Ex-Sungei Road market vendors travel across Singapore to eke out living

Wong Casandra
Senior Reporter
Former Sungei Road Thieves’ Market vendor Chan Ah Ling, 71, now splits her week between two sites – a roving “pasar Sungei” and a weekend market at Woodlands Recreation Centre. (PHOTO: Wong Casandra/Yahoo News Singapore)

For over a decade, 71-year-old Chan Ah Ling spent most of her waking hours peddling second-hand ware, ranging from old knick-knacks, clothes to soft toys, at the former Sungei Road Thieves’ Market.

These days, however, are slightly different for the slight but spritely former housekeeper. Now, Chan splits her week between pasar malams (Malay for night markets) and a guaranteed spot in a weekend flea market at Woodlands.

She is one of a handful of former Sungei vendors who continue to ply their trade at street markets across Singapore – with the help of volunteers and associates.

Located between Jalan Besar and Rochor Canal Road, Sungei Road market, a former rent-free hawking zone which sprung up in the 1930s, had a colourful reputation as a trading spot for smuggled and stolen wares.

In 2011, the market was shrunk to make way for the construction of Sungei Road MRT Station.

On 10 July last year, Singapore’s oldest and largest flea market was torn down to make way for future residential development, displacing more than 200 vendors.

Immediate bids to revive the market proved futile, including the submission of a petition with 792 signatures to parliament seeking an alternative location a week before its closure.

Another that fell through was an attempt to re-open the market on the sixth-floor car park of Golden Mile Tower days after its closure.

Chinatown and Woodlands flea markets

Eight months on, these vendors make do with at least three open-air venues – two flea markets and a roving “pasar” – that offer subsidised rental rates ranging as low as $10 a day.

One of them is a long-standing market held between Chinatown Complex and Block 4 Sago Lane during weekends and public holidays.

Started in 1999 by the Kreta Ayer Community Centre Management Committee (CCMC), the Kreta Ayer Flea Market is currently occupied by 45 vendors, including 20 formerly from the Sungei Road market.

The committee had worked with the National Environment Agency (NEA) last year to facilitate these Sungei vendors, said the CCMC’s chairman Peh Cheng Hoo.

Each vendor is charged a fee of $100 per month, or $12.50 per day, for using the venue.

The other – and the latest to join the fray – is the weekend Sungei Road Heritage Flea Market held at a futsal court within Woodlands Recreation Centre.

The weekend flea market at Woodlands Recreation Centre. (Video screencap)

Opened on 2 December last year, the market offers at least 48 individual stall spaces, tightly packed together and each typically measuring 1.2m by 4.8m, allowing up to two vendors per spot.

Former Sungei vendors only pay a subsidised deposit of $20 – $10 per day – a week prior to securing their spots at the weekend market. In comparison, other prospective “outside” vendors are charged a higher rate of $30 a day, without any priority placement.

The endeavour is led by 12 volunteers, including architect Clement Teh, and will remain at the Woodlands site till 6 May.

“We have approached the Ministry of National Development to help us to find a location that caters to the things they are selling, which attracts foreign workers,” the 49-year-old told Yahoo News Singapore.

Nestled within Woodlands Industrial Park, the weekend market is surrounded by at least three worker dormitories. Business is typically brisk on Sundays when workers come to bargain on their off-days.

When Yahoo News Singapore visited the site on a Saturday evening in late January, some 30-odd former Sungei vendors have set up shop at the flea market, mostly selling used electronics – handphones, cameras and chargers – as well all second-hand male apparel.

The crowd swelled to about 40 to 50 people as night approached.

Despite the market’s infancy, Teh remains optimistic about its future and plans to move it to the Jalan Berseh area after May. The team’s ultimate goal is to grow the “cluster business” into a “300-vendor village” self-run by the vendors, said Teh.

“We see it as a cheaper ‘Uber-ised’ or ‘Grab’ space,” he quipped. “In comparison, if you do a flea market in a shopping centre, it starts from $50 to $150 (per day).”

Roving vendors across Singapore

Since the Sungei Road market’s closure in July last year, its association chairman Koh Eng Khoon and a group of 30-odd former Sungei vendors have gone from night market to night market.

Just as he did in the past, 77-year-old Koh oversees the group as they travel across Singapore, from Choa Chu Kang, Upper Serangoon, Jurong East to Simei, to peddle in allocated “Sungei zones” within these pasar malams.

When Yahoo News Singapore visited the 28-day long night market – the vendors’ eighth – opposite Khatib MRT station in the evening early January, most of the 32 available stalls were occupied.

Rent, like that at Woodlands Recreation Centre, comes at a subsidised rate of $10 per night, paid upfront before the start of the night market. Vendors are each entitled to a 1.5m by 3m space to hawk their wares. In comparison, renting a stall at a small-scale night market can cost as much as $1,500 a month.

The transient nature of these night markets, however, meant that business was spotty in less crowded locations. For instance, Koh shared that “almost 90 per cent of the vendors made less than $10 a day” when they were situated next to Simei MRT station.

“The removal of Sungei Road market has split us into different groups and business is affected as a result,” said Koh in Mandarin. “With a proper place, people will know where to buy. Customers now don’t know where to get second-hand goods.”

“Pasar Sungei” opposite Khatib MRT station in January. (Video screencap)

In addition to the street markets, some 37 vendors have been allocated lock-up stalls at hawker centres, including Chinatown Market and Golden Mile Centre.

Of the vendors, five have since returned their stalls as they “subsequently considered their goods to be unsuitable for sale at hawker centres”, said an NEA spokesperson in response to queries by Yahoo News Singapore.

Four of the original vendors who held permits at the former Sungei Road market are still operating their stalls. They are entitled to have their rents – ranging from $240 to $900 per month – waived for the first year and halved for the second year.

Other vendors who are interested in taking up such stalls in hawker centres will be evaluated on a case-by-case basis by the NEA. “(They) can also tender for available stalls in hawker centres if they are interested in renting a hawker stall to sell non second-hand goods,” added the spokesperson.

Koh is not giving up on trying to secure a permanent and more sustainable spot for the vendors. But for now, the group will hustle along to their next spot: a pasar malam held next to Causeway Point in Woodlands from Friday (16 March) to 12 April.

“We are still holding out hope for the government to give a proper place, like the old Sungei Thieves’ Market, for the pioneers to work and earn their keep together,” said Koh.

Lower earnings, uncertain future

Chan typically reaches the Sungei Road Heritage Flea Market at Woodlands Recreation Centre – close to a two-hour bus commute from her residence at Sengkang – before 12pm every Saturday to set up her stall.

The dark-haired septuagenarian lugs her wares – typically donated by volunteers and geared towards men – up and down two buses before a 10-minute walk over to her spot on Saturday.

Occasionally on weekends when she is busy at Woodlands, her elder sister Tang Soon Heng, 80, takes over at the pasar malam.

Chan and her elder sister Tang Soon Heng at the former Sungei Road market. (SCREENCAP: Save Sungei Road Market/Facebook)

Regular fixtures at the former Sungei Road market, the sisters – who are both unmarried and live together – used to hawk their wares, anything from crock ware to beddings, as a duo.

That routine stopped when the market closed, and Tang’s leg condition worsened. Travelling to multiple locations that were “too far”, and most times unassisted, made it hard for Tang to accompany her younger sister.

Compared with the pasar malams, however, Chan said the weekend market at Woodlands provides a “more regular” income.

“Some days, I earn only $10 but it can go up to as much as $30-odd dollars on Sundays. Though I can’t sell as much now because I am carrying the goods all by myself and I can’t carry much,” said Chan in Mandarin.

Occasionally, half of her rent for both sites are paid for by kind donors. But just like other fellow Sungei vendors, Chan prefers the old location for “its convenience and freedom”.

“I can go and come as I please. I don’t have to run around, it’s very tough for me. There’s a space specifically for us, I also earn more – about $40plus per day – at Sungei Road market,” she added.

Another former Sungei vendor Kuan Kwang Mui, who was at the Sungei Road Heritage Flea Market selling handphone chargers and other tech accessories, shared a similar sentiment about the need to have a permanent space.

Kuan’s goods. (Video screencap)

The 64-year-old told Yahoo News Singapore in Mandarin that she started working at the former Sungei Road market at the age of 13. Back then, she would drop by to help her parents to sell their wares after school.

Before the former market closed, she used to take home about $50 per day, seven days a week.

In comparison, she earns an average of $20 to $30 per day at the weekend market, where half of her rent is covered by social services.

The rest of her week is spent at a coffee shop near the former market to “drink coffee and chit chat” with “at least four” other fellow Sungei vendors.

“Business is bad. Now the Sungei Road market is no more. I want to sell things there again. It’s good there,” said Kuan in Mandarin.

‘Live day by day’

Like Chan, volunteer Eunice Chua splits her time between the roving “pasar Sungei” and the weekend market at Woodlands Recreation Centre.

The 74-year-old started Pioneer Generation for Pioneer Generation (PG4PGs) in end-December last year.

The group of about 10 volunteers donates pre-loved goods and clothes as well as food to the former vendors. One vendor is paid $80 per day by the group to bring these donated items to both sites.

Chua herself visits both sites on an average of twice a week to deliver about 30 to 40 packets of food to the market’s former vendors. These are typically paid for through funds gathered from her friends or sponsored by restaurant The Peranakan.

A poster designed by Chua’s colleague for “pasar Sungei”. (SCREENCAP: Eunice Chua/Facebook)

“I feel for them. I think it’s very sad to be moved around like this, and secondly, these people live day by day,” said Chua, who is a director at a travel company.

She added, “If you give them money, they stay at home, they will not be happy. It’s the camaraderie and fellowship (they have).”

Others, like Teh, feel that having a common street market will help nurture the spirit of entrepreneurship as well as preserve the heritage of the location.

He said, “If you live in Hong Kong, life is one long pasar malam. Same thing happens in Taiwan, Thailand and possibly parts of Malaysia as well.

“We keep getting complaints that Singaporeans are bad entrepreneurs…and it is because we don’t have street markets like in Hong Kong.”

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