7 things you ought to know about Sungei Road market before it disappears

It's official - Singapore's oldest flea market in Sungei Road will close its final chapter on July 10, after eight decades of existence.

Once notoriously known as "Thieves Market" as stolen items were reportedly sold there, the open-air market will make way for residential and commercial developments. |

In fact, the market was already reduced to half its size in 2011 to enable the construction of Jalan Besar MRT station.

Popular with tourists, foreign workers and locals especially on weekends, it offers bric-a-brac ranging from household items to jewellery and electronic items.

Here are 7 things that you ought to know about this organically formed market before it disappears into the pages of history.

Photo: The Straits Times

1) Singapore's last free hawking zone

After an islandwide exercise to register street hawkers was carried out in the 1960s to legalise their trade, the Government built markets and hawker centres in the '70s and '80s to house them. 

Sungei Road flea market is Singapore's last permanent free hawking zone. A Government statement on its closure said street traders should only be allowed to operate in designated venues for short-term trade fairs and flea markets, rather than on a permanent basis.

2) About 200 vendors affected by closure

Singapore Heritage Society president Chua Ai Lin told The Straits Times that around 200 vendors have not been provided with an alternative site to carry on with their business.

The Government statement said 11 rag-and-bone men who were given permits to operate at Sungei Road will be offered the option of operating stalls at Golden Mile Food Centre and Chinatown Market. Vendors registered under the Secondhand Goods Dealers Act will need to provide a new business address if they wish to continue their trade elsewhere.

3) They operate rent-free

A peddler does not pay rent. The metre-by-metre space allotted for each peddler is offered on a first-come-first-serve basis. He just needs to display his products on a mat.

Traders are allowed to sell only second-hand or used merchandise, and he market is open from around noon to 7pm daily.

A woman sells porcelain at the market in 1996.
Photo: The Straits Times

4) Some vendors sold illegal goods

The government statement noted that "over time, the nature of the site has changed, as reflected in both the profile of vendors and buyers, and type of goods sold".

The authorities have had to conduct checks on the sale of prohibited goods regularly such as pirated DVDs and even pornography, according to past media reports. "Opportunistic traders" set up shop there because of its rent-free status and good location.

5) Where 2 tycoons had their humble beginnings

Mr Koh Sim, the late karung guni tycoon, who built his business selling wheelbarrows and pulleys for the construction industry into a thriving company, was known to have started his humble second-hand trade at the market in the 1930s.

Mr Koh would cycle around the British bases in Sembawang to collect or buy second-hand items while his wife looked after their stall.

Another tycoon with humble beginnings there is Mr Pang Lim, the founder of Koufu foodcourt chain. He told the media that he was an illegal fruit hawker there for about five years in the 1970s before he went into the coffeeshop business which has since expanded into a multi-million dollar foodcourt business.

Used shoes, dolls, toys and accessorities were among the things sold in this photo taken in 2001.
Photo: The Straits Times

6) It's also known as "Robinson Petang"

The market has a few famous names - Sungei Road market, Jalan Besar market and Thieves' Market, but those familiar with it in the old days also call it "Robinson Petang", which means "Robinson in the afternoon" in Malay.

The explanation is that it used to operate from 3pm to 6pm and the term was coined in jest with reference to it being the poor cousin of the venerable Robinsons department store, which offered a wide variety of items to well-heeled customers.

7) Go-to place for army overalls

Before the army market above Golden Mile Hawker Centre became the place to go for Singapore military overalls, Sungei Road market was the place for people to buy army merchandise.

When the British army withdrew in the late 1960s following Singapore's independence, the flea market began selling uniforms, army gear and related goods like parachutes, raincoats, knapsacks, billycans and boots.