Travelling exhibition by NHB showcases evolution and history of Singapore’s pasar malams

The Lelong! Lelong! Pasar malam in Singapore exhibition is part of NHB’s ongoing Heritage on the Move series, which aims to bring Singaporeans closer to heritage.

Harshiyne Maran

Hidden talent: Knowing the lyrics to every High School Musical soundtrack by heart.

Published: 25 July 2022, 3:20 PM

Growing up in the little red dot, one formative experience most Singaporeans can attest to having is strolling through pasar malams that often pop up under HDB blocks or large open spaces around housing estates. 

In an effort to showcase the growth and less known aspects of these night markets over the years, the National Heritage Board (NHB) has launched its latest travelling exhibition, Lelong! Lelong! Pasar malam in Singapore.

Launched on Jul 23, the exhibition is the newest addition to NHB’s ongoing Heritage on the Move series of travelling exhibitions that aim to make heritage more accessible for Singaporeans.

The exhibition explores the origins of pasar malam and traces its evolution over time through displays of various goods commonly found at the markets such as traditional snacks. It also features the memories of attendees, vendors and operators over the years.

Mirroring the concept of various booths that pasar malams often have, the exhibition is split up into five booths that inform visitors of the various facets of such night markets.

Market of Many Names

The first booth, Market of Many Names, gives visitors an overview of the origins and history behind pasar malams.


The exhibition was named after the phrase “Lelong! Lelong!” used by sellers at the night market, which refers to sale in Malay. PHOTO CREDIT: YOUTHOPIA/ HARSHIYNE MARAN


Initially known as trade fairs, the night markets were famous for its snacks and stalls that offered household goods for cheap. 

The term pasar malam was first used in the early 1920s, in an 1924 advertisement to promote a night of cultural performances at New World Amusement Park. The term eventually became widespread in the 1960s.

Believed to have developed from shelters that operated mainly at night and clusters of food stalls selling delicacies like satay, the stalls eventually made their way to newly developed housing states. 

However, it also brought along disturbances such as noise and an influx of traffic, which eventually led to the stalls being banned in the 1970s. 

The pasar malam stalls eventually resurfaced as part of trade fairs organised by grassroots organisations in the late 1970s, eventually developing into the pasar malam night market we know of today. 

Pasar for Everyday Needs

The second booth, Pasar for Everyday Needs, provides more insight about the items that could be found at the pasar malam and the significance of the night markets within housing estates and military bases in the past. 


In the 1960s, there were an estimated total of 40 pasar malams that operated at different locations islandwide. PHOTO CREDIT: YOUTHOPIA/ HARSHIYNE MARAN


Back then, pasar malams brought household goods and services to people that moved out of the city centre to live in the suburbs. 

An example of this was a popular pasar malam in the 1960s that was located near the Causeway. The market contained 1,200 hawkers selling wares such as textiles and personal care items every Saturday night to shoppers hailing from as far as Johor.


Other items that could be found at pasar malams include reel-to-reel music tapes (right), spools of fabric for altering clothes (left) and decorations for festivities like Christmas (left). PHOTO CREDIT: YOUTHOPIA/ HARSHIYNE MARAN


Besides housing estates, pasar malams were also set up near former British military bases to cater to the British servicemen and their families who resided there. These pasar malams served as means for the British to socialise with one another while shopping for their everyday needs. 

Neighbourhood Fun and Games

The third booth, known as Neighbourhood Fun and Games, delves into the new breed of pasar malams that developed, offering carnival rides alongside household goods and food items. 

Following the ban of night markets in the 1970s, a new form of pasar malam developed.

As some pasar malam hawkers turned to operating at trade fairs organised by community centres and grassroots organisations to raise funds, it led to a rise of hybrid markets. 


Entries to these hybrid markets were typically ticketed at about 20 cents per person, and the full proceeds were donated to support various causes. PHOTO CREDIT: YOUTHOPIA/ HARSHIYNE MARAN


These markets combined stalls selling bargained goods with carnival rides that were commonly found at trade fairs, like a small ferris wheel. 


At the booth, visitors can flip open the ticket panels to find out more about the different carnival rides offered at the pasar malams. PHOTO CREDIT: YOUTHOPIA/ HARSHIYNE MARAN


Referred to interchangeably as pasar malam, trade fairs and funfairs, the hybrid night markets transformed into an affordable, one-stop leisure attraction for families, with something for everyone.

Rise of Festive Bazaars

The fourth booth, Rise of Festive Bazaars, depicts festive versions of pasar malam catered to retailing items for festivities such as Chinese New Year.


In a move towards boosting tourism in Singapore, government and grassroots organisations revived street pasar malam in the 1980s. PHOTO CREDIT: YOUTHOPIA/ HARSHIYNE MARAN


Instead of hawking the usual household goods, the street pasar malam celebrated major festivals in Singapore by selling festive wear, snacks, souvenirs and handicrafts in relation to festivals like Ramadan and Deepavali. 

For example, during Ramadan, the pasar malam hawkers would set up shop at Geylang Street to sell ethnic wear like sarongs and songkoks. 


Visitors can test their knowledge on the various festive goods by guessing the names of the different traditional items on display at the booth. PHOTO CREDIT: YOUTHOPIA/ HARSHIYNE MARAN

Pasar Today, Digital Tomorrow?

At the fifth booth, Pasar Today, Digital Tomorrow?, visitors can learn more about how pasar malams have adapted to survive in the current age. 

In order to continue attracting customers, pasar malams have innovated to cater to the tastes of Singaporeans today, being held at unconventional locations like rooftop carparks and hidden alleyways.


Despite the presence of shopping malls and the boom of e-commerce, pasar malams continue to garner visitors through innovation. PHOTO CREDIT: YOUTHOPIA/ HARSHIYNE MARAN.


The pasar malam hawkers have also stepped up their game, updating their menus to include unique food offerings like praffles, which refers to a combination of prata and waffles. 

Even amid the COVID-19 period, hawkers found alternative ways to peddle their offerings, turning to social media to market their goods or organising e-bazaars where they could sell their wares online.

After taking a two year hiatus due to the pandemic, pasar malams are starting to make a comeback in neighbourhoods, attracting those who crave for the familiarity of the buzzing market atmosphere, getting household items for cheap and the variety of food available. 

Ideas Bazaar

Towards the end of the exhibition, visitors will also get a chance to pen down their hopes and predictions for the state of pasar malams in the future at the Ideas Bazaar booth. 


Once you have penned down your thoughts, feel free to hang it up on the board. PHOTO CREDIT: YOUTHOPIA/ HARSHIYNE MARAN


The Lelong! Lelong! Pasar malam in Singapore will be on display at the Sembawang Public Library till Jul 30, before it travels to other libraries across the island. 

The exhibition will be on display at the Toa Payoh Public Library in August and at the Ang Mo Kio Public Library in September. In October and December, it will be located at the Sengkang Public Library and Jurong West Public Library respectively.

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