thankfully, soon after coming to singapore i landed a job as copywriter in a local ad agency. i say thankfully because, a) the recession had just started and jobs weren’t exactly easy to get, and b) the people i met there, including my two bosses, were some of the best to work with and also to get to know this new city with.
every once in a while a plan would be made to go and eat the famous something or the other at some particular spot… a coffeeshop or hawker centre always, naturally; that’s where all the real stuff is, forget michelin stars and airconditioners, look for the long queue instead and the more glowering the chef or server, the more sure you are that the food is going to be not bad lah.
that’s how i went to pasir panjang (duck rice), joo chiat (i think it was seafood and intestines), guillemard road (fried pomfret with sambal blachan), and geylang (silken tofu and porridge) for the very first time.
as aj and i set off on our after sunset walk through geylang, i remembered those visits to this area known for its good food, its durian, and its brothels. yes, geylang is among other things the best known red light district of singapore, perhaps this part of asia.
i believe prostitution “in itself is not illegal” in singapore (i quote wiki), however several things related to it, like public soliciting and pimping, are. usually, if you tell someone you’re going to geylang, it gets you one of “those” looks along with raised eyebrows and sniggers. how we love to be predictable, teehee.
stretching along the southern side of singapore, between kallang and bedok to the east, geylang is a busy part of town with several small businesses and shops along the main roads. i was quite intrigued by the number of barber shops here, wonder why the concentration and why all of them are open till almost ten at night.
the place has character. no snazzy skyscrapers, instead a continuous line of shophouses on either side, built between 1840 and 1940 to accommodate a wave of migrants over that period, if what wiki says is correct. i love the vibe. it’s truly hang loose, an air of the sixties and seventies all around, bright beautiful neon signs, people everywhere… eating, chatting, popping into hair salons and massage parlours, actually strolling and not purposefully striding. perhaps setting a rate for the night.
we met in front of aljunied mrt, the first thing i saw was: “kiss… kiss.. kiss.. kiss…” a play of neon lights outside an “adult shop.” geylang was not going to disappoint clearly.
soon enough we were upon hordes of tourists clicking away gleefully at a durian stall. every time i come here, there’s talk of eating the deadly fruit, somehow we never get around to it though. this time too. we got our snaps and started walking through the crowds just getting a feel of the place. the energy is high, there’s atmosphere. coffeeshops, massage parlours, grocery stores, light shops… suddenly you come upon a lovely old mosque or a clan association building or a temple. quaint buildings in little compounds have been converted to hotels.
we found our way from sims avenue to geylang road to guillemard, the three main parallel roads with narrower lorongs crisscrossing in between. i noted with a sense of amusement, i could never ever have gone for an evening walk in any of india’s red light areas. in fact, even going to restaurants nearby isn’t considered safe. here though, as one often finds in singapore, nothing felt unsafe… or even sleazy. that latter part confounded me. i could see young girls in little groups or even alone at corners or coffeeshops who were certainly working. but it seemed to just be part of the deal, nothing upsetting or stop-and-stare worthy.
i was almost happy that i had not reacted too emotionally. i could “handle” it.
that’s when we looked up the net, saw lorong 2 to 30 were where the houses with the big numbers well lit – the brothels – are, and turned into lorong 18.
funny how, one turn, and the entire sense of a place changes. you just knew this was not a “normal” road. these little houses here were anything but simple, they were somehow suffocating. the man sitting at the gate who was telling aj not to take pictures was not someone you want to meet. the girl who was walking toward me in a shimmery white dress and a little too much make up, was so thin, so innocent, so fragile. i felt a sadness come out of nowhere and grip me. she was so young…
the houses had suggestive names. titillating pictures were painted on some walls. a bus came and stopped and the passengers got off, mostly men. who were they, why were they here? my mind buzzed. would they go to the hotel 81 right here? or the new fancy one i had seen on the other road?
the girls were terribly young. something felt absolutely off…wrong. i have no idea why the same thought didn’t cross my mind earlier when they were part of the crowd, doing their own thing.
aj took the pictures anyway. he was disturbed i know. we tried our best not to let it get to us too much. the roti prata at the indian shop was good. have to say, i really loved this walk and the sadness still remains.
geylang may have been derived from the malay word “gelang” meaning a type of edible creeper (portulaca oleracea). or it could be related to “geylanggan” which denotes twist or crush, a way of extracting coconut milk from the meat. many believe this is what the name refers to given the heartache and despair of these streets. the information is from wikipedia.
more about geylang: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Geylang
from a simple trim to rebonding, in case you’re here to get your hair done. i just heard in many parts of asia, barber shops, like massage parlours, are brothels, joints to pick up girls.
maybe you’re looking for some fabulous lights in the middle of the night? the streets are ready to cater to all sorts of demands.
end of 1997, we moved to singapore from india. in 2015, the country celebrated fifty year of independence. singapore has given me much and i am fascinated by the spirit of this gutsy city state with hardly any land or resources, but oh what dreams and chutzpah (the finest interpretation of the word), the ability to reach big, hunker down and hold and strategise and act and grow. despite my many years here, i haven’t seen a lot of the island, which started out at only 28 miles by 18. now of course it’s bigger, thanks to that spirit i spoke of. so i thought why not see singapore in this landmark year, and celebrate #sg50. aj, my friend and trainer, and i traipse in different parts of the city every week. hope you enjoy the walk talk. you’ll find more in my index. and the walks continue in singapore’s year 51.