Let this elderly woman be your last memory of Sungei Road Thieves’ Market
We'd like to think that they can survive anywhere if they can survive Sungei Road.
The Sungei Road Thieves’ Market, which began in the 1930s and survived World War II, will make way for residential and commercial development.
On July 10, 2017, the market will breathe its last and be brought to a close.
So far, only 29 vendors have taken up the National Environment Agency’s offer of more than 40 lock-up stalls set aside at Golden Mile Food Centre and Chinatown Market.
Plus, a move to Golden Mile Tower is also on the cards.
While the rationale for extending brick-and-mortar real estate to sellers who want to continue makes sense on paper, what the authorities are offering are blunt force solutions that are supposed to help, but are not exactly on point.
Firstly, the critical mass Sungei Road market thrives on is lost once hawkers disperse to separate locations.
The proper lock-up stalls do not command the sort of crowd typical at a thieves’ market — essentially bargain hunters and hustlers.
The hustle and bustle at Sungei Road is spontaneous and not possible to replicate elsewhere.
Secondly, lock-up stalls are not much of an option for the hawkers who simply do not have the bandwidth to deal with rental overheads and recurring expenses, such as electricity bills.
Even though exposed to the elements at Sungei Road market, the elderly hawkers can earn between S$8 to S$10 per day, while others who claim to do better say they can make up to S$1,000 a month.
A lot of them do not have the savings to cope with long-term planning of being holed up in a stall in a food centre, anxiously waiting for a sale, or else, knowing that they are actively bleeding money just because they are setting up shop.
Thirdly, a lot of the elderly who have spent a good portion of their lives — 20 to 30 years — doing what they do, live from hand to mouth, if not by choice, then by circumstance.
Some of theses old folks are caregivers, which means they work ad hoc to earn their keep, and they spend the rest of their time caring for next-of-kin.
Sungei Road market gave them the flexibility of eking out a living.
As their turf got repossessed and it is literally the end of the road, those who are too old to look for another job but too young to die, will find themselves undoubtedly turning to government assistance for help.
These elderly may derive an income here or a subsidy there, but what they give up in return is a sense of agency — something they wouldn’t have traded in if given the choice.
And there are others, stoic and hardy, and who will not give in, are already plotting their next move.
If they can survive on the streets in one of the hardiest neighourhoods in Singapore, they can survive anywhere.
They are the true products of Sungei Road Thieves’ Market.
Both photos by Lim Weixiang