From ‘Thieves’ Market: Time to stop the name-calling’, 2 Oct 2012, ST Forum
(Tay Boon Suat):IT IS regrettable that people still refer to the market in Sungei Road as Thieves’ Market (“Time catches up with Thieves’ Market”; last Saturday). Yes, years ago, when life was difficult in Singapore, perhaps some dishonest people relied on this place to make a living. But those times are long gone.
In fact, Sungei Road is now known as a place where many poor and old people rely on selling used household articles to make a living. Many of them have been selling goods there for 20 or 30 years. Some of them are creative enough to add value by repairing old household items and in doing this, are able to turn trash into cash.
They are the majority of sellers, and make an honest living, so why call the place Thieves’ Market?
In Singapore, there are very few local traditional markets that have been able to survive since the 1930s, so why destroy them for the sake of modernisation? I hope our urban planners can be more inclusive, and let this little market have some breathing space, and let it survive. Who knows, this karung guni market might some day become as big a local attraction for foreign tourists as the Chatuchak weekend market in Bangkok.
In 2008, MP Denise Phua called the Sungei Road market ‘a slum’, and urged authorities to ‘clean it up’, but it’s not just the notorious flea market that’s in a mess, so was Ms Phua’s English:
I’m not seeking to ‘prettify’ the Sungei Road market, but I think it can be cleaner and better managed’
The same MP would be invited to a gala dinner next year to celebrate the launch the Association for the Recycling of Second Hand Goods, intended to protect the vendors’ interests. With the MRT development around the area, it would be impossible for Sungei Road to achieve the gonzo hustle and bustle of Chatuchak, but that doesn’t mean it can’t retain it’s ‘old world charm’, or its ‘sustainable model’ of karang guni trading. If there’s any ‘thieving’ going on, it’s how vendors get to set up shop at ‘a steal’, without having to apply for licenses or pay rental. If pitched right, ‘Thieves’ Market could be a weird and wonderful retro curio paradise, a likely place to find a vinyl player, a ship in a bottle or a Walkman. You may even get a ‘wacky’ pepper spray there too.
Although no longer the chaotic haven for crooks to make a quick buck off stolen junk, you just need to go back a couple of years to uncover incidents which justify why this legendary bazaar still has an air of ‘Ali Baba’ about it. In 2010, you could buy suspected contraband like mountain bikes for $300 (usual price $700). It was 60 years earlier that one of the first references of Sungei Road as a ‘thieves’ market’ was made by a certain Court Magistrate D. A Fyfe, who fined a vendor $100 for selling stolen SWIMMING TRUNKS. In a comical twist of events, the thief was caught by the original owners of the trunks HALF an HOUR after they were swiped at Rochor Road. The victims headed straight for Sungei Road to sniff him out, hence the name stuck.
Swimwear and bikes aside, if you’re lucky you may chance upon someone’s car keys, reels of copper wire worth tens of thousands of dollars, or used army uniforms. But before it earned the reputation as a one-stop garage sale of pilfered bounty, Sungei Road was affectionately known in the 1930′s as ‘Robinson Petang‘, in reference to the ‘Robinsons’ department store where, other than the iffy stuff, most of it was traded from the rag-and-bone, or karang guni, man, stuff ranging from cigarettes to tin cans and gramaphones. It was raw entrepreneurship at work, a spirit that lives on in the many indie flea markets and pasar malams that line our streets today. I still have my suspicions of those paperbacks which I see at some of these roadside stalls. These are books which obviously NOBODY ever reads and I suspect they were ‘borrowed’ from libraries and never returned.
‘Thieves’ Market’ comes across as a romantic, catchy title that brings to mind flying carpets, genie lamps and even lost treasure maps if you let your imagination wander a little, though anyone strolling through the area in the hot sun would consider it anything but. You may still find the occasional yanked bicycle part, car tyre or bootleg Nokia if you search hard enough, but if a flea market run by pot-bellied uncles is called a ‘Thieves’ Market’, then what is Sim Lim Square? Pirates’ Cove?