With the closure of Sungei Road Thieves Market on 10 July 2017, many mixed feelings and voices were sparked. Sungei Road Thieves Market was closed to make way for the construction of Jalan Besar MRT Station, part of Stage Three of the Downtown Line.
Dating all the way back to the 1930s, the market was a haven for rare collectible antiques and second-hand gems for 80-odd years. Up till 10 July 2017, it was Singapore’s last permanent vending zone. Not only were valuable pieces of the past sold and exchanged at the Thieves Market, an irreplaceable unit of Singapore’s history itself was nestled in here. Many of these peddlers witnessed the fall and rise of Singapore – through her days of being under the British rule to finally finding a new lease of life as an independent nation. There were approximately 300 peddlers operating in the market, most of whom are in their 70s to 80s now.
Source: Mindy Tan
You gain some, you lose some. In making Singapore’s public transport network more efficient, many of these peddlers who have been at Sungei Road for decades were relocated to Golden Mile Food Centre. Perhaps it is easy for us, the younger ones, to glaze over this transformation but for the older folk, the ones who have grown accustomed to daily transactions at the flea market for fifty over years, change is tough.
Paydays are more uncertain now with vendors reportedly earning approximately $100 on good days and nothing on other days. Some can’t even earn enough for a cup of coffee now. Although the glory days of Sungei Road’s own towkays and towkay-neos have reached its twilight, we must not forget how they paved the way for a new generation of peddlers.
Source: The Straits Times
The Sungei Road Thieves Market was not much different from the flea markets we have now. They were much simpler and perhaps a lot more rough around the edges but it was all the same, bustling with people haggling and looking for the best value-for-money deals. Thieves Market was essentially the pioneer in Singapore’s flea market scene.
Source: Mindy Tan
At the Thieves Market, a peddler did not need to pay rent. On a first-come-first-serve basis, a metre-by-metre space is given to the peddler. Early bird gets the worm! All the peddler needs to do is set up his/her mat of goods and he/she is ready to start rolling in the cash for the day. To secure a booth now in current flea markets, vendors need to pay an average of $100/day. The first-come-first-serve system still applies. And of course, with the rise of the interwebs, vendors do not have to physically go down to chope their spots. Interested bosses-in-the-making can simply register a booth from the comfort of their homes at Fleawhere.
Mr Pang Lim, the founder of the Koufu food court chain, started off as an illegal fruit hawker at Thieves Market in the 1970s before he started his multi-million dollar food court business. Similarly, many of Singapore’s successful online fashion stores these days started off as a humble flea booth or a simple livejournal store. If you were into the whole blogshop scene back in the early 2010s, vintage clothing store – Oakham Market should be no stranger to you. It was the ultimate vintage/thrift store for youths located along Ann Siang Hill with tops going for below SG$20. It has since grown into a thriving international business, and is now known as O-mighty.
Thieves Market operated daily in the afternoons to evenings from 1pm to 7pm, making it convenient to source for items during lunch breaks and after-work hours. Likewise, flea markets today are held during those hours too but they typically only happen on weekends.
Remembering Sungei Road Thieves Market
Sungei Uncle, a project by Our Grandfather Story, is a Carousell account that listed the commonly found and peddled items. Thieves Market is gone now but you can revisit it through this interesting take on remembering the past 80 years of business. By digitising snippets of the market scene, you can scroll through the market since strolling through is not an option anymore.
Header image courtesy of Mindy Tan.