Vanishing Local Street Vendors?

I remember when I was a kid living in Ang Mo Kio, I’d eagerly wait for the ringing of bells in the evenings. It was the sound that marked the arrival of my favourite mobile rojak vendor, who usually made his rounds at the ground floor of my flat once every few days.

His mobile stall looked something like the current mobile ice-cream vendor, with all the necessary ingredients, sauce bottles, bags, cashier box as well as a small wok packed in a limited space.

The portion was generous enough, not to mention delicious, for me to enjoy an evening snack. Sadly, I don’t see one peddling for business now.

Maybe it’s no longer approved by the authority.

Mobile ice-cream vendors, though, can still be found in many parts of Singapore.

They provide a wide range of flavours such as durian, chocolate chips, peppermint, vanilla, coconut, etc, accompanied with biscuit wafers or bread. At only $1 per flavour, it’s a treat for many especially in a hot afternoon.

The mobile ice-cream vendors have the advantage to move their business according to human traffic, so you will usually find them in crowded places such as Raffles Place or Orchard Road.

Every now and then, pasar malam are being set up temporarily along the roads in neighbourhoods. Vendors can rent spaces to sell snacks, drinks, clothes, handphone accessories; in recent years, some even sell cars at pasar malams.

Food is always a good option for street vendors. Kacang puteh (literally means white bean in Malay) used to be a favourite snack for Singaporeans, who loved to buy one or two cones during their visits to cinemas. The trade, however, experienced a big decline since the nineties. Today, there may be only a handful of them still holding on to this trade, such as the one at Selegie Road.

It is not easy for the kacang puteh man to prepare his stocks, as he needs to peel, fry, roast and even sugar-coat to create a variety of peanuts, beans and peas for sale, packed neatly in paper cones at $1 each.

While kacang puteh is usually sold by the Indians, another nut-selling business seems to be dominated by the Chinese. Gao Luk, or roasted chestnut, are being fried in wok with roasted coffee beans until their shells turn brown. They are not so common now, probably due to the lack of interest from the public. A packet of about 30 gao luk can cost as much as $10 now!

For those who grow up in the seventies, a vendor selling a type of sweet called ding ding dang might ring a bell. The uncle balanced his tray of white sweets expertly on his head, holding a cutter and a stick in his hands, which also served as a rapping tool to announce his arrival.

I am sure many of us still remember those battery-powered cars for children commonly seen at the centrals of the new towns in the eighties and nineties. Costing a mere $1 for a 10 minute ride then, kids could choose to drive a car or motorbike. And to drive a mini police car with sirens, you just have to pay a bit more!

Today, these popular vendors are hardly seen. One of them still operates at Bukit Merah central though, with a fleet of about 10 vehicles. The prices are higher now, but it is still extremely popular among the kids.

Mobile keysmiths (one who cuts keys) and cobblers are still pretty much a common sight on the streets, offering effective and cheap alternatives to the public. They normally start their business at the same spot everyday, as it will be a hassle to move their temporary stalls consists of chairs, toolboxes and giant umbrellas.

However, the ones operating these licensed stalls are largely of the older generation, and I fear in the next ten or twenty years, we will no longer see them on our streets.

Published: 01 January 2011

Updated: 04 January 2012

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20 Responses to Vanishing Local Street Vendors?

  1. peishi says:

    there is this rojak uncle who has been operating around the serangoon ave 4 estate since i was a kid (im 27 now). he drives around the estate in an old motorbike fitted with a mobile stall from 5pm to 7pm and stops at strategic blocks to sell rojak. its still $1 a pack after 20 years :D he will make his presence known by sounding an old school bike horn as he arrives at a block, then sounding again if there are no customers. hope u can catch him in action and blog about this dying trade :)

  2. NICKOLAS says:

    As a tourist I have been visiting Singapore for 20 years.
    It’s as if Singapore’s soul is vanishing. I can understand the need for more efficient housing
    but I can see nothing wrong with night time stalls in the streets.
    Places like Clarke Quay have become sterile vacuums.
    Haven’t visited for 3 years now so even Smith Street has probably disappeared.
    It’s sad.

  3. Rebecca says:

    I miss the old man selling freshly toasted bread on bicycle or tricycle at Chinatown. He is usually situated at the pavement near the zebra crossing, where the CK departmental store is facing the On Cheong Goldsmith shop. His bread are often sold out and you need to be there very early to get the toasted bread. My mum will always get the bread with Kaya after her night shift before the morning crowd comes.

    • ken says:

      i remember an old lady dragging her big basket of bread and going door to door selling her wares back then. we’d always buy a loaf from her and an extra doughnut for me. i miss the old lady. she always had a smile.

    • PY85 says:

      hi i am looking for pictures of the old man and i remember there is a interview done with him .. Any idea where i can look for it?

  4. Roy says:

    I used to live in Teban Garden, I stayed at block 9. Everyday there was this little malay boy carrying a big basket selling hot curry puff from door to door. I missed those days!

  5. mf says:

    Ah, the ice cream bike… A dear friend and I used to meet in AMK central to walk home together once a week when we went to different secondary schools; we stayed on opposite blocks. Even though it would be just before dinner, we loved getting a $0.60 ice cream stick from the ice cream uncle who parked his bike opposite the old NTUC. The last time I did this was outside the columbarium at Bishan during Qing Ming two years ago!

  6. Henry Tan says:

    Yesh.. The AMK ice-cream bike one comes with ah-tap seed if you pick the non chocolate flavor, I miss those days where you hear the sound of ‘ting ting ting’ and you know that your favorite sweets are selling at your block. Also to mention the fun fair comes to neighborhood especially the UK Funfair.

  7. An old ice-cream vendor and a keysmith ply their trades outside Sim Lim Tower on a hot Saturday afternoon…

  8. Patricia Tan says:

    how about tt old uncle who sells Zee Chang Poh Piah outside OG People’s Park? (That sweet thingy wrapped with poh piah skin)

  9. This one is very similar to the mobile rojak vendor mentioned in the article…


    (Source: Facebook Group “Lorong Tai Seng”)

  10. Jasmine says:

    I remember that there was a mobile Chai Tao Guey (Fried Carrot Cake) uncle who sold on his bike during nitetime at AMK in the early 80s. My dad used to bring me out in the evenings for a walk to see if the uncle was selling that nite or not. I don’t remember where he usually parked maybe it was at Ave 6. Sometimes, he doesn’t turn up and we had to buy something else at the hawker centre. I remember he would fry it straight up after you ordered and packed it in an opei leave wrapped up with a string to take away. Since i was a chid then, i was truly fascinated by his cooking skills for show. Anybody had it b4?

  11. Nickolas says:

    As a tourist I WANT to see something different. Not more KFC & McDonalds.
    Hi density urbanisation shouldn’t impact on street sellers. They can be ‘regulated’ for health and be ‘allocated’ spaces for a modest rent.
    Honestly, a street seller doesn’t take up much space. The government should allow them back
    to inject some character into what is fast becoming a sterile hi-tech vacuum.
    What fond memories will Singaporean children now have apart from a new mobile app ?

  12. Vanishing trades reappear on new stamps

    The Straits Times
    Published on Oct 15, 2013


    The local tradesmen featured include (clockwise from top left) the kacang puteh seller, the lantern maker, the songkok maker, the goldsmith, the parrot astrologer, the ice-ball seller, the knife sharpener and the cobbler.

    A NEW set of stamps featuring local tradesmen such as cobblers, goldsmiths and milkmen is going into circulation.

    Postal service provider SingPost is launching the Vanishing Trades stamp collection to preserve the memories of these trades, brought to local shores by immigrants from Malaysia, India and Sri Lanka decades ago.

    “Many of these trades that were once a familiar sight are fast disappearing, with Singapore’s development as an urban metropolis,” it said in a press statement yesterday.

    Parrot astrologers, for instance, came to Singapore from India in the late 19th century. Their parakeets would pick up tarot cards so that their handlers could could tell a patron’s future.

    Other examples include lantern makers, knife sharpeners and ice-ball sellers who sold drinks and ice-balls drenched in colourful syrup or milk, with toppings such as cooked red beans.

    For research in designing the the stamps, Ms Lim An-ling interviewed her family members and headed down to Little India to look for sellers of kacang puteh (steamed, fried or roasted nuts) to sketch and photograph.

    Said the freelance animator and illustrator: “My favourite stamp is the one of the ice-ball seller. My mother used to love eating that so she described it to me and we both think it turned out well.”

    A complete set of the 10 different Vanishing Trades stamps costs $4.08. They go on sale tomorrow at all post offices and the Singapore Philatelic Museum.

    Orders can also be made at SingPost’s online shopping portal at http://shop.vpost.com.sg

  13. Nickolas says:

    Well done bureaucrats. You have ensured that ‘colour’ has left your Singaporean streets and ended up on postage stamps. You are essentially commemorating the destruction of Singapore’s character by YOUR hands.

  14. Funny says:

    garmen thinks that anything not earning money doesn’t deserve to be in singapore

    sad

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