The best news for me over the past week is that my neighbourhood hawker centre and market will open for business next week. They’ve been closed since early this year for renovations and was to open in late April, then the circuit breaker measures kicked in and all the foreign workers stayed away. Over the past week, they’ve been back to finish the job.
Life in my neighbourhood changed way before Covid-19 was named, because such an important amenity was shut down. I pity the hawkers and stall holders who can’t carry on the business – and worse, can’t go on holiday either. Some had taken to working out of home and doing deliveries. Some had finagled other stalls in other markets. I was surprised when I found familiar names on some food delivery apps – the porridge stall, the Hokkien mee stall, the oyster omelette people. Cheh! I thought. Very good leh.
On the other hand, the coffeeshops are really raking in customers because one big competitor is now seriously out of action. Because the wet market is closed, the supermarkets and mini-marts are so super-crowded that you can’t pass each other in the narrow aisles! What’s worse is when safe distancing measures require those in the payment queue to stretch back into the aisles. You hear plenty of “scuse me, scuse me”.
Recently, I can see the slow opening up of other businesss in this Phase 1 of easing of measures. The bird shop opened for a few hours and now, for longer. The hair-dressing salons and barbershops are doing a roaring business. But the beauty salons and manicure shops are still shut, because they’re not considered essential business. Whoever decided on this segregation must be male. It takes three hours to colour a headful of hair and 10 minutes for an express manicure/pedicure. You can gossip for ages with your hair-dresser because you’re stuck for so long in a chair, but you wouldn’t do the same with your manicurist lest she botch up her work through inattention.
The bubble tea shops have re-opened as well but I don’t see the sort of frenzy that accompanied their last night of business-as-usual last month. Some medical halls have started business too with safe entry procedures and young people taking temperature. An enterprising shop which sells handphones and accessories opened up for business which surprised me. But I saw that it had covered its usual wares with newspapers and was selling SIM cards and the like and even doing remittances for foreign workers. Plus inside the store was a small space for a hairdresser.
At the beginning, the neighbourhood confectionaries were closed as well but the shutters soon came up and they sold bread and buns; apparently cakes are not allowed. The cake shop, on the other hand, had to close. It opened in Phase 1. I wondered again about the distinction between cake and bread. Luxury item versus essential sustenance?
The pace of life has quickened. Over the past two days, I have watched the market stallholders and hawkers turning up at their new digs as the construction barriers were progressively taken down. I waved at the father-mother-son selling chicken wings inspecting their stall, saw the coffee lady back in her singlet and shorts and how one hardware shop seems to be ready for customers even though the opening date was next week. Durians, by the way, are back in fruit stalls.
A certain friendliness is in the air. It makes a change from the sense of loss over the past two months when there was no hawker centre, no wet market and no place to hang out. Even the fitness corners for exercise have been taped up. I no longer see the qigong groups when I brisk walk. Whenever I pass people whom I know by sight along pavements, we would nod at each other. My mother never fails to stop and chat with someone she knows on her marketing rounds. Of course, masked up and at a distance.
It’s a natural social need that has to be assuaged. We want to be in familiar places with familiar faces.
I look forward to seeing the usual groups at their usual haunts although I’m not sure how social distancing will affect the camaraderie. I can expect a flood of grateful residents when it’s business-as-usual for the much missed hawkers and stall holders. I suppose I can also expect more social distancing ambassadors.
For me, it’s nice to be able to buy my usual kopi-c from the stall I have always patronised. I hope it will still be $1.10 a cup.