Insights from my own backyard

Take time to explore your neighbourhood and you may be rewarded with unexpected yet interesting nuggets of history and culture

During the school holidays, a fair number of Singaporeans head overseas to discover more aspects about a city - say, Sydney or Tokyo - which they already visit regularly.

But recently, I took the opportunity to use the relatively nice weather for long walks to get a fuller, updated picture of my own neighbourhood.

I live in Telok Kurau, which is close to Geylang Serai and Joo Chiat. I drive - or take taxi and bus rides - through these areas.

But what I can see - and fleetingly too - from the vehicle has not added much to what I have heard or read about these districts over the years.

Indeed, you can be almost a stranger in your own backyard, but know a lot more about a place overseas if you go there often enough.

So my wife and I decided to make up for lost time - and not go to Geylang Serai only during the Hari Raya light-up and bazaar, which will once again draw the crowds from this week.

On one three-hour walk on a recent Sunday, for example, we discovered changes in the neighbourhood which mirror how Singapore itself has transformed in embracing new challenges, technological shifts and lifestyle trends.

In the many spiffy office buildings that have sprung up along the once-unremarkable Changi Road, we were amazed that the bulk of retail space has been allocated to small hipster cafes and wellness centres that tout exotic treatments.

The fight for customers must be brutally intense - given the relatively small customer catchment in the area, with no major housing estates - but it also shows that the owners have dared to take the plunge to try to disrupt the old order.

Even the operators of a row of Indian-Muslim restaurants opposite the Geylang Serai market have realised that cheap and good eats are no longer enough to retain customers, since apps such as Foodpanda and Deliveroo now make it so easy to sample dishes from anywhere in Singapore.

And new restaurants - even revamped hawker centres - pop up almost every week islandwide.

The Joo Chiat restaurants have invested in air-conditioning - no more breaking out in a big sweat eating the fiery curries there - even if the shop interiors are still charmingly old-school.

Joo Chiat Complex, which I took my mother-in-law to two decades ago to shop for cotton to stuff into pillows, has new tricks up its sleeves.

Gone are the haphazard displays of goods. Better space management now makes for a more inviting browsing of the shops selling textiles, jewellery, carpets and books.

That Sunday, it was also hosting a talent show in a bid to cultivate younger customers.

The complex is linked via an overhead bridge to Geylang Serai market, which has escalators - good move, given the ageing population - and information panels.

The panels, detailing the transformation of the area, are a nice touch, since the market also attracts tourists as well as Singaporeans from other parts of the island. Every district in the island should do more to draw the tourist dollar.

A memory from the early 1980s surfaced. I had gone to the market - before it made way for the current one - with a team from the Ministry of Social Affairs, where I used to work as a welfare officer.

Our job? To round up beggars.

It was not an easy task, with the beggars - some with one or two children - resisting "arrest" and the team enduring cold stares from the crowd, who probably thought we were heartless.

The heart in the area, my wife and I noted that Sunday, will certainly beat stronger when a $55-million civic centre - Wisma Geylang Serai, next to the market - opens next year.

The hoardings at the construction site list entities such as the National Arts Council and National Heritage Board. What new buzz will they bring to the area? How far more innovative will they be to make their offerings more inclusive to everyone in the community?

That Sunday, we also found out that a nondescript cluster of buildings - which I had often driven by without a second glance - is home to the Kembangan-Chai Chee Community Hub.

The space is used by a range of agencies - from voluntary welfare organisation Minds to APSN, which runs programmes for special-needs students - that cast a wider social safety net via services such as a soup kitchen and free traditional Chinese medicine treatments.

But change can be controversial too. Joo Chiat Road was notorious not too long ago for its many pubs and Vietnamese hostesses.

They are a lot fewer now - after a clean-up - but we noticed "little Vietnam" has taken deeper roots in a different way, as more humble Vietnamese eateries have opened along the road.

And some folks will probably lament that the once-empty plot opposite Tanjong Katong Complex, complete with old trees and a meandering canal, has now made way for part of the huge Paya Lebar Quarter multi-use project, with the consortium having a heavyweight partner in the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority.

As things stand now, traffic has noticeably built up around the site, where construction work does not stop at sundown. But that is the story of progress in the area and, on a larger level, Singapore.

You would not really know it until you come to grips with it at close quarters.

Over dinner that night, my wife and I discussed if more could be done to get people to plug more often into their neighbourhood.

It is only through greater awareness of our surroundings that we can help make our own hometown in Singapore cleaner, greener or more crime-free.

We can help our Members of Parliament do their work better if we know what some of the pressing issues are.

For example, back lanes were lit when residents in Geylang voiced concern over illicit activities being conducted.

We have a suggestion. Why not have a car-free Joo Chiat Road once a month and hold activities that will encourage residents to drop by?

Should the entire Joo Chiat Road be made one-way, with some space carved out for pedestrians, benches and trees to provide a green lung?

My wife and I intend to take more strolls in the area. We do not wish to be strangers - or feel like tourists - in an area we live in.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on May 28, 2017, with the headline 'Insights from my own backyard'. Print Edition | Subscribe