So Long, Sungei Road
Sungei Road Market was many things at once. It was a kerb-side marketplace with bargain hunter and vendor haggling over bric-a-brac laid on mats and makeshift tables. It was a breath of fresh air in squeaky clean Singapore. It was also bread and butter for the hundred-over vendors, most of them elderly – or in Singapore-centric terms, pioneers.
The market was also a pioneer in its right. It was the oldest flea market in existence since the 1930s and had remained untouched despite the regularity of development in the surrounding areas. The market was closed on 10 July 2017 following a multi-agency announcement. At least it has ceased to exist at Sungei Road – until the vendors find an alternative site.
Sungei Road Market was an anomaly. Few could expect a permanent all-weather market shaded by groundsheets and umbrellas in Singapore. It was unique in an island of ubiquitous malls. The market grew organically in a state with a tendency to manicure and curate.
Originally encompassing Pasar Lane, Pitt Street and Larut Road, the market sat along Sungei Road on the bank of Rochor Canal. Sungei Road ran along Rochor River, which gave rise to its name (Sungei means river in Malay). In its early days, the market was referred to as Robinson Petang (meaning the evening Robinsons), in humorous allusion to the Robinsons Department Store, a shopping institution established since the 1850s. It was also known as the Thieves’ Market, where it gained the reputation to be the place to buy and hawk stolen goods. More sterile and publication-appropriate names like the Temporary Hawking Site were assumed later.
Sungei Road Market’s fate was pre-sealed with the announcement of the Downtown Line Stage 3 project in 2011. The construction of the Jalan Besar MRT Station ate into the market’s compound. The station is slated to open in October 2017.
The market has outlived urban redevelopment in the surrounding areas. Bugis Street and Johore Road (both a stone’s throw away) were expunged in the 80s-90s, although the former has been reinvented as a shopping village hundred metres from the original site. Gentrification has slowly infiltrated the adjoining Jalan Besar, Kampong Glam and Little India neighbourhoods. Rochor Centre, one of the closest public housing estates, is soon to be demolished.
The arts and heritage communities have advocated the market’s preservation for its social and historical significance as a site of place-making. Nominated Member of Parliament Kok Heng Leun described it as an organic, public place built from community rather than capital and a natural coming together of individuals without the exacting hand of the state, and with little government intervention or handout.
The market was also the last large-scale site of free hawking in Singapore – which he said was an “invaluable and irreplaceable element of the organic, intangible heritage and community identity of our country”.
There was also undeniable tourism appeal in the market. It was listed as a highly-rated sight by visitors and writers in TripAdvisor and Lonely Planet. Tourism is after all a complex ecosphere that extends beyond ticketed attractions, manicured gardens, shopping districts and curated ethnic enclaves. It is a blend of myriad sights, the arts and cultures, markets and foods, and organic and intangible experiences.
Last but not least, the market was a place of opportunity. Used or discarded goods were recycled and sold at prices a tenth of their original. It was a source of livelihood for the many elderly vendors who worked hand to mouth. Circumstances and supply and demand ensured its longevity as a free hawking zone.
Once the epitome of living heritage, Sungei Road Market’s being could be reduced to that of a historic site. Land is scarce in Singapore but there could have been a little room for some soul and empathy.
So long, Sungei Road.