It was popularly known as Sungei Road Thieves’ Market, or Sungei Road Flea Market. In the past, it was also known as gek sng kio (“frosted bridge” in Hokkien and Teochew, referring to the former Singapore Ice Works in the vicinity), Robinson Petang (“Robinson in the afternoon” in Malay – a cheeky reference to the old Robinson Department Store, which was catered to the more well-to-do, while Robinson Petang was largely catered to the poor), or the Poor Man’s Department Store.
The idiom of “one man’s thrash is another man’s treasure” perhaps best describes this former selling roadside bazaar of second-hand goods; a well-known venue that was more than 80 years old but eventually could not outlast the rapid pace of development.
As Sungei Road Thieves’ Market walked into history on 10 July 2017, let us take a look of its beginning till the end of its fascinating 80-plus years of history.
Sungei Road Thieves’ Market began in the mid-1930s as a small trading place along the Rochor River for small merchants to sell their goods, usually in the late afternoons or evenings. In its early days, army stuffs such as boots and ponchos were probably the main goods sold, due to the increasing presence of the British military personnel in Singapore.
One of the “pioneers” of the Sungei Road market was said to be a Chinese called Quek Sien, who arrived from Fujian, China in the early 20th century. Going into the second-hand business in the 1920s, Quek Sien bought unwanted items from many local wealthy Chinese and Peranakan homes, and resold them at the Tekka area, before settling down at Sungei Road in the 1930s.
Due to the shortage of goods during the Japanese Occupation, the Sungei Road Thieves’ Market became a popular place for many locals, especially the poor, to purchase crockery and other domestic items.
The street bazaar by then had become commonly known as the Thieves’ Market, due to its cheap goods that were considered a steal. The most probable explanation, however, was the growing yet unwanted reputation of the market, where many stolen and smuggled items could be found. It was to the extent that if a person had his belonging stolen in the morning, he could probably buy it back at the Sungei Road Thieves’ Market by that afternoon.
Brassware, pottery, electrical appliances and even old bicycles also began to make their way into bazaar, after the karang guni (rag and bone) men collected and resold them at Sungei Road Thieves’ Market. On a good day, a karang guni man could earn as much as $6 a day.
In the fifties and sixties, the market had gained such a notorious reputation that no women dared to venture into it alone, and anyone who drove there, would have to prepare to lose a car radio or hubcap (wheel cover).
The British army began its withdrawal in the late sixties, resulting in a shortage of military merchandise in Singapore. Much of the army stuffs, however, could still be found at Sungei Road Thieves’ Market, where, according to some regular visitors, it had enough material available to clothe a battalion of soldiers, or a command of sailors.
Sungei Road Thieves’ Market was affected by the extensive urban renewal projects. Many peddles were forced to move to other places and markets. While the flea market at Sungei Road faced uncertainty, others flourished. For example, a similar bazaar had appeared at Chinatown’s Pagoda Street in the late seventies, offering a wide variety of second-hand items ranging from rusty kitchen knives, chipped bowls, broken clocks to old books, vintage watches and stereo radio sets.
Like Sungei Road Thieves’ Market, the roadside bazaar at Pagoda Street served two purposes – a marketplace for the poor to buy their wares, as well as a source of income for the sellers, most of them middle-aged and old folks.
Tarpaulin canvas for ships, even Japanese awning canvas, could be found at Sungei Road Thieves’ Market.
Several stalls of Sungei Road Thieves’ Market had to be demolished to make way for the widening of the Rochore Canal. Unlicensed peddlers started to ply their trades at the place, causing conflicts and unhappiness among other vendors. By the mid-seventies, there were about 270 licensed and 500 unlicensed vendors at the flea market.
The first Kelantan Road Housing and Development Board (HDB) flat, just opposite of Sungei Road Thieves’ Market, was completed.
The urban renewal projects had forced some of the Sungei Road Thieves’ Market vendors to shift to the nearby markets and shophouses at Kelantan Lane and Syed Alwi Road. However, the bustling crowds, including many Malaysians who were attracted by the cheap bargains, ensured the continuous thriving business of the popular flea market.
The famous tiger’s head decoration that was previously installed at the front of the Aw brothers’ (Aw Boon Haw and Aw Boon Par) Fiat car was found at Sungei Road Thieves’ Market.
“It is the end of an era” according to the Environment Ministry officials who proceeded to tear down the Sungei Road Thieves’ Market stalls and sheds. The peddlers were relocated to Golden Mile, Buffalo Road, Petaling Road and other venues.
Little did they know, the 50-year-old flea market would made a comeback a few years later.
Within a year between 1982 and 1983, two large fires had consumed twenty wooden shophouses at Sungei Road, many of them furniture shops.
By the late eighties, the Sungei Road Thieves’ Market was back alive and bustling again, and the regular peddlers at the market were issued temporary permits to sell their second-hand goods.
The Sungei Road Thieves’ Market was cleared due to the development of Rochor Canal, but again it did not stop the peddlers from coming back.
The Member of Parliament (MP) for the Jalan Besar Group Representation Constituency (GRC) Denise Phua called Sungei Road Thieves’ Market a “slum”, blaming the illegal vendors and their messy ways of doing businesses.
The space at Sungei Road Thieves’ Market was halved in order to accommodate the construction of Downtown Line’s Jalan Besar MRT Station. More than 100 vendors were displaced. Others were upset as they could not adequately showcase their goods in the limited lots provided.
The vendors at Sungei Road Thieves’ Market formed an association – Association for the Recycling of Second Hand Goods – to protect their interests.
One of the first online petitions to save Sungei Road Thieves’ Market was started by the public.
Sungei Road Thieves’ Market had to make way, the authorities declared, before the opening of the Jalan Besar MRT Station.
Sungei Road Thieves’ Market officially walked into history.
Published: 10 July 2017