Veteran vendors at Sungei Road flea market ready to move on

Sungei road stall holder Chin Kim Bon (L) and Lim Teck Nam (R),photo by Wee Teck Hian
Sungei road stall holders (L-R) Chin Kim Bon, Lim Teck Nam and Tang Kong Yuan.Photo by Wee Teck Hian

Veteran vendors at Sungei Road flea market ready to move on

SINGAPORE — At the grand age of 89, Mr Tang Kong Yuan is looking forward to a fresh start.

A familiar face at the Sungei Road flea market, he has been hawking his wares there for close to 50 years, and on Thursday (May 11), he collected the keys to a lock-up stall in Chinatown Complex Market and Food Centre.

He is among 44 vendors from the flea market who took up the offer from the Government to relocate to hawker centres in the city area, before the place is shut for good on July 10, as announced in February.

The flea market, the country’s last free-hawking zone, has been in operation since the 1930s. Also known as Thieves’ Market — because it was a spot for trading stolen, smuggled and illegal wares (and because buyers could get things for a “steal”) — it is making way for future residential developments. It was already reduced in size previously due to the construction of the new Sungei Road MRT Station.

While the hawkers are wistful about leaving their longtime trading spot, they are slowly accepting what is to come and ready to move on.

With a twinkle in his eye, the sprightly Mr Tang said that he had inspected his new stall, and is ready to restart his business in Chinatown selling second-hand goods that comprise mainly gemstone ornaments, jewellery and watches.

“(I had told the authorities) what I wanted was stall number 200 or nothing. (Otherwise) I would not continue my business,” he declared in Mandarin, adding — rather energetically — that electrical works would be done this coming Friday, and that he would start looking for shelves and cupboards for the new shop. He expects to start business once furnishings are done.

As one of the 11 original permit-holders of the Sungei Road hawker zone, Mr Tang will have his first-year rental of S$184 a month waived for his new stall. In the second year, he will get a 50-per-cent subsidy on his monthly rental.

Another vendor, 70-year-old Chin Kim Bon, who has been hawking for some 20 years there, will be moving to a lock-up stall at the Golden Mile Food Centre along Beach Road. He collected his keys on Tuesday (May 9).

Mr Chin will be footing some S$400 a month in rent for his stall. It was his second choice, he said, after the stall he was eyeing in the same centre was allocated to another vendor.

He hawks his second-hand goods, such as household appliances and other assorted items, and could make S$1,200 a month on average without paying rent. While he will have to start paying rent at the new place, he is appreciative of the help from the authorities who, he said, immediately let him “choose another stall after I did not get my first choice”. He will start business in June.

Mr Lim Teck Nam, 70, a rag-and-bone man who sells second-hand items such as clothes and appliances, has a stall now at the Whampoa Community Club flea market. Having been stationed at the Sungei Road market for around 20 years, he told reporters that it was the authorities who directed him to sell his goods at the flea market in Whampoa. He started selling there on May 7 and chose the location because it was close to his home.

The three hawkers said that the work they do now is better than “not doing anything at all”. Mr Chin, who has two adult sons, summed it when he said: “Of course, I want to retire, but I need to move… (and) keep active.”

Mr Tang has five children — four adult sons, and a 10-year-old daughter with his Indonesian wife. His wife runs a business and lives in Indonesia with the daughter.

For Mr Lim, when he goes home after work, he is caregiver to his wife, who is ill and wheelchair-bound.

The men are taking their next steps with cautious optimism, adding that they would wait, monitor, and see if the new arrangement works.

Mr Tang said that he would “try out” for six months, and if he is making a loss, he would call it a day and give up the stall.

Mr Chin is estimating that the monthly rental rates, alongside other miscellaneous fees, will eat into his takings. Admitting that he is “a bit worried”, he said that he would probably have to start “finding items that (customers) prefer”, and might consider raising prices for the things he sells.

Like Mr Tang, Mr Chin might give up the stall if things take a turn for the worst.

As for Mr Lim, he is “leaving it to fate”.

The only certainty though, is that they will miss Sungei Road flea market dearly. Mr Lim is already hoping that the regular sellers here would be able to still meet up in future after they go their separate ways.

He added pensively: “Of course, I will miss this place. I can’t bear to see it go. But if it is the wish of the authorities, then so be it.”