Toa Payoh Vegetable Night Market
As a Gen Z born in 2004, I’m rather fond of buying my groceries online and getting them delivered to my place, rather than heading down to the supermarket myself. When I do shop offline, I would head to big supermarkets like NTUC FairPrice, Giant, and Sheng Shiong instead of traditional wet markets.
So when I saw the news that Toa Payoh Vegetable Night Market – a makeshift wholesale market – was closing down, I was rather intrigued.
“There’s a market that runs at night? The market is by the road?” I texted my friends and realised that I’m not the only blur one. Being the curious person I am, I decided to head down on one of the market’s final nights.
Where was the Toa Payoh Vegetable Night Market?
First things first, this open-air night market isn’t in a building – but more on that later.
We started our adventure by trying to book a Grab from the office. That’s because the Toa Payoh Vegetable Night Market isn’t really a place on the map even though you can find it on Google. After about 10 minutes of trying to locate it, we decided to put our drop-off point at a childcare place called Stars Learners, which is walking distance from the market.
We were dropped off at Block 258 Kim Keat Avenue and started making our way to the vegetable market. We soon found ourselves in a 200m-long car park at Toa Payoh East, near an industrial park.
There was nothing extraordinary about it, with the exception of it being eerily quiet and tucked away in an empty corner on a somewhat isolated road. There were no signs either, or hardly any cars or people. This led us to wonder if we were in the right place.
Our team decided to split up and ask around. A majority of passers-by said that stall owners would only come much later at around 10pm and told us not to get our hopes up since many of the vendors have already relocated.
“We’re too late”, I thought to myself. After all, I did read that Toa Payoh Vegetable Market will be ceasing operations on 19th August, as there are plans for the area to be repurposed for new BTOs. It was quite disappointing, as I really wanted to experience the vibes and atmosphere of aroadside night market – the last of its kind in Singapore.
After around 20 minutes of waiting, we almost gave up hope and were prepared to leave. But as we were heading back towards our drop off point – that’s when it happened. One of our colleagues noticed someone pushing a cart of vegetables from the sidewalk to the middle of the road. Our eyes were on him as he walked back to the sidewalk to retrieve a few more carts.
Meeting the vendors at the market
Seeing as he was busy, I was a little apprehensive about approaching him. One of my colleagues started asking him some questions in Mandarin, to which he happily replied as he continued to set up his makeshift stall.
He introduced himself as Uncle Heng and explained how he was setting up his unsold vegetables from the previous day while waiting for his new stock of greens to come fresh from the Singapore-Johor customs.
Uncle Heng kept his crates of unsold vegetables by the sidewalk during the day. It’s only at night where he comes to unload and set up his makeshift stall. There’s no security to jaga his stuff, which led me to wonder if he ever worried about someone taking his vegetables away.
“Uncle, you not scared that people will steal your vegetables?” I asked. To which he laughed, and replied, “Who would want to steal these vegetables?”
His response immediately reminded me of my grandparents who would say something similar when describing their kampong days. “Everyone’s like family; there’s no need to lock the door, no one will steal.”
It seems like their Singapore is much different from the one I grew up in – one where surveillance cameras are installed on every corner to prevent or catch any misdemeanours.
Watching the market come to life at 10pm
We started seeing more and more trucks pulling up to drop off carts of fruits and vegetables. The road that looked like a ghost town just minutes ago was finally gaining character, looking more like the photos of the market I saw on the news.
While the vegetable night market has been in existence since the 1950s – yes, even before the development of Toa Payoh – this is not a place many of my peers and I have visited. And in case you’re wondering why this market only comes to life at night, that’s because the roads are used for traffic during the day.
One of the first customers of the day was a lady who told us that she comes once a week to stock up. She preferred coming to the night market here as the vegetables are cheaper and fresher compared to those you’d typically find at a neighbourhood supermarket.
As time went by, the open-air market filled up with more customers. That being said, it wasn’t enough to form a crowd, though. A majority of them were residents from around the ‘hood and migrant workers living in the dormitories nearby.
Since the market has to be set up on a nightly basis, don’t expect fruits and vegetables to be packed neatly on shelves or even have a price tag on them. At Toa Payoh Vegetable Night Market, produce is placed in crates, on the roads, and wherever else there’s space.
Is that legal? Yes, that’s very legal. In fact, this market attracted many vendors in the past as it’s the only one in Singapore where vendors don’t have to pay rent.
The experience of shopping at the night market
Now, as someone who is used to just clicking on the “add to cart” button or filling my basket with groceries before swiping my card at the checkout counter, the shopping process here was vastly different. Instead of grabbing a basket, plastic bags are provided instead. But feel free to bring your own bags if you’d like. We saw a few shoppers toting reusable bags as a more eco-friendly option.
The white plastic bags were for smaller purchases, while the red ones were for larger buys. You’d have to agar agar and pick the one which you think would be most suitable for your shopping.
We got all this for just $8.50, with the cheapest veggie being a bundle of spring onions, at just $0.50.
There’s a wide variety of vegetables available, including lemongrass, spinach, calamansi, and lady’s fingers. Not to mention, they were really fresh too. None of the greens we spotted had any visible defects like yellow spots, wilting, or came in a weird shape or form.
TBH, I was rather unfamiliar with some of the vegetables there but thankfully, the friendly vendors patiently explained the different greens available and even offered advice on dishes you could cook with them .
Plus, despite it being a night market, we didn’t have to worry about fumbling around in the dark. There were plenty of street lights around to brighten up the whole place.
Even though you won’t find price tags, the vendors are quick to let you know how much everything costs. They’re usually priced according to weight – for example, $3 for 1kg of calamansi – similar to how we buy certain fruits at our everyday supermarket.
The market is known for selling produce at wholesale prices – no minimum quantity needed – so you’d be surprised that veggies and fruits here can be a lot cheaper than what’s available in supermarkets. The cheaper prices make this the go-to place for nearby hawkers and those running small food stalls.
If you do want an itemised bill, you can ask the vendors for a receipt. All records are handwritten in old-school cash sale books, which further added to the traditional vibes of the place.
The last night vegetable market in Singapore
As we walked away from the Toa Payoh Vegetable Night Market, I was filled with a sense of regret that this would be my first and last time here. If there’s one thing I got from here – apart from bags of cheap veggies – was the sense of community that a few crates of vegetables in a car park could create.
Grocery shopping here is so different from everywhere else. With the world at our fingertips, a few taps get us everything we need delivered to our doorstep. Even when I’m at my everyday supermarket, I also find myself plugged into my earphones and opting to pay for my groceries at a self-checkout kiosk where there’s no need to interact with anyone in either scenario.
This is also what makes shopping at the Toa Payoh Vegetable Night Market such a rare experience. Many of the vendors – as well as their customers – have been around for decades. The kampong spirit and sense of community found here cannot be replicated anywhere else.
The closing of the market means more than just okay, no more night market. Toa Payoh Vegetable Night Market isn’t just a place for people to sell or buy groceries. It’s a place that’s significant in heritage, culture, and history. To some, the market also serves as a community.
While some of the vendors are relocating to alternative sites such as the Pasir Panjang Wholesale Centre, those who don’t relocate are forced to retire. Customers who have been loyal to them for decades must say goodbye, and the younger generation is deprived of experiencing this community and sense of camaraderie.
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Photography by Brad Lee.