Some notes on Sungei Road Market and the thought of saving it
By Woon Tien Wei
Sungei Road Market (“the Market”) is Singapore’s oldest and largest flea market. The Market occupies the roadsides of Larut Road, Sungei Road, Weld Road and Pasar Lane. It is an 80-year-old market well-known among locals and tourists for selling second-hand goods, antiques and junk wares.
In February 2017, the government announced that the Market would be permanently closed on 10th July 2017 to make way for the ground preparation of new development adjacent to the newly completed Jalan Besar MRT station.
The closure of the Market displaced more than 200 vendors and the loss of a heritage site. In response to the eviction notices, vendors from the Market formed an Association For The Recycling Of Second Hand Goods (“the Association”) in 2012 to represent their interest and the future of the market. I met members from the Association on a site visit with The Online Citizen in 2015.
In 2016, sungei.net projects presented an art exhibition at Flaneur Gallery inviting artists to explore the changes in the landscape Sungei Road. Members of the public came forth and formed, Save Sungei Road Market Campaign (“the Campaign”) in April 2017 to express concerns regarding the loss of heritage and livelihood source due to the closure of the Market. Apart from the Campaign, other Sungei Road Market initiatives also emerged like the People’s Voice on Sungei Road Market, Pioneer Generation For Pioneer Generation and Sungei Road Market Heritage Flea.
Despite the closure of the Market on the 10th July 2017, Sungei Road Market initiatives and their volunteers have continued their interaction with the vendors from the Market. I would like to thank H.M and volunteers who had helped conduct semi-structured interviews with the vendors in the Market. The interviews are a valuable resource for this essay.
This essay is a reflection and a work-in-progress attempt to ‘unpack’ the research materials collated from my participation in the Campaign, volunteers and supporters from the other Sungei Road Market between 2014 and 2018.
A Slow Death: Killing the Market softly
The Market is understood as a symbol of resilience and resistance. The Market suffered many deaths, resurrection and at the point of writing went through a period of slow death.
The Market experienced a boom during the Japanese Occupation when many resources were in short supply. People frequented the market for household goods and rare products.The Market’s ability to survive the ‘darkest time’ in Singapore’s history became a testament to its resilience.
From the 1970s onwards, there were several attempts by the government to evict and move the Market citing obstruction to traffic and constitute to a fire hazard as reasons for the eviction. Between 1974 and 1975, there were extensive efforts to disband and relocate the food hawkers and vendors. These eviction measures were successful as many hawkers moved to food centres and the permanent fixtures destroyed. However, these eviction measures were met with heavy protests.
In 1982, the government attempted to evict the vendors again and demolished the surrounding shophouses. By 1985, vendors returned to the area illegally and eventually issued temporary permits. It might be interesting to note that 1985 was also the year of Singapore’s first post-independence recession. The Market’s resistance to these government evictions coheres into the Market’s resilience narrative.
While the Market may have survived the evictions in the 80s, the trading space shrunk. In 2011, due to the construction works for the MRT station, the vendors were moved to a temporary site which the authorities call the “Sungei Road Hawking Zone”. The “Sungei Road Hawking Zone” marked the beginning of the Market’s ‘slow death’ as the Market’s trading space was shrunk by half and met with increased regulation. There was an increased presence of security officers from the National Environment Authority and an imposed trading hours between 1 pm to 7 pm.
Further crippling the Market was the construction of the MRT Station and the realignment of the Jalan Besar Road, the Market was ‘tucked’ behind the construction. All these rendered the Market invisible from those travelling on Jalan Besar Road.
In 2012, the Ministry of Environment and Water Resources (MEWR) announced that the site of the Market would be used for residential and commercial development after the completion of the MRT station. In February of 2017, MEWR announced that the Market would close on 11th July 2017. Between 2012 to the official closure of the site in 2017, news on the closure of the Market was circulated on social media and mainstream media. Each time there was news on the closure of the Market, it was like the Market was dying. The constant and extensive announcements of the closure and the Market’s diminished visibility behind the construction gave some members of the public the impression that the Market has long ceased operations.
The Association and responses from the ground
MEWR announcement that the Market’s site would be used for residential and commercial development in 2012 rang the alarm bells for the community of vendors. The Association was formed to respond to the uncertainty of the Market’s future. The Association’s Chairman, Mr Koh shared that it was not easy for the vendors to form the Association as many of them were uneducated. He sought the help of friends and engaged a law firm to help with the registration of the Association.
Despite the difficulty in navigating the bureaucracy in forming the Association, Koh felt it was necessary to do so. He believed that the government authorities would not engage with an individual or a handful of vendors but instead more likely engage the Association because it is a formal entity representing the community of vendors.
With Association formed, they wrote about 20 appeal letters to the Prime Minister, Urban Redevelopment Authority, MEWR, National Environment Agency, Singapore Land Authority, and the area’s Member of Parliament, Denise Phua. The appeal letter requested that authorities to relocate the Market and proposed four possible alternate sites which were then vacant and would be suitable for the Market.
Over the years, Koh frequently granted media interviews and spoke about the Market. I first met Koh during a media interview with The Online Citizen. Koh is charismatic and spoke eloquently. He shared passionately on why the Market is important. Koh highlighted the Market’s role in providing livelihood and purpose for the elderly.
Koh as the Chairman of the Association is a key figure in the story of the Market because he captured the public’s imagination. Koh said that he is old and not educated but yet he is articulate and confident. As the Association’s Chairman, he spoke without fear directly to the government, media and people. I met many people who have seen him speak online and would then travel across the island to Sungei Road to support him.
NEA’s announcement of the closure of the Market on 11th July 2017, led to a group of concerned citizens coming together to form the Save Sungei Road Market Facebook page and started the Campaign to save the Market. They offered to help the Association in their efforts to seek for dialogue with the authorities on relocating the Market. The Campaign rallied the public to help and initiate various efforts.
The Campaign produced video interviews with the vendors, organized guided tours, conducted interviews with the vendors, created an alternative relocation proposal, facilitated the vendors to meet their MPs and gathered signatures for the parliamentary petition. It is important to highlight that the Campaign efforts helped give a more pronounced voice to the vendors through the video interviews which were published on their Facebook page. The efforts to facilitate the vendors to meet their MPs were important because the volunteer’s support may have helped make the process less daunting. The guided tours were an opportunity for the public to come to the Market and learn about the history of the Market. The alternative relocation proposal was a document proposing that the Market should be saved by relocating it to another site. Finally, the Parliamentary Petition was an exercise to solicit the public approval to save the Market and put forth to the Petition Committee to deliberate.
These Campaign efforts and the encroaching deadline for the closure of the Market helped gather more public interests on the future of the Market and the vendors.
Slumming the Market and the Redefinition of ‘Dirt’
In 2006, The Member of Parliament of Jalan Besar, Denise Phua requested the Ministry of Environment and Water Resources to clean up and regulate Sungei Road because it resembles a ‘slum’. Phua clarified that she is not seeking to ‘pretify’ the Market but thought that it could be cleaner and better managed by establishing a proper flea market.
The then Senior Parliamentary Secretary, Dr Amy Khor stated that the government have no plans to set up a flea market but is already monitoring and regulating the ‘hawkers’ and will continue to improve the area and operating conditions.
In 2017, Khor addressed the issue of disamenities that the Market brought to the area and the closure of the Market in Parliament. She explained that today the Market’s activities have resulted in “disamenities such as the obstruction of roads and the storage of goods in surrounding areas including the nearby drains and housing estate, posing a risk. The disamenities were similar to street hawking environments decades ago where “poor hygiene conditions, the pollution of waterways, the piles of waste that attracted pests, the potential fire hazards and the obstruction to traffic that resulted in disamenities to the residents of such localities”
It might be relevant to refer to the study of dirt by anthropologist Mary Douglas’s concept of how dirt can be understood as “matter out of place”. That dirt is never isolated but as a “by-product of a systematic ordering and classification of matter”. In that way, dirt is never absolute as it is relative to this system of ordering and dirt is a contravention to that order. ‘Dirt’ in this context is understood as subjugation and authority – where the clean exert their demands on the unclean.
Both Khor and Phua’s descriptions of the Market conjured caricatures of insanitary slums and squatter vocabularies from ‘decades ago’ are an assertion of the ‘systematic ordering and classification of matter’ observed since the early days of ‘street hawking’. The Market is a ‘matter out of place’, and its closure is provisions for dealing with the anomaly which challenged the ‘systemic ordering’.
There are a few notable attempts at redefining the Market in relation to ‘dirt’. Supporters and patrons of the Market would share their comments online on various social media platforms. They perceive the Market as “natural” and “organic”. These unique characteristics make the Market desirable and exciting – evoking notions of adventure – ‘treasure hunting’, not knowing what you will get – as opposed to gentrified, clean, chain retail.
Artist Teo Eng Seng with his collaborator Ben Phua reacted to the ‘dirty’ Market through a performance art piece. Teo and Ben ‘performed’ as a white swan and a black swan respectively in the Market and the river bank. For Teo, the white swan will only go to clean waterways and reflected his position and statement that the Market is clean enough for the white swan to appear.
Another notable attempt to address ‘dirt’ can also be observed from the alternative relocation proposals submitted by the Save Sungei Road Market Campaign and People’s Voice on Sungei Road Market. A sense of geographical “jumping” scale is invoked as the alternative relocation plans with its urban planning vernacular attempt to ‘modify’ the national urban plan by proposing an alternative and the Market’s relevance like other global cities. These proposals were submitted to the government in the hope that they could see more than a ‘dirty’ market.
On Engagement and Being Unloved
There is space everywhere but none of it is for us.
The Association revealed plans for a new market on the roof-top carpark in Golden Mile Tower on the week before the closure of the Market. The Association planned to open a new market a week after the closure of the Market. This new market was well received as a large number of the vendors paid a deposit for a lot at the new market.
The week of closure was extremely busy for the Association and the volunteers as they helped on the sign-ups for the new market and planned the media event for the closure of the Market. The Association and the volunteers wanted to leverage on the publicity of the closure to inform the public about the new market.
The media event for the closure saw a large public turn out and with a lion dance performance, a public statement, a song dedication and a press conference to inform the public about the new market. While the closure of the Market was a sad affair, the vendors were in relatively high spirits as they felt hopeful that a new market awaits.
Despite the closure of the Market, the vendors were in relatively high spirits as they felt hopeful that something else is waiting for them. However, the plans for the new market was soon botched over licensing issues and plagued with controversies.
One of the most disheartening moments, in this case, came from the ‘dejection’ that the vendors felt when their plans to operate their business at new market failed days after the closure of the Market. This left many of the vendors with uncertainty over their future, and they returned to the Sungei Road area and gathered by the pavement by the river. Ah Du explained that the vendors felt a sense of loss and came back because they missed the place. Volunteer Chen Xiang commented that it was just heart-breaking to see them sit there and look at the hoarding. This became daily ritual which the vendors would return to the site and ‘hung around’. During this time, volunteers return to the site to help conduct interviews with the vendors and see if there was anyone which would need assistance.
There were several vacant land lots in the vicinity of the Market and remain empty at the point of writing. In a video interview, the Association’s Chairman, Mr Koh proposed that the Market could be relocated on a vacant lot behind the Jalan Besar Food Centre. Koh detailed his plan and felt that the relocated Market could help the Food Centre’s business by bringing more foot traffic there. This site was fenced up on the 11th July 2017, a day after the closure of the Market. While there was no official statement on the fenced, the timing of this enclosure suggests the intention to keep the vendors out and from using the space to trade.
From the interviews with the vendors (Botak 1, Big Anchovy and Liang Popo) and the interaction with the Association, they felt left out, unloved and unwanted. Botak 1 and Big Anchovy pointed out that ‘there are so many empty spaces nearby’, but none of it is for them. It is hard not to sense the cruel fate of having to look at these glaringly vacant land lots and enclosure laden with plans and the sad realisation that they have no place in these plans.
Learning to be Together
One of the observations was how the public rallied behind the vendors – invoking a sense of empathy and solidarity.
A group of pioneer generation who found a connection to the ‘elderly vendors’. They found it difficult to reconcile how the vendors were ignored and ‘left behind’. Eunice Chua claimed that she was not the activist type, but this really got to her. The contestation provided a site for people from different background to interact with each other.
One of the main narratives of the Market was that the vendors are a community of less well-off citizens who need to brave the weather selling things in the market for their income and survival. In our interviews, many vendors resisted this narrative by insisting that they are not ‘poor’ and thus did not need help financially. They only need help to find a place to trade. Some of the interviewed pointed out that some of the vendors ‘performed’ the ‘needy’ narrative.
Mr C continue to participate in various flea-market initiatives after the closure of the Market. For many, Mr C would fit the ‘needy’ narrative because he is ‘homeless’ and ‘jobless’ and relies on the Market for an income. However, he rejected the ‘needy’ narrative on many occasions. He shared that if he really needed money, he could still find a job. His reason for ‘carrying on’ is to keep the tradition of ‘street hawking’. For him, he is exercising his human right of protecting our heritage. His position challenges our assumption that only the ‘volunteers’ are protecting and saving the Market.
The public perceived the Association and its chairman, Koh as a spokesperson and leader of the community. A few of the vendors interviewed reject the idea that the Association represents the community and hence prefer to operate independently. Some deny the claim of the community as many of them do not know each other despite operating on the same street.
Mdm M felt that the Market should close as the ‘original’ people are mostly gone and the current population there is shady. She shared this story to illustrate her point. A few years back, she was physically attacked by an elderly vendor and was hospitalised due to the severe injuries. No vendors stopped the attacker, and they all just stood around and watched. She said that she could have died if not for a member of the public who stopped the assailant. Eventually, the assailant was jailed.
In this essay, I have sought to draw together the experiences and interpretations from the case of the Sungei Road Market contestation. It is an invitation for you, the reader to imagine the social world of the vendors and volunteers; their entanglement with urban redevelopment; and how they have ‘commoned’ in their journey.
I deliberately left some intertextual contradictions as I found them from the research materials. It is not my intention to craft a coherent story but to show that communities are diverse entities because they are made up of different people with different views and needs. To be able to understand the complexities of communities may help us know what the people in these communities stood for and ultimately understand what was lost.
While the authorities may have ‘ignored’ the vendors in their official communications, there were incidents where some government officials and civil servants showed ‘heart’ and tried to help in their capacity. Such incidents challenged the narrative of ‘people vs government’ where all government officials are helpless in the system and hence ‘complicit’. At the time of writing, it is not possible to include a more in-depth analysis of this thread of narrative and unpack the evidence. However, I feel it is important to mention it here as it may shed light on where change can also happen.
While the Market may be closed for a year now, the vendors and volunteers remain hopeful of finding a space for the new market. Often, it is easy to feel ‘disheartened’ when almost every contestation of space is lost to the ‘grammar of the city’ – to the logic of development. The story of the Market shows that the subjects are not hostages of the crisis but rather active agents who through their activities attempt to claim their ‘right to the city’.
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