“The market is very dirty,” Terence says, tugging gently at his singlet to show the grime. “Dirty and hot.”
His mother had been selling coffee powder for over 20 years and decided to bring her son into the business after his National Service. Terence obliged and has continued for the past 13 years.
“Surprisingly, and ironically, I enjoy doing this trade. I really didn’t expect it. I was in my 20s and wanted to take it easy. At the time I was a physical trainer, but the savings were not enough. I was young and just fooling around. So my mother rented an empty stall next to hers: she continued to sell coffee, and I started selling… local junk food!”
Their work begins at 5.00am when the market is buzzing with workers on their way to the shipyard, bus terminals, and bakeries— this is the shift of urban “dawn workers” grabbing a cup of coffee and snacks as they kindle the engine of the city before it fully rises.
As the soft light grows stronger in the afternoon, the demographic of customers switch and “we get a lot of OLs who come by during their lunch hour—.”
I broke in. “Sorry, what do you mean by OLs?”
“You haven’t heard the term OL before? Office ladies!”
I broke out laughing. Of course, Singaporeans love acronyms!
Terence grinned and continued. “The OLs usually pick up three to four packets to keep at their desk during the day.”
It was close to 1.00pm and, true enough, his stall was lively with office professionals sifting through their choices.
“We import from Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand— anything colourful that you see is from Thailand— and recently we started wholesaling.”
What has the trade taught him over 13 years?
“The biggest thing I learned was how to manage my money. With a business like this, there’s income every day instead of a monthly paycheck, but it can go away just as easily. It’s tempting to take it and spend, especially when we are young—you know how it is: we want to hang out with our friends, and spend. So I learned the secret: give the money to your wife—that’s how you’ll save. Seriously!”
This interview is featured in a coffeetable book showcasing business owners from diverse trades in Singapore. The gorgeous publication was sponsored by the Singapore Business Federation and SG50 Celebration Fund with a lovely cover design from Paperplane, a visual storytelling studio based in Singapore.
Shopkeeper Stories is a photographic documentary of small business owners and their trades around the world, sharing their tips and insights. You can connect with the community on Instagram and Facebook @ShopkeeperStories