All this recent talk about Geylang and the security situation there has raked up a lot of old memories for me.
In the 1980s, I used to go with my parents and my little sister quite often to visit my great-grandmother, who lived along Lorong 35. We were a typical Peranakan extended family and every couple of weeks or so, all my uncles and aunties would congregate at the house to see the female matriach, have a meal and catch up with each other. It was an old-fashioned building that was raised off the ground, not by stilts but concrete blocks. A flight of steps at the back then took you back down to the kitchen and a more informal sitting area, which was on ground level.
I remember sitting on the porch listening to the adults talking - and sometimes quarrelling – late into the night. On Sundays, my cousins and I would amuse ourselves by playing chatek in the compound or flying little styrofoam airplanes that we bought from the store at the corner of the intersection with the main Geylang Road.
I used to enjoy those little walks with my dad to the intersection. In contrast to the quiet little lorong, Geylang Road was a big road bustling with activity. In many ways, it was my first window into the world of the dialect-speaking businessmen and traders who ran motor workshops and supplied everything from tools and kitchen equipment to floor tiles. I would see them smoking and speaking in their rough-and-tumble way at the coffeshop at the corner of Lorong 35.
Even back then, Geylang had great food and my dad would bring us to that coffeeshop to eat rojak and tau-kwa pok. A few lorongs up Geylang Road was Wong Clinic, where my family doctor was. It was often packed and my dad and I would wander up and down the road until my number was called. I was quite a sick kid then and a lot of my nights were spent sitting in the waiting area, looking out at the interesting people that passed by.
To me, Geylang has never been a dangerous place. But as many friends have pointed out to me, much depended on which lorong numbers you frequented. How like Manhattan, I remember thinking to myself, when I first visited the Big Apple a decade later.
I would not learn about the red light districts of the “even numbered lorongs in the teens” until after I graduated from university and started work. Occasionally, my friends and I would try the famous beef hor fun or dim sum near these areas and after dinner, take a slow drive through these avenues of ill-repute to “educate” ourselves. Each visit was a fascinating, if slightly scary, adventure. Geylang was a side of the city that I had never seen before and an awakening of sorts for this Peranakan boy with his sheltered upbringing.
But Geylang wasn’t done with me yet. As fate would have it, I moved into a service apartment on Lorong 41 for three months last year when my house was undergoing renovation. As I walked up and down Geylang Road trying out the famous eateries that were, by now, on literally nearly every street corner, the grand old dame showed me yet another side of herself.
By day, the doors of beauty salons with blacked out windows would open wide enough for me to give me a hint of the unconventional treatments that awaited inside. By night, I sat eating Sichuan chicken hotpot along with young executives from mainland China who had gathered as friends to swap notes on working in Singapore. I watched, between mouthfuls of the best claypot rice I have ever tasted, as foreign construction workers came up to makeshift provision stores to buy secret things that could only be passed on in clenched fists, hidden from sight.
As I drove through busy and wide main road to connect to the new expressways, the gentrified estates that have sprung up around it, the boutique eateries along the small lorongs… I realised that although the Geylang that I knew in my childhood has physically changed, much of it also hasn’t – and for the better.
For it is the messiness of its urban sprawl, the melting pot of people and cultures, and the sound of feasting and fighting late into the night that have always given Geylang its colour and character. And hopefully will continue to ensure that it has a important place in our country’s development for a long time to come.