In the twilight hours of Sungei Road Thieves Market

Photos by Raphael Koh / Coconuts Media

After 30 years, the Thieves Market sold it’s last piece of “junk” yesterday. Yet another Singaporean bastion of cultural heritage and historical nostalgia gone forever to make way for more shiny, soulless developments and projects.

Eighty-seven years after it first opened, the Sungei Road Hawker Zone —  more popularly known by its moniker “Thieves Market” — shuttered for good yesterday.

The writing on the wall had been there for some time, as various redevelopments in the area reduced the once-bustling site to half of its original size. The decision to shut down the flea market completely was confirmed earlier this year as part of an effort to repurpose the site for future residential development use.

As one of the sites that has lasted through the ages – the Japanese Occupation being one notable era – Thieves’ Market turned into a go-to space for acquiring retro items (Yashica film cameras, old coins, vinyl records, etc). But it was where you could also find literal junk — old remote controls, discarded corporate gifts, broken electronic gadgets, and generally stuff that you’d give away to the rag-and-bone man. All of it could be bought cheaply, from vendors who were all too happy to haggle with customers over a decent price for their wares.

Junk it may have been, but it was the quirks, the company and the rarely-felt gritty vibe that kept Singaporeans and tourists alike coming back to Thieves’ Market.

For many locals, it was one of the last few places in the country that still held a shred of genuine Singaporean heritage. For the powers that be in our land-starved city-state, the area that the Sungei Road vendors occupied was simply too valuable to remain a venue for selling bric-a-brac. Both sides offered up legitimate arguments as to why the market should be preserved or demolished. Only one, however, had the power to make that decision.

While vendors have been given the option to relocate their stores at Golden Mile Centre and Chinatown Market at subsidized rates, the truth is, all of them simply wanted things to stay the way they were. After all, they had been there for decades, and change is daunting to the bulk of them, many of whom are already in their golden years.

In the last few days of the Sungei Road Hawker Zone, we went down to capture the atmosphere and sought out the vendors’ thoughts in the market’s twilight. Names have been withheld for anonymity.


“I actually have a job as a cleaner — selling my stuff at Sungei Road is just a hobby. I’ve been here for 25 years … and before that I used do some hawking at another location. Turns out, it was illegal, and I had to pay a heavy fine after I was caught. I’m still not done with selling though. I’m probably gonna get my friend to sell stuff for me at Chinatown Market. The things I can’t sell, I’ll just pass it to a karang guni  (rag-and-bone man).”


“Yes, you like fans? Here, let me show you all the old, retro fans I have at home.

“Yah, I only sell fans here. I’ve been here for 20 years, and I also help repair fans for people — I have my own tools and a lot of experience. All the fans you see here, I actually bought from other Sungei Road hawkers and fix their insides. Then it’s good to go for sale.

“Last time? I used to be a salesman, but left because of the 1997 financial crisis. Didn’t get any pay raise, didn’t get any bonus, no OT pay. So I left and started fixing fans to get by.”


“No, I don’t want to continue selling anymore. Everything I cannot sell I will just give away.”


“We worked here for 39 years already! We still haven’t decided if we want to continue selling — we’ll take a break from things first. Tired lah.

“No, we don’t want to move our shop to Golden Mile because the elevator only goes up to the fifth floor, and the market will be another floor above. The authorities definitely didn’t make things easier for us, because it’s inconvenient to lug our things up a flight of stairs. We didn’t even get to view the lots at the new spot at Chinatown.”


“Move my shop to Golden Mile? Maybe. I’ll only know if I can get a spot there when the authorities contact me.”


“How old are you? Twenty-eight? I’ve been selling here even before you were born!

“This market used to be way bigger, you know, but when the MRT got built, our space got smaller. After this place closes, I’ll just go wherever they want to send us. But if you ask me, things won’t be better anywhere else because buyers and visitors prefer it the way it is right now. It’s more free and easy, and it’s much easier to get here than Golden Mile or Chinatown.

“Eh, I’ll just take whatever space they give me.”


“We were actually on the other end of the market, but we moved here after the construction pushed us out. We spent a good 15 years here, it’s been a good run, but I won’t miss it. We haven’t made plans after the closure actually, but we want to continue. We only come here in the afternoon, so we don’t get to speak with government workers about assistance because they’re gone by then.

“I’ll be happy wherever I go, as long as I can still make a living.”


“I worked here for 20 years already. I don’t want to continue selling my things anywhere else — I don’t think anyone will be buying my things at any other place than here.”


“No lah, I won’t be sad to leave — I’ll just look for a part-time job to support myself after Sungei Road closes. You know I actually used to stay near here? I used to work in the hotel industry before me and my sister started selling here during my 40s. My sister is sick at the moment; that’s why I’m here alone.

“I’ll just take a short break for now, because I’ve been setting up my stall here seven days a week for 30 years. I’ll just give my stuff away on the last day.”


 

“Kid, we’ve been here a really long time, probably a few decades. It’s not like we can’t work anywhere else — we can. But we’re old, so what job can we do? We’re not young anymore.

“Not as if we can do anything if they want to close this place. We’ll just take whatever space they want to give us, and just hope for the best.”

Prior to Coconuts Singapore, Ilyas was a founding Editor at Bandwagon Asia, and helped establish Singapore’s biggest live music portal — so you know he has better taste in music than you. He also prefers paying less than $3 for Nasi Lemak. You can reach him at ilyas@coconuts.co. Or not. Whatever.

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