Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Lost Roads and Heritage: Sungei Road Thieves' Market

Lost Roads and Heritage: Sungei Road Thieves' Market

As they always say, a man's junk is another man's treasure.
Sungei Road Thieves' Market
Welcome to Sungei Road Thieves' Market.


Sungei Road, meaning Malay for "river" got its name from the Rochor River as the road runs along the bank of it. The spelling of "Sungei" is in the older spelling as it is currently spelled as "Sungai". The road has been split into two parts, one, acting as a main road while the other is a secondary road off Jalan Besar. Sungei Road Thieves' Market operates on the smaller section off Jalan Besar. The other roads that the market operates on are Pitt Street, Pasar Lane and Larut Road. Pitt Street is named after an Englishman, William Pitts.


"Kau 'Sungei Road' punya penyamun dah... Makan belacan!"
"You're a 'Sungei Road' Thieve ah... Belachan eater!"
- P. Ramlee as "Chief of Thieves"

In the 1960 movie of Ali Baba Bujang Lapok, Sungei Road was mention briefly in one line by P. Ramlee's character, he was criticizing the "Thief Sergeant" as a 'Sungei Road' thieve. To Singaporeans such as myself, we know very well what the "Sungei Road" in the movie P. Ramlee was referring to. But perhaps to those overseas, those watching the movie may not know what "Sungei Road" actually is.
Sungei Road street sign.

The actual road of Sungei Road itself is synonymous with the Sungei Road Thieves' Market. It was started sometime in the 1930s and literally sells almost everything from old clothes to antiques and even rare items! The name came from a open word of mouth fact that if your item got stolen, you are most likely to find that item there. Situated somewhere near Jalan Besar, the flea market is the oldest and only kind in the country.

The flea market” had almost 400 peddlers selling used items during its glory days. The area is the only place designated as "rent-free hawking zone" in Singapore where one does not need to pay any rent or license. All a peddler need to do is to lay a mat on the ground and display his products. Some peddlers set up big umbrellas and even elaborate tentage to protect themselves from the sun.

By 2017, the land on which the flea market is now will be returned to the Government to make way for redevelopment by the HDB. The URA has designated the site for parks and residential use under Master Plan 2014.

The current size of the flea market after the MRT took half of it.
The construction site acts as a backdrop for the flea market.
But already, the size of the market was already reduced by half in 2011 when Jalan Besar was diverted to facilitate with the construction of Jalan Besar MRT Station. Arguments and even fist fighting broke out as peddlers were jostling for space, it became national headlines.


Sungei Road Thieves' Market
Sungei Road Thieves' Market
Sungei Road Thieves' Market
Sungei Road Thieves' Market
Sungei Road Thieves' Market
Sungei Road Thieves' Market

Peddlers are mostly from the "pioneer generation" as the government likes to call them. Mostly aged 60 and beyond. Most of the paddlers drag their goods by trolleys, bicycle, vans and even pick up trucks to Sungei Road. Ah peks and nonyas laying their mats on the tarmac, picking out their goods from plastic bags and cardboard boxes.

Today, it has evolved to be a place for those who are on a tight budget or low-income individuals in Singapore to buy secondhand household items. Most of the customers come from the "pioneer generation" looking to find antiques and other useful items, and Bangladeshi and Indian foreign workers looking to hunt for bargains. I even observed a peddler selling an old rusty but workable fan for a dollar to a foreign worker.
A deal for the best price is being made
No customer service required. Hokkein curses and rudeness are being used to greet people.
Younger people such as myself and other middle aged patrons make up a minority of patrons in the market. Many are there just to browse and admire the atmosphere of patrons and peddlers seeking for bargains and overhearing of negotiating of prices in Malay, Hokkien and Cantonese.

Old currency, amulet.
Old electronics, including typewriters
Working computers, running on Windows 10!
Even old photographs are being sold.
Army uniforms seems to be all the rage here.
Almost everything can be found here, army uniforms, bags, sunglasses, old cellphones, basically everything that is too long of a list to describe here. Some peddlers don't even sell old junk but a small range of new items like power banks, cellphone batteries, wallets, shoes just to name a few. Rare stuff you can find from old Parker pens, to rare collar pins, badges, watches and antique toys.

Collectibles such as stamps, old currency, gramophone records are sold at a premium depending on the value and condition. There are even a few surprises such as an SG50 Baby medallion and brand new license plates.


Ah pek hates photos.
Friendly ah pek loves a photo!
As the days wind down for Sungei Road Thieves' Market, I could not help it but feel sad for the elderly peddlers. As the NEA has kept mun on an alternative site for a "rent-free hawking zone", where else can the peddlers go to? Rather than giving them fancy names such as "pioneer generation" why not let these people continue to make their own living?

The NEA says that it will work with other agencies and peddlers and match them with financial assistance schemes. In my personal opinion, yes, it will help the elderly peddlers but not letting them sell their items in a designated area, a part of Singapore's history and heritage will be gone. From finding and seeking treasures within old junk to seeing ah peks lighting their cigarettes and pushing their trolleys of used goods to overhearing the Hokkien curses and bargaining in Malay, it's the variety of goods, atmosphere and people that helps make the market unique. The market as already been in existence for more than 80 years, why not let it flourish for generations to come?

State Land left empty.
From the above photo, you can really see the selfishness of the authorities. The flea market surrounds two patches of empty land. Why not let the peddlers occupy it while it awaits for redevelopment?

Many of the paddlers have resigned to the situation. One old man I spoke to said that if the government wants to get rid of the market, we won't fight. I really felt him saying it with a heavy heart. I paid him the money as he exchanged it for an old police badge that I had searched within his biscuit tin. At least I have had experienced it while it is still around.

On bicycle also can deal.
When it's gone, this photos will be our keepsake.
Well, if Sungei Road Thieves' Market were to close down, which seems likely to be the case given that we have voted for the government that we deserved, there's always eBay and Carousell app on Android and iPhone. But I guess the peddlers need to go for a WDA course to use a smartphone. (Intended to be a joke, no butthurt, looking down or insult intended)

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