Pasar malam (or “night market” in Malay) are well-known and loved by locals for their mouth-watering selection of snacks, eclectic variety of affordable wares, and trademark vibrant atmosphere.
Beyond the bustling crowds and colourful stalls though, you will find that pasar malam in Singapore have a long and multifaceted history which stretches as far back as the 1920s, and have undergone numerous changes over different periods to become the night markets we look forward to visiting today.
NHB’s latest travelling exhibition, Lelong! Lelong! Pasar malam in Singapore, delves into the origins of pasar malam, traces how they have evolved over time, and showcases the diverse variety of goods commonly found at these night markets over the last century. It also features displays of objects and the memories of patrons, vendors and operators over the years, and concludes by asking visitors what they would like to see in pasar malam of the future.
Market of Many Names
Pasar malam existed in many forms throughout the years. The term “pasar malam” gained widespread use from the 1960s. Typically transient in nature, these roving night markets could typically be found in housing estates, bringing many conveniences to residents. However, the noise pollution and traffic congestion they caused eventually led to a ban on pasar malam in the 1970s. They were revived in the form of trade fairs later that decade.
Pasar for Everyday Needs
Pasar malam were a common sight in the 1960s, and in 1966, there were an estimated 40 pasar malam operating in different parts of Singapore every week. They provided convenient access to household goods and services as more people moved out of the city centre to live in the suburbs.
Neighbourhood Fun & Games
A new breed of night markets emerged in the late 1970s following the ban on pasar malam. As such, some pasar malam hawkers turned to operating at trade fairs organised by community centres and grassroots organisations.
This led to the rise of hybrid markets, which combined stalls selling bargain goods and locally-made products with carnival rides and games of chance.
Rise of Festive Bazaars
Traditionally, Singapore’s historic districts hosted night markets that sold goods related to the festivals of the respective ethnic communities. For example, during Ramadan, street hawkers selling sarongs and songkoks congregated at Geylang Serai, and in the weeks leading up to the Lunar New Year, crowds would throng the Chinatown night market to pick up festive goods such as melon seeds and mandarin oranges.
In the 1980s, street pasar malam were revived by the government and grassroots organisations to mark major festivals and boost tourism in Singapore. These pasar malam offered a jubilant festive atmosphere and instead of everyday goods, hawked festive wear, snacks, souvenirs and handicrafts.
Pasar Today, Digital Tomorrow?
Despite the proliferation of shopping malls in the heartlands and the growth of e-commerce, pasar malam continue to attract customers with innovative offerings.
After a two-year hiatus, pasar malam are reappearing in neighbourhoods and attracting crowds who missed the variety of food and affordable household wares, and most importantly, the experience and atmosphere of these night markets.
The exhibition will be on display at the Sembawang Public Library from today till 30 July 2022, before it travels to different locations across the island as listed below:
- August 2022: Toa Payoh Public Library
- September 2022: Ang Mo Kio Public Library
- October 2022: Sengkang Public Library
- December 2022: Jurong West Public Library
Lelong! Lelong! Pasar malam in Singapore is the 14th and latest addition to NHB’s ongoing Heritage on the Move series of travelling exhibitions, which aims to make heritage more accessible by bringing exhibitions closer to Singaporeans.
Images credit to Ministry of Information and the Arts Collection, courtesy of National Archives of Singapore, and National Heritage Board