Sungei Road

by Thulaja, Naidu Ratnala

Sungei Road begins at the junction of Selegie Road and Serangoon Road and runs parallel to Rochor Canal Road. Translated literally, Sungei Road means “River Road”, a reference to the Rochor River that flows alongside the road. From the 1930s to 1980s, the road was synonymous with Thieves Market, a vibrant local flea market. Other significant landmarks of the road were the Singapore Ice Works and the Rochor Market.1

Sir Stamford Raffles, the founder of modern Singapore, had allocated the area around Sungei Road to house affluent Europeans and Asians, so the Arabs and Malays who had settled there previously were relocated to the east of Sungei Road at Kampong Glam. A number of two- and three-storey shophouses were built along the road during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. These were demolished in the 1930s.

Key features
Thieves Market
Sungei Road’s most famous landmark, Thieves Market, came to be located there in the 1930s. The market gained its name because most of the goods sold there were acquired through illegitimate means. The name also had a double meaning, as items purchased there were considered a “great steal”. Probably because of the ample choice of goods available, the market was colloquially referred to as Robinson petang, which means “evening Robinson”, a cheeky reference to the Robinsons Departmental Store except that this market catered to the poor man.

The success of the Thieves Market was fuelled by the presence of the British military bases in Singapore, and the goods displayed reflected the needs of this community. Initially, army surplus goods, such as parachutes, raincoats, knapsacks, billycans and boots, were sold there. Later on, electrical appliances that were either stolen, smuggled or were factory rejects, appeared in the market.

Other goods such as porcelain pottery, brassware, trinkets and anything one could think of buying or selling, quickly became available in the market. In their heyday, vendors displayed their goods on a mat by the roadside, calling out to potential customers. Haggling usually took place before a price was reached and the goods changed hands. In the 1960s and 1970s, the market became popular with Malaysians for its affordable goods and the possibility of bulk purchases. However, after bringing life and bustle into the street for more than half a century, the market’s popularity began to wane in the 1980s,5 particularly after a portion of the market was demolished in August 1982.

In 2011, the market’s size was further halved due to the construction of the Downtown Line Jalan Besar Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) station. In February 2017, it was announced that the Thieves Market will be closed on 10 July 2017 and the site to be used for future residential developments. Despite proposals from the Association for the Recycling of Second Hand Goods, the Government reiterated that the market would not be relocated. Offers of aid have been offered to the vendors at the Thieves Market to either relocate and carry on their trade elsewhere or to find other forms of employment.7

Singapore Ice Works
The Singapore Ice Works was set up at the junction of Sungei Road and Pitt Street. As the first ice-making plant in Singapore, it became known as a pioneer establishment that brought refrigeration and air-conditioning to Singapore. It was renamed New Singapore Ice Works in 1958. The factory was later bought over and managed by Cold Storage. In 1984, the Housing and Development Board took over the site, and the ice works operations were relocated.8

Rochor Market
The Rochor Market, a wet market, was another popular landmark in the Sungei Road area. Built in 1872, the market served the surrounding community for more than a century. In August 1982, part of the market was demolished and its stalls were moved elsewhere.9

Variant names
Chinese names: Tek-kha ma-ta-chhu tui-bin gu-long pi koi (Hokkien). Chuk-tsai ma-ta-liu tui-min ngau lan pin kai (Cantonese). Both literally mean “the street beside the cattle pens opposite the Tek kha Police Station”. The Tek kha or Tekka Police Station was later known as Kandang Kerbau Police Station, taking its name from the Kandang Kerbau area.10

Naidu Ratnala Thulaja

1. Tan G. S., “The History of Refrigeration in Singapore,” ASHRAE Journal 3 (August 2000) (Call no. R 697 ASHRAE); Peter K. G. Dunlop, Street Names of Singapore (Singapore: Who’s Who Publishing, 200), 294 (Call no. RSING 959.57 DUN-[HIS]); Norman Edwards and Keys Peter, Singapore: A Guide to Buildings, Streets, Places (Singapore: Times Books International, 1988), 142. (Call no. RSING 915.957 EDW-[TRA])
2. Ray Tyers and Siow Jin Hua, Ray Tyers’ Singapore: Then & Now (Singapore: Landmark Books, 1993), 76. (Call no. RSING 959.57 TYE-[HIS])
3. V. Gopalakrishnan and Ananda Perera, eds., Singapore Changing Landscapes: Geylang, Chinatown, Serangoon (Singapore: FEP International, 1983), 99–100. (Call no. RSING 959.57 SIN-[HIS])
4. Gopalakrishnan and Perera, Singapore Changing Landscapes, 99–100.
5. Tyers and Siow, Ray Tyers’ Singapore, 76.
6. Gopalakrishnan and Perera, Singapore Changing Landscapes, 99–100; Victor R. Savage and Brenda S. A. Yeoh, Singapore Street Names: A Study of Toponymics (Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Editions, 2013), 363–64. (Call no. RSING 915.9570014 SAV-[TRA])
7. Amanda Tan, “MRT Works: Flea Mart Feels the Squeeze,” Straits Times, 20 July 2011, 3; Melody Zaccheus, “Update on Sungei Market Due this Week,” Straits Times, 12 May 2013, 20; Toh Ee Ming, “Some Sellers from Sungei Road Market Keen to Relocate to Hawker Centres,” Today, 12 April 2017, 16; Melody Zaccheus, “Decision Final on Not Relocating Sungei Road Flea Market,” Today, 12 April 2017, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
8. Tyers and Siow, Ray Tyers’ Singapore, 76; Tan, History of Refrigeration in Singapore.”
9. Tyers and Siow, Ray Tyers’ Singapore, 76; Edwards and Peter, Guide to Buildings, Streets, Places, 142.
10. Savage and Yeoh, Singapore Street Names, 353–64; H. W. Firmstone, “Chinese Names of Streets and Places in Singapore and the Malay Peninsula,” Journal of the Straits Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, 42 (February 1905): 132–33. (Call no. RQUIK 959.5 JMBRAS)

The information in this article is valid as at 2017 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.


Historic sites--Singapore
Street names--Singapore
Urban planning
Streets and Places