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See Sungei Road flea market in dioramas

To mark Sungei Road flea market's closure next year, Lasalle College of the Arts president Steve Dixon is holding an exhibition of artworks made from his buys there

Come next year, the Sungei Road flea market, famous for its cheap second-hand items, will close to make way for an MRT station.

And among one of those who will miss it the most is a British man who has bought about 2,000 plastic and ceramic figurines from vendors there.

So fascinated is he with the flea market that Professor Steve Dixon, who is president of the Lasalle College of the Arts, has used half the figurines to create 20 dioramas commemorating the market.

These have been on display at the college since last Friday.

Explaining his fascination, the 60-year-old says: "There are people selling all sorts of old junk and you can find tons of beautiful, evocative pieces there. I've always enjoyed uncovering gems in what others see as trash. And, boy, have I uncovered lots of treasure here."


Professor Steve Dixon started buying and collecting figurines from Sungei Road flea market in 2012. ST PHOTO: NIVASH JOYVIN

The market's eclectic selection - such as Mickey Mouse figurines, Indonesian shadow puppets and Japanese toy robots - also made it into the exhibition.

He first stumbled on the market - a short walk from the college - four years ago, not long after coming to Singapore for his current appointment. He generally likes items with a sense of history, especially decorative figurines and old toys.

His first purchase was a $50 figurine of Yang Zirong, the protagonist of the 1970 Chinese film, Taking Tiger Mountain By Strategy.

Other buys include a 35cm-tall, $120 Japanese robot made in the 1980s and a porcelain figure believed to be from the Victorian era.

  • BOOK IT / PRUE DIXON AND STEVE DIXON: THINGS IN TRANSLATION…

  • WHERE: Brother Joseph McNally Gallery, Institute of Contemporary Arts Singapore, Lasalle College of the Arts, 1 McNally Street

    WHEN: Till Dec 11, noon to 7pm (Tuesdays to Sundays), closed on Mondays

    ADMISSION: Free

Eventually, he became so familiar with the sellers that they reserved figurines for him and recommended others similar to those he had bought. "They must have liked me. I did not haggle, which probably made me an ideal customer."

Now, he has about 2,000 of such figurines. "They probably cost me $2,000 altogether, which is reasonable for what I managed to get."

Transforming these objects into art was no easy task.

His wife, artist Prue Dixon, 62, whose print artworks are also on display at the same exhibition, recalls how he scrubbed each figurine clean with a sponge after bringing them home.

She says: "Some of them are dirty and take up a lot of space. I support his creative expression, but hope he will throw them away after the exhibition."

They have three daughters. The youngest, Florence, 27, who is also an artist, has been helping him transport them from his home to the exhibition venue.

She says: "I never knew these broken toys could come to life again and carry so many stories. But never again do I want to bubble-wrap another figurine."


Mr Dixon with his extensive collection of toy figurines and ceramic figures from the flea market. ST PHOTO: NIVASH JOYVIN 

On his dioramas - each between 50cm and 1.5m long and containing up to 500 figurines - he says they are in the tradition of surrealist artworks, which aim to convey unconscious ideas through the use of unexpected juxtapositions and illogical scenes.

"It is hard to describe," he says. "But I want to give new meaning through the way I present and combine figurines to create scenes.

"Shopping in Sungei Road has been extremely enjoyable. It is sad to think its days are numbered.

"But I'm glad that I can use my artistic skills to express my appreciation for this market, which - in my opinion - is a special Singapore landmark."


Why it was called the Thieves Market


The Sungei Road flea market first appeared in the 1930s.

Singapore's oldest flea market, also known as the Thieves Market, first emerged in the 1930s.

According to Singapore Infopedia, the National Library Board's electronic encyclopaedia, the place gained its name because most of the goods sold there were acquired illegally.

The name also had a double meaning as the items bought there were considered a great steal.

Probably because of the variety of goods, the market was colloquially referred to as "Robinson petang" - meaning "evening Robinson" in Malay - a cheeky reference to the Robinsons department store, except this market catered to the poor.

Initially, the market was fuelled by the presence of the British military bases in Singapore. Army surplus goods were sold there, including parachutes, raincoats, knapsacks, billycans and boots.

Soon, electrical appliances - either stolen, smuggled or factory rejects - appeared.

Porcelain pottery, brassware, trinkets and many other products also appeared.

In its heyday, vendors displayed their goods on mats by the roadside, calling out to potential customers. Haggling was common.

In the 1960s and 1970s, the market became popular with Malaysians for its affordable prices and the possibility of bulk purchases.

From the 1980s, the market started its decline.

In August 1982, a portion of it was disbanded. In the 1990s, there were newspaper reports of illegal hawkers peddling their wares on roads where this was not allowed.

In 2008, pirated DVDs - even pornography - were reportedly being sold there. A year later, Member of Parliament Denise Phua described it as a "slum".

In 2014, it was reported that the market would have to make way for an MRT station, due to open next year.

According to the National Heritage Board's online heritage portal roots.sg, advance notice will be given before the site's closure.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 13, 2016, with the headline 'Turning trash to treasure'. Print Edition | Subscribe