The Fishy Business

By Sheere Ng - Wednesday, Jul 11, 2012

There are folks who look like Phua Chu Kang, but in a bad mood. To get what you want from them, you need to speak the Singaporean vernacular – a mixture of Hokkien, Chinese, Bahasa and even vulgarities. But be prepared for the same coarse language come pelting at you, if the crushed ice and the waste water don’t. I was at the Jurong Fishery Port, the largest distribution centre for fresh fish in Singapore, on a Tuesday morning from 2am to 6am. Fortunately, I have an insider guide, Alex, the owner of a seafood stall at Tekka Market, to ease me into this kaleidoscopic scene. Through his eyes, I get to see what goes on in this “fishy business”. *The upcoming Singapore Food Festival will celebrate this “fishy” aspect of the food culture. For $150+, a chef will take you on a tour through the fishery port to learn how to pick the freshest catch, followed by a freshly prepared seafood breakfast in a restaurant. For more details visit www.singaporefoodfestival.com.sg or call 6796 9331.

Womanfolk is a rare phenomenon in this male dominated industry. They are usually the daughters, wives or relatives of distributors, or as they call “tow kay soh”.

Where Phua Chu Kang gets his inspiration from. But people at the fishery port actually wear these yellow boots for a purpose – to prevent slipping.

At three in the morning, anywhere goes.

The lifeline that keeps the seafood fresh – crushed ice is churned and produced throughout operating hours.

Haggling is the way to go but be prepared to get an earful by this lady here if she thinks your offering price is ridiculous.

Alex lingers till almost dawn when prices tend to drop. This is one of the many calls he receives from the distributors, who finally caved in to his lower price offer, as the sun is about to rise.

Don’t even assume the seafood is cheaper at the wholesalers. Gone are the days of cheap seafood because of heightened demand and reduce supplies worldwide, plus the affecting oil prices. This season, strong wind in the region is affecting the fisherman’s hauls and hence, supplies. Gone are also old school accounting apparatuses like the dedicated calculator and abacus. Fishmongers now swipe their iPhone and Androids to check whether he can offer you big discounts.

An expert would rejoice at the sight of blood – a symbol of freshness – perhaps only at the fish market. Not a sight for the squeamish.

This port comes into life at midnight and then goes back to sleep at about 9am.

Most stalls have a wooden cashier table like this, shipped in from Indonesia along with the seafood. According to the distributors, this particular wood is sturdy enough to withstand the wet floor.

Not commonly known, but this man provides the “extra services” of scaling and gutting. But most fishmongers prefer to keep their goods as it is because customers like to feel and see the seafood with all intact, when choosing.

With stares like these, it’s better to think twice before slashing the price!

“Don’t get fooled by what it says on the scale,” says Alex. Ice would factor its way into the basket and sale price, and only the experts would know how to work the sums out.

The Agri-Food &Veterinary Authority duly conducts food safety and handling spot checks on five random stalls every day. Their office is just above the market.

Majority of our wet market seafood comes through this port before being distributed all over town. They are shipped in from Indonesia, brought in by trucks from Malaysia and Thailand, and even flown in from further away exporters like Australia, China and Norway.

Fishermen from Malaysia and Indonesia prefer to make Singapore their first trading stop because distributors here settle payment on the spot. This fisherman is waiting for the leftover seafood to be loaded onto a vessel, which will head back to where it came from. This not-so-fresh-seafood will, ironically, fetch a higher price at their country of origin because they have become “imports”.

Fish receiving a “cold treatment” with a splash of crushed ice before they are packed away or displayed for sale.

Ever wonder why barbeque stingray is tender only sometimes? Well, you may have gotten the male (left) as their meats are tougher, hence cheaper, than the smoother and juicier female (right) – all aspects not commonly visible to the casual eye.

Jurong Fishery Port on the busiest day of the week (Tuesday) after a traditional one-day break on Monday. The port, which started operations in 1969, handles about 200 to 250 tonnes of fish each day.