“Watch out for him. He just got discharged from the mental hospital,” said a white-haired, wrinkled man in a black polo shirt, as he dragged his wares around in a rusty shopping cart.
Plastic toys, old VCDs and antique rings — a pile of carefully-foraged treasure.
He was referring to the younger vendor grinning widely at me in earnest. Aside from the fact that he kept speaking in a confounding loop, he seemed otherwise perfectly ordinary. I’d spent the last five minutes struggling to understand him, as he spoke perfect Mandarin but yet made absolutely no sense to me. It’s a completely new encounter. To hear carefully chosen words and such sincere enthusiasm combine to form a code I could not decipher.
He was not the only one who’d just been released from institutional care. 74-year-old Mr Ng had attempted suicide just weeks ago, after Parkinsons’ disease left him bedridden for months. Miraculously, his condition took a turn for the better. Being out with other vendors, and getting some exercise by moving his goods and tending to his stall has left him in far higher spirits.
But like the angel of death, I’d come bearing dark news. The Government was going to seize the piece of land on Sungei Road (which had been the home of resilient peddlers and flea market merchants since the 1950s) to make way for new homes. And they’d just announced it that morning. I’d come to film a news story and their reactions for the night bulletins.
You could almost feel the heaviness in the air. Grief, loss, denial, anger, despair. Like an invisible casket had passed through the alley that bustled for more than 60 years with a riot of colour and activity. The death of an entire lifetime’s work. A requiem for their safe haven, where the forgotten sought refuge.
Most vendors were rag-and-bone men, or blue-collared workers who struggled to find jobs. Many were retired, or suffered some long-standing illness. This flea market gave them a place to find friendship, a useful living, and a community that looked out for one another.
In a concrete jungle like Singapore that prizes growth and pragmatism above all else, bulldozing a thieves’ market sitting on prime land is sadly, a foregone conclusion. But these band of brothers had fought for months against the decision, and lost.
It was tough to sit with them and hear the despair in their voices. Some had tears in their eyes. One or two were in denial, vehemently insisting there was no closure. It was heartbreaking. The majority of them were too old and frail to find new jobs, and for the many of the vendors who had no family, this place was home.
“Most of us have been here since we were babies! Where will we go?” One vendor 75-year-old Jamal asked.
I had no answers, but it made me wonder how much of our national soul we’d sell for survival. Everyone has a price. And how much we’re willing to give up for ‘growth’ reveals what we value as a people. Before long, these greying men and women – salt-of-the-earth Singaporeans who embody a slice of our heritage – will disappear into the history books, immortalised only in token videos with a sentimental soundtrack on a website.
But at least for me, this flea market on Sungei Road will go down as more than another part of our DNA lost. It’s a reminder of how a few good men came together and fought relentlessly for a place in the world, despite the odds stacked against them. A spirit no number of skyscrapers nor an impressive GDP will ever reflect.
*You can watch the news video here.