Nightly buzz at Jurong for the catch of the day

IT IS just past midnight and as the rest of Singapore winds down, the lights and motors in a little corner of Jurong are just getting started and revved.

Tucked away in Singapore's west end, the Jurong Fishery Port is abuzz with activity through the wee hours of the morning.

In a 200m-long carpark, forklifts carrying carts of ice zoom about while shirtless men, covered in the salt of their sweat and the sea, drag crates full of the day's catch.

The 46-year-old Jurong Fishery Port is Singapore's oldest and largest seafood wholesale market, where seafood comes fresh off the boats.

Last year, 51,200 tonnes of seafood passed through the market and its stalls.

Everything from red snapper to milkfish to prawns to flower crabs to even Norwegian salmon is sold here.

Scouring the 9,000 sq m cement-floor space are buyers from large supermarket chains such as Sheng Siong, along with fishmongers from neighbourhood wet markets. The latter drive their pickup trucks across the island to the fishery port to buy some of the 200 tonnes of seafood available each day.

Many of them have been fishmongers for decades. Among them are 53-year-old twin sisters Loh May Lam and Loh May Hong, who have been running a fish stall at Bukit Timah Market for more than 30 years.

"We like to come here early, so we have more time to look around," said younger sister May Lam, as she prepared her empty styrofoam boxes to be filled with fish. The sisters arrive at the market around 2am every trading day, about an hour before the action starts.

Then they slosh through icy-cold water with other buyers.

The day's catch is laid out on the floor with ice dumped over it to keep it cool. But in Singapore's heat, the ice melts quickly and the fishy-smelling water runs everywhere, in rivulets over slippers and the ubiquitous rubber boots.

"It's a fish market. Some people come here because it's interesting, but for us it's work," said the younger Madam Loh in between dodging Hokkien-yelling porters, who help to carry boxes full of fish, and picking out two baskets of prawns and sotong (Malay for squid). "We don't have a list for what to buy - we get whatever is fresh."

Prices at the market can be up to 20 per cent lower than at wet markets, so on weekends a small crowd of seafood lovers visit the place to haggle and make purchases straight from the wholesalers.

By 5am, the action winds down and most of the workers head to the canteen for breakfast.

The Jurong Fishery Port started operating in 1969 and was last renovated in the 1980s.

There are plans to give the 5.1ha space, which includes a port for docking fishing vessels, a 400m-long wharf and the fish market, a facelift.

But the authorities have not given details on when that would take place or what would be upgraded.

Wholesalers, however, have come up with their own wish lists.

Many hope the fishery port can become a bustling tourist attraction, like Fishermen's Wharf in San Francisco or Tsukiji Market in Tokyo.

"We could add another level to the market and have fish processing services there, and have seafood restaurants for the public," said Mr Lee Boon Cheow, 76, who runs High Tide Frozen Food. He is also president of the Singapore Fish Merchants' General Association.

The fishery port is underutilised, he noted. It is busy from midnight to 6am, but empty at other times. "This is one of the oldest public facilities in Singapore - look at how much Housing Board flats have changed over the years," he said.

Many are hoping the upgrade will attract younger Singaporeans to the industry.

"This is backbreaking work. Young people these days cannot do hard work," said Mr Yang Ah Ming, 72, who works as a porter hauling loads of fish and ice.

He makes about $600 a month dragging loads of between 30kg and 40kg for three hours. "I've been doing it for so long that my hands always smell of fish."

Many of the older fishmongers and wholesalers are worried they might not live to see the new port.

"They've been talking about renovating the place for so long, but it hasn't happened," said Mr Cher Chek Cher, 72, a supervisor at Teo Seng Fish Agency.

"I'm so old already. I don't know if I will be alive to see it."

This article was first published on February 13, 2015.
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