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A Geylang childhood that was sheltered from the sleaze

Published on Apr 9, 2014 11:16 AM

I am a Geylang Lorong 4 girl, born and bred.

Of course I did not know till years later, when I was in university and friends enlightened me, that the even numbered lorongs were supposed to be the "naughty" ones, the ones peppered with the brothels.

This did not gel at all with my memories of my childhood home, my maternal grandmother's sprawling two-storey bungalow with a garden and a backyard filled with scrap iron, courtesy of my grandfather's business.

The Lorong 4 I remember was a sleepily cosy corner. There was a little row of terraced houses opposite my grandmother's home, with little gardens overflowing with hibiscus shrubs, frangipani trees and ixora bushes, all occupied by respectable middle class families.

To the left was a single storey bungalow occupied by another extended Chinese family. To the right was a big empty field that periodically hosted wayang stages, which I adored as a child. There was also a little Malay kampung house in a corner of the field, at the end of a little lane, which led to the marvellous entertainments of Gay World Amusement Park.

Some of my earliest memories are of balancing precariously on ragged red cinema seats watching movies at the park's cinema, playing Hit The Mole and other carnival games, and wondering innocently at what lay behind the garish neon lights of the Datoh Rajah Theatre and Cabaret.

The Malay family next door kept geese, which terrified me as a little girl because the fully grown birds, with their sizeable wing spans, were vigilant watchdogs which would run, honking aggressively, at trespassers. I remember my youngest uncle, who lived with us and babysat my sister and me, would put me on his shoulders and carry my baby sister when he walked us to Gay World so we would be out of reach of the feathered fiends.

At the Geylang end of the lorong, there was a well-stocked provision shop where my grandmother would take us, to buy treats such as haw flakes, whose end pieces would often have fragments of paper wrapper clinging to them no matter how carefully we tried to remove it, and pineapple-jam-filled biscuits, with the petrified centres that would only melt into chewy goodness after we had sucked the crumbly biscuits into oblivion.

My grandfather kept big aggressive dogs, which scared us, to patrol the backyard, and the ground floor contained an office which was our first encounter with the luxury of air-conditioning and the wonders of a push-button phone, instead of a dial telephone.

My eldest aunt, an accomplished cook, kept chickens in the garden. That was my first encounter with nature, red in tooth and claw, because my aunt would slaughter hens and my sister and I learnt not to grow too fond of chicks because they would end up on the dinner plate.

We would play in the garden, with its giant jackfruit tree, which gave me a lifelong loathing of the fruit because the tree fruited so generously that I grew sick at the smell as my grandmother, mother and aunt would break each big harvest down into portions for family and friends.

There were also red bamboo plants which my aunt would cull to brew cooling tea for us, and a stunted papaya tree which resisted my aunt's green thumb.

There were street hawkers who would come by and I would be despatched, clutching a couple of eggs, to fetch char kway teow and carrot cake from the uncles dispensing goodies from their carts.

Cocooned as we were in our little suburban nest, we grew up thinking of Geylang as a warm shelter, not the sleazy red-light district of the popular imagination.

With the benefit of hindsight, I realised my family made sure to shelter my sister and me. We were never allowed to go to the other end of the lorong, where there were actually buildings with red lanterns outside the doors (although I never did confirm whether they were actual brothels). The closest we got to that end was mid-way down the street, where my aunt would take us to pray at a temple dedicated to Tua Pek Gong.

One incident in my childhood, when I was seven or eight, stands out particularly vividly in my mind. Although my father worked long hours at his coffeeshop, he would always come to pick me up after school. One afternoon, I had my Chinese dance extra curricular activity, as it was called in those days.

My father must have forgotten to pick me up, because I decided to walk home after a long wait. From my primary school in Guillemard Road to Lorong 4 is a fairly long walk for a small child - and I remember my sense of accomplishment when I got home, expecting to be praised for my independence. Instead, I was ignored in the family storm that followed.

My father got a tongue-lashing and I was completely baffled as to why everyone was so upset. It was only when I was much older that I realised it must have been because I had walked through the seedier side of Geylang and my family was worried about my safety. My father never forgot to fetch us again.

My family moved out of my grandmother's home to a three-room flat in Pek Kio when I was in upper primary, and my uncles and aunts sold my grandmother's house after she died.

For a while, it sat forlornly empty. Then it was torn down to make room for a block of dormitories for workers. Now my childhood home is a flat stretch of asphalt - part of the Kallang-Paya Lebar expressway.

I seldom visited the neighbourhood after my grandmother's death. The emotional ties were severed, and now, even the landmarks have disappeared. Where Gay World and Emporium once stood is just empty land. The erasure of the neighbourhood that once was my whole world is in the name of urban progress. But the process has also robbed the area of its personality and memories.

I suppose some may think of this as mere sentimental claptrap. If one is living in Geylang and worrying about one's safety and security, cleaning up the neighbourhood sounds like a good idea.

Although I now only visit Geylang for its food joints, I have seldom felt threatened by its denizens. I regard the area, with all its happy sleaziness, as a rare slice of colour in straitlaced Singapore. My last trip to Geylang last month was with some friends - an Iranian Armenian, a Nigerian, a Dane, an Indonesian and a China-born new citizen who all marvelled at this oddity in sanitised Singapore.

Bump up the police presence by all means, but leave Geylang and its inhabitants be. It is a rare little thriving patch of wilderness in our overly-cultivated little red dot.

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