There’s nothing like the smell of Ramly burgers, the sight of blue canvas sheets illuminated by warm yellow lights and the sound of vendors occasionally hollering irresistible discounts. If there’s one grudge I have against the pandemic, it’s certainly stripping me off my share of cheap cotton candy and delectable vadai. I’ve sorely missed Pasar Malams, and to see them back in swing – two springing up recently in Tampines – is heartwarming and truly feels like the revival of street life as we know it. It’s interesting to think about Pasar Malams’ role in our communities, and NHB has introduced the perfect way for us to find out more!
Lelong! Lelong! Pasar Malam in Singapore is NHB’s latest travelling exhibition, delving into the origins and evolution of Pasar Malams in Singapore. It also showcases the diverse variety of goods commonly found in these markets over the last century. The exhibit will be on display at the Sembawang Public Library till 30 July 2022, before it travels to other locations, such as Toa Payoh Public Library, Ang Mo Kio Public Library, Sengkang Public Library and Jurong West Public Library, where it will be present for one month each.
The exhibit is made of five panels, each designed to look akin to a stall at a Pasar Malam, with flashy neon lights and titles that look as if they were hand-written. The panels are arranged in chronological order, charting the evolution of these markets in Singapore from the 1920s till today.
The initial panel takes us through how night markets sprung into existence and how they made their way into the heartlands, while the later panels show how a new breed of Pasar Malams developed, incorporating games and carnival rides; also delving into how bazaars began to take on a more festive and cultural significance. Finally, the concluding panel shares more about how Pasar Malams have modernised and invites guests to share their hopes and dreams for Pasar Malams of the future.
One of my favourite features of the exhibit is that it’s not merely a fact spiel. Instead, the panels incorporate voices from 11 interviewees who were either stall vendors or long-time patrons — as such, sprinkled between facts are quotes from people who share their own personal experiences. Furthermore, the exhibit also features objects reminiscent of various time periods. I, for one, was impressed to see a Carbide lamp and a Kerosene lamp which were used in the ‘30s and ‘60s, respectively!
The exhibits are also made to be interactive. For instance, in the panel titled ‘Rise of Festive Bazaars’, a game of simple mix and match is incorporated into the display case of the content structure. The case shows various objects such as a Diya Lamp, earrings, envelopes and many more. Guests can guess which objects they would find at specific festive bazaars and check to see if their answers are correct!
At the end of the exhibit, there is also a panel where guests can pen down what they envision Pasar Malams of the future to be like. While some submissions could be plausible realities, such as Pasar Malams held at HDB car parks, others indeed were imaginative. One was a suggestion about using cryptocurrency to pay for our goods at the stalls!
As someone who is a sucker for nostalgia, seeing the panels chart the evolution of the Pasar Malams brought back some fond memories and made me reminisce. The panel showcasing neighbourhood fun and games brought me back to the evenings spent after kindergarten, riding the small Ferris wheels and collecting tickets from the stall games with my parents. It’s one of my earliest and fondest memories, and all the more reminds me of how Pasar Malams have indeed grown to be part of our cultural fabric as Singaporeans.
Mr Alvin Tan, Deputy Chief Executive (Policy and Community), NHB, shared that since Pasar Malams are a living heritage experience which spans generations, the idea to have an exhibit came about. “Through this exhibition, we hope to showcase the lesser-known aspects of Pasar Malam, share the stories and memories Singaporeans have of Pasar Malam, celebrate what makes Pasar Malam unique and in doing so, deepen our appreciation of Pasar Malam as they make a comeback in our heartlands,” he says.
Well, the exhibit certainly made me learn more about Pasar Malams and reflect on the way these bazaars have shaped my own identity and experience. And yes, it also has tempted me to immediately make my way down to grab my share of Pasar Malam snacks to make up for one and a half years.
If you’re keen to know more, then be sure to check out Lelong! Lelong! Pasar Malam in Singapore, currently located in Sembawang Library until the end of this month. The exhibit will make its way to the following locations in the months ahead:
● August 2022: Toa Payoh Public Library
● September 2022: Ang Mo Kio Public Library
● October 2022: Sengkang Public Library
● December 2022: Jurong West Public Library
Photos by Sunny Low of the DANAMIC Team.