But observant passers-by would spot something amiss. Tents—the kind you see at void deck weddings—shelter a section of unused pavement outside Pei Chun Public School, and plastic chairs lean against its chain-link fence.
At the end of the street, there is a light-blue portable toilet and a shrine to the Laughing Buddha.
Customers squat kerbside to pick out the best, before heading over to the lorry bed, where a makeshift cashier is waiting, lit by a Halogen glare.
Whilst Singapore sleeps, the quiet street slowly turns into Toa Payoh East Vegetable Market.
It starts around 11-ish and is gone by 6, when the school day starts and traffic must flow once again.
Even Toa Payoh residents who live just across the road are not quite sure how it works. One friendly resident, who guided me to the location, tells me the market had been there since 1973, when he first moved to Toa Payoh.
When I arrive shortly after 11 PM, business is just picking up. Most of the vendors have set up shop, but some delivery trucks have yet to arrive. There’s waiting to be done, and that’s how we strike up a conversation with a regular who’s been buying here for 11 or 12 years.
This regular is a hawker who runs a Yong Tau Foo stall in Kaki Bukit with his wife, catering mostly to the ‘office lunch crowd’ and he’s here tonight to pick up ingredients. He lives just 5 minutes away in Toa Payoh, and visits because it’s fresher and cheaper compared to supermarkets.
“You can get $100’s worth of vegetables for maybe $60 to $70 dollars,” he reckons, “Because it comes direct from Malaysia.”
As we speak, a truck bearing the name ‘Raj Agency’ squeezes between the crates and begins unloading, but it is not his delivery.
“You telling me they take over and lose money? Cannot be,” he said.
Likewise, business is rough for the vendors here. If they can’t sell everything, what’s left has to be thrown away.
“Sometimes, the old folks homes will come later, at 5 AM, and the vendors will give away what’s left of their stock as charity,” he said, “But what can you do? Nobody wants to buy yellowing leaves.”
When we suggest franchising his stall for more profits, he guffaws.
“My own kids are not interested. When they were younger maybe, but I have to force them to help by using pocket money,” he says with a chuckle.
The ‘Ang Moh’ in question is Mr. Gino Abate, a F&B proprietor who runs three establishments, including The Reading Room (ft. Crazy Rich Asians) and Craig Road’s Pastaria Abate, where his wife works as the head chef.
“It’s a nice atas setting … but no GST and no service charge,” he tells me with a grin.
It’s also pretty convenient. Not too long a drive from his place in town.
Tonight, he’s buying mushrooms, shallots, garlic, and basically “everything you need to cook with”. The mushrooms will go into the sauté pan tomorrow, along with porcini that he sources from elsewhere. His delivery too is nowhere in sight.
“I asked the guy and he said wait another 10 minutes.”
“I busy, you go and ask him? He is the oldest here,” says one of the bosses, pointing at a tanned elderly man with the broad shoulders of someone long used to manual labour.
The man is Mr. Wu, the market’s longest-serving employee at 71. He has worked at Toa Payoh East for about 40 years, or since his twenties. He seems guarded at first, but eventually, he pauses his work to chat.
“There were a few vehicles, but they were tiny ones,” he recalls.
A member of the Teochew dialect group, Mr. Wu lived in Kampung Potong Pasir and like most kampung residents, he grew “leafy” vegetables like kailan and caixin. Nothing “dry” like aubergine or cucumber, he adds.
When they were ready, he would pedal them to Toa Payoh East—not this Toa Payoh East, but the original Toa Payoh East market, which was further up the road, near Lorong 6.
“The market moved three times,” he explains, though he cannot remember when or why.
“Business? Where got business? Today even supermarkets are 24 hours,” he said.
Mr Wu has 2 sons, and they are both well-to-do professionals. His eldest is a director who works in Beijing for a five-figure salary, while the younger runs self-service laundromats. He can afford to retire comfortably, but wants to work until he cannot work anymore, because he believes that life will end when he leaves the market.
“I’ve been working for 40 years, but if I stop, I will be dead in 3 or 4 years,” he said, crooking his index finger to make the gesture for death.
Today, he still tends a small garden, but it’s nothing like the old days. In fact, he wishes he could turn back time and trade-in his Ang Mo Kio flat for a kampung.
“Things were so much cheaper then. If I wanted vegetables, I just need to open a door and pluck them. Or I could buy them for 50 cents. Nowadays, where to find?”