We sail tonight for Singapore, we’re all as mad as hatters here/ I’ve fallen for a tawny Moor, took off to the land of Nod/ Drank with all the Chinamen, walked the sewers of Paris/ I danced along a coloured wind, dangled from a rope of sand/ You must say goodbye to me.
So Tom Waits sings about the old Singapore, the one that existed before it was cleaned up and transformed into the “Tropical City of Excellence” that it is today. After all, Singapore has always been a port city, and all port cities are seductive, sinful, filthy places.
You can still catch a glimpse of that old city in the Lorongs (4 to 44) of Geylang (not to be confused with Geylang Serai or Geylang East).
But the older city is fast disappearing, according to long-time resident Cai Yinzhou, a social entrepreneur who also conducts walking tours through his company Geylang Adventures.
Cai says that Geylang is unique among Singapore neighbourhoods in that it doesn’t have any public housing. Thus, few local Singaporeans live there, opting for better housing in other parts of town.
Instead, Geylang has always been home to the many transient workers from Bangladesh, India, and other parts of Southeast Asia; even more so in the last decade, when the government imported vast numbers of migrant labour to build the gleaming citadels of Mammon.
The influx of poor and ethnic migrants has predictably led to the Singaporean equivalent of white flight. Many lower to middle class locals prefer to rent out their housing to transient workers via less than scrupulous middlemen.
Those that remain don’t always take too kindly to the newer arrivals. In one building, the residents flood their plaza with water in the late evenings so that workers returning home cannot sit down there.
Still, the transient workers prefer living with their own kind to staying in dormitories. Up to thirty of them can cram into a single apartment, well in excess of the regulation eight.
In the evenings, the workers huddle along Geylang’s back alleyways, sitting silently together or talking on their cellphones to family back home.
The alleyways are all brightly lit. Striking a more Orwellian note, every corner has a surveillance camera. Public consumption of alcohol is also not allowed.
These precautions are fallout from the Little India riot in 2013, when a potent combination of frustrated transient workers and alcohol led to a conflagration of a sort not seen since Singapore’s race riots in 1969.
The alcohol ban has been particularly hard on Geylang’s mom-and-pop shops. Some are so old that you can still spot the old school pail and pulley system by which shopkeepers collect payment and keep the money out of reach of sticky fingers. One owner is even considering closing down her shop after seventy years.
In recent years, because of Geylang’s proximity to the CBD, developers have built pricey condominiums in the neighbourhood to cater to demand from investors.
The area is especially popular with expatriates who are looking for an authentic Singaporean experience.
But gentrification puts pressure on the neighbourhood’s red light district and imperils its unique flavour. The brothels of Geylang are regulated, but illegal activities nonetheless abound in the surrounding areas. Men hawk virility drugs on street corners as streetwalkers call out to passersby.
Most of the streetwalkers are from China, Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia. On average, they earn about $3,200 a month after deducting rent and other expenses.
Cai likes to say that, in Geylang, you can find both sin and salvation. Indeed, some brothels share parking lots with temples, and nestled between a mosque and a temple is a love hotel.
As a pleasure district, Geylang has long been famed for its gastronomy. Bentleys park besides the smallest of food stalls, while billionaires slurp down their crab bee hoon side by side with paupers.
Perhaps Geylang’s greatest appeal is how lightly it wears its identity. Cai tells a story of how Ferran Adrià, the famed father of molecular gastronomy, once ate at an unpretentious Geylang restaurant, and when he wanted to take a photo with the owner, the latter replied brusquely that he was too busy.