Sunday Spotlight: End of a chapter for Sungei Road flea market

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SINGAPORE — Operating lock-up stalls at hawker centres at subsidised rents sounded like a lifeline to keep their trades afloat. At least that was what some former Sungei Road flea market hawkers had counted on.

In preparing for this new chapter in their lives, many printed gleaming name cards with their new addresses and forked out hundreds for display cabinets and signage. At least one also had a Facebook page set up.

But for this pioneering group who moved into their new trading locations between two weeks and a month ago, the fresh start that they had hoped for has yet to materialise. Still, some hope that come Monday (July 10) when the curtain finally descends on the colourful bargain paradise, the centrepiece between Jalan Besar and Rochor Canal Road for just a decade shy of a century, their business might pick up once more.

ROUGH START AT HAWKER CENTRES

It has been two weeks since Mr Tang Kong Yuen, one of 11 first-generation hawkers offered a full rental subsidy for the first year, moved to the Chinatown Market. But he has yet to make a sale.

“Back at the Sungei Road (flea) market, I could earn about S$50 to S$60 a day without even batting an eyelid. Now, I cannot even earn enough for my daily cup of coffee,” the 90-year-old, who sells gemstones, power tools and old mobile phones among others, told TODAY.

(Tang Kong Yuen, almost 90, has been at Chinatown Complex for two weeks, but has yet to make a sale. He is a first-generation hawker and one of 11 original permit holders who qualify for a rent-free stall for a year. Photo: Raj Nadarajan/TODAY)

Started in the 1930s, the Sungei Road flea market is the oldest and largest flea market in Singapore. A rent-free hawking area, it made its name in the early days as a place to trade stolen, smuggled or illegal goods, hence its alternative moniker Thieves Market.

In recent years, hawkers and shoppers haggle over an array of used and new wares, from antiques and knick-knacks, to household items and power tools.

But the land the market sits on has been earmarked for redevelopment, so the Government announced in February that the market will close for good after its last day of business on Monday (July 10).

The authorities had said that while the historic area holds special memories for many Singaporeans, “the Government has assessed that such street trades should only be allowed to continue in designated venues like trade fairs and flea markets, rather than on a permanent basis, to minimise disamenities to the public”.

One week before its closure, 29 out of 200 hawkers had been allocated lock-up stalls, most of which are at Chinatown Market and Golden Mile Food Centre.

Apart from the 11 original permit holders, other hawkers who take up lock-up stalls in hawker centres will have their rents halved for their first two years of operations, the authorities announced last month.

“(Others) have asked me to do up the place to draw customers, but I think there is no point. There is not even a crowd here. I already spent S$450 getting this (display cabinet) and I do not want to spend more money, said Mr Tang, who has four adult sons. He also provides for a 10-year-old daughter and a wife in Indonesia.

Apart from the cabinet strewn with gem stones, old mobile phones, other gadgets and power tools placed rather haphazardly on the floor, his stall is bare. And Mr Tang is almost ready to throw in the towel and return his stall to the Housing and Development Board once the month is up.

Fellow vendors Mr Hew Beong Fah and Madam Tan Guo Mei – who had hawked at Sungei Road for 20 and five years respectively before moving to Chinatown Market – agreed that business was slow.

Mdm Tan, 49, said the dismal footfall is an obstacle they share with existing hawkers.

“I think people do want to buy second-hand goods and I think people may come if the authorities can make (Chinatown Market) like a second Gek Sng Gio (‘Frosted Bridge’ in dialect),” she said, referring to what the area used to be known in the 1970s and 1980s.

“If you scatter us, one to the east, another to the west, it’s very difficult to do business. It won’t work,” added Mdm Tan, who sells shoes, antiques, Chinese paintings, and other memorabilia.

(Mr Hew Beong Fah, in his 70s, has been at Chinatown Complex for a month, previously hawking at Sungei Road for 30 years. Photo: Raj Nadarajan/TODAY)

But Mr Hew – who sells a kaleidoscope of antiques, old books and magazines, coins, stamps, transport tickets, utensils and clocks, among others – is hopeful that business will improve. The 70-year-old, who has relocated for a month, said having a shop gives him more space to showcase his wares.

At the flea market, each hawker is allotted a 1m-by-1m space and some of them end up hidden behind the heaps of products that they are selling.

While Mr Hew misses the “good old days” of hawking in the open, he expects to stick it out at his Chinatown stall for a while: “There is not much of a crowd here… On a good day, (I) can earn about S$100, but it really depends. Most days I get nothing. Of course I prefer (being at) Sungei Road, there will usually be a crowd. But I will probably stay here for a year.”

Over at Golden Mile Food Centre, Mr Chin Kim Bon, also 70, has been returning to the Thieves’ Market to peddle his wares in its final days.

After operating for a month at the food centre, Mr Chin is none the wiser as to why business has not picked up.

(Mr Chin Kim Bon still goes back to sell things at Sungei Road Market despite having gotten a stall at Beach Road’s army market. Photo: Raj Nadarajan/TODAY)

(Mr Chin Kim Bon at his new stall at Beach Road’s army market. Photo: Raj Nadarajan/TODAY)

“I did not expect it to be like that because when I first visited, it looked crowded, but I guess people just come here for a meal and go back to work. Or maybe, my wares are more suitable for the crowd at Thieves’ Market,” he said.

Perhaps the poor location of his stall plays a part too, he added. “It is hidden right at the back, people say customers just look at the front and stop. I am not sure either.”

COMMUNITY OF FRIENDS, ADVOCATES AND UNIQUE CHARACTERS

Mr Chin said he decided to return to the Thieves’ Market to hawk in the last few days till curtain call because “all (my) friends are here”.

“We know one another well and buy items off each other. It is easier to pass the time here, I can always walk around, look around, talk to people. Time passes very slowly (at the shop) and I spent a lot of time looking at the mobile phone… My neighbours (neighbouring stallholders) are mostly busy doing business in their own shop,” he said.

Some hawkers have forged close bonds with patrons too.

When TODAY visited Mr Chin at the Thieves’ Market last week, antique-collector Mr Chris Loh was helping him advise customers – scrutinising old coins with a pocket magnifying glass.

He also served as Mr Chin’s unofficial stall promoter, telling this reporter: “This is the best stall in the market, he has the real, good stuff.”

A retiree who wanted to be known only as Mr Lim said he has been visiting the market regularly for the last six decades.

“It started when I was a student… (My school) used to be close by and I would come and hang out here after school… This place is very interesting! Whenever I go to the shopping malls (with my wife), she will ask why I cannot stay in them for very long, but I can spend the entire day here. I don’t know where else I would go when it closes after Monday,” said Mr Lim, who is almost 80.

Mr Loh added: “This place is like a treasure trove, but you have to look, it’s like a treasure hunt. It’s also a good reminder of our culture and heritage… People from all walks of life come here and we become friends with the vendors.”

STILL HOPING FOR A NEW SITE

In 2011, the Thieves’ Market was shrunk by half to make way for the construction of the new Jalan Besar MRT Station, and hawkers were told that they would have to move out eventually, as land will be needed to facilitate residential development in the future.

But the final death knell wasn’t sounded till February, and since then, the hawkers and concerned members of public have banded together to propose possible new sites for the relocation of the iconic bazaar – such as the open field behind Sim Lim Tower and along Rochor Canal – but the authorities have reiterated that this would not happen.

Just one week ago, a petition with 792 signatories was submitted to Parliament seeking an alternative location for the market.

On Saturday (Jul 8), community artists held a “guerilla art hunt” – in which patrons were invited to spot art works while at the market – as an illustration of their “disappointment in the authorities’ decision” to shut it down.

Campaigners with citizen group Save Sungei Road Market have continued to appeal for the authorities to engage with hawkers and residents who have been affected by the “disamenities”.

The group had submitted a proposal to the authorities titled Robinson Petang 2.0 – paying tribute to “Robinsons in the afternoon”, another of the markets’ nickname – which sought to relocate the market and improve hygiene with amenities like portable toilets, larger trash bins and storage spaces.

The best ways to manage disamenities should not be to “banish the vendors”, said community artist Tan Biyun, who is part of the group.

“We can understand how an environment full of litter can be headache. But have we ever brought the vendors and concerned residents together? Only after we have attempted to engage the community, and it still does not work out, should more drastic measures be necessary,” she said.

Ms Tan maintains that the authorities’ concerns for closing down the market and not relocating it can be resolved.

This “unilateral” decision also displaces a “unique community”, she said, that may not fit in with other parts of the population.

“Not all these vendors need to (hawk here) for a living, but this is their community. There are many interesting characters here, people whom the rest of the population may consider ‘misfits’… This is where they feel the most comfortable,” she said.

A FINAL HOORAY

In its final weeks, the market has seen one of its largest crowds and showcase of products.

Suitcases crowded up the hawking spaces, some filled with used items that hawkers said were donated by visitors.

Goods were going for a song, with digital cameras at S$8, desk lamps at S$7 and comic books at S$2 each. For the majority of the hawkers who have no plans to take up lock-up stalls, this was their last-ditch attempt to earn their keep.

Mr Ng Seng Khong, one of the 11 original permit holders, said he is not drawn by the prospect of a lock-up stall.

“Foot fall is poor so I think it will be a waste of time. Plus we are old and have no strength to climb the stairs (to the stalls),” said the 73-year-old, who has been hawking at the market since the 1960s.

“I will probably go home and have a good sleep,” he added.

Some, like Mr George Tang, plans to seize rental rebates offered by the Government: “Of course Sungei Road is the best, but after working here for so long and earning a fair bit, (most of us) should be able to afford a few hundred (dollars of rent).”

Like other vendors, Mr Tang, 64, thinks the ideal solution is for “all the vendors from Sungei Road (flea market) to move (to one hawker centre).”

“Then we can make it Sungei Road No. 2 and be able to draw more customers. Right now it is very quiet over (at the hawker centres),” he said.

(Mr George Tang, 64, has been hawking at the Thieves Market for 16 years. Will move to Chinatown Complex when the Thieves Market closes. Photo: Raj Nadarajan/TODAY)

Two vendors who declined to be named told TODAY they plan to continue peddling goods at coffee shops and bus stops in the vicinity. “When the cops come, we run. This was how we have done it in the past, so we can get used to it,” he said.

A pair of sisters, Ms Teng Soon Heng, 79, and Ms Chan Ah Ling, 69, however are still holding out for a “miracle”.

“We will continue selling here till the last day, and pray and hope that when the last day comes, (the authorities) will take pity on us old people and relocate us to another spot (to continue operating as a flea market),” said Ms Teng.

(Ms Teng Soon Heng, 79, and younger sister Ms Chan Ah Ling, 69, at the Sungei Road market. They have not made any plans to move to a new stall. Photo: Raj Nadarajan/TODAY)

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