In Singapore, nothing stands out quite as much as a random stretch of tarpaulin tents sheltering a random pedestrian walkway. By day, the place assumes its usual quiet self. Come night, this peculiar row of tarpaulin tents transforms into a line of brightly lit makeshift stalls hawking just about everything and anything – popular local and foreign street snacks like kueh tutu, turkish kebabs and thai ice cream rolls that serve as mouth-watering delicacies. In addition to food, familiar games like hook-a-frog and bagatelle provide casual entertainment, and a whole slew of stalls cater to everyday household needs. As the Lion City sleeps, this temporary bazaar becomes livelier throughout the night.
Started by street hawkers due to the lack of shopping facilities during the 1950s, these bazaars increased in number with the rise of Singapore’s many public housing estates. While Pasar Malams offered an avenue for hawkers to sell their wares and were convenient for local residents, these temporary bazaars were, and still are, chaotic and noisy. The placing of wooden floorboards on grass patches for temporary flooring also meant that these night markets were environmentally controversial. A convergence of these factors led to Pasar Malams being phased out in 1978. Thankfully, a need to boost tourism revenue and revitalise older housing estates in the 1990s eventually saw Pasar Malams make a comeback.
Today’s Pasar Malams are a far cry from the hawker’s bazaars of old. Stalls may open for business before sunset, and the scale of most night markets are bigger than the simple hawker’s bazaars of the past. Traditional fare such as kueh tutu, Ramly burgers, taiwanese sausages and roasted chestnuts are still ubiquitous sights, but foreign favorites such as turkish kebabs, Thai coconut ice cream, churros, and Korean street snacks are abundant as well.
Gastronomic delicacies aside, one can also find stalls hawking a plethora of goods such as bed sheets and fashion accessories, as well as booths featuring familiar funfair games. Frequent shouts of ‘Lelong, Lelong!’ beckon onlookers to take a gander at what’s for sale, and larger-scale Pasar Malams may even include a makeshift auction ground where religious idols and other exquisite paraphernalia are sold to the highest bidder.
With so much to see and do, one might think it is easy to get yourself lost in the bright lights and delicious food. Fret not, Pasar Malams are more often than not linear and well organised – these night markets meander along pedestrian walkways, with stalls in the middle typically selling food, while stalls at the end usually selling household necessities and clothes.
Unlike the Pasar Malams of old which were regularly held at fixed intervals, today’s night markets are as elusive as a starlit sky in Singapore. Many are held just annually, and may only be open for business for as long as three days. Tight government regulation, the presence of shopping malls in the heartlands and tough economic conditions have since led to a drastic fall in the scale and number of Pasar Malams held. Nonetheless, in the ever-changing landscape of cosmopolitan Singapore, the Pasar Malam remains a nostalgic constant. It harkens back to old times, when folk markets flourished and the oft-mentioned ‘kampung’, or communal spirit was in its heyday.