Wednesday, 23 December 2009

The Night Market Sunset

Another pasar malam (night market) set itself up in its usual spot near Serangoon Central bus interchange a few days ago. The location itself hasn't changed, but the size and scale of the area of the pasar malam has gradually shrunk over the last decade. Looking at the pasar malam of today, I think one could never guess ten years ago that its decline would prove so devastating.

I do notice the Serangoon Central pasar malam on the rare occasion it appears from time to time as I pass by the place regularly on my commutes but it never occurred to me to actually check it out. So two days ago, as the pasar malam sprung up again, for some reason I decided to take a walk through again just like old times.

I think I can safely say that the last time I really visited the pasar malam for genuine patronage was at least seven years ago. Between now and then, I somehow stopped visiting pasar malams, and even if I did go it was more so out of trivial amusement than one of true anticipation of the next pasar malam and excited thronging of the alleyways blanketed by bright lights, noise and canvassing that stretched for hundreds of metres. I have no exact idea why I stopped visiting pasar malams or when the precise moment I stopped going happened.

But when it comes to the memory of those times when I was a kid and pasar malams were a magical part of my life, the picture is clear as day. Word will spread among the neighbours and sometimes you could even hear the hustle and bustle from home. It was enough to get me bolting down as soon as possible to join the merry atmosphere that was a mixture of heat from the crowd, the food and the huge generator churning out electricity for all the shops to operate, sounds from the chatter, bargaining and the music from VCD, CD and game stalls, and smells of sausages, fishballs, ramly burgers and my favourite popcorn that used to sell for $1 and that I'd always buy without fail in order to seal off my experience there. Sometimes, there would even be funfair rides. It was an electric kind of atmosphere that I always felt very lucky to be immersed in.

Aside from the ambience and experience of simply being in a happening place, I also always looked forward to pasar malams as a kid because of the things they sold. In particular, pasar malams always became a chance to give myself a treat to pirated video games and music CDs, because I was simply too young to afford the originals. There were a whole ton of games I wanted to play and songs I wanted to listen to, but I didn't have the money to acquire them. Pasar malams became a chance to finally get my hands on such forbidden treasures. Furthermore, the occasion of a pasar malam itself became a reason for buying things, so coaxing my parents into giving me more money to buy things became a lot easier. I still keep every single CD I bought til this day.

Cheap copied software was the biggest prize of the day for me, but there was a whole range of other things I'd look at and sometimes buy, like bags, wallets, watches and shirts. Sometimes, I bought fake soccer jerseys too. The financial discipline my parents imposed on me kept me reduced to such alternatives to pricey originals, but it didn't matter at that time as I was too young to care.

The food needs little mentioning. Pasar malams of old sold some of the best street food I'd ever tasted and, for whatever reason now, it's not as nice now anymore. Maybe the feeling on the whole is just gone so the taste that came with the experience has disappeared too.

I suppose this explains quite a bit my fondness for night markets, be they overseas, in Bugis Street or Chinatown, or the modern day pasar malam version that is a far cry from its past glory. As I walked slowly through the Serangoon Central pasar malam two days ago at about 10pm - traditionally the prime time for pasar malams - business was really slow. The sparse number of patrons walked slowly through too, though they seemed to be, like me, taking more of a trip down memory lane than really going there to check out good bargains. Many stalls were open with their tables filled up with rows of products and many foodstalls had containers full of nosh, but few shops ultimately had buyers. Amid all sorts of thoughts - How much have these stall owners sold today? Do these stalls even make money? What keeps them going? Is the overall sale even able to cover the cost of setting up a pasar malam these days? What has happened to so many of the other stalls that used to be so popular? - I felt inevitably quite sad about how much the pasar malam has lost its place in our society. And I say inevitably because I am sad although I know this is bound to happen; I just can't help feeling like a part of our traditional culture has disappeared even though it's really nobody's fault the pasar malam is slowly but surely disappearing. Most of all, I wondered what the stall owners feel about all of this.

Looking at the few people walking through the tentages, I might even go as far as to think that most people are even wondering why pasar malams still bother to appear. I might be wrong about how everyone feels about it, but I can't help but sense that some of these stall keepers still open shop just hoping that maybe there's a chance some of that past magic will be rekindled and that the public will be enticed with some savoury street foodfare or cheap bargains, only to be proven wrong more and more with the looming reality that pasar malams are no longer what they were in the hearts of our people. The pasar malam sprawled for only about a hundred metres. A mini funfair game station had ball throwing and fishing games with flashing lights in operation with no eager kids lining up to play. The pasar malam I used to love so much has indeed faded away.

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