This is an assignment given to me by Chun See, 'probably one of the oldest known bloggers in Singapore' (a label given by Mr Miyagi - please refer to the link at the side-panel here). Chun See delights in giving assignments to others. He wouldn't even spare school children enjoying their current year-end holidays - just take a look at his blogsite (also linked at side-panel) and you'll know what I mean. Maybe its because he is in a managerial position (he has his own consultancy business) and is used to 'performance-driving' people, i.e. pushing people to perform at their maximum potential. Not that it is a bad thing.
The assignment was given to me some 2 months ago because Sungei Road is a likely 'vanishing scene'. I happen to be not the type who feel comfortable owing people things, whether it is money, work or favours. I would feel indebted - its like bearing a load which I would rather get rid of soonest. But on the other hand, I am sometimes too busy to blog because of other priorities and commitments in life. So somewhat grudgingly, this post was written.
Sungei Road is known in Chinese as 淡水河, pronounced 'Dan4 Shui3 He2' which means 'Fresh Water River'. There are 2 things wrong with the 3-character name - the road runs alongside a canal, not a river. And if you have passed by the canal before, you will see and smell that the canal's water is anything but fresh. It was in even worse condition before the government ran a clean-up campaign in the 1980s to spruce up all rivers and canals in Singapore.
Sungei Road has been around for a long time and I don't mean the physical road itself but the weekend activities of buying and selling of old stuff there. The activities probably started in the middle of the last century - I am not sure because I wasn't even born yet. Yes, Chun See was born around that time. Maybe he can verify that. (The only other place in Singapore I know that has similar activities is in Mohd Ali Lane near Club Street where my good friend Chris grew up. But I don't know if Mohd Ali Lane is still similarly active.)
In fact, the activities do not take place only in Sungei Road itself but also in the vicinity, namely Weld Road, Pitt Street, Pasar Lane and Larut Road. The above photo is a view of Pitt Street from Sungei Road taken today 17 Dec 05 (Sat) at around 5 pm. (Chris, now you know why I was rushing off from our rendezvous - it's because I got an important assignment on hand, i.e. to take a few photos of Sungei Road before the sky turned dark.) As you can see from the above photo, even though the sky was threatening to rain, the area was still bustling with activities.
So what potential buys can you find in Sungei Road? Anything and everything. You can see the assortment of goods which the above seller is selling. From a fan that is missing its blades or blades that are missing a fan; to a bicycle that is missing an owner or an owner that is missing a bicycle. Some of the browsers in the above photo may in fact be looking for things that they have recently lost to a thief. That's why Sungei Road is also popularly known as 'thieves market'. You can pick up a second-hand (perhaps more accurately 'several-hands') mobile phone. Or rather, it could also possibly be a 'third hand' mobile phone. (There is a Cantonese saying - if someone has a 'third' hand, it implies that the person is a thief.)
However, not all the stuff on sale are old - you probably can find the latest blockbuster movie like 'King Kong' on DVD selling for less than S$10 there. They are pirated, of course. Or to use the euphemism which people in the trade like to use - copy (of the) original, and not original copy. Some of the movies you find in Sungei Road have not even made it to the big screen here yet. And for ham sup people like me (as Chun See once described me) adult VCDs are being sold brazenly on makeshift tables for S$5 a piece. (I don't really know how to translate ham sup but it is a Cantonese term used to describe a dirty old man. Not physically dirty but mentally. You should get the drift. Contrary to Chun See's description of me, in reality I am not like that, of course. Even if I am, I would never admit it in a blog on www which is the whole wide world, Chun See. We Chinese are very humble one. It's funny that the English language does not seem to have a term for ham sup. Maybe Westerners are never ham sup, only romantic. But that is a subject for another post.)
The illegal sellers of the adult VCDs will shout, 'Buy 4 get 1 free!' They also know how to use this marketing ploy, you know. (I had wanted to take a photo of them for this blog but I was afraid that they might think that I was gathering court evidence.) If you are not paiseh (shy) to buy adult VCDs, then you should also never be paiseh to haggle over the price because that is an accepted practice for buyers and sellers alike in Sungei Road. They sort of expect it. If you don't bargain as a buyer, you are likely to be overcharged. For example, your return offer for the adult VCDs should be something like S$4 a piece and at the same time you should try to get 'buy 3 get 2 free'. If the seller refuses your offer, just walk a few steps to the adjacent stall selling the same product. In all likelihood, the seller will call you back before you reach the next stall.
In the unfortunate event that you are overcharged, don't expect any recourse from CASE (Consumers' Association of Singapore) because all of the traders in Sungei Road are unlicensed operators - most of them fly-by-night, both figuratively and literally speaking. Come nightfall, you don't see them. You may also not see them again the next day or ever after. Or in the case of the illegal adult VCDs sellers, they may be in jail the next day. I once bought a 'copy original' DVD (not adult kind) from Sungei Road that would not play on my DVD player. Over the next few consecutive days, I went back to look for the seller but he was nowhere to be found. So it's still the same old advice from me - caveat emptor or buyers beware.
There is also no warranty on products sold. There is no such thing as a 'no questions asked return policy' because the seller may not be there to ask you any questions. And don't bother to ask for any receipts either. Most of the traders don't even know how to write, let alone give you a properly printed receipt.
Incidentally a few months ago, I caught a Mediacorp Chinese TV documentary on Sungei Road. Featured in the documentary was one Mr Toh Hai Leong. He is a Singapore-based freelance film critic who writes for independent film publications such as Screen International and World Paper. He directed the movie Zombie Dog which was shown at ISEAS in Nov 2004. This show was a joint effort with local popular filmmaker Eric Khoo and some others. The film Zombie Dog had earlier received a New Paper review. In the review, Mr Toh claimed that he lived from hand to mouth by buying and selling wares at Sungei Road, simply because 'I prefer to starve to death than to compromise myself to a 9-5 job like a Zombie Dog.' I mention about Mr Toh here to demonstrate that not all sellers at Sungei Road are uneducated. In fact Mr Toh was educated at the same time as me, in the same school and the same class in Sec 4. He peddled at Sungei Road out of necessity and I believe, out of principle too.
Like what Chun See said, this scene at Sungei Road might not be there for long. Already all the old buildings that used to stand there have been cleared in recent years. In their place are empty grass plots that have been fenced up to prevent trespassers from entering the state land. (Notice the fence behind the seller in the above photo.) However you need not fret, this scene has now been blogged into eternity by me.
Sungei Road will be gone sooner or later for sure. It has largely been replaced by another means of trading which is popular for IT literate people like me. It will be the subject of one of my subsequent posts.
So how many marks do you think I deserve for this post, Mr Lam?