An iconic flea market older than Singapore itself is closing down


SINGAPORE — Older than Singapore itself, the city-state’s iconic Sungei Road Thieves Market, which has operated daily for more than 80 years, will pack up its wares for a final time on Monday.

The two-lane, open-air flea market is a throwback to yesteryear and is known for its kooky finds and unique second hand bric-a-brac including cassette tapes, used clothes, Buddhist amulets and large gemstone rings purported to have healing properties.

Home to some 200 stalls, the market drew its name from an old adage that if someone’s possessions were stolen, he or she could likely find them among the stack of wares on offer at the market.

The site is being cleared to make way for a new metro station and residential development.

“It’s a shame to see it go away,” said French tourist Lynne de Coupigny, who recently visited the flea market with her daughter on the advice of their Lonely Planet guidebook.

Exactly when the market first opened is unclear, but historical records from the 1930s showed that a small hawking zone had sprung up near the Rochor River, where Sungei Road (Malay for “River Road”) was located.

Rag-and-bone hawkers continued to populate the area through the decades, picking up unwanted or unused goods from houses and rubbish centres and displaying them at the market on the following days.

Vendors did not need to pay rent at the market, but turned up in the early morning and reserved their spots with a mat. Prices were cheap and no refunds were allowed.

Over the years, the Thieves Market experienced various setbacks, with officials trying to relocate stall owners to more urbanized sites but to no avail, as they kept returning to set up shop.

Now, with the impending site closure, many older stall owners are worried for their livelihoods, with one of them telling dpa she had plied her trade at the market for four decades.

The Chinese stall owner, who declined to be identified, sat Friday in a rattan chair looking at a petition booth, which was set up earlier this year seeking to keep the market alive.

“People keep signing but nothing is happening,” she said in broken Malay. “I don’t know where I’m going to go after this.”