The once bustling flea market, known to me as “Robinson Petang” – Afternoon Robinson’s or simply as Sungei Road in my younger days, will soon be more of a distant memory. Come the 11th of July this year, the too little that is still left, will disappear and never again return when the free-hawking zone that today’s traders are operating in gets shut down (10 July will be its last day).
Resembling a shanty town with its makeshift shacks and temporary stalls mixed into shophouse lined streets in its heyday, Robinson Petang had a reputation that spread far and wide – one reputation it also had was the “aroma” that the nearby Rochor Canal gave to the area. Also known as “Thieves Market”, for a variety of very obvious reasons, it was the place to go to get one’s hands on any pre-loved item imaginable. Many of the goods on offer, which also included unused items, were otherwise rarely found. One of the things I remember my parents’ heading there regularly for at the end of the 1960s and early 1970s, was huge glass bottles – which my mum decorated with mosaic and macramé for use as flower vases. There were then lots of other items on offer: antiques (or junk – depending on how one looked at them), electrical goods, surplus army items, and old clothes sold by weight and even new ones that in today’s world are diverted to factory outlet stores. Fake goods were also sold and a joke often shared among friends was that a prized item had been acquired from Sungei Road – thereby suggesting that it wasn’t the real MaCoy. The bazaar, traces its history to the antique trade, which developed its presence in the area in the 1930s, with secondhand goods traders only moving in after the war.
The Thieves Market of today bears little resemblance to that Sungei Road. Resettlement and the area’s redevelopment since the 1970s, spelt the end for many of the trades around the area. Many of the area’s hawkers were moved in the 1970s and 1980s, including an exercise in August 1982 intended to put an end to the bazaar for good, following which a handful of 31 licensed rag-and-bone traders were left to ply the remnants of the trade. The bazaar, now centred on Larut Road and Pitt Street, was designated a free-hawking zone (the only one in Singapore) in the year 2000, opened to traders who were Singapore Citizens or Permanent Residents and sees some 145 to 200 vendors operating on the busier days.
In 2012, the Association for the Recycling of the Second Hand Goods, representing the traders, was informed of the decision to close the free-hawking zone. Despite appeals and attempts by the association to propose alternative sites, a decision was taken by the authorities to only allow flea markets to operated on a non-permanent basis – such as at street bazaars and trade fairs. Reasons given for the decision include the dis-amenities the market creates such as the obstruction and risk mosquito breeding in places traders use for storage. Assistance, including an offer made for the allocation of stalls in a nearby centre, will be provided to 21 traders who hold a permit as well as to other traders affected.
It appears that preliminary work for the area’s eventual redevelopment – which based on Master Plan 2014 is reserved for a residential development “with commercial at first storey” with a plot ration of 4.9 – will take place soon after the closure. This work may see the disappearance of a few of the area’s streets including Pitt Street and Larut Road (another road in the area, Pasar Lane, has already disappeared) and with the MRT station that is opening this year, will give the place a completely different complexion and erase a long held memory of the old Robinson Petang, for good.
More on the market, including photographs and also video documentation carried out by the National Heritage Board, can be found at: https://roots.sg/learn/resources/virtual-tours/sungei-road-flea-market.