Spirit of Sungei Road market

The decades-old market will open for the last time on July 10. With it goes a slice of Singapore history and an organic community that holds lessons on entrepreneurship, grit and negotiation skills

The sun will soon set on the Sungei Road flea market. A multi-agency government statement last month gave July 10 as the last day of operations for Singapore's last free hawking zone.

The site will be making way for future residential developments.

The authorities gave several other reasons for its closure. They stated that, over time, the nature of the site had changed, and that they have had to conduct regular checks on the sale of prohibited goods.

Previous reports note that there have been "opportunistic traders" attracted to the market because of its rent-free arrangement and city location.

Residents have also complained about "disamenities".

In a letter to The Straits Times on Feb 25, resident Ang Zyn Yee said the market "has ruined the aesthetics of the estate by making the area look messy, dodgy and filthy". She added that "grimy old men" have become the gatekeepers to her home.

As a Singaporean, and as the heritage correspondent of The Straits Times, I decided to see for myself if these concerns were valid, while seeking out the value of the market behind the reported layer of vice and grime.

I set up a stall as a vendor on Saturday, Feb 25, after collecting clothes, bags and kitchenware from my colleagues over the course of a week. I spread these items out on a small canvas sheet on the roadside.

 Ms Zaccheus making a sale.
Above: Ms Zaccheus making a sale. ST PHOTO: SEAH KWANG PENG

The president of the Association for the Recycling of Second Hand Goods, Mr Koh Ah Koon, 76, shared with me part of his 1m by 1m space.

I sat on a collapsible stool alongside two other vendors on my left: Mr Lim Soon Tian, 75, a former pig farmer and kelong worker; and Ms Tamil Malar, a 51-year-old who struck an imposing figure with her height and stature. She sells watch parts and rings.

Mr Koh, who sells old hi-fi sets, was hard at work canvassing support from shoppers to sign a petition to retain the market.

Vendors, who were initially wary of me, began to get chatty. They doled out advice: "Start with a higher price, girl. Don't sell so low. People like the kick of clinching a bargain successfully."

Madam Malar added sagely in a pep talk fit for Rocky Balboa: "Stand your ground. Don't give in. Don't be weak."

What struck me was the vendors' generosity. Instead of calling attention to their own goods, they hollered into the crowd, encouraging shoppers to buy from me as the money would go to charity.

They also banded together. By 3pm or so, it started to rain. Mr Lim nimbly produced a canvas sheet to cover my goods. Madam Malar offered both Mr Lim and me shelter under her umbrella.

 
 

Business came to a halt and no sales were made for more than an hour. The water pooled underneath the canvas sheets and some goods got wet. Mr Lim soon packed up to leave for he, too, had got wet in the rain. He had made only $10, but he said this was "enough to buy kopi (coffee)".

The shopper is king in Sungei Road. There are heaps of remote controls and mobile chargers to replace ones you might have lost or damaged. There are backpacks, kitsch paintings, and even modern clocks going for $3 for your newly renovated Build-to-Order flat.

But there is also a dark side to the flea market.

Madam Malar caught a shoplifter red-handed - a portly looking elderly man who had pocketed a watch from her stash.

Some vendors have claimed that the heat emanating from the tarmac and metal hoardings encircling the small field has caused elderly sellers to fall ill.

It gets a little unsightly after a few hours as many vendors tie their goods and canvas sheets to railings along the road, or leave them at other nooks and crannies in the neighbourhood.

ITS ROLE TODAY

But do these "disamenities" warrant the closure of an eight-decade-old mainstay in Singapore?

The market has, from the get-go, served as the go-to place for the underprivileged, filling a gap mainstream department stores and malls have been unable to plug.

Starting along the Rochor River in the 1930s, wares used to be displayed on tables, in little attap huts or on the roadside.

During the Japanese Occupation, people would get household items, which were often in short supply, from there. It was later known as Thieves Market as peddlers sold stolen goods.

Despite this, a Straits Times article from 1953 notes that it was popular with "working-class buyers". It came to be known as "Robinson Petang", which means Robinsons in the afternoon or evening, in reference to the department store.

 The flea market has served as the go-to place for the underprivileged, filling a gap mainstream department stores and malls have been unable to plug.
Above: The flea market has served as the go-to place for the underprivileged, filling a gap mainstream department stores and malls have been unable to plug. ST PHOTO: SEAH KWANG PENG

A 1978 report in the same paper noted that bargain hunters flocked there as goods were priced between 30 per cent and 35 per cent lower than at supermarkets and department stores.

Today, it fulfils the same purpose. Foreign workers - mostly construction workers - shop at the market for necessities such as clothes and rice cookers.

Cultural geographer Lily Kong said places with the character of the market located between Jalan Besar and Rochor Canal Road "still have a place in modern Singapore".

It makes available affordably priced items and has an economic role in providing opportunities for vendors.

As social entrepreneur Elim Chew had asked previously: "Why do we let the bad stories define the place?"

An independent study and assessment of the social impact of the market should have been commissioned before the decision was made to shut it down.

Consultations with the wider public should have also taken place as the market revolves around the lives of pioneer vendors, and is tied to the population's collective memory and country's history.

Such exercises should not be solely reserved for topics such as the Founders' Memorial, which is to be erected to commemorate the nation's founding fathers.

Civic group founder Kwek Li Yong argues that the market's impending closure is another example of the Government's bulldozer approach to vernacular heritage.

The Government needs to recognise that all Singaporeans have an equal stake in deciding what to keep and what to remove, and that it does not have a monopoly of history and heritage, said Mr Kwek.

Closing down the hawking zone also means snuffing out a way of life. It sends the message that there is no space for the karung guni or rag-and-bone men and women of Singapore.

The authorities said the Social Service Offices will facilitate financial assistance, and Workforce Singapore will provide employment services under existing schemes to eligible vendors.

But why even choose to disrupt the incomes of these self-sufficient earners, most of whom have set up stalls at Sungei Road by choice?

SALVAGING THE SPACE

The Association for the Recycling of Second Hand Goods, which represents about 70 of 200 stalls at the market, had previously proposed four alternative sites but the authorities rejected its suggestions. They said these places had been zoned for parks and residential use under Master Plan 2014.

Mr Koh's plea is now for a temporary site.

"We can move as soon as there is a need for development," he said.

The upcoming closure will only drive vendors to back alleys, with some saying they will run if enforcement officers come, just like in the old days.

In the 1980s, Environment Ministry workers tore down the market's makeshift sheds and roadside stalls due to "pollution and health hazards".

But the hawkers returned "like mushrooms after a downpour", according to a Straits Times article in 1983.

Instead of dispersing the vendors - making it harder for the authorities to monitor them - it makes more sense for an alternative site to be provided and for practical arrangements to be made to manage the disamenities.

The association has proposed solutions, such as hiring workers to maintain hygiene and cleanliness. A proper storage facility for the goods can also be worked out.

Professor Kong believes a free hawking zone, subject to minimal regulations, is worth considering as a way to encourage entrepreneurial activity with a low-barrier entry to a trade.

However, in their statement, the authorities said such street trades will now be permitted only in designated venues such as trade fairs and flea markets, rather than on a permanent basis, "to minimise disamenities to the public".

This is a pity as these fairs and events tend to be gentrified - largely monopolised by a different breed of entrepreneurs who sell upmarket products.

Next month, Bangkok's Artbox flea market will come to Singapore. The experience will be a curated one largely aimed at millennials, where vendors will sell burgers, fries, brand-new jewellery and clothes at fixed prices at Bayfront, next to The Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands.

There is no room for Sungei Road's vendors at the alternative - hipster fairs that neglect older and lower-income shoppers.

The authorities' alternative is a vastly different concept from the Sungei Road Hawking Zone, and the fear is that the Sungei group will face marginalisation.

Many other major cities have made room for similar vendors though - from Jonker Walk in Malacca to Lorong Kulit in Penang to multiple streets in London where second-hand markets abound.

Heritage enthusiast and blogger Jerome Lim is of the view that some chaos is necessary to inject colour into a city and give people a break from the sterility of an overly manicured country like Singapore.

Ngee Ann Polytechnic's senior tourism lecturer Michael Chiam suggests promoting the market to tourists, arguing that it gives visitors a glimpse of early Singapore. Tourists used to visit by the busloads but fewer do so today, as it has been omitted from tourist collaterals, he said.

Resident Andy Ang, 32, a financial consultant, is for the market's retention. He said: "Vendors' stored goods do get in the way if I'm driving, but like most long-time residents, we have found ways around this. The market can get crowded but it's not chaotic."

The ugly side of the space must be weighed against its merits, for it will be a greater loss to Singapore if we let the market go the way of many other lost landmarks and beloved community spaces, such as the old National Library building.

There are many things to love about the market.

It is where bartering and negotiation skills come to play. The lively interaction between an elderly seller and a shopper is unique and cannot be re-created at modern markets or on online reselling applications.

I once encountered undergraduates who were sent to the market to pick up negotiation skills for class.

If you make the effort to spend some time with the vendors, they will welcome you into their circle, banter with you and share their stories. I felt right at home with my fellow Singaporeans.

Some have strong personalities shaped by the hardships they have faced. There are many others who are sweet and coy, or cheeky and quirky.

I learnt that the market gives vendors an outlet to feel alive, to stand tall, run the grounds and take charge of their own fates.

It gives the poor and elderly sellers a sense of pride and satisfaction, as well as a chance to make a few dollars on their own to buy themselves a cup of coffee after a day braving the elements, without the need for social welfare.

I was touched by the determination of Mr Koh, who has been paying for petition banners out of his own pocket, with the aim of getting a million signatures to save the site. I witnessed the community banding together to sign this petition, giving one another pep talks in a variety of local tongues to keep this hope alive.

The histories of Singaporean households, salvaged door-to-door, also lie across their canvas sheets. From sepia-toned childhood photos to the enamel pot a mother might have made soup in.

It is a pity that the market will be closed for its vibrant atmosphere adds to the Singapore experience, giving the country some of its soul, character and history.

While it appears inevitable that the physical site will be reclaimed, one hopes an arrangement might one day be worked out for the trade - and the tradesmen - to thrive again, in some area and form or the other.

WATCH THE VIDEO

Journalist Melody Zaccheus hawks used goods http://str.sg/4h8Y

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on March 12, 2017, with the headline 'Spirit of Sungei Road market'. Print Edition | Subscribe