PEOPLE IN YOUR NEIGHBOURHOOD

Cultural adventures in Geylang

Migrant workers get free haircuts from volunteers with Geylang Adventures. The free haircuts are given out either once or twice a month on a weekend. In addition to the haircuts, the group also organises cook-outs and sponsors letters the migrant wor
Migrant workers get free haircuts from volunteers with Geylang Adventures. The free haircuts are given out either once or twice a month on a weekend. In addition to the haircuts, the group also organises cook-outs and sponsors letters the migrant workers want to send to their families back home.PHOTO: GEYLANG ADVENTURES
Mr Cai Yinzhou set up Geylang Adventures as an informal community group to capture the colour and character of the neighbourhood.
Mr Cai Yinzhou set up Geylang Adventures as an informal community group to capture the colour and character of the neighbourhood.PHOTO: COURTESY OF CAI YINZHOU

Group helps migrant workers, offers a way for them to mingle with Singaporeans

Some people travel to far-flung lands to get a glimpse of a different culture. For 25-year-old Cai Yinzhou, it means just looking harder into his own backyard.

Last year, he set up Geylang Adventures, an informal community group to explore the neighbourhood he has lived in all his life.

The group, which started out as a way to explore and capture how colourful the neighbourhood was, morphed into a volunteer group which befriends migrant workers.

Many of them live in the area or gather there on their days off.

For example, Mr Cai and other volunteers offer migrant workers free haircuts, organise cook-outs, and sponsor letters they want to send to their families back home.

The idea is not to do charity work or raise funds for these workers but to simply build bridges between them and Singaporeans.

BUILDING BRIDGES

At first I wanted to help them, but I realised that they don't really need help. I don't provide them with money, but with opportunities for friendship. They are very human. A lot of us judge them before we allow them a chance to speak.

MR CAI YINZHOU, on Geylang Adventures' outreach to migrant workers

"At first I wanted to help them, but I realised that they don't really need help," Mr Cai said. "I don't provide them with money, but with opportunities for friendship."

The group's Facebook page, where they upload photographs of their various projects, gives the evidence to this claim: The page is filled with workers writing "thank you" on many posts.

Often, he added, these workers are not as different from us as many Singaporeans assume.

"They are very human," he said. "A lot of us judge them before we allow them a chance to speak."

Mr Cai's interest in Geylang stems from his student days when he was pursuing a degree in tourism and events and management under a joint programme by Kaplan Singapore and Murdoch University.

There, he did a project on sustainable tourism in Tiong Bahru as part of his course, which made him look at neighbourhoods in a different way.

"It was quite revolutionary, looking at things through this social lens," he recalled. "But Geylang has been a place where I've seen a lot of changes growing up, and it wasn't very easy to accept."

Besides capturing the colour and character of the Geylang neighbourhood through Geylang Adventures, Mr Cai also hopes to use it as a platform to change pre-conceived notions that people have about the community there.

A project of his, called Migrant Mail, involves collecting handwritten letters from around 2,000 workers and sending them to their homes with a Polaroid photo enclosed.

"Many of them don't have smartphones, so their family members don't see them very often," explained Mr Cai. "It's something tangible for them to keep."

One of his most recent projects was Majulah Belanja, which took the work of Geylang Adventures to dormitories in Woodlands and Admiralty. The group held a cook-out over the National Day weekend, with around 100 Singaporeans paying for groceries before teaming up with 300 migrant workers to prepare lunch.

"I was trying to find a commonality and I think food is what everybody connects with in some way," Mr Cai said. "It's a celebration of their culture through food."

He plans to continue to lead excursions into the neighbourhood for those interested in finding out more about the social blueprint of Geylang, and has worked with a family service centre and students from the National University of Singapore so far.

"Singaporeans are very open to experiencing different cultures, and many of them travel overseas to do so.

"My notion is that they've always been right here," Mr Cai said, referring to the melting pot of cultures in Singapore with the presence of the migrant worker community.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 03, 2015, with the headline 'Cultural adventures in Geylang'. Print Edition | Subscribe