Sungei Road peddlers 'get the sack' - again

Many had turned to flea market when they lost their previous jobs

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News of the Sungei Road Flea Market closing on July 10 has left some long-time peddlers at a loss.
Peddlers at the flea market, which began in the 1930s as a small trading spot along Rochor River, will have to pack their wares for good after July 10.
Peddlers at the flea market, which began in the 1930s as a small trading spot along Rochor River, will have to pack their wares for good after July 10. ST PHOTO: CHEW SENG KIM

A pall of finality hangs over the Sungei Road flea market as peddlers digest the news that they have about five months left before it closes for good .

The Government said on Tuesday that July 10 will be the last day for the market, which began in the 1930s as a small trading spot along Rochor River.

Singapore's last free hawking zone will be prepared "to facilitate future residential development use", a multi-agency statement said.

There is still hope - the Association for the Recycling of Second Hand Goods, which has around 70 members - has submitted an appeal to extend the deadline until the end of the year.

If that fails, it intends to secure a temporary site in Jalan Besar, though talks are still under way, said association president Koh Eng Khoon, 76.

But there is a palpable sense that time is up, the peddlers told The Sunday Times. As they reminisce about the "good old days" with ST, some joked that they were about to be sacked again.

Many, like Mr Neo Chue Eng, began plying their trade at the market out of necessity when they were retrenched from their previous jobs and could not find another.

The 58-year-old, who was let go as a shipyard worker at the height of the Asian financial crisis in 1997, said working in Sungei Road was more than just a source of income.

He met his wife, Madam Peh Guat Lian, 50, at the market and the two of them work at adjoining lots selling used clothing.

The flea market, also known as Thieves' Market, is where some 160 to 200 hard-nosed peddlers honed their street savvy.

Its alumni include Koufu founder Pang Lim, who cut his teeth in business by selling fruit and old watches at the market in his teens.

At 1pm daily, peddlers begin carting in cardboard boxes and luggage containing second-hand goods, antiques and collectibles such as old vinyl records, toys, coins and stamps. Some, like Mr Neo, have their own lorries, while others take public transport.

The 300-plus lots on the site operate on a first-come-first-served basis, though an unspoken code exists among regulars to occupy the best spots, said Mr Neo.

It is a tough job, with peddlers having to brave bad weather and unruly customers, said vintage electronics seller Aderoh Bakar, 70.

Stick around and one can hear loud arguments as buyer and seller haggle over the already-low prices.

"Arguments are very common here. It's a business tactic," he said.

Mr Aderoh, who has been working alone in the market for the past 20 years, said he will miss the community spirit and friendships that the peddlers have built.

"Everyone looks out for each other here. For example, if I need to go to the toilet, I can do so in peace as I trust the others to help look after my things," he said.

In the past, it was also normal to see the authorities crack down on peddlers selling illegal items, such as pirated goods.

Come July, the peddlers said they do not know what they will do when the market closes for good.

It would be a challenge for many peddlers who depend on it for income. The peddlers told The Sunday Times they earn between $400 and $600 a month.

Said Mr Neo: "This place gave us a lifestyle that we have known for nearly 20 years. I can't imagine us doing anything else."

He and his wife earn a combined $1,200 every month, enough to support their Secondary 1 daughter.

The Association for the Recycling of Second Hand Goods was established in 2012 after the Sungei Road Free Hawking Zone was reduced in size in 2011 to make way for the construction of the Downtown Line.

Mr Koh, who has lobbied the authorities for years, was disappointed at the news.

He said most of his 70 members are determined to keep on hawking for a living: "Most of the people here are very old and this is the only way they know how to survive."

Also a peddler himself for four decades, Mr Koh said an extension will give the association time to find a new place.

"It will be such a shame that an iconic place with a rich and long history will not be allowed to exist."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on February 19, 2017, with the headline Sungei Road peddlers 'get the sack' - again. Subscribe