A Peek Into the Unseen Lives of Singapore’s Butchers


Photography by the author. 

As we go about our daily lives, there are many people we encounter and interact with. Often, these interactions stay on the surface. We exchange money with hawkers for food, nod at bus drivers when we take public transport, and that’s about it.

But who are these people and how do they live? What are their hopes and dreams?

On a recent afternoon, a handful of Singapore’s butchers opened up about the stories behind their businesses, and told us a little bit about themselves.

This is Mrs Poon, who works with her husband. She tells us that Mr Poon Enjoys collecting antiques in his free time.

As a couple, they love watching comedies and concerts on VCDS and DVDs they would buy. Her favourite bands are the Bee Gees and the Carpenters.

They enjoy it when customers tell them what they’re going to cook, allowing them to choose the specific part that suits their purposes. They feel satisfied when these customers give them good feedback, and become regulars.

Food is Mrs Poon’s passion. She loves cooking, and if she wasn’t a butcher, she would have wanted to be a chef.

She stopped wearing her wedding ring to work because it got caught on the butcher’s hook and caused her finger to get stuck. She had to cut her ring off but she fixed it after.

This is Mrs Khor. She’s 70 this year.

The business belonged to her husband, and even though he’s passed away, she’s decided to keep the business alive as it has sentimental value to her.

She continues to work alone, and doesn’t listen to music or watch movies.

Mr Tai, who’s 63, stopped being a butcher in his 50s.

He says that there was not much money in it and it was too tiring. It was his father’s business and he started at 18. He worked for 12 hours a day for $7 a day. Prior to that, he worked at a factory where he made $3.50 a day.

He has 1 daughter and 2 sons, and says he loves them all the same. His favourite music: Gen Li Jun, the Taiwanese singer. He prefers music from the 80s, and loves Bruce Lee’s films.

Other things he enjoys doing: eating at Tiong Bahru market.

He hasn’t cooked in 20 years but meat is his favourite. He adds that frozen pork isn’t smelly if you cook it well.

Bao Yi, 60, works with her younger brother.

Her husband is retired, and she has 1 daughter. Her favourite thing about her daughter: she is filial and caring.

This is her husband’s business, but he’s retired due an to a kidney illness. Earning money makes her happy, and her favourite musician is Zhuo Hua Jian from Taiwan.

She adds that she’s not used to listening to music while working as it gets really noisy at the market. The neighbouring stall in Tiong Bahru Market, where she’s located, is also usually grinding up coffee.

She has no favourite movie, though she likes watching Chinese shows. Diet wise, she eats a lot more fish than meat. In fact, she has always preferred to eat fish.

This is Mr and Mrs Lee, who are both 75.

Their business was started by Mr Lee’s father. When he got too old, he then asked Mr Lee to take over. The Lees have a son, but he doesn’t want to be a butcher.

As the Lees got older, they’ve started eating less meat. Mostly, they eat Chinese food because their stomachs can’t handle the Indian or Malay spices.

They were invited to an Indian wedding once and they weren’t used to eating with their hands. They still prefer to eat with chopsticks.

They usually watch TV after work and sleep by 11 PM. Mr Lee loves Kungfu films.

Mao Sheng, 32, is from Sandong and works at Kovan Wet Market.

After arriving in Singapore at 19, he started working as a butcher.

He’s single, and doesn’t have any favourite foods. “In China they have 56 states so you can never finish trying the different cuisines,” he says.

He starts work at 1 AM and finishes around 1 PM.

Fun fact: butchers usually use pink light so it reddens the meat and makes it look more appealing.

Vijay, who is 28, works at GV Meat Distributors. 

His relationship status: “seeing someone”.

His meat business was a family trade that was passed down from his grandfather – this makes him a third generation butcher. He had to take over the business as no one else in his family wanted to do it.

His favourite music: Pop and K Pop. But when he works he prefers to listen to the local radio. He finds it rather mundane to create his own playlist.

 He loves gangster films and his favourite movies are Goodfellas and The Godfather.

 “No I don’t cook,” he says. But  if given the time, he would like to learn from his mother because she makes a really good pepper mutton. He thinks most people now can’t tell the difference between frozen and fresh meat. The difference is that when you cook fresh meat, it should be tender. When you boil frozen meat, it makes the meat smell and taste better.

Vijay also thinks that the future of the meat industry is quite hazy. People these days can’t commit to the long working hours and they don’t like hard labour.

But he enjoys meeting a lot of interesting people throughout the course of his work. It’s somewhat different from the ordinary. He also gets to meet a lot of his father’s old customers.

He shares that he has worked in an office before, but finds that he may not get the satisfaction he gets now.

Fun fact: this (the above image) is a butcher’s block and it is usually made from a tree trunk. 

Vijay also shares that even though butchers may know how to chop up a mutton carcass, they wouldn’t know how to do the same to a human carcass as the “joint areas are all different”.  

“Not all Butchers are aggressive. People like to assume that it takes someone with a certain character to be able to work a knife,” he says.


Sharbudeen, 50, is from Tamil Nada in India. He has been a butcher for 42 years. 

His currently works at a shop called N. Kanesa Mutton Dealers.

He loves his wife because she makes a great Indian breakfast that comes complete with Idli and Dosai.

He left school early to support his family as his father passed away when he was 8. His mother passed away when he was 10.  As he comes from a family of butchers, he picked up the trade skills when he was just in primary school. 

Sharbudeen believes his late boss saved his life. He gave him an opportunity to provide for his family and taught him how to assimilate into Singapore society.  

One of his sons (they live in India at the moment) is studying for a Diploma in Engineering now and will graduate in February 2018. He will be the first in the family to have an education. His son might work in Saudi Arabia, and his current boss might help bring another one of his sons over to Singapore. 

In Singapore, he enjoys Tekka Centre the most because there are many Tamil people.

His favourite music: MGR songs and Tamil songs. Also Anbu Malargale, which is a family song.

His favourite movie: Nalai Namathe. It means ‘Stay, tomorrow we will unite’. It is a family story.

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