Singapore’s famous Sungei Road Thieves Market (双溪路贼市场/跳蚤市场) , located between Jalan Besar and Rochor Canal Road, is the country’s largest and oldest flea market, and originated in the 1930s. As it used to operate between 3pm and 6pm, its operating hours have resulted in it being nicknamed “Robinson Petang”, or “Robinson in the afternoon”, perhaps a reference also to the Robinson Department Store which is mostly patronised by the rich in Singapore at that time. Its other nickname, Gek Sng Kio, which means Frosted Bridge, originated because there used to be the Singapore Ice Works, a supplier of ice blocks, situated near the road.
A Brief History of Sungei Road Thieves Market Through the Years
1930s – 1950s
In the 1930s to 1950s, Sungei Road Thieves Market was where stolen, smuggled or illegal goods were traded, but as the years go by, it became known as the place for second-hand goods, or antiques and collectibles. As there were no rental and the prices of goods being peddled were also very competitive, it became the most popular flea market and bazaars in Singapore for second-hand, vintage goods and antiques, with almost 400 peddlers selling used items such as old clothing, jewellery, watches and antiques.
1960s – 1980s
According to the National Heritage Board, in the 1960s, after the British army withdrew, Sungei Road flea market became the place for buying army stuff like uniforms, knives, army bottles and other army gear. In the 1970s and 1980s, due to resettlement and urbanization, some sellers were relocated to markets built by the government, and hence the size of Sungei Road market fell by almost half. Many of the stalls and make-shift huts and tables were demolished, but barely a year later, the peddlers were back at their original spots selling their wares.
In 1989, some regular peddlers were issued free temporary permits for them to sell second-hand goods at the flea market.
In 1994, Sungei Road Thieves Market was once again cleared due to developments around Rochor Canal, and again in 2011, it was reduced further from its 7 hectares to half its size, to make way for the construction of the new Sungei Road MRT station. The space allocated for each seller was hence limited to a metre-by-metre, first-come-first-serve basis. In total, there are 336 lots demarcated for about 400 traders.
Today, the Thieves’ Market operates on Pasar Lane, Larut Road and Pitt Street, mostly minor lanes off Sungei Road. It is supposed to be demolished completely in 2017, to make way for the construction of the new Sungei Road and Jalan Besar MRT stations, and the government is said to have rejected the peddlers’ proposals to relocate them elsewhere.
Said one foreign visitor Baz on RememberSingapore, “I first started to go to Thieves Market in 1957, while in Singapore with the British Army, and again in the 60s and 70s. It was very different from today! You could buy lots of ex-army gear, radios, beddings, antennas, uniforms, and motorcycle parts… it was a much bigger area, and there were more permanent “shops” lining the streets, and the old ladies and men would be sitting on the pavement beating pans and pots from old kerosene tins, for sale. Happy days, will be sad to see it go. I still manage to go there occasionally while visiting Singapore.”
Like Baz, I would be sad to see it go too, and so decided to make a trip to the Sungei Road Thieves Market again after several years, to take a look at it before it is gone.
Situated very near the new Downtown Line Rochor MRT station, it took me a while asking around before I was able to find it again. The market has became so much smaller, and when previously it was in the shape of a cross, with more walkway, it is now in a “T” shape only, and hidden behind construction sites and barriers.
It was a Sunday afternoon around 3pm, so it was scorching hot. Many peddlers had their mats laid on the grounds and their products displayed randomly or in a mess, and many buyers did not mind and just squatted and browsed. Some peddlers came prepared with huge umbrellas or tentage to protect themselves from rain and shine. I counted about 80 to 100 peddlers in all, mostly elderly people in their 50s to 80s, and the buyers were mostly foreign workers such as Indians and Bangladeshis. There were also some tourists who came out of interest and curiosity. I can also see more older Singaporeans coming down to take a look, to relive the old days, perhaps.
Many vendors were joking and laughing, and you could sense the camaraderie among them. But there was a slight drizzle in the middle of my walk, though it did not bothered anyone at all. It was, however, quite difficult to browse the wares properly, as there were a lot of people walking and jostling around the narrow paths and stalls.
Most of the stalls sell a mixture of different wares, but there were also stalls selling the same type of wares, for instance, an entire stall selling old shoes, lots of stalls selling only second-hand mobile phones and tablets, and there was even a stall repairing and peddling second-hand laptops. As I walked down the lanes, I could see that the more popular goods were second-hand stuff such as old coins, mp3 players, iPads, iPhones, mobile phone accessories, clothing, shoes, cassettes, old records, stamps, currencies and notes, toys, Buddha pendants, used electronic goods, second-hand pots and pans, cutlery, vintage watches and clocks, old photos, jewellery – actually, you can find anything and everything!
I was hoping to find a nice vintage typewriter to spice up my room, but could not find one to my liking. Even though most of the goods were not exactly antiques or vintage goods, I saw an old uncle on a one metre-by-one-metre plastic ‘mat’ selling some interesting, vintage wares. He has an old 1915 bronze-coloured binoculars manufactured in London, which comes with a box, and a man was holding on to it for a long time, examining it, looking through the viewfinders before putting it down. I walked over, picked it up and asked for the price. It was SGD$125. A pity I did not have enough cash on me, if not I would have bought it.
It was overall, an engaging and pleasurable visit, but I could have gone at an earlier or later time, when it was much cooler as I was sweating profusely by the time I am done. But I might just go again before it closes down, but before that, hopefully there would be enough awareness and support from the vintage and antiques community in Singapore and abroad to encourage the government to move the vendors and this flea market elsewhere, and to restore it to its former glory.
Update (13 March 2017): The government had destined the last day of the Sungei Road flea market as 10 July 2017 as the site will have to make way for future residential developments. Other reasons cited for the decision to close it down included reports about residents complaining that the market had ruined the estate’s aesthetics by making the area look messy and dirty. Also, there were sellers who try to sell prohibited goods and the authorities had to conduct regular checks on this area.
And lastly, if after you are hungry after your flea market experience, do not forget to visit the nearby Sungei Road Laksa, which is almost as famous as the Thieves’ Market you have just been to.
Update (10 July 2017): The Sungei Road Thieves Market officially closed today. For more photos, please click here.
How to Get There:
Sungei Road Thieves Market, Singapore
Between Jalan Besar Road and Rochor Canal Road
Nearest MRT: Rochor MRT
Operating Hours: 1pm – 7pm daily
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