In clean, sanitised Singapore, we find an oasis of noisy bargains

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

I was headed for Sungei Road Thieves’ Market, the most uncharted destination in this city’s tourist-mapped landscape. The taxi driver asked me to take care of my wallet, and then chuckled and said I could always find it again in the market after a few days. I bid him adieu and asked lady luck to be on my side.

What looked like the intersection of a few roads morphed quickly into a bustling market within a few hours. A few peddlers came trudging along with what looked like supermarket trolleys, others came with gunny sacks on their backs. One spread a plastic sheet by the side of the road, laid his goodies neatly into small heaps on the sheet, took a collapsible stool and hid himself and his ‘shop’ under the shade of an umbrella. Others joined in and a market had soon come up.

The intersection of Weld Road, Sungei Road and Pitt Street now had 50-60 vendors. All this happened while I was still sipping lemonade and trying to hide from the sweltering sun. I kept my distance from the stalls, thereby avoiding any leaking out of my curiosity. I felt like a cheetah lurking in tall elephant grass.

Soon, my curiosity got the better of me, or was it the heat, and I went forward carefully. I perused through a few stalls without stopping. My eyes did a quick reconnaissance and found broken toys, unopened soda bottles, 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 starting post, did a quick wallet check, and set forth again.

One of the ‘spreads’ interested me. I ducked below the umbrella to check out the stamp albums and old foreign currencies on sale. I was surprised to see some really old postcards and some ancient porcelain chinaware just waiting to narrate their histories. There was even a framed picture of a female yakuza that looked tempting. I picked up a conversation with a fellow buyer who was checking out vintage postage stamps. He told me that he was a born Singaporean and had been a visitor to the flea market since the early 1960s. He reminisced about when the place looked more a surplus-market where you could find army gear and auto-parts, either stolen goods or factory seconds. Many of the peddlers are known as karung guni or rag-and-bone men. According to him, the market was larger then, spread across a few more neighbouring streets.

There have been a couple of attempts in the past to close the market down and reclaim it for residential and commercial developments. My new friend was a teacher in a nearby school, and said he personally knew vendors who have been selling here for the last 15-20 years. Here, peddlers need not pay rent or taxes or even apply for a licence; they just have to spread their wares and wait for a prospective customer.

Established in the 1930s, what was once a haven for stolen goods (thus earning its name) has slowly changed character over time to become a colourful flea market, one of Singapore’s original heritage sites that has not been obliterated or removed to make way for new developments and infrastructure.

I don’t know how many more years this vibrant marketplace will pass the test of time, and I am not sure its history will be engraved anywhere, but I am sure that its indefinable wares will find their way into homes across the world.

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