A visit to Thieves' Market made my son cry

Perhaps the haphazardness of it all created a sense of unease he could not articulate

We wielded umbrellas, threading our way through the warren of make-shift stalls.

Above, draped blue canvas sheets filtered the grey light and made us lower our heads as we passed, single file. To the left and right, stall holders sat, legs open, perched on stools or folding chairs, behind mats heaped with old objects to sift through.

My husband led the way, I brought up the rear, our two sons sandwiched between us, sneakers squelching in the narrow aisle of this junk jungle. Commandos in covert commerce.

"Want to go to the Thieves' Market?" I had asked earlier.

"What's that?" The 11-year-old had asked, his almost-eight- year-old brother looking confused beside him.

"A market for thieves," I said, mysteriously. "Where thieves sell things. It's closing down, so last chance to see it."

As pockets of such free and democratic messiness disappear, our children, too, will lose an ability to cope with something that cannot be expressed fully in words.

Intrigued by my Ali Baba description of the famed Sungei Road flea market, the boys said yes.

The last time I'd gone there, I was 18. Working for a production house then, I had to film the bustling place for a documentary on local attractions and spent an afternoon picking up bizarre wares, such as wooden phallic symbols for good luck. It seemed fitting to take my kids to say goodbye before it closed for good for redevelopment on July 11.

In a rapidly changing city, individual and family histories are as liable to be erased as larger, formal ones. Neptune Theatre Restaurant, near Collyer Quay, where my parents held their wedding banquet in the 1970s, has long been torn down. The Oasis, an octagonal complex which stood next to the National Stadium, no longer exists. It was where my parents had their first date and where the Supportive Spouse and I went for late-night porridge in the years before the kids came. Funan Centre, where we used to take the kids to a games cafe and buy our computer-related stuff, is now a crane-filled space.

There are less iconic places which nevertheless occupied important spots in our family psyche: the modest apartment blocks in the Serangoon Road vicinity, where the Supportive Spouse and I grew up separately, now redeveloped into mega-dollar condominiums. Zenith theatre in Hougang, where I watched Rambo and 1980s Hong Kong comedies alone. National Aerated Water Company's former bottling plant off Serangoon Road, which we drive past almost every day to get home, might soon go the way of the dodo, the land upon which it sits having been sold. My favourite Salvation Army thrift store, housed in the former Youngberg Memorial Hospital in Upper Serangoon Road, has made way for the hulking new campus of an international school.

Perhaps it was a subconscious need for continuity that led to us moving to Potong Pasir, where my husband's old school still stands, a protected heritage building, and which our two sons now attend.

I am glad for old strata-owned malls in Singapore such as Far East Plaza - stomping grounds of my misspent youth - which are less likely to be sold and demolished.

Still, some days, it feels like a race to drive the kids past such-and- such a place, so that I can start sentences with: "This is where your Papa and I..."

...which brought us to Sungei Road, on a rainy Sunday afternoon. Plastic sheets were laid over the merchandise to protect them from moisture, the street hawkers lost in their own thoughts, silent and surly, in the lull from selling. The children trudged dutifully with us, but I could sense their interest was flagging. It was not the best time to come, but then again, when? Human beings are strange in that, sometimes, the nearer a place is to us, the more we take it for granted.

"Tomorrow," we think. "We'll go tomorrow." And then the same thought surfaces when tomorrow comes.

In compact Singapore, where few places are more than an hour's drive away, we think what is easily accessible will always be waiting, but time has a way of thwarting us.

"Xiao didi," called a leathery-faced uncle from his hideout under a faded beach umbrella, to my younger son Lucien. "Come to walk around? You don't walk now, soon there'll be nothing here for you to see."

The boy nodded solemnly, staying close as I tried to peer at the tarnished fountain pens, old coins and analog camera parts beneath their rain covers.

We completed the rough topography of the market - a weird F-shape if you took a bird's eye view. The boys and their father headed to Sim Lim Square to get a drink, while I stayed to poke around some more. The sun came out and the plastic sheets came off, and I tried to bargain with an auntie for an old cigarette case. She wouldn't budge, but I was happy to pay the $5 for the old faux-stingray-skin box - the haggling was just part of the ritual.

Meeting up with my menfolk again, I am told that Lucien had burst into tears soon after leaving the market. Something about the experience had spooked him. Despite asking him a few times, on different occasions, I still haven't been able to put my finger on what had scared this sociable boy who had gone to countless weird places with me and braved thrift stores and street markets in Asia.

"The people were... fierce and unfriendly," he said. But I could sense that there was a residual sense of unease he couldn't articulate.

Elder brother Julian just took the whole thing in his stride. Both boys stared at us sceptically when the Supportive Spouse and I tried to convince them that street hawking wasn't that uncommon when we were kids; that we used to eat next to open drains and litter outside coffee shops, and stray animals came up for scraps.

Perhaps, what my second son was unused to was the presence of chaos in the safe familiarity of home. The lack of an official system in Sungei Road and the slightly gruff and thuggish demeanour of its old-timers. Perhaps it was the sense of flux, the temporary fly-by-night nature of the place. Or the haphazardness of it all. People stood around, smoking, telling scandalous anecdotes about crimes of passion in loud Hokkien to all and sundry.

Perhaps, as pockets of such free and democratic messiness disappear, our children, too, will lose an ability to cope with something that cannot be expressed fully in words.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on June 04, 2017, with the headline 'A visit to Thieves' Market made my son cry'. Print Edition | Subscribe