Selling at Sungei Road Flea Market helped put my two kids through uni
From peddling wares to putting their children through university to selling knick-knacks to supplement their income, the traders of Thieves Market will wrap-up their chapter when Sungei Road closes in 2017
EARNINGS PUT HIS KIDS THROUGH UNIVERSITY
He has peddled his wares at Sungei Road for the past 47 years, and has no intention of stopping anytime soon.
Mr Low Boon Chiang, 67, is a regular face at the Sungei Road flea market.
He said: "If the sun is bright, I get tanned. If the rain pours, I get drenched. Even if I'm coughing or I have the flu, I will be here."
It is this persistence that has enabled him to earn enough to put his two children's university education, with his wife working odd-jobs to supplement their family income as well. His sons are now in their 30s, married and living with their own families.
Mr Low began selling knick-knacks when he was 20 years old, after he lost his job as a lorry driver when the company went bust.
He said: "Back then, there weren't so many traders at Sungei Road, only about 15 of us. Many of us came around 10am, sold off all our wares for the day and left around 3pm."
He started by selling several trousers, blouses and shoes given to him by friends and family who had no use for them.
As there were no time restrictions, he went there when he wanted to and sat on the road with his wares spread on the ground.
Today, Sungei Road flea market is open only from 1pm to 7pm.
Knowing that most of his customers were labourers who did not have much money, Mr Low sold his goods cheaply - at a dollar or less a piece - making about $300 a month in the early days. That was $100 more than what he used to earn as a lorry driver, so he stuck to the trade.
As the years went by, more traders came to Sungei Road and Mr Low began to expand his selection of knick-knacks, including antique cameras.
Even as they expanded, the traders became closer and more cooperative.
Mr Low said: "We are all friends, I did not worry that they would steal my customers.
"Regardless of race and religion, we all work together.
"Many of the original traders whom I started with have left or passed away. New traders have come to take their place."
There are now about 200 of them at Sungei Road on weekdays and up to 300 on weekends.
As Mr Low has several trolleys worth of goods to lay out every day, taking his wares to and from his two-room flat in Bukit Batok is a hassle.
So he is thankful that he has friends at the stalls nearby who allow him to store his things in their storage space.
Unfortunately, business has been declining for the traders at Sungei Road for the last 10 years.
At his peak, Mr Low used to make about $1,000 a month then, but can barely make $350 now.
He said: "If it rains, I don't make anything at all because no one comes."
His customers, made up mostly of foreigners from neighbouring countries like Vietnam, Myanmar and Thailand, have changed their spending habits over the years.
The number of local customers have dropped, too.
Mr Low said of his foreign customers: "They are less willing to buy now. They have to think hard about every purchase, especially since their currencies have fallen against the Singapore dollar."
With the prospect of Sungei Road flea market closing in 2017 to make way for the Sungei Road MRT station, Mr Low said: "At this age, what else can we do? I guess I just won't work any more."
For now, he is more focused on taking each day at a time and looking after himself.
With his current income, he and his wife, who still takes on the occasional odd-job, are able to just see to their daily necessities and bills.
Mr Low said: "With this job, I can fend for myself, I don't have to rely on anyone else or on government handouts."
If the sun is bright, I get tanned. If the rain pours, I get drenched. Even if I'm coughing or I have the flu, I will be here.
- Mr Low Boon Chiang
This used to be his playground
EXPERIENCE: Mr Lim Choong (above) and Mr Lee Yo Tee have been selling their wares at Sungei Road for years.
Mr Lim Choong, 61, used to play at Sungei Road when he was a child as his father sold pineapple cordial drinks there.
From the age of nine, he was fascinated by electronic appliances and enjoyed taking them apart and figuring out how they worked.
He quit school at Primary Six because his family was poor.
His hobby of collecting electronic devices eventually became a livelihood.
When he was in his 20s, he started selling second-hand goods like television sets, washing machines and mattresses.
He transported his goods around in his trusty lorry, selling them to customers around the Rochor area.
Business was good, and he made around $4,000 monthly. But Mr Lim often found himself on the run from the authorities because he peddled his wares illegally.
Twenty-two years ago, Mr Lim decided to settle down at Sungei Road where he could set up stall legally. But he took a pay cut in doing so.
Today, he claims to make more than $2,000 monthly selling knick-knacks like mobile phone batteries, shoes and sunglasses.
Mr Lim, who lives in Hougang, spoke about his greatest challenge: "The opening hours from 1pm to 7pm are very tight. I need one hour to set up my stall and another to pack up. That leaves me with very little time to sell my goods."
When asked what he would do if the flea market closes, Mr Lim had a glint in his eye.
"I will just store some of my items in my bag and sell them on the go at coffee shops. It's okay, as long as you don't steal or rob," said the divorcé, father of three children aged 26, 28 and 30.
I will just store some of my items in my bag and sell them on the go at coffee shops.
- Mr Lim Choong
18 years of experience
EXPERIENCE: Mr Lim Choong and Mr Lee Yo Tee (above) have been selling their wares at Sungei Road for years.
Mr Lee Yo Tee, 65, was selling amulets and watches, among other knick-knacks.
He has been in the trade for 18 years.
In the first 16 years, Mr Lee set up stall at Sungei Road only on the weekends, as he worked at detergent company UIC the rest of the week.
He retired two years ago after 40 years at the company and decided to sell his goods at the flea market daily.
Mr Lee lives in Jurong West and spends almost two hours travelling to and fro every day to Sungei Road. He has a son, aged 32.
"I'm not sure what he does, but I think he's a manager," he said.
"Parents always want to think the best of their children."
Mr Lee, who left school at Secondary Two, earns $500 to $600 a month.
He said in Mandarin: "There are days I sell nothing at all. Sometimes I earn $30, sometimes I earn $50."
There are days I sell nothing at all. Sometimes I earn $30, sometimes I earn $50.
- Mr Lee Yo Tee
Sungei Road: Too early to decide
ALTERNATIVES: The three sites suggested by the Association for the recycling of Second Hand Goods were next to Rochor River, a roadside near Jalan Kubor Malay Cemetery and behind Berseh Food Centre.
Sungei Road flea market, which has been around for about eight decades, may see its last days when it closes in 2017 to make way for the Sungei Road MRT station.
The Association for the Recycling of Second Hand Goods that represents the 200 traders suggested to the National Environment Agency (NEA) a few alternative sites. The association initially suggested four, but narrowed it to three, said association president Koh Ah Koon yesterday.
They are next to Rochor River, behind Berseh Food Centre and a roadside near Jalan Kubor Malay Cemetery. But NEA told them to return later, said the 73-year-old Mr Koh.
He said: "NEA told us it was too early to accept any proposals, and to come back again closer to the date."
The Urban Redevelopment Authority said the sites have been zoned for parks and residential use under Master Plan 2014.
The association has not given up hope of relocating, but is aware that it might have to close for good in three years' time.
But for now, most peddlers are taking it day by day.
Mr Low Boon Chiang, 67, a daily trader, said: "Three years is still far away. We will take it as it comes, a day at a time."
Back in 2011 when the Sungei Road flea market space was halved, The New Paper reported that there were tiffs among traders when they fought for stall space. Traders set up shop on a first-come-first-served basis.
Today, traders are accustomed to their spots and Mr Koh says proudly that it is a big, cooperative family.