supermarkets as opposed to wet markets; and with the rise of online delivery services, they are notably willing to fork out a little more for the convenience of getting their groceries delivered to their doorstep.
Adding on to these factors, there’s a lacking pool of willing successors to take over these stalls.
But 29-year-old Marcus Phang is an exception – he’s one of the very few millennials in Singapore who is willing to take on this traditional trade despite its ‘unglamorous’ nature.
Becoming A Boss Of 3 Fish Stalls
While some might see millennials’ unwillingness to take these hawking jobs as an adversity, Marcus saw this gap as a huge business opportunity instead.
He figured that since other millennials are not keen in this trade, he would stand to benefit in the long run if he joins the business.
“In future, if there are no youngsters that are going to do this business, I may be the lucky one who makes it big,” he told The Pride.
Marcus previously worked in an admin job, but he decided to start up as a fishmonger after studying the business model of a friend’s family who has been running a seafood supplies business for almost 30 years.
Inspired by its longevity, he wanted to expand the business further and roped in two friends as business partners.
But with zero experience, Marcus had to learn the ins and outs of the trade by studying various wet markets and learning from veteran hawkers.
As a complete newbie in the industry, Marcus figured that it would be wise to tap on other hawkers’ network of customers instead of starting out from scratch.
As such, he singled out stalls of retiring hawkers who have an established following and took over their reins.
Today, he helms three stalls hawking fresh seafood at different wet markets across Singapore, namely 112 Jalan Bukit Merah Market, Toa Payoh Lorong 4, and Hougang Ave 8.
Young Doesn’t Mean Inexperienced
Although Marcus and partners had a leverage, starting out still wasn’t easy for them.
He recounted the early days at Hougang, when he was learning from his elderly predecessor before the handover: “On days when (the elderly owner) wasn’t around, his regular customers would rather go to another stall than buy from us, even though the fish we were selling was the same.”
Bearing this incident in mind, Marcus learnt one important lesson: “At the wet market, it’s not just about how good your products are, but also how much the customers like you.”
So despite his reserved personality, Marcus puts in effort to be more friendly with his customers to build better rapport.
His customers are typically twice his age, usually in their 50s and 60s.
The age gap is indeed apparent, and Marcus receives a lot of surprised reactions from his customers when they see him selling fish at the market.
But this disbelief quickly turns into a haste judgement.
“They look at us and think that we don’t have enough experience,” he lamented to The Pride.
Brushing off such prejudice, Marcus stood strong in his bright red Supreme apron and rubber boots.
And over time, these once-distrusting customers gradually became “long-term regulars who come back every day”; and it has come to a point where he could memorise their usual orders.
One elderly customer who affectionately calls Marcus ‘Ah Boy’, commends him for preserving the tradition of wet markets.
“Ah Boy’s fish is very fresh and he gives me discounts every now and then. Even if it’s slightly more expensive than the other stalls, I would pay for it. I’m glad he’s here,” she told The Pride.
Being A Fishmonger Is Not Easy
The life of a fishmonger is hard – the hours are long, they constantly have to be on their feet, the working environment is hot and smelly, and the workload itself can get physically demanding.
According to Marcus, a typical workday for him usually starts at midnight if he needs to hand-pick stock with his staff at Jurong Fishery Port.
“I’ll do the purchasing, the packing, and the distribution to some shops and our retail outlets,” said Marcus in a video interview with The Pride.
Then on days when he doesn’t head to the fishery, he will start his day at the stall as early as 4am, and will only wrap up at around 2 or 3pm.
This means a good 10 or 11 hours on his feet, as he gets busy weighing, chopping, descaling, and deboning the fishes.
The irregular working hours meant sacrificing a lot of family time for Marcus, who is now married with a two-year-old daughter.
“I don’t have much time for my family. My body clock is completely different from others. I wake up at 12am and by the time I get home, I would have been awake for around 12 hours, sometimes more,” he said.
Spending time with them in the evenings is also not an option because he is always either exhausted or already asleep by then.
Commenting on his business so far, Marcus said that business isn’t particularly brisk all-year round and sales have been dipping as of late.
He didn’t reveal any financial figures, but understands that he’s serving a rather niche group of customers as the younger generation do not frequent wet markets and hardly cook.
“A lot of people prefer to eat out because they find it less troublesome compared to cooking at home. And many young people don’t really like to come to the wet market nowadays. Everyone is going to the supermarket,” he shared in a video interview.
Despite this trend, Marcus believes that his products are “cheaper and fresher”, and have a wider variety, compared to those sold at the supermarket.
Not ‘Paiseh’ Of His “Dirty Job” Anymore
Undeterred by the declining popularity of wet markets, Marcus still takes pride in his job as a fishmonger although many would typically label it as a “dirty job“.
“Singaporeans shouldn’t judge a job by the look and feel of it because at the end of the day, a job is still a job. [Most importantly, I earn] an honest living”.
“Majority of my friends and family were quite shocked to see me work at a wet market and do what they call ‘hard labour’. But if no one wants to be a fishmonger, who is going to sell fish?”
“Probably if I was younger, maybe in my early twenties, I might feel a bit paiseh (embarrassed). But now that I’m older and have a kid, I simply think of it as a job.”
His 25-year-old wife, Emmeline Sng, also expressed her support towards his career in a separate interview with The Pride: “We all need the services of a fishmonger, yet nobody wants to do it because it’s a hard and dirty job.”
“Still, somebody has to, and I’m proud of him for earning a decent living to provide for our family.”
She doesn’t feel that his job is ‘low-class’ and understands that there’s a lot of work involved in his job.
Spurred by the encouragement, Marcus trusts that there’s a potential for more young hawkers to run stalls at wet markets, especially since there’s a rising trend of young ‘hawkerpreneurs’ in Singapore now.
“I don’t think it’s exactly a dying trade. Like any other industry, there are those who do well, while those who don’t will die out slowly.”
Featured Image Credit: The Pride