In Pictures: A day at Sungei Road Thieves’ Market
Text and Photos: Joyce J. Chansingh
“This place is like the ‘Troll Market’, a magical shopping market hidden from the world of men,” in the words of my 10-year-old son who had his maiden tour of Singapore’s oldest flea market last weekend.
He was referring to the massive marketplace setting in the film, Hellboy II; The Golden Army where mythological, fantasy and supernatural creatures gather to shop all kinds of items and goods.
Nestled in one of the oldest neighbourhood on Sungei Road and home to the infamous Thieves’ Market since the 1930s, the flea market today is an off-the-beaten track stop for tourists and the average Singaporeans – a haven for second-hand possessions, bric-a-brac and contraband goods.
Despite its somewhat unsavoury appearance and shoddy displays of bits and bobs, what strikes me most of this so-called ‘slum’ is the charmingly shambolic atmosphere, as well as the oddity of characters that personify the canvas of an otherwise orderly and decorous Singapore.
Known for its notorious reputation where “thieves brought their stolen goods to sell", hence the name. In fact, the rumour is that items were looted from the homes of affluent European families living in the area then and then mysteriously find their way to Sungei Road.
The unlicensed, makeshift market that used to line the lanes between Jalan Besar and Rochor Canal Road is the only place you don’t need to pay any form of rent to set up shop.
Each of the allocated metre-by-metre DIY stall is on a first-come-first-serve basis but vendors share an unspoken rule of control over the specific space. Assorted wares are spread out on mats and tarpaulin sheets on the free hawking zone, and vendors typically operate daily from 1pm to 7pm, at the mercy of our tropical climate.
Resilient peddlers, made up of pot-bellied and heavily tattooed uncles to sunburned-faced elderly women, make a living selling almost anything and everything. But the mammoth of items on display has seemingly been downsized ever since the flea market lost half its space in July 2011 to make way for the construction of the new Jalan Besar MRT Station.
According to the National Environment Agency, the area is not meant for business activity and some of the vendors were reportedly referred to the Central Community Development Council to get help with job postings and skills upgrading.
And so the big question looms: Is this piece of Singapore’s history doomed to extinction?
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