A visit to Sungei Road market is a humbling experience.
The people hawking there are survivors. Many eke out a living selling odds and ends that most people would simply through away – bits of wire, old batteries, broken watches, shoes in tatters. They do what they can to battle poverty and make it on their own.
In the first stall we come across, the guy wasn’t selling anything.
“I catch ghosts. I come here once a week for two hours. People know where to find me. Male ghost $688, female ghosts $2088.”
“Why are the female ghosts so expensive?”
“Male ghosts very easy to lure. Just use woman to lure they come. Female ghosts are harder to catch.”
A guy nearby was rolling his eyes. When he caught my glance he winked then made the universal gesture for “screw loose” to let me know he thought the ghostbuster wasn’t quite legit.
The ghost catcher wouldn’t allow his photo to be taken.
“It will steal my power.” But he did show a pamphlet with amulets for sale by his guru.
Dicky sat in the next stall laughing. He was also camera shy but was willing to let some of his tattoos be photographed.
“What does it mean?”
“Aiyah should not say. That was another life. I’m not that person anymore.”
“Dicky” (his preferred English name and totally unsuited to a guy with the ink and piercings he has) used to be a business man (“I’d buy and sell goods”). He came to Sungei Road after his business went bankrupt over ten years ago. He’s not happy how things ended up but takes it in his stride. “Like that lor.” He lives a day at a time.
The air is pungent with sweat from men who have sat long hours in the baking heat. The market feels like a gathering of vagabonds & gypsies – men and women not tethered to the routine of modern life but instead choosing to live by their wits and by fate.
Since the market was moved from Sungei Road to Larut Road, there are no longer any fees. The only requirement is that the stall holder is Singaporean. An officer comes around to registers ICs and is back again at the end of the day to make sure everyone has cleared out by 7pm. Anyone caught after the deadline is fined $300.
Some of the sellers live nearby so do not have to take their things far. Some cycle from 15-20km just to make a few dollars a day. “Back in the 70s, there were days I could make $200 dollars selling,” one stall holder said, “But today making $20 is more normal.”
Most of the stall holders are men but there are a few exceptions.
Eng Lan who is Teochew is 85 years old and spoke neither Mandarin nor English. This proved a barrier to getting her story but a neighbour was on hand to share some details.
“Her son got money one. She doesn’t need to be here. But she wants her freedom. So she is here every day.”
Not far from Eng Lan were two other more female stall holders – sisters Helen and Linda Lai. Linda insisted she was 80 years old and kept saying she was half dead already. This was complete nonsense and her sister, less prone to joking around, admitted they were both in their 50s.
They grew up nearby and have been working in the market for 40 years though they have since moved to Toa Payoh. They are both unmarried and claimed it is because they are “ugly and undesirable” – more rubbish. They are both well spoken and elegant in their own way.
After some banter and my protests to Linda that she was much more charming and capable than she let on, she grew serious.
“The truth is we have a very hard life compared to yours. When you leave you will go home to a different world than mine. We just try to get by. It’s not the same as the life you know.”
It was something I was acutely aware of but until that moment had naively failed to realize that she was also aware of it. Perhaps the visitors to the “quaint” thieves market are in fact a reminder to some that they are the have-nots in this place.
Sungei Road market is now on death row. One stall holder said they will be shut down in 2015. Another, 2017. Nobody knows for sure. The best guess is “sometime shortly after completion of Jalan Besar MRT” when the area is to be developed for residential and commercial buildings in 2016.
It is difficult to see how this odd little community can be preserved in the face of huge demand for the prime land they occupy. But hopefully some arrangement can be made to find them a place to continue to carve out their living.
It’s not much to some, but it’s a whole life to others.