Tiong Bahru Market, 5.30pm

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Blue signs on the tables, blue signs on the walls, all telling us to practise courtesy. When finished your meal, return your plate and your tray to the old cleaners, the elderly who scrape scraps into buckets, jangle cutlery into tubs, some slight comfort coming from the fans blowing respite onto their backs.

 

There is greenery edging in too, from the trees that make the centre of this place, a green that pops against the storm grey of the sky and the orange, papaya, carrot, passionfruit, all the other juices for sale, $2.50 and under.

 

The palm trees peering into the food centre wave ever-so-slightly in the breeze, predicting the deluge, warning patrons of pig organ soup to slam down their offal and scurry home, plastic bags crinkling in their fists, takeaway kueh smacking against their calves, in a bid to stay dry.

 

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The red lanterns adorning Tian Tian Yuan Dessert House are particularly bright at this time of the afternoon. Too early for night lighting and yet the sky so grey, they form a beacon in this dim centre, beckoning us closer for tapioca balls, shaved ice, and sugar.

 

Where light filters low, sound pipes up. An Auntie shouting at her worker in Mandarin, the sizzling of early dinners, filling every empty space of this centre with life.

 

And then 5.35 hits and the night lights switch on. I can see things properly now: the courtesy sign that reads tempat meletak dulang in Malay, the neon rainbow of Tow Kwar Pop, and the bright yellow t-shirts of three generations sharing a meal together, all of them glowing bright against the mottled cream of their tables.

 

Noise grows, people move, and a new feast begins.

 

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