Most Singaporean men know the Beach Road Army Market, having gone through 2 years of conscription for National Service (NS). NS is of course that critical rite of passage where our scrawny 18 year old boys metamorphose into macho young men. The Army Market was a popular haunt in the 1980s and ’90s for servicemen to shop for their army paraphernalia. For many Singaporean men, visiting the Army Market today brings back fond memories of the halcyon army days of their youth.
If you are female however, like me, then this place may well be a whole new discovery for you.
The Army Market opened in 1975, occupying the upper floor of the Golden Mile Food Centre building. Consisting of just over 100 small shops, its location on Beach Road was likely because several of Singapore’s military forces and other uniformed groups had their headquarters in the area, including the Beach Road army camp located opposite the Raffles Hotel. The Army Market was the go-to place for army regulars as well as uniformed groups from all over Singapore to get their regulation wear and other supplies.
The introduction of technology however robbed the Army Market of its importance, just as technology has disrupted many a facet of business. In 1997 the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) introduced eMart – a system where army personnel could order their supplies online and then arrange for delivery or collection at eMart outlets island wide. Servicemen could even pay for their purchases with army credits instead of cash. The convenience of eMart just could not be beat, and from then on the Beach Road Army Market started to wane in importance and popularity.
Today, only about 70-80 of the shops are occupied, manned by mom and pop shop owners that have been there since the market’s opening. To survive, the shops in the sleepy enclave have branched out into offering other wares such as sports goods, camping equipment as well as a mish mash of other non-army related products. A few new businesses have set up shop selling fashion apparel even.
The ground floor and basement food centre in the building is also famous in its own right. It’s best known for a local Indian dish called “Sup Tulang” – Mutton Bone Marrow Soup, a messy bright red chilli sauce stew where you slurp and suck the marrow out of a sheep femur bone using a straw. Nice. Chef and TV hosts Anthony Bourdain and Bobby Chinn tried it and loved it though.
The Golden Mile Food Centre and the Army Market’s days may be numbered however, as the lease for the building expires at the end of December 2015. The Beach Road area is considered a prime area being located right on the city fringe and is ripe for more upmarket developments, making the likelihood of the Army Market’s demise almost a certainty.
If you are tired of the cookie cutter malls and enjoy flea market shopping and a bargain or two, then you might fancy poking around the shops in the Army Market. I visited the Army Market recently in search of a hiking hat to help shield me from our tropical rays on my jaunts outdoors – too much sun is bad for the skin.
I not only found my lightweight wash ‘n wear Arc’teryx hat, complete with detachable back flap, but also picked up a foldable neon green sports bag, and a mini backpack I’d been looking for to strap on while cycling. These were all non-name brand bags, or rather they sported China brand names such as “Top Power”. No matter though, they were well-made and well-designed, and cost about S$20 apiece only. Ok well the hat is likely a knock-off being that it cost only S$15, whereas a genuine Arc’teryx hat would cost more than twice that amount. If you don’t want to support knock-offs, there are also plenty of other canvas material bush hats, in signature military colours and at a lower cost.
An artsy friend of mine wore a designer dress to a dinner gathering a few months ago, and endured ribbing from the rest of the group about her dress as it featured a fluorescent yellow mesh fabric, bringing to mind the safety vests blue-collar workers wear. I kinda liked her dress actually, and have been quite taken with safety wear designs ever since. So I was happy to find a shop at the Army Market selling all manner of safety vests, and strips of fluorescent or reflective tape (similar to the reflective bits on your Nike sportswear) you can use to adorn your own gear or apparel. For a dollar or so, the shop will sew the reflective strip or patch of your choice onto just about anything you want, on the spot. I got checkered reflective racing strips sewn on to the bags I bought – neatly covering up the China brand names on the bags.
There is also an engraving shop in one corner, with all kinds of dog tags you can engrave your name on for less than S$10 each. I got cute star and bone shaped colourful tags for each of my bags natch.
505 Beach Road
2nd Floor, Golden Mile Food Centre Building
Shops open at varying times. Most open at 11am although some open earlier, and most close from about 6pm to 8pm.
HOW MUCH TIME
I’d say about an hour to wander among the shops.
- In 2010 a female shop owner was in the news for selling an M16 rifle firing pin to a media intern for S$70 in a sting operation. The firing pin is a controlled item and cannot be sold without a license. The woman was charged and sent to 6 weeks’ imprisonment.
- The same woman’s husband had apparently also been convicted of a similar offence in 2006, when he was similarly jailed for 6 weeks for selling illegal items, including 37 rifle magazines.
- The Beach Road military camp was set up in the 1930s, originally as the headquarters of the Singapore Volunteer Corps (SVC). The SVC interestingly was formed in 1854 by the European community in Singapore to supplement the local constabulary, in an effort to combat the increasing internal unrest.
- The Beach Road camp was closed in 2000, and is now being developed into a swanky commercial and residential lifestyle complex scheduled to open in 2016. To preserve the site’s rich past, over half of the old camp building’s facade has been conserved for the new development. Named South Beach, the integrated development will house a hotel, offices, shops and residences.
- Parking at the open air car park next to the building is near impossible. You can park at the car park behind instead which you enter via North Bridge Road.
- Beach Road Army Market
- National Heritage Board (NHB): Beach Road Army Market – with Virtual Tour (similar to Google Maps)