Monday, 12 June 2017

Being at the Sungei Road flea market for the first time.

To be completely honest, if this flea market hasn't been a center of a heritage existential crisis made publicly known, I would have never have known about its existence at all.


To give a brief background knowledge here: Sungei Road Flea Market has been around since the 1930s as a platform for people to sell their wares without having to pay any fees as the market was located in a free hawking zone.

The market started out in its early years until the late 1960s, selling army surplus that's probably looted from British military stores during the era when the British army was around.

In addition, it also has an ill reputation of being a place where stolen goods can be easily found to be placed for sale on the day it's stolen, the stall owners would always feign ignorance of the item's true sources.

Hence it's better known alternative name: the 
Thieve's Market.

For the market's more than 80 years of existence, it was once surrounded with shophouses that were subsequently demolished years later. 
Yet, the vendors still returned to the green barren state-owned land, selling their goods, chatting with fellow vendors with a shared history with the market, and it went on for decades.

 On the 14 February 2017, a joint statement was released from 6 government agencies;
National Environment Agency (NEA), Ministry of National Development, Ministry of Social and Family Development, Workforce Singapore, National Heritage Board (NHB) and the Singapore Police Force.

The released statement was essentially a final eviction for the market to cease operation after it's final day of 10 July 2017

The reason they provided were plans to use the lands to facilitate future residential development purposes. 

In an effort to salvage the market's heritage, a group of like-minded people who were concerned about the fate of the market formed a Facebook group, known as 'Save Sungei Road Market', organizing tours of the market to raise awareness of the market's existential crisis to the public , hoping reverse the market's fate.


And so on the 3rd of June, I finally got around what I promised myself to do; to take part in the Sungei Road Flea Market tour.

Going back to the first comment I made at the beginning: I had little to no idea this market existed.

My impression of flea markets is mostly either Pasar Malam (Malay term for night markets) or those flea market that are mostly for artist or handicraft business that would gather frequently during the arts festival.

So when I saw an Instagram post by a friend's boyfriend which lamented the released statement, I got interested in the market when he mentioned it's history.

But I didn't immediately check out the tour for weeks, originally I was thinking to check it out maybe when it's near towards closure. 
Until it came to my mind, although mostly out of boredom when I was thinking about what interesting stuff that I can experience and document.

So I packed my bag with my Wacom MobileStudio Pro 16, necessary accessories for my laptop and a DSLR that I took from my sister, with the camera usually occupies my desk space all the time, hell, she close to never using it borrowed from my sister. 

I went to the meeting place stated on their Facebook event quite early, despite having procrastinated leaving the house for almost an hour in favor of surfing the internet for additional info about the market.

People were gathering, exchanging topics among themselves while waiting for others who have yet to reach.
Discussions about personal experiences with the market, interest about conservation of a heritage and current updates on the status of the market are the main common topics. 

Everyone was exchanging thoughts and sharing research and incidents involving debate regarding the market eviction crisis while waiting for the tour to start.

While I for one was sipping on cold beverages to tolerate the blazing hot weather, fidgeting around the DSLR after having last touched it about three years age in photography lessons during my time at an art school, struggling to understand aperture settings.

Two of the tour guide group stood together reviewing articles they had gathered through research for the purpose of the tour

The tour finally began all of us gathered together for a briefing by the organizers, the usual stuff being introductions on who are they and what they do, and a brief history of the market and the current situation.

After the short briefing, everyone was led to an area under the lift under an HDB building, which I would later learn that as this particular HDB block is just right in front of the market, where it's the highest level just so happens to have the best birdseye's view of the whole market.

They did additional briefings and history talks about the area, unfortunately, unable to remember, trying to document the moment by taking pictures ironically.
But there is something one of the tour guides pointed out during this moment.

The market was never part of a planned development.
In the beginning, people just gathered in an area to sell their wares(despite how they got them). 
And people came in to see what they find according to their needs, like finding hard to find goods or spare parts, or retrieve their stolen stuff.

And over time, there were relationships built between the vendors and regulars, besides successful business that actually had roots from the market(Koufu), feelings were naturally developed for the market.

That's something that planned development can do, no matter how well the development is planned and designed.
*cough*Marina Bay Sand*cough*Gardens by the bay*cough*


On our way up in the lift, we encountered a Malay couple, asking us we're taking the lift up for a bird's eye view of the market. we replied we are, and a brief conversation started between us.

"Do you live here?" someone in the group asked, "Do people come up just to see the market?"

"Yes, we live at the highest level, so we see people coming up to do that all the time," they replied, "See it while you can before it's gone for good next month, maybe share it with your kids one day."

At the last level of the block, after struggling big time to get the DSLR's aperture settings right after asking a very nice fellow-concerned-about-the-market individual, I managed to take some decent image of the whole market.

The guides elaborated on the area, pointing out surrounding fellow oldest heritage buildings near the market; Masjid Sultan, Cathedral of the God Shepard, and oh I spotted Lasalle College of the Arts where I used to attend(although not as old as the others).

I forgot what he mentioned for the rest of this section, vaguely remembering that it involved the development planned for the land.


Back to the ground level, they further explained the history of the area, mainly revolving the secret societies that once existed in the area and the physical development that occurred through the times.

A guide also provided the group his personal history with the area, explaining how his family runs businesses in the shophouses that once existed in the area before they were demolished.

Another interesting revelation was brought up; the Sungei Road flea market's existential crisis has been threatened 3 times.

First crisis occurred when the British army withdrew from Singapore during the late 1960s, and people were no longer able to purchase army supplies from the market, and so vendors switched to selling other stolen items. 
Yet somehow that part of that legacy survived in the form of Army Market located at beach road.

The second time is when government officers from the NEA came to personally to tear the shophouse buildings down after a series of hazardous incidents involving the market.
The most of the shophouses were demolished in the end, but the vendors still persist on gathering in the same location to sell their goods.

And finally the third crisis, well, this current situation the market currently facing.

An interesting point mentioned is an argument made that defends the decision.
The land is valuable anyway, why not benefit from it anyway.
A valid argument, yet ironic that the one made the argument did not benefit from. Nor those who lived and worked in the land for years.
It was those who made the development who does.

That's something interesting to think about.

The market being displayed right next to the eviction statement.

I spotted a tour sightseeing bus that's meant to show tourist history rich areas passing by a historic market, which the tourist may never get to see due to the market being blocked by trees and construction barriers. How ironic.

At the end of the tour, a volunteer showed up to distribute letters for the attendees to fill up about their opinions of the market crisis, passing it to a Member of Parliament for the crisis to be taken into the parliament for discussion.

Still, I'm not entirely sure whether or not I am able to write down any concise opinion for an MP to consider.
Not sure if I can just copy and paste this whole blog post...

Just as I was about to leave the market, there was this old man who appeared to be chauffeured by someone younger in a fancy white car.
When he stepped out, one of the tour guides tried to chat with him on why he arrived here, voices from the market vendors called out to he and he turns his head and walks towards the source.

It was as if the elderly's purpose of his appearance at one of the market entrance is to catch up with old friends.

I immediately rushed off to my next destination, scrapping my plans for a shopping haul due to the lack of time.

Finally ending the day, getting tired from carrying a 2-3kg backpack, with a tiring trip to the Necessary Provisions for dinner. 

Another objective of the visit is for a job interview since I was told me and my other family members have to leave tonight for the Thailand trip.
And also to hopefully make good use of the cafe's free wifi and get this blog post done before I leave for Thailand.(I Failed)

I ordered a Ragu pasta($17) and an Iced Mocha($8.50), it's one of those expensive meals I wouldn't usually give a try unless I'm in the mood of splurging.
Although admittedly, I was hoping to get a job there.

The Ragu pasta was enjoyable, while I find the Iced Mocha surprisingly more bitter and with a grittier texture than I thought it would be.
Still, this is one of my attempts to give authentic roasted coffee a try, and it's bitter taste still have yet to get me to reconcile my taste buds with my romanticism towards coffee.

Sadly I failed to get the job due to having only one full day to spare out of the seven day week, where the rest of the days filled to the brim with lessons and other life commitments.


Now that I'm writing during the midnight hours at home, more than a day back from my Thailand trip, trying to recall the day's events to reflect upon and document it, I did find something that intrigued me about this flea market.

Surfing the web and finding several TripAdvisor reviews on it, a comment left behind by a tourist from Cambridge, United Kingdom, stuck to me. (He left a low rating btw)

"It is a flea market for local people"

Indeed, this market existed in the first place is for the local people to either find goods they may need and also for the local people to sell goods as a source of income.

A market by local people, for the local people.

Sure nowadays the market sells mainly goods that are useless by today's standards, but there something that exists within the market other than it's goods.

It's a place fueled by needs, vendors coming together to sell goods even after attempts to demolish the market, eventually creating a unique place with a community with personality.

Even if it's not a fancy place that a tourist might want to visit, a place like this can never be achieved no matter how much developmental planning is done for the area.

If the market location is to be changed, the market can still exist as it is, a lack of physical area never mattered as long as there is space available for the market to run.
And a historic heritage to live on.

Despite what I consider overall, a lackluster attempt to experience and document an event for this blog post, I intend to attend the next tour next Saturday.
I hope to better document some more additional info I might have missed out, and also do a shopping haul as originally I intended.

In fact, I intend to keep my eyes on the market for as long as I can.