Painting the faces behind Singapore’s Thieves’ Market

NSF and artist Brendan Mayle Kor has completed three portraits of elderly vendors at the Sungei Road Thieves’ Market over the past few months and is currently working on the fourth painting in the series. —TODAY pic
NSF and artist Brendan Mayle Kor has completed three portraits of elderly vendors at the Sungei Road Thieves’ Market over the past few months and is currently working on the fourth painting in the series. —TODAY pic

SINGAPORE, June 25 — Over the last few months, 20-year-old Brendan Mayle Kor has been spending his Saturday afternoons studying the faces and mannerisms of the elderly vendors at Sungei Road Thieves’ Market very closely, looking for every line and crease that tells a story of their lives.

He then lays out a canvas and gets to work with his acrylics.

The fulltime national serviceman and former Nanyang Junior College student is on a mission to document the Thieves’ Market and the people behind it ahead of its impending closure on July 10 to make way for future residential development.

Located between Jalan Besar and Rochor Canal Road, Singapore’s oldest and largest flea market — which sprung up in the 1930s — used to have a colourful history and a reputation as a spot for trading smuggled and stolen wares.

Fond memories

Kor is no stranger to the flea market. He often visited the market with his mother as a child and is on friendly terms with many of the vendors.

“This place is very nolstagic because my mom used to bring me here when I was young, to get away from the skyscrapers and buildings in the city life... As I got older, I gained the courage to talk to the hawkers; they are interesting people,” said Kor.

Kor spent “weeks” looking for subjects. “I would see if their faces are interesting or have a lot of character and I will approach them, start to buy things from them, like knick knacks, vintage stuff and cassette tapes,” he said, in an effort to get them to warm up to him.

His efforts seem to have paid off. Just as Kor enters the Thieves’ Market area, an uncle playfully shouts out to him to paint the likeness of a fellow vendor. Neighbouring vendors also offer him an extra umbrella or stool as a gesture to help make his experience under the scorching sun more comfortable.

Kor spends about four hours each Saturday at the market, but takes about “two to three” sessions to complete each portrait. He has so far completed three portraits and is working on the fourth in the series.

The young artist is hard to miss at the market. With a large canvas in one hand, and a trolley full of art tools and equipment for his temporary “work station” — a DIY (do-it-yourself) tent for shade and a picnic mat made from recycled rice bags — in the other, Kor carefully and politely navigates through the cluttered hustle-and-bustle to find a space to settle down.

Once he finds his spot, Kor sets up his makeshift tent fashioned out of the base of an unused fan, a broken bamboo pole and an old umbrella. Under the shade, he picks up his brush and gets to work.

Curious bystanders often gather around Kor, and occasionally, he gets offers to purchase his work as well as requests from the public to have their portraits done.

Mdm Cher Lee Wei, 80, affectionately known as “Roti Soh” because she used to sell and deliver bread around the Jalan Besar area, said she is “very happy” to be one of those featured in Kor’s art pieces. Cher started peddling second-hand goods at the market about 20 years ago after she could not deliver bread due to a “bad leg”.

Kor said: “Some of them will come and approach me and thank me — because I am young and they didn’t know young people like us appreciate... and care for this place.”

“Some say the painting is good, I am very thankful for that,” he added.

There are however, detractors. Kor said he has had some of his subjects reproach him for painting their portraits.Kor plans to submit two of his portrait pieces to the 36th UOB Painting of the Year competition. He had won gold in the emerging artist category (Singapore) in the 2014 edition of the annual competition.

Besides the portrait series, Kor also plans to document the Sungei Thieves’ Market and archive his own artistic process through a magazine called On Borrowed Land: Sungei Road, which he is working on with a friend. The magazine will also include a history of the Thieves’ Market along with stories from patrons, and is tentatively set for release in August.

More importantly, he hopes the overall effort will create a dialogue about the importance of keeping such “hidden gems” in spite of Singapore’s rapid development.

As of May 12, 44 out of almost 200 vendors at the market have accepted various assistance options — including employment and financial help, and facilitation of applications for hawker stalls — offered by the authorities.

Apart from those who have accepted assistance, 70 vendors indicated that they did not need any help, for reasons such as being able to support themselves or find other jobs on their own.

The National Environment Agency also announced on June 16 that eligible vendors who have applied to take up lock-up stalls in hawker centres will have their rents halved for their first two years of operations.

As of the same date, 27 vendors have been allocated lock-up stalls at several hawker centres across Singapore, including Chinatown Market and Golden Mile Centre.

While Kor is sad to see the market go, he remains practical about the decision.

“You just got to quickly cherish it and not take things for granted. Not to dwell on it and appreciate what you have,” he said. — TODAY

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