Bugis, with its unending rows of modern malls stacked with stores and eateries, serves a haven for shopaholics and foodies alike. Set the clock back about 60 years, and you’ll find that Bugis has always been a breeding ground for traders and merchants of some form. At Sungei Road, nestled in a corner of Jalan Besar away from the commercial rush of the Bugis Street area, is a place reminiscent of the old-time peddlers of Singapore – Thieves Market.
Where the row of Housing Development Board (HDB) blocks off Sungei Road ends, Thieves Market abruptly begins. The tented make-shift stalls are squeezed together in 3 cramped branches alongside Rochor canal, almost as if they were forced there as an afterthought. In fact, these flats were built around the old flea market in the 1980s, about half a century after the conception of Thieves Market.
Originally a hub for hawking looted items and other contraband goods like opium, the vendors of the aptly named street market now survive by selling second-hand goods.
On weekdays, the streets of Sungei Road are sparse – the stillness in the air is broken only by intermittent calls from vendors to approach their stalls. Come weekends, the already narrow lanes of Thieves Market are chock full of locals and foreigners alike, looking for a cheap deal.
The crowd is a welcome sight for the stall owners, all rushing to sell their stock before the end of day. Electronics, clothes, accessories, religious and cultural artefacts, even art replicas – all are par for the course in the smorgasbord of wares up for sale. “Come, take photos!” a cheery middle-aged stall owner calls in Mandarin, peeking his head over the Bangladeshi workers swarming around his storefront. “No more in a few years.”
He is, of course, talking about the Singaporean authorities’ plans to redevelop the area, permanently erasing Thieves Market and the history of Sungei Road. Before 2011, the flea market was double its current size before it was forced to shrink for development purposes. In July last year, the news broke that the whole area would be paved over in the name of progress.
Mr. Teo Heng Hua, 56, has been selling second-hand watches at the market for over 2 decades. “It was supposed to be a temporary job but I ended up staying for so long,” he confides. When asked about his livelihood and supporting his spouse or family, he quips, “Look at me. How can a bicycle chase a Ferrari?”
Another veteran vendor is Mrs. Lam, 73, who runs the stall with her husband. The elderly couple are still reeling from the news of Thieves Market’s closure – “You don’t shut down Geylang activities…but you shut us down?” she implores, a slight quiver noticeable in her voice. “We are also service providers.”
Even loyal patrons of Thieves Market are hard hit by the news. “I get my cheap movies here…now I must drive to Malaysia to find them,” laughs an unnamed customer. Jokes aside, he admits that some stall owners have been his friends for many years and he “[doesn’t] know where they will go after this”.
One man’s trash is another man’s treasure. The Mona Lisa, an enduring symbol of artistic prestige, has no substitute. Here at the flea market, though, this cheap replica is one of the most prized items for sale, going for almost $100 and lovingly shielded from rain and sun under the canvas canopy.
At 7pm sharp, the unsold scavenged items are stuffed into suitcases and bags with hopes of better luck for the next day. In a few years, these vendors will be back on the very streets. But meanwhile, it’s about time to say goodbye to Sungei Road.