SINGAPORE: As a street vendor, Jason Goh was known to sell some unusual wares. There were antiques, a collection of Burmese jade, and fossilised elephant sperm.
Four years after his stall had to close, he says those stones with elephant sperm inside are “still very saleable”.
As he used to claim, the stones serve a useful purpose: “If you work … your boss automatically would like you. You go anywhere — girls would like to make friends with you.”
This former Sungei Road market vendor is one of many who have struggled to find a new home after the demise of Singapore’s most famous flea market.
Where it used to be, with its 80 years of history — of people hustling for a better life — is now a barricaded grass patch.
But recently, some vendors like Goh have set up shop not far away. And they are trying to keep memories of the place alive.
WATCH: Where are the Sungei Road Thieves Market vendors now? (3:04)
The programme On The Red Dot finds out how what has happened to them since 2017 and how they are picking up the pieces, in a series on places Singaporeans will miss.
A PIECE OF HISTORY, NOW REBRANDED
Singapore’s oldest and largest flea market began in the 1930s as a trading spot by the banks of Rochor River. From the 1940s onwards, it became popular for its cheap goods.
The vendors used to start operating in the late afternoon, offering an array of items, some of which were considered a steal while others were literally stolen or smuggled, leading to the market’s moniker, the Thieves’ Market.
At its height, there were more than 300 vendors. In July 2017, when it had to make way for an MRT station as well as future residential and commercial developments, there were 200 vendors. Some had worked there for decades.
Many of the vendors have since retired, while others took their business to night markets or took on odd jobs. Many still missed their former lives.
“My heart ached,” ex-vendor David Sein says about how he felt when the market closed.
So when the 58-year-old saw two vacant Housing and Development Board shop units near the old market last March, he asked The Saturday Movement, a charity, to help rent the units for a group of vendors.
Six months later, the Sungei Road Green Hub was born at Kelantan Road. “They (the charity) know all these people have got no place to go. Most are already old,” says Goh, one of around 20 vendors there.
Helping them out brings back memories for Raymond Khoo, the restaurateur behind The Saturday Movement, which paid for the renovations and rental deposit.
“I remember going to Sungei Road, the original Thieves’ Market, in my primary school days. My brother said, ‘I’ll bring you somewhere that you’ve never been.’ So I was very excited,” recalls the 57-year-old.
“I remember this Ultraman figurine — it was so interesting. We didn’t manage to buy anything. My brother said, ‘It’s just for you to have a look-see, to know that you can look for some treasures.’”
It was Khoo’s idea to “rebrand” the new place as a green hub.
“Reuse, recycle and upcycle,” he cites. “It’s more current, especially (for) the millennials. (If) you tell them karang guni (rag-and-bone man), they’d have no idea what it’s about.”
He helps to manage the rental of about S$6,000 for both units, which is S$10 a day from each vendor. And their old customers are starting to return. But because of the COVID-19 pandemic, he has promised to make up any shortfall in the first year.
For former Sungei Road market vendor Lee Tien Seng, just having his own stall makes him “a bit happier”.
“The night markets are closed now, so we can’t do business there. Without this shop, we’d be in dire straits,” he says. “If we (had to) look for jobs, would they even call us back?”
It is important that they have a place of their own, Khoo notes. “Their internal being is elevated because ‘hey, I’ve something to look forward to instead of I don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow’.”
It is also “very important” to preserve the “heritage of where these people came from”, he adds.
NOSTALGIA, AND HOPE
Another group of about 20 former Sungei Road market vendors have put down roots in the heart of Woodlands Industrial Park, selling anything from spare parts to second-hand watches at the Woodlands Recreation Centre.
For example, Susan Tan, who has been selling men’s and women’s apparel for 20 years — and is better known as Liang Popo to her customers — moved her stall here five months after she was evicted from Sungei Road.
Her customers include Bangladeshis, Indians, Myanmar nationals and Thais, and she gets regulars. But business at Sungei Road was better. “This place is too far,” she says. “Some customers don’t (want to) come.”
The current market, which is five times smaller than the Sungei Road market, is also a tight squeeze, she adds. But for her, it beats staying at home, where she has nothing to do because her children are grown up.
Architect Clement Teh helped to find this place for vendors like her to relocate to after a few rounds of talks with the authorities.
“We explained how it was the most important thing to keep this kind of trade alive, because I think it’s not just for them, it’s for everyone else,” he says. And that was how Market Gaia Guni was born.
It is “a bit different” from the old market, he acknowledges, and not only because of the distance.
“The charm has changed because one major factor is that we can’t play music. Over at Sungei Road, we could blast Hokkien, Tamil and Bangladeshi music,” he cites.
For ex-vendor Jack Foo, what he misses the most is his friends from the Sungei Road market, where he used to sell and repair electrical appliances for about 10 years.
His business has also suffered, so he tries even harder to be a go-to repair guy for all things electrical.
“Now that I’m (working) from my house, I’ve got to sell better quality and give a better guarantee and better service,” he says. “I have no choice. I have a family to feed.”
Not only was he “very sad” when the old market closed, he also knew he had to make changes to his business. “I don’t think Singapore will have a market like this again,” he says.
WATCH: The full episode — Hunting down former Sungei Road Thieves' Market's vendors (23:03)
But given that the flea market was shut down in the 1980s only to make a comeback, it would not be the first time it is revived if Market Gaia Guni, or Sungei Road Green Hub, succeeds.
“Hope is the most important thing for all of us,” says Teh. “It can … drive you to do more things and a brighter future.”
After visiting the vendors in their new locations, documentary storyteller Ong Kah Jing — who made the 2017 film, Trespass: Stories From Singapore’s Thieves Market, to capture the memories and bonds formed in their Sungei Road enclave — is hopeful too.
“I’m inspired by their tenacity to find new ways to eke a living and how they’re supported by selfless individuals,” he says.
“It’s this community spirit that’s seen the market go through the different eras, including the time when it first closed in the 1980s. And perhaps it’s this spirit that’ll enable the legacy of the Sungei Road market to live on.”
Watch this episode of On The Red Dot here. The programme airs on Channel 5 every Friday at 9.30pm.