A fish out of water

By Christy Yip and Hazim Zulfadhli

Clad in white rubber boots and the company’s uniform, NBS alumni Melvin Sim is ready to spend a Friday night at Jurong Fishery Port (JFP). PHOTO: CHRISTY YIP

It is 1 am on Saturday morning. Unlike most of his peers who are out celebrating the end of a tiring week, Mr Melvin Sim is geared up for work in his rubber boots at the wet market of the Jurong Fishery Port, which has just begun to buzz with activity. But he is not missing out.

“Jurong Fishery Port is dead in the day but at night it is like Zouk,” said the 28-year-old Nanyang Business School alumnus, who is the senior marketing executive of seafood supply company Hai Sia Seafood.

Under the bright lights in a warehouse-like open space, 120 fishmongers prepare to hawk the freshest catches from the sea. Some are bent over chopping boards, deftly removing the scales off a batang fish (mackerel) or the head of an ang kor li (sea bream). Others drag and unload cartons of kuning (yellowstripe scad), which are haphazardly scattered across the market’s floors.

On top of the daily grind, Mr Sim spends the last Friday night of every month hosting walking tours at the port to give the public a glimpse into where their seafood comes from.

Mr Ang Junting, second generation CEO of Hai Sia Seafood, introduces the regional catches offered at JFP to the 25 attendees of the walking tour. The monthly tour is currently oversubscribed, with more than 500 people on the waiting list. PHOTO: BELICIA TEO

This is part of Mr Sim’s mission to modernise the seafood industry, together with his longtime friend Mr Ang Junting, 28, who is the second generation heir of Hai Sia Seafood. The company is housed in a three-storey building with a retail showroom located not far away from the wet market, and has been operating at the Jurong Fishery Port since 1989.

“The Jurong Fishery Port is almost forgotten. Nobody wants to come here after they graduate. It’s just unintuitive,” said Mr Sim, who graduated from NTU in 2013.

“So we aim to modernise, then professionalise,” he added.

To do this, Mr Sim has helped implement new initiatives to reinvent the company’s operations since he joined Hai Sia Seafood in 2015 — from overhauling its processing plant, to introducing email to his older colleagues, as well as putting Hai Sia’s products onto an online marketplace.

He also started the company’s internship programme, which has had seven interns to date.

A look inside the company’s processing plant reveals a series of sterile and systemised rooms, each designed specifically for cleaning, cutting or packaging seafood.

In the first room of Hai Sia’s new processing plant, an employee removes the innards of fishes which have gone through an industrial descaling machine. PHOTO: HAZIM ZULFADHLI

In the second processing room, each employee is tasked to skin and fillet the cleaned fishes before they are sent to be portioned. PHOTO: HAZIM ZULFADHLI

Batang fish slated to be sold online are sliced into portions of 240 grams and vacuum packed in the company’s trademark ‘Catch’ packaging. PHOTO: HAZIM ZULFADHLI

It took awhile for the older workers to embrace these new changes, said Mr Sim, as many of them were used to decades of communicating with pen and paper, as well as working amid the wet mess and fishy odours.

To familiarise himself with what happens on the ground, Mr Sim tried his hand at scaling fish and pulling loaded pallet jacks from the market to the processing plant when he first joined the company. He also learnt teochew to better communicate with his colleagues.

“We try to play down the fact that we are university graduates because we do not want them to feel that we are superior,” he said. “It is about bringing your world closer to theirs.”

Workers dragging loaded pallet jacks into the wet market is a common sight as another night’s work
begins at JFP. PHOTO: YEO WEI LUN

 

The leap of faith to join Hai Sia Seafood was not spontaneous.

Prior to Hai Sia, Mr Sim held a stable position at a multinational company (MNC), which offered the structure and mobility that he desired in a job.

It took Mr Ang, who had studied hotel management in Switzerland, four tries before Mr Sim agreed to swap his desk in the central business district for a spot at a “dated”, Mandarin-speaking office along the country’s western fringes.

“When I first stepped into Hai Sia’s processing plant, I gagged. I hated it,” said Mr Sim, then joking that it was too late to pull out as he had already signed a contract with the company.

Scales litter the floor as a fishmonger meticulously
removes them from each individual ang go li, the choice fish for cooking fish head curry. PHOTO: HAZIM ZULFADHLI

Many of his friends were initially surprised at his decision to take up the job, though they have since come forward to congratulate him.

Two years on, Mr Sim said his job at Hai Sia Seafood has taught him some valuable lessons.

He had the opportunity to build things from scratch, unlike in his previous job at MNCs, giving him a “more pronounced sense of pride”.

He added: “Every day something is brewing. Something is evolving and changing.”