What is this Ridiculous Millennial Nostalgia Over Sungei Road?

They say that the last days are always the best.

Or so it was for the Sungei Road Thieves Market, whose last weekend before its closure on 10th July was undoubtedly its busiest.

Throngs of first-timers and frequent visitors paid homage to the 80-year old market in the only way they knew how: by putting on their best sweaty clothes, braving the humidity and squeezing with the crowds for one last hurrah.

If they weren’t there in person, they were there online. On Facebook, people shared sepia-toned photos with thoughtful captions, and felt Deeply Saddened.

In a way, it was almost like someone had died. Sungei Road has been around for 80 years, and for many Singaporeans, its closure meant the death of a unique place “unlike the many other homogenous places in Singapore,” and was now “destroyed for good”.

They lamented the government’s treatment of the vendors, now “stuck in limbo with no place to go”. To them, “another slice of Singapore’s history [had been] demolished in the name of progress”.  

For regulars, hipsters, heritage lovers and those simply looking to exploit anti-government sentiment, Sungei Road was suddenly relevant to everyone.

Image Credit: Martin Liew
Alas, much of this sadness and nostalgia has been misguided and hypocritical.

Like many other millennials, 10th July was the first time I had visited the market in a long time. In fact, prior to yesterday, the last time I had visited the market was when I was 5. If not for its imminent closure, I would probably not have gone back.

Prior to this, friends who visit Sungei Road regularly would regale me with stories of teenagers with their film cameras, looking awkward and uncomfortable, clearly only there out of some hipster obligation.

If we truly appreciated the atmosphere and experience, why are those who frequent the market usually senior citizens, foreign construction workers and bargain hunters? If Sungei Road really mattered to us, why haven’t younger people set up stores alongside these seasoned vendors?

Last week, a petition submitted to parliament seeking an alternative location for the market accumulated a mere 792 signatures.

Those who laud Sungei Road for having “such a lively atmosphere and unique shopping experience” seem blissfully unaware of the irony. Informal, outdoor shopping experiences usually mean zero protection from the heat, humidity, rain and unpleasant smells – things that Singaporeans actively avoid.

The sun beats down on the back of a vendor at the Sungei Road Market. (Image Credit: The Urban Wire)
We also express an inane sense of worry that we won’t be able to find such unique paraphernalia (or junk) elsewhere.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a firm advocate for the saying that one man’s junk is another man’s treasure. I even found my fair share of treasures at Sungei Road Market.

But the reality is that we wouldn’t buy dated electronics to replace our iPhones, rusty jewellery to wear, video tapes when we’ve got no video players, broken watches to tell the time, or lawn ornaments for our HDB flats.

We may stop, browse and marvel at the things on sale at Sungei Road, but rarely would we actually make a purchase. This isn’t a museum, it’s a business. We like the idea of having a place like this, but not enough to keep it sustainable.

We just want to have this pocket of culture so we can tell ourselves that Singapore isn’t all sterile skyscrapers and first-world amenities; so that we can show off to our foreign friends and say, “Hey look, Singapore isn’t just a concrete jungle, we have culture too!” Yet on most weekends, we go to Public Garden, ArtBox or that flea market at Zouk.

For now, if you want to romanticise old things that are essentially useless, there’s always the Salvation Army, Little India, Chinatown and old shopping malls like Roxy Square and Peninsula Plaza.

An assortment of ‘junk’ at the Sungei Road Market. (Image Credit: Wikimedia)
Leading up to the market’s closure, many blamed the government for not providing an alternative space for vendors to relocate. Singaporeans expressed anger and disappointment at the lack of consideration towards the livelihood of these vendors, many of whom have a community here that they feel at home with.

I was angry too – until I chanced upon an old video of vendors speaking about their dwindling businesses.

Earning $50 to $60 a day was considered decent; some earned as little as $2 a day.

So earnings at Sungei Road Market have long been meagre; we just never noticed or cared. Not everything can be blamed on the 70%.

If the URA approves the permit applications, the Sungei Road Market may find itself at the Golden Mile Tower’s 6th floor car park.

In a way, Sungei Road Thieves Market was always doomed. With no new blood and existing vendors growing older, who or what will be left when they eventually become too old to maintain their stalls?

If this is something that Singaporeans would have had to come to terms with one day anyway, isn’t this early displacement just bringing forward an inevitable end?  

I can’t help but wonder if we’d be seeing a very different outcome had Singaporeans consistently shown the market the same kind of patronage as they have over the past week.

That said, I know we genuinely mean it when we say that we’ll miss the place. We feel for the vendors who are forced to move out and we wish the government would reverse its decision.

For the most part, however, this is wishful thinking.

We can’t keep talking about being a competitive and innovative society, and then expect that the government accommodate a place that has essentially failed to move with the times. Culture, as with all other things, evolves.

That said, there are opportunities for continuity. If the URA approves the permit applications, the Sungei Road Market may find itself at the Golden Mile Tower’s 6th floor car park.

It will be up to us then, to support the market’s vendors whom we so passionately championed over the past weekend. Or it can be all talk and no action once again.   

If there was ever a time for Singaporeans to put their money where their mouths are, this would be it.  

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