17 December 2005

Sungei Road (淡水河)- An Assignment Given by Chun See

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?


Chris Sim said...

Interesting post, Victor. And one that will benefit the youngsters I'm sure. For how many of them know of the existence of such "markets" that sell old stuff. And adult VCD? Pse dun give the impressionables fresh ideas, ok?

Such market is not new to me. As you so aptly mentioned, it existed at the vicinity of Club Street, the place where I grew up. But my parents have never bought anything from it. It's not difficult to wonder why. We kids (my siblings and cousins) were told that some of the stuff being sold at such market actually belonged to the dead. You know, someone died and some enterprising relatives tried selling off the clothes or personal items for some gain. Dunno if this was true.

Back to Sungei Road. You described the stuff being sold there as "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". Dun frighten me leh... you mean they also sell corpse ah?

You must understand Chun See. He's just worried that the kids would get so bored and start tearing their hair out for having nothing to do during the school hols. His posts, not unlike yours, is always so educational. It's like going back to school. ROTFL.

Lam Chun See said...

Wah, you very 听话leh. For the benefit of the younger ones, I think I should give you more assignments.

Anyway, your readers will agree that you deserve an A*.

Lam Chun See said...

Sungei Rd is definitely a 'vanishing scene' becos it is very different from what it was a few decades ago; and very unlikely to be around for long. But I suspect many of the younger generation people know about this place becos of its proximity to Sim Lim Sq.

For the NS boys - did you know that before the Beach Rd centre came up, Sungei Rd was the place to get your army supplies like water bottle, green vests, socks, mess tins etc.

Monkey said...

the canal that you see today must have probably been a river before settlers or the then municipal council canalized it. thats probably the reason for its name sungei or river or dan shui he for the matter...

one thing i missed the MOST about sungei road is this beehoon/tofu shop that my dad brought me to about 15 years ago. I heard it's been closed down and moved or something :( It's supposedly got the best fried tofu.. but nobody seems to remember it.. maybe im imagining things. sigh

Anonymous said...

I read your comment that you was a scout. There was a former Victorian science teacher and scouter who stayed in my neighbour. I remember him because his surname is quite unique - Mr Chip.

My friend, a former Victorian and scout in the late 70s, told me that his 1501 Arrow Scout Group was the most active in the then Serangoon District and earned the most money during the job weeks.

You must have put in a lot of effort, Victor.

Victor said...

Frannxis, if I remember correctly, the Scoutmaster/teacher-in-charge's name during my time was Mr Tay. He might have also been a Science teacher but he was definitely not Mr Chip. I was also not among the highest income earners during job week. In contrast, I think my income was one of the lowest. But I did go out and do several jobs honestly including washing cars and once even washing a very soiled rubbish chute cover, would you believe it? It was a really hard-earned $5, I think. To be frank, I couldn't resist asking for donations when there were no jobs offered to me.

Your memory is really good - I've nearly forgotten that our group's name was called '1501 Arrow' until you reminded me of it. Thanks for that jolt to my memory, hee.

Anonymous said...

hi i love your blog! very informative and well written. by the way i blog hopped from etel's site. great job!'

evangeline (http://bossacafez.blogdrive.com)

Anonymous said...

hi victor thx for dropping by my blog. i totally agree with u, must learn to let go and stay cheerful. its really easier said than done...but i guess i hv to do it anyhow. otherwise i'd be miserable for the rest of my life!

by the way, can i link u up in my blog? thx :p

Victor said...

Sure Evan, you are welcome to link my blog (also free to boycott it) since it's on public domain. Hmm... you are so courteous - a rare trait nowadays. :)

Victor said...

Btw Evan, I am not always so courteous but can I also link your blog? :)

Victor said...

Projectm, so I gather that you are from Singapore Heritage Board. Thanks for visiting and linking me on your blog. I would also like to commend you for doing a very good cause, i.e. making our youths more aware of our heritage and culture.

Actually, it is not quite accurate to describe my blog as about 'changing Singapore landscape'. Unlike Chun See's blog which is exclusively about yesterday's Singapore, I write about this topic only occasionally.

Personally, I like the anonymity which a blog provides. It's not that I am doing anything that could not be made public only that I much prefer to remain a private person when blogging. That explains why there are no photos of my family on my blog. :)

Before giving my e-mail address, is it possible for you to let me know what would be the purpose? (Hope it's not to appear on TV or radio - I am also 'camera-and-mic' shy, hehe.) Also, please let me know how I can provide my e-mail address other than putting it here - scary thought :).

Meanwhile, I still can be reached via my blog since every Blogger comment is automatically mailed to me and I also try to reply to every one of them.

Anonymous said...

hi victor, i'm courteous? lol...i take it as a compliment then! well, for me hv 2b lah, especially when talking to acquaintances or strangers. but to close friends n family then its another story altogether haha. i guess i hope ppl will treat me with courtesy & respect, so that must start with me 1st :p

yup sure go ahead and link me if u want to. i'll do the same as well. hv a nice day!

Victor said...

Thanks Evan.

Projectm - Thanks for the reassurance. :) I have sent you my e-mail address.

es_cendol said...

Hi Victor,

great, amusing article! Coincidentally I'm also doing a research on Sungei Road. Am wondering if you're keen to run a guide session in Sungei Road or if you've referrals to anyone who is capable of doing such trails?

Hear you soon!

Victor said...

Hi Es_cendol, thanks for dropping by my blog and for your compliments. I am so sorry that I don't do guide trails of Sungei Road. Personally, I feel that there's no need for a guide to bring you around Sungei Road as you can explore the area on your own.