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A community dispersed

Good of Channel NewsAsia to do a follow-up on the fate of the Sungei Road Market vendors, who were dispersed when the authorities enforced the closure of the historic landmark in 2017.


As a street vendor, Jason Goh was known to sell some unusual wares. There were antiques, a collection of Burmese jade, and fossilised elephant sperm.


Four years after his stall had to close, he says those stones with elephant sperm inside are “still very saleable”.


As he used to claim, the stones serve a useful purpose: “If you work … your boss automatically would like you. You go anywhere — girls would like to make friends with you.”


This former Sungei Road market vendor is one of many who have struggled to find a new home after the demise of Singapore’s most famous flea market.


Where it used to be, with its 80 years of history — of people hustling for a better life — is now a barricaded grass patch.


But recently, some vendors like Goh have set up shop not far away. And they are trying to keep memories of the place alive.


The programme On The Red Dot finds out how what has happened to them since 2017 and how they are picking up the pieces, in a series on places Singaporeans will miss.


A PIECE OF HISTORY, NOW REBRANDED


Singapore’s oldest and largest flea market began in the 1930s as a trading spot by the banks of Rochor River. From the 1940s onwards, it became popular for its cheap goods.


The vendors used to start operating in the late afternoon, offering an array of items, some of which were considered a steal while others were literally stolen or smuggled, leading to the market’s moniker, the Thieves’ Market.


At its height, there were more than 300 vendors. In July 2017, when it had to make way for an MRT station as well as future residential and commercial developments, there were 200 vendors. Some had worked there for decades.


Many of the vendors have since retired, while others took their business to night markets or took on odd jobs. Many still missed their former lives.


“My heart ached,” ex-vendor David Sein says about how he felt when the market closed.


So when the 58-year-old saw two vacant Housing and Development Board shop units near the old market last March, he asked The Saturday Movement, a charity, to help rent the units for a group of vendors.


Six months later, the Sungei Road Green Hub was born at Kelantan Road. “They (the charity) know all these people have got no place to go. Most are already old,” says Goh, one of around 20 vendors there.


Helping them out brings back memories for Raymond Khoo, the restaurateur behind The Saturday Movement, which paid for the renovations and rental deposit.


“I remember going to Sungei Road, the original Thieves’ Market, in my primary school days. My brother said, ‘I’ll bring you somewhere that you’ve never been.’ So I was very excited,” recalls the 57-year-old.


“I remember this Ultraman figurine — it was so interesting. We didn’t manage to buy anything. My brother said, ‘It’s just for you to have a look-see, to know that you can look for some treasures.’”


It was Khoo’s idea to “rebrand” the new place as a green hub.


“Reuse, recycle and upcycle,” he cites. “It’s more current, especially (for) the millennials. (If) you tell them karang guni (rag-and-bone man), they’d have no idea what it’s about.”


He helps to manage the rental of about S$6,000 for both units, which is S$10 a day from each vendor. And their old customers are starting to return. But because of the COVID-19 pandemic, he has promised to make up any shortfall in the first year.


For former Sungei Road market vendor Lee Tien Seng, just having his own stall makes him “a bit happier”.


“The night markets are closed now, so we can’t do business there. Without this shop, we’d be in dire straits,” he says. “If we (had to) look for jobs, would they even call us back?”


It is important that they have a place of their own, Khoo notes. “Their internal being is elevated because ‘hey, I’ve something to look forward to instead of I don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow’.”


It is also “very important” to preserve the “heritage of where these people came from”, he adds.


***


I last visited the Sungei Road Market in June 2017, just a few weeks before it closed.

I had a memorable time browsing the stalls and their myriad wares, helmed by cheerful uncles game for banter or snapshots:

One of the cheerful uncles managed to persuade me to part with some of my hard-earned money for this lovely old-school typewriter:

I wish them well.

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