Time catches up with Thieves' Market
Vendors worry that changes in the area may force flea market to close. -ST
SINGAPORE - Vendors, worried that the days of the Sungei Road Thieves' Market could be numbered, have formed an association to protect their interests.
The Association for the Recycling of Second Hand Goods, set up in April, has about 40 members now.
The flea market - home to vendors who sell used items from laptops and shoes to vinyl records - has reportedly been around since the 1930s. But the space it occupied was halved in July last year to accommodate the building of the Jalan Besar MRT station of the Downtown Line. It is slated to open in 2017.
The Land Transport Authority allows Larut Road and Pitt Street to be closed from 1pm to 7pm daily for about 300 vendors to peddle their wares. However, many do not clear out until 9pm.
Vendors - made up mostly of the middle-aged and older crowd - do not need to pay rent or apply for a licence.
When the space was halved, more than 100 vendors were displaced, sparking a rush and disputes over the remaining space.
To manage the situation, the National Environment Agency (NEA) drew 330 lots, each 1m wide. This upset some vendors who found they could not adequately showcase their goods in the limited space. The unhappiness has since simmered but the hum of construction works is an unyielding reminder that the future of the flea market could be under threat.
It is a threat that association chairman Koh Eng Khoon hopes to keep at bay.
Mr Koh, who is in his 60s and sells electrical appliances and watches, and 12 other vendors formed the association with the hope of engaging the authorities should the need arise.
Member Peter Chou, 68, who repairs fans, said: "We don't know what is our future. If we don't have a union, we will have to go when they want us to go."
"We need someone to be the representative so when the Government wants to take over this place, we can go and talk to them," he added.
Said watch seller Tony Koh, who is in his 50s and also a member: "Which MRT station has a place like ours next to it? I'm sure we will be chased away when it opens, but we just hope the Government can find a small place nearby for us."
While their future is still up in the air, another development - the widening of the adjacent Rochor Canal - has also had an impact on how they do business.
A recent road diversion caused by the widening work means that cars are now part of the mix of people and goods at the flea market after 7pm.
The two-way Sungei Road next to the canal has been reduced to a one-way lane, so motorists must now use Larut Road before 1pm and after 7pm to get toWeld Road.
Motorists can also take the longer Kelantan Road and Kelantan Lane which involves making an extra U-turn before hitting the main road.
"It takes another three to four more minutes on the longer route. It is a waste of petrol," said Mr Wong Kwok Peng, 62, who has been living in Block 30 in Larut Road for 30 years.
The security guard said he has put up with the inconvenience, dirty streets and lack of parking space caused by the Thieves' Market vendors for a long time. Approaching the NEA and Moulmein-Kallang Town Council has not put an end to his frustrations.
Vendors said they have grievances too, noting that cars using Larut Road after 7pm pose a safety risk, especially when they are packing and pushing trolleys stacked with goods and boxes. Shoe-seller Fong Ho Chian, 52, said: "If we start packing at 6pm, there's nothing for people to see."
The peak period for business is after office hours from 5pm.
When The Straits Times visited the market last Wednesday and again on Tuesday, business was still in full swing after 7pm.
Money changed hands even as darkness fell, with customers continuing their haggling above the din of Hokkien music blaring from mini speakers.
Four Certis Cisco enforcement wardens urged the peddlers to pack up, but many were still intent on notching up the last sale for the day.
Mr Koh Eng Khoon, a fixture in the flea market for 30 years, is not ready to call it a day yet. He hopes to officially launch the association on July 25 next year to commemorate the day the size of the market was halved.
They have invited their Member of Parliament, Ms Denise Phua, to grace the event which Mr Koh described as "a grand dinner that will cost $10,000 to $20,000".
But he acknowledges the challenge of getting all the vendors, many of whom have little education, to sign up.
"Many barely earn a few dollars a day, so they can't afford the membership fees," he noted. The association's monthly membership fee is $10.
Still, he is optimistic that the flea market will not be a footnote in history books.
"I'm sure this market will succeed because we will definitely find a place and will not allow the market to disappear," he said.
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