May 15, 2013

Sungei Road Thieves Market, Singapore

( This article was published in The Hindu Metro Plus dated May 11, 2013 )

The intense tropical climate was at its peak and it was as if balls of fire were being continuously thrown from the skies. Even though the body was sweating profusely, the soul wanted to wander amidst the concrete jungle with its air brushed facades. The world’s biggest fountain (aptly named ‘Fountain of Wealth’), which was surrounded by tall buildings, was missing its ceremonious dance. It was as if the water from it had been sucked by the buildings and the Sun.  The only respites were the air-conditioned malls and cars.

I preferred to take a cab and head onto Sungei road, the most uncharted destination in this city’s tourism landscape. The taxi driver asked me to take care of my wallet and then chuckled by saying that I can always find it again in the market in a few days if I took the trouble of visiting again. I bid him adieu and asked lady luck to be on my side and hid my wallet inside my vest.

The Sun was still going strong and I found a new God – God of Perspiration -- in this swarming metropolis. What looked to be the intersection of a few roads, morphed into a bustling market in a matter of few hours. Few people came trudging along with what looked like trolleys used in a super-market. And a few came with gunny sacks on their back. One of them spread a plastic sheet by the side of the road, laid the items cleanly into small heaps on the sheet, took a collapsible stool and hid himself and his items under the shade of an umbrella. The act was clean and fast and was as if he had perfected it after a thousand odd repetitions. Few more joined in and the same act was repeated by the other peddlers.

The intersection of Weld Road, Sungei Road and Pitt Street, now had 50-60 vendors, who seemed to belong to a clan perfecting their art. All this happened while I was sipping lemonade and trying to hide myself from the sweltering heat. I maintained my distance from their stalls and thereby avoiding leaking any of my curiosity. I felt like a cheetah lurking in the tall elephant grass.

In a matter of few minutes my curiosity got the better of me, or was it the heat, and I trudged forward after doing a status-check of my wallet. I perused through few of the stalls without stopping by. My eyes did a quick reconnaissance and found  broken toys, unopened bottles of soda, vintage records, watches, broken cell phones, key-chains, used sports equipment, old postcards, solitary shoes, pirated CDs and DVDs, library books that were never returned and loads of other knick-knacks. I came back to my recon post, and after a quick wallet check, and wiping the sweat off my forehead, trudged again.

One of the ‘spreads’ interested me, and I ducked below the umbrella to get some shade from the sun and also check the stamp-albums and old foreign currencies that were on sale by a vendor. I was surprised to see some really old postcards and some ancient porcelain chinaware that were waiting to narrate their histories. There was even a framed picture of a female yakuza that looked tempting to buy. I picked up a conversation with a fellow buyer who was also checking out a few vintage postage stamps with me under the umbrella. He told me that he was born and brought up in Singapore and has been a visitor to the flea market since early 1960s. He reminisced the days when the landscape looked more a surplus-market where you can find army gear and auto-parts which had either been stolen or were discarded from the factory as seconds. He also mentioned that there were a lot many peddlers then and the market spread over a few more neighboring streets. He also educated me that there have been a couple of attempts to close down this market in the past and reclaim it for residential and commercial developments. He personally knew of 10-20 vendors who have been selling items for the past 15-20 years. He later told me that he was a teacher in the school and always talks about this place and various other heritage sites in Singapore that are either obliterated or vanquished to make way for new developments and infrastructure.

A peddler need not pay any rent or any taxes nor apply for a license; he has to just spread his wares and wait for that prospective customer who might be interested in what he had to sell. Established since 1930s, what was once a haven of fenced goods has slowly changed its character with many of the peddlers selling items that they picked up from the city. Many of these peddlers are known as karung guni (means "rag and bone man" in Malay), but some are specialized in selling second-hand items, factory-surplus and illegally-obtained merchandise.

You will not find this place on your own neither will it be suggested to you. You will stumble on this only if you are on the lookout for flea markets and have researched well online. The odd camera wielding tourist may stumble on this by a sheer chance if he had to walk from the neighboring famous Bugis Market or Arab Street in the tropical heat.

Am not sure whether this vibrant marketplace is going to last the test of the times for a few more decades (or for that matter, years); am not sure whether its history will be engraved anywhere, but am sure that the indefinable wares from their indefatigable sellers will find its way into some of the most luxurious homes or probably end up as just spare-parts.

My wallet was still intact, but my heart cried for this place, yearning to return again. My mind continued to negate any possibilities of having stumbled on such a place in one of the cleanest and safest cities in the World. I prayed to my new found almighty, God of Perspiration, and left the scene silently without a cry.

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