Soon-To-Be Disappearing Slump-Looking But Full Of Character - Thieves Market (Sungei Road Flea Market) in Singapore
Sungei Road Thieves’ Market is an original flea market in Singapore established in the 1930s and really the epitome of a flea market that sells mainly second-hand clothes, shoes, electronics, homeware, toys etc. The place will be paved over to make way for a new train station expected to be completed by 2017. That’s more than 80 years of history eradicated in one fell swoop. Even as the words “organic” and “authentic” get thrown around a lot these days, nothing in Singapore quite captures the essence of these expressions better than Sungei Road and its ragtag group of peddlers, who sell everything from stolen to broken items with questionable resale value. Another piece of Singapore’s history will soon walk into the dust.
I went on a weekend afternoon and it was filled with mainly locals and foreign workers looking for a good bargain.
Many of the vendors at the Thieves Market don’t even bother with folding tables and dump their wares right on the ground. On my recent trip down to the characteristic flea market, the offerings included rotary dial telephones, yellowed paperbacks, sports equipment, watches, laser discs, used army gear, and tacky ornaments the seller will insist are actually valuable antiques – I did lots of looking and no buying. If you have the patience to sort through it, there are undoubtedly some gems within the junk and you might get lucky with retro electronics or a Michael Jackson cassette tape with Chinese writing for a few bucks. Many sellers have an inflated idea what their used junk is worth so be prepared to bargain. It’s a world away from the offerings of Orchard Road.
Most of the peddlers are between 60 - 80 years old, with little education or are illiterate. Although the government has offered help to them to upgrade their skills or find jobs elsewhere, most just wanted another area to sell their wares and earn their own living.
Some have also said that they don't want to be split up because it's the variety of goods that helps make the market thrive and be unique. Also, after being with one another day in day out, bonds have formed and they don't want to leave a familiar area, and their friends.
Indeed, while walking through the market, i saw that many of the vendors seemed comfortable to be there just to while the time away with their old friends, rather than actively sell their wares.
The stores are usually set up from 1pm to 7pm and are manned by tanned old men with beer bellies and fierce old women with a cigarette in their hands.
The chaotic atmosphere of the flea market has no pretense, and everyone lets it all hang out. The sellers are loud, crass and want to move merchandise, not discuss it. It’s the atmosphere of a true bazaar.
Whoever said, “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure” has certainly shopped at the Thieves Market along Sungei Road in Singapore.
As space is limited, things can get quite heated. The flea market has been downsized before in July 2011, where half its space had to make way for the construction of the new Jalan Besar MRT Station. The peddlers were used to be known to spray paint the tarmac ground in the past to demarcate their designated area so that each knows his space. That practice is probably illegal these days as it constitutes vandalism and no one wants to attract further attention from the authorities who are trying to get them to move. Nowadays, each of the allocated metre-by-metre space is on a first-come-first-serve basis.
Though the place looks shady nowadays, you can see alot of resilience and self-reliance in the eyes of these old people. These were the generation who were uneducated and eventually forced out of the labour market due to a lack of skills for the market, they are a testament to the human spirit.
It was probably with sadness and resignment that people greeted the news that the famous Sungei Road Thieves Market would be closing to make way for the development of new train station in 2017. I feel a tinge of sadness that another part of olden Singapore and our unique culture is disappearing again. The end of the market is imminent as a large part of the market space has been shut down already. One should have a stroll down memory lane and see a part of Singapore's heritage that will be completely wiped out soon.
Here's the link to my previous B&W photo documentary shoot at Thieves Market done three years ago in 2011:
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