By Goh Shi Ting
Geylang Lorong 24 and Lorong 24A are like twins with different lives – one is an erudite culture vulture, and the other a street-smart gangster.
Where Lorong 24A scores in history, the arts and culture with its numerous Chinese clan associations, art spaces and a Spanish dance studio, Lorong 24 is a school dropout.
Prostitutes and pimps line this street of around 20 brothels that are open nearly 24/7. A regular visitor in that street says police raids happen as often as five times a week.
The Straits Times visited Geylang on a weekday afternoon recently, and came across a raid taking place in Lorong 24. Women scattered in different directions. Some went over to the adjacent Lorong 24A.
Minus this occasional spillover of sex workers, Lorong 24A is usually quiet.
In the conserved shophouses built in the 1920s, various cultural activities define the street, giving it a unique identity. The shophouses were conserved by the Urban Redevelopment Authority in 1991.
At the first unit in Lorong 24A, a couple has been introducing the Spanish flamenco to a few hundred students in their dance studio, Los Tarantos.
“I wanted a place where I could have a home and a studio at the same time,” said Dr Daphne Huang, 39, who has been living there with her husband Antonio Vargas and two children since 2009.
There is an elongated space on the ground floor large enough for a dance studio, and on the second floor are three bedrooms. The location – a stone’s throw away from Aljunied MRT station – allows her students, who are mainly young working adults, to reach the studio easily, Dr Huang said.
It was “love at first sight” when the couple first saw the shophouse. They were also surprised by how charming the street was, she added.
The two rows of restored conservation shophouses in Lorong 24A are home to about 10 Chinese clan and village associations. Members meet once a week to catch up over drinks or for a session of mahjong.
Last month, the 300-member Overseas Hong Ann Villagers’ Association held its annual founder’s day celebrations.
Food and flower offerings filled the hall while members got ready for the night’s events at a restaurant.
Previously, such dinner events were held in Lorong 24A, with makeshift tents and tables, said vice-chairman Koh Que Chew. They were moved to a restaurant because “with the clean, air-conditioned environment, we hope to attract more young people to join us”, the 66-year-old retiree said.
Living life as normal
The clans may face concerns of renewal, but new life has been injected into a row of eight shophouses there bought over by a group of five friends in the mid-1990s.
Recently, young architects and art students joined hands for a project called The Lorong 24A Shophouse Series. The series saw the eight shophouses spruced up into architectural masterpieces before reopening as temporary art spaces.
Three renovated units were opened for free public exhibition last month, and two more are scheduled to open by the end of next month.
“Before there can be conservation, there must be appreciation and awareness,” said Miss Karen Tan, 31, founder of Pocket Projects, a development consultancy firm tasked with heading the project.
“Through the project, we hope to create interest in this important part of our cultural heritage in Geylang,” she said.
The art-meets-home space will be rented out after the exhibition.
Unit 9 recently found new occupants. German ship broker Christoph Franz and his two friends have rented the 3,600 sq ft shophouse for two years, at a monthly rent of $6,800.
“The location is great because I get to see the interesting local life and I’ve always wanted to live in a shophouse,” said Mr Franz, 28, as he showed off his new home: The space has a fish pond in the middle of the living room.
“I’m going to buy some koi, stingrays or maybe even those tiny fish that go into a fish spa,” he joked.
He and the other expatriates share the neighbourhood with older residents.
Medical hall Han Yin Tong’s 80-year-old owner, who wanted to be known only as Madam Lau, said Lorong 24A has been the only “clean” lane in Geylang during the 40 years she has been living there.
She still remembers the days when children played on the streets as adults shared food outside their houses.
Madam Leow Ah Kioh, 64, who has been living in a two-storey shophouse with her husband for 30 years, said there was an influx of foreign prostitutes into Geylang about eight years ago.
In 2009, she resorted to using a water hose to chase the women out of her street. There have been verbal wars too. “It was as exciting as watching a movie,” said the feisty Madam Leow, who runs a scrap dealing business on her premises.
Her next-door neighbour, Ms Ng Pei Fung, 34, is also uncomfortable about what happens in neighbouring Lorong 24. The mother of a two-month-old baby said there have been incidents of rowdy foreign workers and illegal parking at the weekends.
The human resource executive, who moved into the area with her husband less than two years ago, said she hopes to move out of Geylang one day.
Others working and living there, however, said they were not too bothered.
Chinese national Li Jing, 34, executive secretary of Singapore Toys and Confectionery Dealers’ Association, said: “As long as I keep to myself, I won’t be misunderstood (as being a sex worker).”
Every day, the Singapore permanent resident packs lunch to eat in the office and heads straight home after 5pm. In doing so, she avoids the leering looks of men scouring the area for paid sex, she said.
A male worker from a company in Lorong 24A that provides music at funerals said: “As long as you don’t walk through the wrong door, I don’t see what is the problem.”
Property price gulf
It may come as no surprise that the property prices between the two lanes are a world of difference.
A conserved, freehold 3,600 sq ft 2 1/2-storey shophouse in Lorong 24A can fetch about $3.6 million.
A 3,000 sq ft terrace house in Lorong 24 costs half of that – around $1.8 million.
Property developers have long been trying to get hold of these terrace houses. Sources said half of the 30 terrace houses in Lorong 24 have been acquired so far. About 10 of them will be vacated by the end of the month.
An owner of a house there with red lanterns hanging at the front porch, who declined to be named, said he would be giving up his home soon.
Asked if he was happy to come into potentially more than a million dollars, he said: “Try finding me another place in Singapore just like this.”
At least a few people in Lorong 24A are feeling a little envious about the deal.
These residents, who live in a shorter stretch of 11 unrestored terrace houses, say they are being short-changed.
Resident Elvin Zhao said property agents have talked about an en bloc deal, but the offers so far have been less than satisfactory.
His ground-floor unit was valued at $1.09 million.
“Our lane is not part of the red-light district, so I don’t understand why we are not getting a better price,” said the self-employed man.
Mr Wilson Tay, 33, Ms Ng’s husband, said he was waiting for a better deal before his family will agree to sell their first- and second-floor units.
“I’ve heard rumours that the red-light district is slowly moving out of Geylang,” he said. “I think it’s because of our central location.
“When the time comes, I’m sure we can get a premium price for our properties.”
When – or if – that day really comes, will Geylang and its streets still have the same allure as they do now?
This story first appeared in The Straits Times on May 18, 2012