Kampung spirit alive in Yishun

Yishun is not called the heartland for nothing, as I am greeted with a genuine smile and a cheery "Good morning!" early in the day.

Security officer Ismail Mohamad may be responsible for only condominium estate Euphony Gardens, but he goes the extra mile by greeting everyone passing by his guard post in Jalan Mata Ayer.

The 60-year-old has been working there since 2011 and he claims to know all the residents in Euphony Gardens by name. Clad in a neatly pressed uniform, he mans the post from 8am to 8pm on weekdays. When asked about his friendly personality, he laughs.

"Twelve hours a day is boring. You have to think of ways to make this job interesting. And the people here are so nice."

Beneath his easy charm, however, is a more sombre story. He and his wife have three children, the youngest of whom suffers from a spinal vein slip. As he draws a monthly salary of only about $1,700, Mr Ismail is unable to afford her physiotherapy bills.

"She has to walk like this," he says, jutting his lower back at an awkward angle to demonstrate her limp.

His wife, who has asthmatic and leg problems, also needs to take care of her elderly mother.

Despite his difficulties, the indomitable guard chooses to remain optimistic.

"The most important thing is to find joy in your life."

Peter Lee, 38, agrees wholeheartedly. I find the stocky butcher wearing a stained apron busily soaping down his stall in Chongpang Market.

Although he has been up since 2am selecting and trimming cuts of meat for sale, Mr Lee remains passionate about his pork. He beams when asked about his unique stall name.

"Fresh N Save Pork Concept is the only stall here that sells frozen meat. It's not just the meat, but also the whole idea of affordable and fresh meat."

He started out as a vineyard quality surveyor in Adelaide, Australia, at the age of 17, before returning to Singapore in 2004 as a meat quality inspector for the Agri-Food & Veterinary Authority.

Curiosity then led him to take up butchering for Cold Storage two years later. He grew to love the front-line job so much that he decided to start his own stall in 2008.

Mr Lee's trade secret is written on his face: a boyish grin. Also, he always adds a little meat at no additional cost, so that his clientele grows by word of mouth.

"You must bring happiness to customers, not sadness," he says.

Surrounding the wet market are many shops ranging from bakeries to mobile-device resellers. Of these, many are mom-and-pop establishments well into their third decade.

Kaga Hardware Trading is one example. Co-run by Loh Goo Cheng and her elder brother, Loh Ah Chong, since 1984, this hardware store seems untouched by time.

It is a rabbit's warren. Shelves packed with cans of paint and thinner tower over my head, while screws of all shapes and sizes litter the counter.

Crammed to bursting point, these metal shelves offer a dizzying array of home-improvement tools, yet Madam Loh can tell you where something is within 10 seconds.

"Oh, it's nothing," she says modestly. "It's only been 31 years."

Ever grandmotherly, she insists I take two sour plum candies from the counter candy jar before leaving.

Right next door is Bonny Tan, 51, and his furniture store. In contrast with his traditional neighbours, Mr Tan prides his store on being modelled after the "showroom concept", and is even in the midst of planning an e-catalogue.

"I want to be able to show customers my furniture on an iPad," he says, adding that he hopes to expand his business' online presence in the next two years.

"Maybe we can even start having online ordering," he says with a smile.


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