Alan Teh Leam Seng is saddened that his favourite fleamarket in Singapore will close to make way for development.
SAYING goodbye is never easy. Especially when it’s with something you’ve forged a “relationship” with over the years. So it’s hardly surprising then that I’m filled with mixed emotions when the taxi finally grinds to a halt on Sungei Road where my favourite haunt, the fleamarket, is located. Having paid the driver, I take a deep breath before stepping out into the crowded street.
It’s early Sunday afternoon and Sungei Road is already a hive of activity. I’m usually filled with joy and anticipation whenever I step foot on this part of Singapore. This time, however, the situation is different. Knowing that all that lies before me would be gone in mere months, I couldn’t subdue the aching feeling in my heart.
My first encounter with the Sungei Road Flea Market began in the mid-1990s when I was pursuing my post-graduate degree programme at the National University of Singapore. I lost my beloved Parker 61 fountain pen within two weeks of my arrival. The pen had a special significance as it was a parting gift from my father before I left home. I tried searching for it high and low but to no avail. Then, someone at my Eusoff Hall dormitory suggested that I check out Sungei Road. The place was famous for being the go-to place for everyone, including students, who wanted to replace their lost or faulty vintage items.
BACK IN TIME
Sungei Road derived its name from the Rochor River that runs parallel to it. At the beginning, this area was designated as a residential zone by Stamford Raffles. In just a few years after the founding of Singapore in 1819, it became home to affluent Europeans and wealthy Asians. Interestingly, Sungei Road was one of the earliest places in Singapore to have ornately-designed multi-storey shop houses that had covered five-foot ways. These sheltered walkways were Raffles' brainchild which served, in his own words, “to shield the people from heat of the sun and wetness of the rain”.
Singapore felt the impact of the Great Depression in the late 1920s. Life was difficult and many people lost their jobs when commodity prices crashed. Simple makeshift stalls began operating at Sungei Road. They were known as the Thieves’ Market then as the vendors sold all sorts of second-hand merchandise and contraband goods. It was also notoriously known as a place where stolen goods were disseminated. Clandestine off market trade continued during the Japanese Occupation where people, especially the poor, could source household items at relatively reasonable prices. It gained the nickname “Robinson Petang” as the large crowd and buying frenzy were akin to that of the famous departmental store in Raffles Place.
The best time to visit Sungei Road is usually early afternoon when the vendors are just beginning to set up shop. Some sellers allow their long term buyers to rummage through their things while they unpack. This is the best opportunity to get interesting items. After all, it’s the early bird that catches the worm.
Over the years I’ve heard of rumours about extraordinary discoveries made here. There’s one that was supposed to have happened in the late 1990s when a vendor ventured into an abandoned shop house in Chinatown and found wonderfully preserved pre-World War II beverage tins. He immediately brought them to Sungei Road without bothering to check their contents first. The tins were eventually snapped up by a collector who opened them when he got home. All was empty except for two which were filled with 1940s Straits Settlements bank notes.
The buyer subsequently returned to the seller with the two tins and learnt that they were found under the floor boards of a staircase that had given way. It was speculated that the previous owner might have hastily stashed the loot there during the chaotic days leading to the Japanese invasion. Ever since that incident, vendors have learnt that it pays to inspect every item closely before putting them up for sale.
Ever conscious of this being my penultimate visit, I go through each stall slowly, studying each item carefully in the hope of finding a final bargain before leaving. Sadly, most of the things don’t catch my eye. Half an hour later I reach the junction where Sungei Road meets Larut Road. This is my favourite spot simply because Uncle Soon plies his trade here. Once again I’m mindful of my opposing feelings. I don’t know whether I should shout out for joy to see this jolly 70-year-old native of Woodlands or cry as this would probably be the last time we’d be meeting here. Uncle Soon's wide welcoming smile calms me down.
According to Uncle Soon, most of the traders at Sungei Road have already resigned to the fact the things in Singapore cannot remain stagnant. The nation has always been on its relentless pursuit of progress and something has got to give. With the new Jalan Besar MRT Station fast taking shape just a stone’s throw away, the traders know that their days are already numbered.
A potential customer interrupts our conversation and I turn my attention to Uncle Soon's display. Uncle Soon remains close to my heart as it was at his stall some 20 years ago that I found the gold plated Parker 51 to replace the one I lost. Over the years I’ve bought many other things from him. Among the best items are photo albums belonging to British servicemen serving at Dempsey Road.
My gaze soon falls on a nice Mickey Mouse coin box. The Chartered Bank produced several of these, all in the form of Disney characters, in the 1970s to encourage children to save. A framed picture beside it catches my eye.
It takes me just a moment to identify the picture as one of the paintings William Farquhar commissioned when colonial Singapore was still at its infancy. It depicts a handsome golden oriole perching on a branch laden with fruits. Local ornithologists call it the flying mango because of its distinct overall colouration. I recognise this bird very well as a pair visits my garden regularly for their breakfast served at my solitary fruiting papaya tree.
“Uncle, how much?” I ask, picking up the picture for a closer look. The embossed National Heritage Board logo on the lower right hand corner indicates that this is a limited edition print made some time in 2001. “Ai ya. Take it. It’s my farewell gift to you. I hope it will bring you lots of good luck,” Uncle Soon replies. Deeply touched by his gesture, I decide to buy something else to reciprocate his generosity. Obviously, I choose Mickey. Together they’ll serve as reminders of my visits to Sungei Road.
Wanting to fit in as much as I could on this jaunt, I head towards the National Museum in nearby Stamford Road. Wanting to learn more about the important Farquhar paintings, I make a beeline for the Goh Seng Choo Gallery on Level 2. Exhibited under the Desire and Danger title, these watercolours showcase creatures that arouse appetites and instil fear, in addition to exotic plants that are sought for their ability to induce pleasure or pain.
According to the great scribe Munshyi Abdullah, Farquhar became enamoured with the local animals and plants the moment he arrived with Stamford Raffles in 1819. He subsequently hired two professionally-trained Chinese artists who hailed from Macau. They were tasked to paint as many of the local flora and fauna as possible. This huge undertaking took four years to complete. Finally, in 1823, Farquhar was presented with 477 pieces of exquisite art work.
Suddenly I realise that in just two short years, these paintings, together with Singapore, will be celebrating their 200th birthday. The journey these art pieces took to return to Singapore is equally amazing. In 1826, Farquhar donated the watercolours to the Royal Asiatic Society Museum in London where they remained for 110 years. In 1937, the Society lent most of the paintings to the British Museum of Natural History which only returned them in 1991.
Two years later, the entire collection was offered for sale by a renowned London auction house. Goh Geok Khim, founder of the brokerage firm GK Goh, won the bid and paid Sotheby’s S$3 million (RM9.49 million). In 1995, Goh generously donated the drawings to the National Museum of Singapore where they’re put on permanent display in a gallery named after Goh’s father.
It’s already late evening as I take the taxi back to my hotel. As it passes by Sungei Road I catch sight of the few remaining traders packing their stuff. Farewell Uncle Soon and Sungei Road. Thank you for the many wonderful memories.