MEMORABLE: Built between 1884 and 1885, Taiping’s central market remains the country’s largest non-indigenous wood-and-cast iron structure. As the local authorities consider plans to restore and transform this space into a food and souvenir market, Taiping-born writer Liew Suet Fun walks its corridors and discovers within its shelter, the human lives that have long defined this space.
ON a day like this, there is a flurry in the market. It is Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year and a day that bears great significance for the Chinese. It is a day of prayer with special offerings to be made by six in the evening, before the light falters. On the altar, you will find, among them, the requisite steamed whole chicken, roasted pork, an array of sweet buns and bowls of rice.
And so, at the Taiping central market this morning, the most favoured is snapped up quickly.
Cheh Wai Teck, 75, who sells up to 200kg of roast pork on festive days is already sitting comfortably and sipping his cold coffee just after 8am.
His apron, spattered with oil stains, tell-tale signs of fervent activity, recalls his busyness from 4am.
“On normal days, we sell about 50kg. But today, by 7.30am, we sold
a few hundred kilogrammes,” he said, indicating with his hand a row of empty hooks where the meat is usually displayed.
Some plastic bags, containing uncollected cuts, have been discreetly hung at the back of the stall.
Cheh’s stall was started by his father about 70 years ago, after the family moved from Tanjung Tualang, a small town near Ipoh where he worked as a rubber tapper.
Cheh was born in a rubber estate and lived there till he was 7, when the family moved to Taiping.
He operates in the exact place where his father began business in 1948, a prime spot facing Kota Road.
Beneath the eaves of the central section of the open-sided market, which locals call siang malam, a reference coming from a time when it was a 24-hour cluster of stalls selling food and drinks to truckers and travellers plying the north-south route to and from Penang, are other inter-generational businesses.
Sau Lip Huat at 42, counts as the new generation of petty traders in this 130-year old market. His father started the stall, which sells many varieties of beancurd-based products, fresh noodles, bean sprouts, fish balls and fish cakes, more than 50 years ago.
“I started working here 20 years ago, taking over from my father,” he said.
In his father’s time, Sau said, the business was focused more on fresh bean- curd, sprouts and noodles. These days, he has included fried bean curd and more variations of fish cakes.
Within the covered areas of the central market, meat and vegetables are sold. Despite the plethora of shuffling shoppers and meat and all manner of produce, it does not smell or feel oppressive.
The market’s high roof, held up by fine wooden beams and louvered wooden walls, ensure that air and light travel through without impediment.
While I usually avoid lingering near butchers, today, I feel it is possible to saunter through the spacious meat market without gagging.
Nearby, an Indian Muslim butcher sells fresh cuts of beef. Eighty-something Mohamad Haniffa was in his twenties when he took over the business in 1941 from his father, S.M. Marirowthi, who had come to Malaya from South India. Although he has retired, he still comes to the market every morning “out of habit”.
His son, 53-year-old Abdul Rani, with his jovial manner and wide smile, serves the many regular customers they have acquired over almost eight decades.
Further along, 37-year-old Ganesan and his cousin, 27-year-old Ramayah Sasi, who hails from India, are working three stalls selling mutton.
“Business is okay here. We have regular customers, mostly Malays and Indians,” Ganesan said.
It is a third generation business started by his grandfather more than 60 years ago.
Bean sprouts, delivered early from Ipoh, are carefully rinsed in large stainless steel drums by Yeoh Soon Hock. Yeoh, in his 70’s, continues in a business started more than 80 years ago by his father, who had moved to Taiping from Penang.
“We are workers,” he said, showing me his reddened hands that are soaked in water daily for at least ten hours. He is a bachelor, he explained, because he had spent all his life working from six in the morning to six in the evening, leaving him no time to “find a nice lady”.
Although he attended a local Catholic school, his father had expected him to take over the business, so he had little choice in the matter.
I realised that walking through the market was like walking through the history of Taiping. The inter-generational businesses, many breaching a century, testify to the shifting fabric of its society and the oftentimes challenging path it had to tread.
And while the structure of the market is inspiring, straddling several main roads and still sturdy after 130 years, the lives spent under its towering roofs contained stirring accounts of human tenacity, perseverance and complete dedication to what would be usually viewed as mundane but completely essential tasks that make our lives go round.
For without the experience of wet markets, bursting with noise and colour, we will only have the clinical setting of supermarkets.
Where would we be then in the barometer of our lives, if we are never reminded of the human hands that washed, cut, cleaned so assiduously so that we can partake of our meal with such thanksgiving?
What would we be if we never cherished the past that shaped
us and made us what we have become?