What do 20-year-olds typically do on weekends or with their free time?
For Nazneen Khaja a normal Saturday involves making her way to West Coast Market at 6am to help out at the family business — a butchery that sells Halal meats.
Days here typically end by 1 or 2pm before Nazneen — the eldest of four daughters — heads home to rest.
“I rarely see anyone my age working in the market,” she said.
Even rarer, adds Nazneen, are young females working and selling meat.
Family as back-up
Yet, the diminutive and plucky 20-year-old has been doing so for six years, while balancing studies and now a full-time job.
“I was about Secondary Two, and one of the workers last minute didn’t turn up for work, and it was the festive season — Hari Raya.”
With no one else available on such short-notice, Nazneen’s father called for back-up in the form of his wife and 14-year-old daughter.
As someone who doesn’t love the sight of raw and bloody meat, my next question was almost vomited out unwittingly: “Were you grossed out?”
“Yeah, it was not nice la, to begin with. But after a while, I guess I learned to get used to it,” she said giggling, before adding that it took at least six months.
At first, Nazneen would help out on weekends, and when manpower was short, but as her father’s business expanded, the student found herself working the till regularly and serving customers at other outlets in different markets together with her mother.
Inevitably, this meant having to get her hands dirty and learning to cut the meat.
Remembering the first time she handled an order herself, Nazneen explained that her mother, who usually took care of cutting the meats, had taken a lull in the day as an opportunity to run some errands.
“I was praying and hoping that nobody would come during this period of time, but somebody came. So I searched on Google how to cut a chicken!”
That was four years ago. Today, Nazneen can just about handle any cut of meat, though mutton still proves tricky.
“There’s a lot of different different cuts,” she explained.
“Beef and chicken is a lot easier. More straightforward.”
"A bit embarrassing"
However, while the family’s business slowly became a part of her weekly routine, Nazneen confided that she avoided telling friends about it for most of her schooling life.
“I guess it was a bit embarrassing right? You know everyone else’s parents were working in an office and all that. So to have my parents working in the market — people always look down.
I guess, you know, working in a market (gives the impression) that you’re not educated.”
Her self-consciousness about the circumstances was heightened by the fact that she did not know anyone else in the market that was her age.
Females were rare too; mostly wives helping their husbands.
In addition, customers would sometimes drop insensitive comments, revealing assumptions they’d made about Nazneen’s ability — “you’re not strong enough to cut, it’s a man’s job” — or her circumstances — “you shouldn’t be here, you should be in school studying”.
“I was taken aback,” she said, recalling the second incident. “I just kept quiet.”
“It wasn’t really nice. I mean if one person can think that, others will think the same right? That, you know, I didn’t complete my studies and I have nowhere else to go, that’s why I’m helping my parents in the market.”
Proud of the family business
For the record, Nazneen graduated earlier this year with a diploma in Maritime Business from Singapore Polytechnic and has been working full-time in a shipping company while also helping out at the family’s butchery.
From January, next year, she’ll be starting a degree in supply chain management on a part-time basis.
Yet, despite her more than adequate and sufficient educational qualifications, Nazneen doesn’t see working in the market as something that is beneath her.
Far from seeing it as a career for those without other options, the 20-year-old told me of her pride at her parents’ ability to successfully build a business that put food on the table and a roof over the family’s heads.
She was also thankful for the role the shop plays in strengthening familial relations.
“A lot of our family bonding time is when we get work done,” she said.
“My mother drives to deliver items while my sisters deliver them to the houses. During festive seasons, the whole family would be down helping to run the business.”
Bringing the butcher digital
More recently, the Covid-19 pandemic saw Nazneen stepping up her involvement in the operations of the business.
When the circuit breaker measures kicked in, the family saw the need to expand their non-existent digital presence.
As her parents weren’t tech-savvy, the responsibility for this venture fell to Nazneen, who kicked it off with a simple Facebook post in a Halal food group advertising the business’ newly-launched delivery services.
“At that point of time, I was not expecting lots of orders. So when we received orders it was just via DM (direct messages).”
And then came Hari Raya, a typically busy period for the meat sellers, which according to Nazneen, was “when the problems started”.
“We didn’t have a proper platform to receive the (high volume of) orders,” recalled Nazneen.
“Orders were coming in, and I was losing track of who was ordering, whether they had paid and what were their names.”
Needing a quick solution to stem the mounting pile of orders, Nazneen quickly set up a Google form, a WhatsApp business account, and a proper system of recording orders.
To keep the system running smoothly, she attended to these orders each day after finishing work at the shipping company.
“Normally, I’ll get back home, start preparing the invoices and making sure that people have paid, and then updating my dad on what has to be delivered.”
“At times it does get a bit tiring,” she admitted.
Nazneen Meat House
So what keeps her going, when she could be forgiven for taking a step back from the business to focus on her own career?
“I think it’s just the satisfaction of getting things done, you know?
I feel motivated because I’m interested in it. So each time I do something it’s like a different milestone for me.”
One rewarding aspect of her work at the butchers so far has been the popularity of the deliveries, which has not dropped despite Covid-19 measures easing up.
Some customers insist on putting in orders from the family’s stall at West Coast Market despite living in places as far-flung as Pasir Ris, because of the way the family vacuum packs their meats — a method Nazneen told me prevents freezer burn and messy grizzle getting everywhere.
Given the success of their foray on social media, Nazneen has since set up a proper social media presence on Facebook and Instagram with regular posts to advertise the business’ specials — like halal raw turkey for those who which to serve it during this festive season.Additionally, helping to run the business had actually been an exercise in character development; the naturally-shy girl was required to come out of her shell when dealing with customers and handling deliveries.
The experience, said Nazneen, means that she now wants to encourage other young Singaporeans whose parents work as hawkers or in a wet market to consider following suit.
“It’s not really that bad helping the parents in the stall, so I’m sure the parents will appreciate their kids coming along and showing some sort of interest.”
As for Nazneen, she hopes to one day take over the family business. When that happens she’ll no doubt have to face even more quizzical looks as a woman in a traditionally male-dominated industry.
When I asked about the daunting task ahead of her, the 20-year-old seemed unfazed.
Just as well, after all, she’ll be taking the reins of a business which already bears her name — Nazneen Meat House.
Stories of Us is a series about ordinary people in Singapore and the unique ways they’re living their lives. Be it breaking away from conventions, pursuing an atypical passion, or the struggles they are facing, these stories remind us both of our individual uniqueness and our collective humanity.
Top image by Andrew Koay
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