Mdm Neo Chai Han is 87 years old and one of the most recognizable faces in Tiong Bahru Market. At an age when most of us would long have retired (most of us probably would not even live that long), Mdm Neo is still very physically and mentally active. She looks and moves like someone 20 years younger. Amazing, considering she has sold eggs at Tiong Bahru Market for the last 47 years.
Long long ago, Mdm Neo started as a vegetable farmer with her own little plot of land at Lim Chu Kang. Life was tough as a vegetable farmer. She slogged long hours and yet could barely support herself and her family, but she did. Life was uneventful until the time when the government came to reacquire her land. Mdm Neo was hesitant about giving up the land but there was nothing she could do. She still laughingly laments the $15 compensation for each of her durian trees back then.
With vegetable farming no longer an option for her, Mdm Neo decided to try her hand at rearing chicken and duck. She settled on a smaller plot of land at Choa Chu Kang and with some advice from family and friends, began commercially rearing chicken and duck with no prior experience. Life was tough in the beginning. Through trial and error, Mdm Neo slowly began to grasp the intricacies of the business. Life was still a slog even though money is no longer as tight. As luck would have it, just as she was beginning to settle into her new life, the government came calling again to reacquire this plot of land. Mdm Neo again had no choice but to uproot her life for the second time. She recounts this with amusement and humour and with not even a hint of bitterness.
After Mdm Neo’s second stint at farming, she sold flowers at makeshift markets for a while before settling down to sell eggs at Tiong Bahru Market. In the blink of an eye, it has already been 47 years for her. Her six children have all grown up and have families of their own. Her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren visit her regularly. For anyone else, it would have been a wonderfully fulfilling life, and anyone else would have long retired to enjoy life at home. But Mdm Neo is not anyone else.
Mdm Neo lives in a HDB flat in Yew Tee. Every morning, she wakes up to catch the first train to come to Tiong Bahru. A one-way trip requires her to take two MRT lines plus a feeder bus. At 87 years old, Mdm Neo still repeats this process every day. Selling eggs in the wet market is not a lucrative business. Mdm Neo continues to do this because she is resilient. She is still healthy and can still rely on her own ability to support herself. Even though she is just an old lady selling eggs in the wet market, she is as amazing as people come.