Thieves market’s grimy old men

From ‘Thieves’ Market closure ends nightmare for resident’, 25 Feb 2017, ST Forum

(Ang Zyn Yee): As a resident of the Housing Board flats beside the Sungei Road flea market, I have felt only relief after it was announced that the market would be shut down for good on July 10 (“Sungei Road flea market to make way for future homes”; Feb 15).

Many of the people whose views I have read oppose the closure. They present a vision of the market as a charming area of Singapore that must be protected from the modernisation that has gripped the other parts of our nation. However, having lived with the market my entire life, I cannot help but disagree with the heavily romanticised narrative presented.

The Sungei Road flea market has been a nuisance to me for years – not because of its actual operation but how it has encroached into residential space.

…The Thieves Market has ruined the aesthetics of the estate by making the area look messy, dodgy and filthy. In addition, several of these stall-holders have made the residential atrium their home, sleeping on the stone benches and washing themselves at the tap under the HDB block. It is not uncommon to spot their clothes hanging from trees near the atrium.

It may be unfair of me to base my judgment of the flea market on the actions of these people, who might constitute just the minority. But I appeal to the public to try and appreciate the situation from a resident’s perspective.

Grimy old men hawking frayed yellow-stained books and broken toys in the pavilion have become the gate keepers to my home. Every day before I enter the lift lobby, I am careful to keep my eyes straight ahead, in fear of seeing a man relieve himself.

The Sungei Road Flea Market may hold precious memories to some, but it has been nothing but a nightmare for me. I am overjoyed that it will soon be gone.

In the mid seventies, Sungei Road market was not just a haven for ‘grimy old men’, but enterprising bootleg cassette tape pirates who sold dubbed version of originals for as low as $1.60. Such unwholesome activity would become the norm more than 30 years later, as ‘stolen music’ became blase in the Napster era. Today, $1.60 would be the iTunes price for a SINGLE, instead of the lovingly curated playlist that the Sungei Road pirates peddled in the past.

It’s a shame that one man’s livelihood is another’s ‘yellow-stained’ eyesore, but residents paranoid about wading through puddles of old-man pee are not the only ones who felt the Thieves’ Market needed cleaning up. Just ask MP Denise Phua.  Of course in a crowded city as ours it’s unrealistic to expect perpetual serenity where we live. Geylang residents are afraid of their daughters getting harassed. Serangoon folks once complained about nearby foreign worker dormitories. Sengkangers wailed about an impending columbarium.  Sin Ming residents indirectly led to the untimely deaths of wild chickens.

Along with the demolition of the Rochor tri-colour flats, the demise of an iconic flea market spells the end of the Rochor ‘character’ as we know it. Things change or get destroyed, and there’s precious little we can do to preserve what the writer calls ‘romanticised narratives’, whether it’s a downtrodden theme park like Haw Par Villa, an obliterated Lentor Forest, or people proposing air-conditioning in hawker centres to turn them into de facto Food Courts.

As for grimy old men, given our aging society, I suppose we’d better get used to seeing more of them around. Who knows when my time comes and my work is taken over by a bot, I’ll find myself peddling smelly old books and vintage handphones at a makeshift flea market, incurring the NIMBY wrath of some post-millennial who’s turned off by my shady wares and yellow teeth.

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