the yong tau fu seller and her Mona Lisa smile

Why can’t I find the yong tau fu seller? Or the chicken seller, or the nice couple that sells the fish, for that matter? Am I supposed to turn left here or make a right?

I had recently gone with my mum on a whirlwind educational experience/buying trip at the neighbourhood wet market. Like a tornado, my mum blew through the place with a breathless me in tow, picked up what we needed and left the rest behind.

My ma was initiating me into the old school ways of the Singaporean wife/mum/home CEO. She picked me up and brought me to the nearby wet market where she’s been doing her marketing for decades. And she’s expedient. With ridiculous efficiency, we weaved in, out and between rows of stalls, and got what we needed in quick succession. She would whiz past two different poultry stalls to get to the third because that one is the best.

And she knows where the best of everything is. Where the best fruit and vegetable seller is (“He claims his stuff is organic,” my mum sniffed with that faintest hint of suspicion that all experienced wet-market shoppers have acquired to gain street cred); who has the freshest chicken (“Ask for kampung chicken if you want leaner chicken. They also have the probiotic chicken these days. That’s also good, but more expensive lah,” she informs me); and which stall to go to for the best yong tau fu ingredients.

That yong tau fu lady.

Perched on a chair by her stall, often in a simple black top. Apart from a slight raise of an eyebrow and the faintest of head tilts, all she gives away is the smallest of smiles. Enigmatic, like the Mona Lisa.

At every stall we patronised, my mum would say gruffly to the seller, “This is my daughter, okay? Must remember her, hor.” Which is basically code for “don’t take advantage, and only ever give her the good quality stuff, please.” And when I picked up some vegetables from my mum’s vegetable guy, he kindly threw in a bunch of fresh cilantro for free.

After we were sorted on the raw, uncooked stuff, my mum and I speed-walked over to the best chwee kueh stall because I absolutely love the stuff (“Must come early or it’ll be sold out,” ma warns). I desperately took mental pictures of everything, and even took an actual photo of the chwee kueh stall because, well, it’s chwee kueh, people.

And there I was again, a fortnight later, barely recovered, me with my spanking new marketing trolley with gloriously hot pink wheels. My Jedi master (a.k.a. mother) has thrown me in the deep end. This (not-so-little) padawan is about to brave the endless rows of market stalls so as to gather food to feed my hungry family. Just kidding, ma.

So, I know I may be getting some eye-rolls here, and “Ey, you never go wet market before, ah?” is to be expected. But the fact is, when I was younger, I’d follow my mum around sometimes as she did the marketing. Back then, there were still live chickens clucking in cages (I don’t see that anymore) and the smells were even more, shall we say, vivid.

And I would still accompany her from time to time as I got older. But I didn’t ever have to be responsible for the groceries (not terribly uncommon on our shores). All of my adult existence, where grocery shopping was actually on my to-do list, was spent overseas where wet markets like ours were non-existent and marketing was done at supermarkets.

Anyway, here I am, present day, in the heat and humidity, embracing the smells and the squishy-ness of the wet market in its full glory. Unfortunately, I was unable to locate the yong tau fu stall that day (I had yet to learn to identify the Mona Lisa in the black tee) which was a real shame, because I ended up buying from someone else and it simply wasn’t as good.

But except for the unfortunate purchase of the inferior yong tau fu, I managed to locate all the other stalls after making a few wrong turns here and there. I even gleefully tapao-ed a packet of my favourite breakfast home. I felt like I had earned my special treat.

I’ve often felt that at the whiplash-inducing speed by which our country has developed, we’ve (at least I have) lost much of the intangible qualities that make us who and what we are. We are closeted in air-conditioned buildings, and bathed in bright lights and material comforts.

While we have a lot—for which I am grateful—I have noticed an inverse relationship between having and feeling. By which I mean that the more we have, the less we feel. And that is not the kind of life equation that I am shooting for, for myself or my child. I want my bucket to be slightly fuller on the side of feeling.

What I have found is that if I focused on the basic task of marketing, that a trip to the wet market can be a very grounding experience for me. Because at every single stall I stop at, there is a sense of purpose at both ends.

I am not just facing shelves of packaged goods, but am having a genuine conversation with an actual person, who is providing me with the sustenance I seek. When I order a chicken, they will ask if I want it chopped, de-boned, or skinned. And I have to decide.

And when it’s done, a slightly damp bag of chicken is handed over—it is a wet market, after all—money is exchanged, we say thank you, and I go on my way. There is no bland elevator music playing or special lighting that’s designed to encourage me to open up my purse.

In their place is a cacophony … nope, a warm symphony of voices—greetings, laughter, friendly banter and bartering (“fresh or not?”, “can throw in this one free?”)—the sound of birds chirping, and sometimes, not always, an old uncle is busking with his guitar in the background. I always leave feeling I am part of a community, that I am enough and that I have more than enough.

There are days where I would find myself looking forward to pushing my trolley with the hot pink wheels to the wet market. Sure, it’s uncomfortably hot, humid, sticky, and wet. But it makes me feel alive, and connected to something larger and more importantly, for want of a better word, meaningful.

Plus, I hope to unveil the secret behind yong tau fu lady’s Mona Lisa smile and crack the code to the meaning of life. That would be totes amazing.

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