This week at PPS we were getting ready for the 9th International Public Markets Conference in Barcelona and as I was looking up the great public market for the week to write up, I discovered something disheartening. I had intended on doing a market in Singapore because we obviously have some of the most colorful ones in the world and of course one of my favorites Sungei Road Thieves Market was first to come to mind.
In its early days, the Thieves Market used to only sell stolen goods, hence the name. Of course this was far back in the 1930s when Singapore was, well, not the Singapore we know of today. The biggest and oldest flea market in Singapore occupied Pasar Lane, Larut Road and Pitt Street, all the minor roads off the main artery, Sungei Road. Over the years, the market saw its ups and downs with the rapid development occurring in the area-- the tearing down of shophouses, the building of public housing flats, etc. But through it all, the alternative economic model remained. Peddlers paid no rent as long as they didn't sell brand-new items. I mean, Where else in Singapore would this legally occur?
I remember coming across it by chance the first time on the way to an audition in Little India when I was around 14 and thinking, What a fucking gem. My parents had never taken me there before probably because it's in the heart of the city and they hate driving in and looking for parking so.... Why would they? But it had definitely come up in a few conversations at home, because any Singaporean growing up in the 60s and early 70s would have scoured through the market at some point looking for the wildest things.
That first walk through the market really took the edge of the impending audition so I remember it quite distinctly. It was such an odd setting amidst the housing blocks and office towers in the area and the eclectic mix of characters at the market was even more bewildering. There were the elderly Chinese folk seated on bamboo mats and red plastic chairs, a couple of foreign laborers and of course some White tourists who must have done their thorough research prior to the visit. For a small geography, this was an unexpectedly diverse crowd.
I walked through and headed straight to the audition and that was that. A couple of years later I remember returning for props for a college play. As usual I'd volunteered to find some ridiculous vintage phone or whatever and where else would you go to find that sort of shit without getting completely ripped off? Sungei Road or Chinatown were basically our artsy go-to's at the time so a friend and I made the trip down one Saturday morning to find a huge crowd in the sweltering heat rummaging through treasures.
Next to the amazing diversity of characters, the market also offered a bizarre range of objects. I remember purchasing a phone charger, a few cables (Don't even ask what for) and of course the vintage phone which I got for only $12. My friend got herself sewing kits and a teapot (yeah wtf, artsy folk) so all in all it turned out to be a successful trip.
Today, the site on which the market sits is due to be developed into one of the new downtown mass rapid transit stations. Duh. With all the empty fields surrounding the market, the entire district was basically doomed for development since the '70s. That land is prime shit. The once thriving market is far less visited by tourists and locals and has since become an afterthought for authorities.
What I found more disheartening, however, is the lack of ground-up support or advocacy for the market. The endangered market is bound to be displaced in the years to come and hardly any voice is coming forth to raise concerns about, much less raise awareness of, this disappearing heritage site. I've paid less than 10 visits to the market since discovering it in 2006 so I hardly have any right to call for action. But I hope someone else has a more compelling story and will spread the word.
This is the price we pay for development today. Losing our organic public spaces has become terribly normal but it shouldn't. Public spaces are always, and inescapably, a product of social negotiation and contest. There's still time I hope for this exact conversation to take place over Sungei Road Thieves Market so that the small businesses of this third place can continue to contribute to public life in Singapore.