The Sungei Road Thieves Market has a history dating back to the 1930s, but all this will come to an end on 11 July 2017 if the government has its way with it.
The market is being cleared to make way for a new MRT station, scheduled to open this year, and for future residential properties.
Yet even though few would argue against an additional MRT station, many are lamenting the closure of a true grassroots historical site, one that has stood the test of time and trial again and again despite government attempts to close it.
In fact, Singapore seems quick to commoditize its heritage. Shops and restaurants decorate their shop fronts and interiors with historical or retro-looking outfits, put out dishes or merchandise harking back to some time gone back when.
Chua Ai Lin, president of the Singapore Heritage Society, says: “People think heritage is about the past, about history, about black and white photos… stuff that’s gone. That kind of hinders them from thinking about what is living heritage and what is at the core of living heritage—it’s the people.”
The vendors at Sungei Road market are an example of what it means to be a “living heritage”. Many vendors here have known each other for decades and have become a tight community.
“This market is very meaningful for Singapore. It doesn’t discriminate based on race or religion, and there’s a lot of cross-cultural interaction,” says Koh, who has hawked secondhand goods here for three decades. “We should be proud Singapore has such a space… If removed, it can’t be reproduced.”
Vendors here do not have to pay rental and do not have permits. It is one of the rare instances of an “informal economy”, says a Quartz magazine.
Everything from shoes to clothing is sold at the the market. But it’s not the items or the paraphernalia that makes the place worthy of a heritage site, but the interpersonal relationships and collective memory and significance that makes it a cultural heritage for Singapore.
“While the [flea market] has had a long history, and holds special memories for many Singaporeans, over time, the nature of the site has changed, as reflected in both the profile of vendors and buyers, and type of goods sold,” said the government. “The Government has assessed that such street trades should only be allowed to continue in designated venues… rather than on a permanent basis.”
The Singapore National Heritage Board has decided it will document the vendors’ memories and turn their experiences into a virtual tour. They will likely hawk this priceless commodity to tourists and the highest bidder, the cultural consumer who wants to relive the memories of an time gone by in Singapore.
Ironically, the vendors who will soon lose a living to make way for “progress” are the very representative of the country’s Pioneer Generation, that is defined by the government as Singaporeans born before 1950.
“That was a time when a lot of things changed. But people felt that they were doing it for the greater good of the nation. If you talk to the old people in Chinatown, they really appreciated the changes that took place,” said Chua. “Now you’re doing all this, but who is benefitting and who is being excluded?”
This mindset of making way for new changes for the greater good is echoed by some of the vendors themselves.
Ah Fen, who is in her 80s, has been a fixture at the market for decades but says she plans to retire once the market is shut down.
“The government wants to develop the country and for things to advance,” she said. “They don’t need these old things.”