Singapore aggressively markets its heritage, but it’s letting an authentic piece of cultural history vanish

Koh’s kitsch.
Koh’s kitsch.
Image: Courtesy Kirsten Han
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Most things don’t last very long in the ever-changing city-state of Singapore, but the Sungei Road Thieves’ Market has a history that can be traced back to the 1930s. It’s survived the Japanese Occupation, the decline of the British colonial era, and waves of development following Singapore’s independence. Yet Singapore’s love for urban renewal has finally caught up with one of the island’s last free-wheeling grassroots enterprises.

Now government banners on the market’s fence warn: “Sungei Road Hawking Zone will be closed with effect from 11 July 2017.” The market is expected to make way for a new metro station, scheduled to open this year, and possible future residential development.

While it’s hard to argue with the need to provide transport and housing for Singapore’s growing population, presently around 5.6 million people, the closure marks the latest example of a Singaporean landmark—following old public housing estates and cemeteries—falling victim to the country’s relentless redevelopment. Oddly, it also comes as nostalgia for the past has become increasingly popular.

Restaurants and food courts promise consumers “simple nostalgic food”, or “a unique, nostalgic dining experience.” The state-sponsored Singapore Heritage Fest, begun in 2004, has grown into a carefully curated event to broaden “public access to heritage” by organizing guided heritage trails and recreating aspects of old Singaporean life. In these contexts, though, heritage is about décor, design and reproduction, rather than community.

“People think heritage is about the past, about history, about black and white photos… stuff that’s gone,” said Chua Ai Lin, president of the Singapore Heritage Society. “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.”

Honor among “thieves”

The vendors at the Sungei Road Thieves Market have been in it together for a long time. When 76-year-old Koh Ah Koon, a pillar of this community, leaves his stall to get a drink at a nearby coffee shop, he goes with the full confidence that his neighbour—a man he has known for decades—will watch over his products, and make sales on his behalf.

“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.”

The market is one of the most prominent examples of an informal economy in Singapore, says Chua, because there are no rental costs and vendors aren’t required to have have permits. ”In Singapore, where it’s so structured and everything has to be institutionalised, this is something special,” says Chua.

Koh Ah Koon, who heads the the Association for the Recycling of Secondhand Goods, has been a tireless fighter for the market and his fellow vendors.
Koh Ah Koon, who heads the the Association for the Recycling of Secondhand Goods, has been a tireless fighter for the market and his fellow vendors.
Image: Image courtesy Kirsten Han

Led by Koh, some of the market’s 160 vendors have formed the Association for the Recycling of Secondhand Goods to advocate for relocation together. “They don’t want to block progress in Singapore and are willing to move,”  he says. “But don’t disband the market.”

At the market, tables display everything from shoes and clothing to used plugs and antique curiosities. One man sells old coins and notes from a variety of countries. Another bellows old Chinese pop songs as he presides over his spread of old mobile phones and cables. A varied crowd of patrons, from Singaporean bargain-hunters to tourists and migrant workers, mill around the short narrow streets.

Lived experiences like these aren’t often included in discussions of conservation, where the focus is often the architectural or historical value of a space or building. But it’s precisely these interpersonal relationships, forged over a long period of time, that imbue a place with collective memory and significance.

Koh did his homework and proposed four alternative sites to the government for relocating the market but was rejected. Those spaces have already been identified for other purposes under the government’s master plan for the city.

“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.”

Singapore’s National Heritage Board has said it will document vendors’ memories and recreate the Thieves’ Market online in the form of a virtual tour.

A gray(ing) market

At the market, tarps and tables are mostly watched over by gray, wrinkled faces. For some of them, it’s the only source of income they have in their old age.

One elderly man hunches on a stool over his little mat, displaying rows of tarnished, gaudy rings. Identifying himself as Mr. Khoo, he says he used to own an antique shop, but moved to Sungei Road five years ago after rental costs became unbearable for a small business owner like him. “I’d like to retire, but I need to eat,” said the 80-year-old.

Hawking at the market can be a crapshoot: there are days where Khoo earns hundreds of dollars, and other times when he only makes about $10. “But if the government doesn’t chase us away, it’s okay,” he says.

Valuing the commodification of nostalgia over the preservation of living heritage can have deeply unequal results. Heritage experiences are sold at high prices while people like the flea market traders whose very lives have informed this aesthetic now worry about how to make ends meet. “For some people these opportunities are especially important,” said Chua, of the Heritage Society.

People like Khoo belong to a generation that has usually been willing to go along with Singapore’s many changes. He’s part of the “Pioneer Generation,” or 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 month, a small group of artists and architects began a campaign in support of the market, mostly organised via Facebook, which involves weekly tours to increase awareness of its value. “Because many street hawkers have been moved, that’s why we have to keep the last few,” said one message on the group’s page.

Some of the vendors, though, have made their peace with the closure. 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.”