Thursday, April 18, 2013

Dreaming of Farmers' Markets

by Ng Hui Ying
We often think of farmers' markets as a crowd of weekend tents that sprout magically with the morning sun, that have people carting around bags of turnips and leaft green vegetables who are gone by the time noon arrives. That was my impression of it anyway, and I could not be more wrong about some of them.

The first market I went to was a complete disaster, because it was enclosed by four brick walls, and the goods being sold were not all hand-grown by the farmer: apples were shipped from an organic farm east of toronto; preserved fruit jams were packed in pretty glass jars with printed labels on them; people were shopping and buying like they would shop and buy in Walmart or any department store. Where was the personable interaction and sense of community that I thought i'd find? And why were the people tending the stalls not the farmers themselves by employees of the firm? When I left, having bought some seeds and soil (packed in a factory-printed and factory-packaged bag), I was both disappointed and disillusioned with the idea of a farmers market. It didn't help that the carpark was huge and jam-packed with cars.
The thing about framers' markets is that they grew out of a few basic ideals: to be organic, self-managed, and as local as possible to reduce the fuel used in transportation. The idea was driven by the wish to reduce one's carbon footprint and grow non-genetically modified food products. In North America, where almost everything is packaged and processed, this really is a big thing - in Singapore I am thankful that we still have our wet markets.

In fact, in my quest to find "the real thing", I should probably have looked no further than our wet market vendors. Although they would probably not identify with the ideals of the farmers' market (they would probably scoff at it), they are everything it exemplifies and much more: non-genetically modified, in some cases local, fresh and what's more, they know you personally, especially if they have been in your neighbourhood since you were a kid.

The idea's of farmers' markets, organic and local food are really more applicable to north America than to Singapore and Southeast Asia. They are based on a lifestyle that is completely disconnected from the sources of their food and from the people making that food. In Singapore and the other major cities in Southeast Asia, this is quickly becoming the case. But dispersed amongst the supermarkets and Michelin Star restaurants (which honestly don't satisfy my hunger as well as simple hawker food) are pockets of livelihoods that have grown around an honest, direct, relationship with food, and enable their customers to experience the same honesty and directness.

I say "direct" and "honest" because i'm talking about the hawker who chops the chicken after picking it from the row of chickens hanging from the front of his stall, puts it over piping hot rice, and then serves it to you, sitting in full view of the chickens. And the hawker whom you collect your steaming bowl of noodles from, and say thank you to you.

We don't need to follow the model of framers' markets that has been popularized in North America. We don't need to follow what others have done, just because pretty (processed) pictures of food bought, eaten, or made at such events appear on our Instagram or Facebook. Instead, take the inspiration, take the dreams and motivations and energy that drive people to sell their wares at the farmers’ market, grow organic food, and to create handicrafts for customers, and look into your own history, experiences and community. Be true to your background and your country’s background, and create something that is your own—Our own.

Singapore is a very different country from America or Europe or Canada. We puzzle visitors to our shores and instill true admiration in some. People are intrigued by the mix of modern skyscrapers and “traditional” hawkers. We seem to mimic North America while being “Asian” at the same time. Yet what do all these words—Asian, traditional, honest, direct—mean?

I personally think we answer these questions best when we create: art, gardening, pottery, wood and steel tools and instruments, stories, laughter. And the best thing about this is, there is no standard to follow. Set your own standards, share them, and see what happens!
 Of course, not all farmers’ markets are the same. This one cooks and bakes their own pastries every day!
Hot fire + hot chocolate on a wintry Sunday morning

Storytellers Toronto gathers for two hours of storytelling every Sunday—no scripts allowed!

1 comment:

  1. Well done, Hui Ying.

    Yes, we have our own heritage and must take pride in what we already have. Blindly imitating or wholesale import without understanding the context, we become less than authentic.

    Keep up the spirit of writing and sharing.

    Hope to see you at the Kampung soon...

    Kampung Chief