The Sights and Colours of Geylang

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In the minds of most people, Geylang is often associated with the red-light district (i.e. prostitution) and everything sleazy. Personally, I think the saddest thing about this is that people just avoid this place altogether thinking that it’s nothing but sleaze.

I acknowledge that the sleaze of the area is there, but it is often the focus of most people that the other side is usually over-looked to the point that Geylang and sleaze are almost synonymous. I do acknowledge that its sleaze has indeed been around for a very long time and has even shaped Geylang to some extent. However, I think it is important that we do not be too narrowly focused on the sleaze. There is, as the article will show, more to Geylang than that. Sleaze is a factor, but not THE factor. Instead, it is a combination of several factors that play a role in shaping Geylang into what it is today. It is for this reason that I will not offer any further commentary about it since it is not the purpose of this article.

Contrary to the popular belief that Geylang is nothing but sleaze, I personally think that Geylang is a very interesting place which has so much to offer.

It’s a completely different world altogether. Singapore, as a whole may have changed, but Geylang has preserved so much of Singapore’s old history and culture, that it is as if you are walking through a parallel world – a world which offers us a glimpse of how Singapore would have been like if it underwent slow and organic growth instead of a major revamp.

In almost every other part of Singapore, the historical connection with the old is simply lost due to the Government’s major revamp in the 1970s-1980s, replacing almost every single thing with high-rise buildings.

There are heritage sites which have conserved important places of history. However, many of these heritage sites do not offer a kind of authentic experience of the richness of Singapore’s history and culture. Heritage sites have a particular goal in mind, and are usually designed to offer a particular narrative of the history and culture. Yet in doing so, everything else that is not related to the required narrative is chopped off. In the end, what is presented is an artificially created experience meant to support that particular narrative.

As such, Geylang is one of those few places free from an enforced narrative. Unlike a heritage site, one is able to be there, stand still and soak in the sights and the sounds of the place, and have a glimpse and feel of what Singapore was like and might have been like if Singapore had gone down a different route.

Geylang – for reasons unknown to me – was spared from the major revamps as well as the artificiality of enforced conservation. What we have is about 40 streets worth of richness – historically, culturally, and more!

Have a look at the photo below and just imagine how Singapore used to be like in the days when horses used to roam around. Imagine the days when early automobiles used to zoom down such roads. This was what Singapore was like then.

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Isn’t it amazing?

My eyes opened to this vast richness because of the regular need to go there for kungfu and calligraphy lessons. Just going there a few times already made me aware that apart from the sleaze, the entire area is bursting with a myriad of activity – religious rituals of various kinds, martial arts (turns out there’s so many martial arts federations housed there), painting, calligraphy, metal works, wood works, musical performances/rehearsals, and more! There’s so much excitement going on, and they’re scattered all over the place. It’s simply amazing!

So… What I would like to do is to take you on a little photo tour around Geylang, to introduce you to the richness of its history, culture, the arts, and of course, food!

I’ll start first with food, since it’s our favourite past time as Singaporeans. The entire road of Geylang is filled with so many cofffe shops and restaurants, that I’ve not beem able to try everything. But I’ll like to highlight my two favourite places which are definitely worth eating at.

The first place is the Lorong 9 Beef Kway Teow:

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Unfortunately, it was closed when I went around to take photos. But this place offers the best beef kway teow ever! It’s about $5 for a plate (I don’t know if the price is still the same, I’ve not eaten there for about a year). What I love about it is the tenderness of the beef. It’s so soft and so juicy! It’s the perfect harmony of flavours. Simply amazing! You have not tasted heaven until you have tasted this.

The second place, which is of greater interest to me is this – The LDM Charcoal BBQ Restaurant, between Lorong 15 and 17.

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This place sells, what I call “Chinese Satay”, where you can barbeque the satay by yourself in air-conditioning comfort! How it works is that each table has a BBQ pit. This pit is fitted with an exhaust pipe that will suck away excess heat and smoke, so that you won’t feel as if you’re burning in hell, nor come out of the place smelling like a burnt meat patty. It’s amazing. Here’s a photo I took some time ago eating here with some friends:

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You’ll need to tell the person that you want to BBQ it yourself, otherwise, they will do it for you. They even have spices for you to add to the satay to enhance the flavour. It’s really awesome!

Here’s an interesting fact: Did you know that Satay is actually Chinese? It’s not Malay at all! Originally, some Hokkiens/Teochews came to Singapore/Malaysia and sold barbequed meat for a living. They called it, “Sah Teh” (literally, three sticks 三碟 [I think this is the Chinese characters for it]), because they used to sell these BBQ-ed meat in sticks of 3. Eventually, the Malays adopted the style of cooking meat on skewers and adopted the name which the Chinese used, hence the satay that we know today!

While still on the topic of food, Geylang is also popular for its durians! But there’s something very odd about the stalls here (and elsewhere in Singapore, for that matter). While it’s indeed very good for them to switch to those environmentally-friendly energy saving lightbulbs, the irony is that they use a whole lot of them, in addition to other flourescent lighting!!!

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OH!!! The irony!!! This really defeats the purpose of being environmentally friendly.

The next thing I’d like to show you is the diversity of cultures and religious practices. Prior to land reclamation works, Geylang used to be very near the coasts. Apart from Chinatown, many Chinese immigrants stayed in this area. In thanksgiving for the long and ardous journey, many of them built temples all over in gratitude for the safe journey.

Here’s a Chinese temple:

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Another Chinese temple:

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Yet another Chinese temple:

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I don’t know what to call this. Officially (on the Internet), they call themselves a charity organisation, but it’s a Chinese temple with a blue cross as their symbol. It’s not even the Buddhist swastika. It’s a cross, like a Christian cross. They’re not Chinese Christians. I really don’t know what to make of this. If you carefully observe the photo, you can find their symbol.

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Here’s a Chinese Buddhist temple:

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This is my favourite. It’s a Zen Buddhist temple. I love it’s architecture a lot because it’s a place of worship that is modern in its design, and yet it retains every aspect of its Zen philosophy. Even if you do not know much about Zen, the architecture speaks volumes about its key principles. It’s very difficult to find modern places of worship that actually achieves this.

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Here are the couplets at the entrance of the temple:

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Here’s the translation (done by my friend): This house of Zen/meditation accomodates my inner tranquility, forget about the hustle and bustle of this busy world.

In Geylang, you can find all the various strands of Buddhism. It’s interesting just looking at the way their temples are designed, and the elements arranged within. It’s almost as if you are looking at different religions.

Anyway, moving on… Over the years, people of other races started to live in the area, thereby springing up other places of worship like churches, mosques, and Hindu shrines. (I didn’t take photos of them because most of these places are occupying existing shophouses, or do not look very interesting.) The rise of this mixture has resulted in a very interesting and colourful mix. You have places of worship all congregating around the same area, and on certain days, different festivities taking place along-side each other.

And while all that is taking place, other things are going on as well! I have kungfu lessons here during the semester break (it’s usually done on campus during term time).

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Even within buildings, you have religious instruction or rituals taking place together with other activities like the training of martial arts. This building belongs to Lorong 29, and just along this street, you have several martial arts centres/associations. But martial arts is not confined to this street. Oh no… There are several other martial arts centres/associations all over Geylang, nicely hidden in buildings like this.

This is where I am currently learning Chinese calligraphy.

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It’s not very sightly now because they’re installing an elavator on every floor (there was never one in the beginning). In this building, there is a school that teaches painting, a calligraphy school, a tea appreciation class, martial arts associations, Chinese orchestra society, and some Chinese clan associations.

Speaking of Chinese clan associations, here’s a building filled with nothing but these Chinese clans.

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I love how really old shophouse buildings were so well-decorated with all kinds of motifs. The motifs will hint at the ethnicity that used to reside in there.

It’s simply amazing! Every single day, the entire Geylang is packed with all kinds of activity – music, kungfu, cooking, eating, painting, calligraphy, and more! It’s a place just bustling with activity and life. And more so on weekends. I’m quite amazed by how the whole place comes alive in so many ways, even in a single building.

Speaking of buildings, allow me to share the story behind the architecture of shophouses. Shophouses are very interesting. The first floor is usually used for commercial/public activity, while the upper floors are used for residential purposes. The shophouse is actually quite big. You could actually cram a very large number of people into it. And that was basically what happened in the days before public housing. It wasn’t very hygienic, but this was the best arrangement when one lived in poverty.

I don’t know very much about architecture, but what I do know is sufficient to be amazed at what we have in places like this!

As a general rule, you can determine the age of a shophouse by the amount of intricate designs and motifs. The more modern, the more abstract its design, and hence, the less details present. Buildings such as the one shown in the previous photograph is one of the oldest designs. It’s dated 1929 A.D.  Shophouses since the colonialisation of Singapore till the 1930s are of such designs. Here’s another shophouse that is of that era:

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Notice how the motifs (the details/decorations on the facade) in this photo and the previous photo contain similar yet different elements? This is a very colonial design, and not a uniquely Singaporean thing. I find it odd that it’s usually marketed as if you can only find this in Singapore. I actually saw a lot of houses looking like this in Australia too.
Anyway, the point is that these were originally a colonial design, and as such, there are Western elements incorporated, e.g. French Baroque motifs.

If you were to look closely at the previous photo, there are additional designs – ethnically distinct artwork crafted onto the facade. These artworks are very interesting. They either speak volumes about which ethicnity used to stay there (e.g. The Peranakan or Straits Chinese, the Chinese, the Malays, and the Indians, will all have their own unique motifs that are easily identifiable as belonging to their culture) , or they would tell you a story, be it from a legend/myth or an actual encounter. It’s very fascinating to look at them! Here’s a close-up of some Chinese-looking motifs juxtaposed on very Western, Neo-classical designs on a shophouse:

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From the 1930s till World War II, the art deco style flourished greatly all over the world. What is Art Deco? Think of Batman’s Gotham City, where geometrical shapes take the place of detailed designs. For example, the repeated patterns of flowers in a pre-1930s shophouse would be replaced by repeated embossed squares. Here’s are the best one that I’ve seen so far:

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As the years progressed, the designs became more and more simpler, to the point that it looks like very cheaply done Art Deco. Perhaps it could be due to the extent of poverty after World War II, that made it very difficult to design buildings as nicely as people wanted to. In addition, the rise of abstract design came to dominate many forms of art, including architecture. With this, the emphasis was placed more on function than on form. And thus, as the next few photos will show, the designs become more and more simpler.

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Simpler…

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Simpler, yet again.

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But regardless of how simple and abstract (and, some would even say: ugly) the buildings became, there are certain features that have remained constant. The most striking is the feature known as the “5-foot way”. What most of us Singaporeans do not realise is that this 5-foot way was decreed by Sir Stamford Raffles himself. He issued four ordinances on in 1822 regarding city planning and building guidelines, one of which regarded the implementation of a 5-foot walk way.

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This was meant to shelter pedestrians from the tropical heat and rain. The problem, as one of my tutors described, with most Chinese and Indian shopkeepers is that when you give a certain amount of space for sales, they will usually try to use up every square centimetre to display their goods. You can see this even today – or for that matter, anywhere else around the world where the shopkeeper is Chinese or Indian (excluding supermarkets and 24-hour convenience stores). I’ve been to other countries, and I myself have seen it happening! This prevented people from having any shelter whatsoever. It was so prevalent that Raffles had to issue a decree to ensure that these walkways were made and cleared up so that people could walk through.

But this decree had such a great lasting effect that even today, we see the 5-foot walkway (sometimes broader) all over Singapore. It has become a very unique architectural feature. We can find it in HDBs (public housing), modern shopping centres, and more!

It’s amazing how some things just don’t change despite the progression into modernity. One of them is the use of bamboo poles to hang out our laundry to dry. I don’t know where and when this practice began, but seeing old photos of kampong (village) Singapore, the practice of hanging clothes on bamboo poles has been around for ages. Today, we still do it regardless of where we live in – HDBs, condominiums, terrace houses, bungalows, etc.

If Singapore had not progressed this quickly, we’d probably still be living in such shop houses, hanging clothes out to dry like this:

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And for that matter, we’d install air condition units at the back of our shophouses like this:

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Welcome to air-conditioning land!

But perhaps the progress into modernity is unavoidable after all.

Here, we see the unique juxtaposition of old shophouses with the prototypical modern shopping mall – basically, a shophouse on steroids, where you have a large commercial space on the lower floors and residences on the upper floors.

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Just imagine how Singaporeans back then felt when this tall building first appeared in the midst of all these two/three-storey shophouses:

It was an icon of modernity, of progress. It was an icon of hope where we – the citizens of Singapore – shall go from here onwards. This building, this icon, marks the start of a new era. An era where we begin to soar up high to touch the sky. Here we begin our climb to achieve the fullest expression of our humanity. Here we begin our climb to soar above suffering and the trials of life. This is what we shall be working for. All that effort for the future, for our children and for our children’s children. Life has been tough, and we’ve gone through the sufferings of the war. For the love of my family and friends, I do not want them to suffer as much as I did. Modernity is my hope, the answer to my prayers – it is the way to go.

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A utopian idea indeed. But nonetheless, it was the very thing that drove Singapore to accept the necessity of the major revamps in the 1970s-1980s. Such tall buildings in the midst of all those shophouses were the very beacons of hope. In a couple of days, weeks, or months, an entire kampong or clusters of shophouses were easily demolished, and much of the old Singapore was gone to make way for modernity, for progress, thereby erasing much of the memories, histories, and even friendships that were forged over the ages.

But somehow, in that crazy frenzy for modernity, Geylang was spared from the carnage of demolision, and given a chance to grow organically over the next few decades. Because of this, it is one of the few places in Singapore to offer us a completely different world, a completely different culture, and thus, a glimpse at how Singapore might have been had it not been too caught up in the mad rush for modernity.

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