The Substation


July 2018

The blue striped tarpaulin sheet was rolled out on the cement floor like the concretised Rochor Canal.  A white plastic sheet was placed atop the tarpaulin sheet, for the display of an eclectic spread of curios. There was an ornate box with an oval gilded frame; slotted inside the frame was a picture of a bespectacled Caucasian man dressed suavely in a bow tie and coat and speaking or singing with a microphone. Nearby were a stack of Coca-Cola phone cards, a tape splicer, a borescope, a compass box, a liquor bottle and several toy cars. Others looked like they were bought from an overseas souvenir shop – wood carvings of figurines, including conical hat-clad men pulling a rickshaw and ploughing the fields with two buffaloes. A few items looked rather exquisite and fit for a museum’s collection: there was a piece of headgear, which vaguely resembled the hats worn by Japanese warriors or Siamese soldiers, and equally captivating was a flat bejewelled wooden box that, when opened, revealed a painted cross. Every item was painstakingly arranged in almost straight lines, accompanied by strips of paper providing a brief description and pricing. Other pieces of paper simply instructed, “Please do not touch.”

At a nearby corner sat a typewriter and its portable black casing. In another part of the room, images danced on the screen of a boxy television set that was placed on a folded tarpaulin sheet. The television set was equipped with remote controls and a device that was likely a modem.

The tarpaulin sheets, the curios and the outdated gadgets had all the trappings of the Sungei Road Thieves Market. But they felt too put-together, too curated and too museum-like, unlike the heaps of used clothes, household appliances, record albums, second-hand mobile phones, cutleries and school yearbooks scattered on the tattered, faded tarpaulin sheets carpeting the scorching tarmac of Jalan Besar.

Perhaps the clinical presentation was intentional, to suggest that heritage should be appreciated in its original site, in the streets and not inside an air-conditioned white cube gallery.   

Unfortunately, the actual market has already been cleared a year ago, to make way for an MRT station and future housing projects. The non-existence of the market hence added greater poignancy to the exhibition “OnBorrowedLand, a project that involved several young arts practitioners.

Their artworks lined the white walls on both sides of The Substation gallery. Many of the photographs, some in colour and others in black-and-white, were taken at the market in the weeks and days leading to its eventual closure. The elderly hawkers were often the focus. There was a photograph of a wizened man waiting for customers to buy his prized grandfather’s clock. Another depicted a table full of amulets, with its stall owner portrayed merely and charmingly with his dangling legs. And another of visitors smiling and taking photos with a hawker, for keepsake. Others captured goods being hastily covered when a downpour came without warning as well as a bird’s-eye view of the market, with crowds inching through its narrow lanes dotted with umbrellas and sheets.

The photos attracted a stream of visitors, studying the exhibits while bantering in English and Mandarin. Others rested on the white wooden benches in the centre. A couple in their thirties were engrossed in a conversation. A bench away, a man in his twenties, wearing a white shirt with grey stripes and black trousers, and sporting a high-sloped haircut, fiddled with his phone.

The five acrylic paintings too cast the spotlight on the market’s hawkers. According to the artworks’ description, three of the portraits were completed on the spot prior to the market’s closure, with the remaining pieces done later. The artist opted for portraits instead of market scenes as it was the people that made a place a community: “Interesting characters that reside in the vicinity make the enclave unique. Without people and life, a place is a desolate piece of land.”

In these individual portraits, the three men and two women basked in strong bright colours, particularly in the shades of blue that filled their shirts and blouses. But sadness was palpable in their eyes. They could not bring themselves to smile, even mildly, for the artist. They looked melancholic, glum. And rightly so.

At least they were visible. Where were the foreign workers who thronged the market during the weekends, scouting for second-hand clothes, phones and appliances, and contributing to the elderly hawkers’ livelihood?

The rear portion of the gallery has been partitioned with a black moveable wall and a documentary on the market’s final chapter was being screened. It depicted the market as business as usual, refusing to kow-tow to the relentless march of development. In the documentary, people were seen buying a laptop and a brass holder from the stallholders, one of whom noted wryly in Mandarin that the market was not a place that would appeal to the young “who like air-con places”. It was a sentiment echoed by the youthful onlookers interviewed in the film. As the documentary approached its concluding frames, it closed in on the market’s last night – crowds swelled the lanes to partake in history and the making of collective memory, while a lion dance troupe put up a spirited performance. Amongst the audience of 20 or so members at the screening, a toddler rocked to the rousing beats of the drum. It was a mixed crowd in the darkened room – parents with toddlers and children, friends in their early twenties, and a handful of elderly.

Like the visitors browsing the photos and paintings outside, it was a group that was more diverse than the typical English-speaking, youthful-looking Substation crowd. Some of them could be friends of the artists involved in the exhibition. Others could have attended the exhibition as a demonstration of support for the market, for heritage conservation. Some of the elderly might have eked out a living in Sungei Road previously.

And they were unlikely to be the “Singapore” described in the “Eviction Letter” stuck on a brown envelope pasted on the gallery’s wall. The envelope was affixed with a 30-cent Singapore stamp featuring the Raffles Hotel, a twice-gazetted national monument, to be exact. Also glued on its surface were three photos, of older men and women being surrounded by boxes and electric fans, irons and mattresses, either smoking or staring into space. Dated 14 February 2017, the typed letter read:

“Singapore, hereby gives vendors at Sungei Road flea market until 10 July this year to vacate Sungei Road.

The reasons for the eviction:

  1. You take up too much space
  2. You must make way for the future, let go of the past
  3. We no longer have the patience to keep you here


We will provide financial assistance and employment services under existing schemes to you if you need it, even though it is not what you want.

This is for the best.


While it appeared that the artists’ preference was for the Sungei Road Thieves Market to be left alone (accompanying the paintings’ description was the point that “hidden heritage sites not only add colour and life to Singapore’s monotonous cityscape but also serve as a reminder of our humble beginnings”), the exhibition’s narratives were hardly one-sided. One of the photographers admitted that he had not been to or heard of the market until its impending clearance. Taking these photographs was his way of processing his conflicted feelings towards heritage and progress: “Why is it only in the last hours did I feel the urge to pay it a visit?”

Likewise, when a visitor was invited to “Flip up each photo to reveal a perspective”, he might be taken aback by a barrage of criticism: Why was the market “suddenly relevant to hipsters, heritage lovers and anyone with grouses against the government”? And if the public genuinely had feelings for the market, why has it always been frequented by the elderly and foreign workers?

Outside, a few elderly men sat on a bench, with their backs facing the gallery’s glass window. Holding a selfie stick, a woman, probably a tourist from China and having strayed from the neighbouring Peranakan Museum, caught sight of the exhibition but did not venture inside. Behind her, Armenian Street was nothing more than a stretch for vehicles and pedestrians to cruise by, to get to the other parts of downtown.   

It made sense that The Substation was the venue for this tribute exhibition to the Sungei Road Thieves Market. After all, the arts centre has witnessed the conservation, redevelopment and gentrification that has altered the streetscape at its doorstep.

The former Mayfair Hotel and the numerous shophouses flanking the street may have escaped the bulldozers and given a facelift and converted into trendy office spaces and restaurants. But nothing eventful seemed to happen in Armenian Street on most days (when there was not a state-sponsored, heritage-celebratory street party going on). Maybe office workers taking a breather and enjoying a smoke. Maybe someone hailing a taxi. And elderly cleaners sitting on cleaned corridors, before another round of labour. And tourists taking photos of the sculpture outside the Peranakan Museum while waiting for the bus.

The popular kopitiam across the street that whipped up char kway teow and ngor hiang had long disappeared. Restaurants serving French and Peranakan fare could be found in the shophouses a few units from The Substation, but they of course catered to a certain clientele. The shopfronts have been taken over by art galleries and posh-looking showrooms – spaciously stocked with kitchenware and lifestyle furnishings, they were usually empty and always intimidating to set foot in.

But change was inevitable. Before the Substation came to into existence on Armenian Street, there was the United Chinese Library, informed the National Heritage Board information board installed outside the True Blu Peranakan Restaurant. Founded in the 1930s, it “had a large collection of books and periodicals and held reading sessions and Chinese language classes for illiterate Chinese immigrants”, although its raison d’être was to rally support for Dr Sun Yat-Sen’s revolutionary efforts in China. The library moved out of Armenian Street in 1987.

The Substation probably knew decisions concerning redevelopment and heritage conservation were out of its hands, but it was also likely guided by the words of its founder that were once scribbled on its side walls as part of a graffiti artwork: “The Substation should be anything anyone wants it to be: open and flexible enough to do things his or her own way.”