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Serving the underbelly of Singapore

PHOTO: CAI YINZHOU
PHOTO: CAI YINZHOU

Eight finalists are in the running for the Singapore Youth Award that honours inspiring young people who exemplify the values of resilience, courage, leadership and willingness to serve.

Sporting a tan and a goatee, Mr Cai Yinzhou looks more like a laidback surfer dude than a driven change-maker at the helm of two thriving social enterprises — Geylang Adventures and Dakota Adventures.

In fact, shepherding his groups on both these tours gave the 26-year-old his tan. These tours, along with other initiatives, aim to unpack the social dynamics of these places and bridge gaps between communities.

Small actions, big impact

Through Geylang Adventures, Mr Cai endeavours to break the stereotype of the area — where he grew up — as a notorious red light district of Singapore. Instead, he wants to focus the spotlight on its reputation as a local food haven.

He recalls: “I have childhood memories of witnessing many raids from my bedroom window. The sounds struck me the most — random shouting, footsteps and screams for help.

“After talking to them, I realised they’ve sacrificed a lot to come to Singapore. Even though they lived only one back alley away, their living conditions were completely different from ours.

He hopes to initiate difficult conversations about the migrant workers and prostitutes who live, socialise and work in its back alleys “without putting negative labels on them”.

Mr Cai has taken his friends around his neighbourhood to satisfy their curiosity, sharing insider information gained from the pimps, migrant workers and prostitutes who live there. He has even written a thesis on Geylang for his degree in Events, Tourism and Management.

“This evolved into a way of life for me. I see myself as a narrator of the place, someone who can empathise with these communities and represent them factually,” he says.

Setting up Geylang Adventures was a perfect combination of his interests in his neighbourhood and sustainable development in the context of tourism. His tours, initiatives and projects have impacted more than 3,000 people over three years.

One mainstay project of Geylang Adventures is Back Alley Barbers that offers free haircuts to migrant workers and the poor on weekends.


PHOTO: GEYLANG ADVENTURES

“Giving free haircuts may not make business sense, but we see value in the intimate conversations and the authentic stories that are shared during those sessions,” says Mr Cai.

Taste of unity

Another project, Majulah Belanja (“treat” in Malay), involves various teams pitted against one another in a massive cook-off. Each team, comprising three migrant workers and one Singaporean, whips up a dish from its homeland.

Besides enjoying a spread of Indian, Bangladeshi, Thailand, Myanmar and Chinese food, everyone is treated to performances that brighten up the workers’ day.

The endeavour is to put Singaporeans in the shoes of migrant workers, says Mr Cai. And sharing food is the perfect way to set the stage for conversations without bias.

He hopes to highlight policies that do not sufficiently safeguard the welfare of migrant workers.

He adds: “These policies reflect how we treat these migrant workers as a society.

“Our own forefathers were immigrant coolies, but why is there a stark difference from the policies of the past and now for these transient workers?

“The bigger question is whether we treat them as fellow human beings.”

Walk down memory lane

As part of redevelopment works under Mountbatten’s state renewal plans, elderly residents had to move out of Dakota Crescent and relocate by December 31 last year.

As the estate will be demolished soon, Mr Cai started his second social venture, Dakota Adventures, organising walking trails through the area to experience its charms before it is gone. Participants are taken to landmarks such as the Old Dove playground and learn more about the architecture of the estate.


PHOTO: NP

During Singapore Design Week 2016, he also worked with elderly residents who shared memories of their homes with participants. In addition, Mr Cai wrote a conservation report that secured a grant from the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth to set up a multimedia documentary website, Between Two Homes, to document the relocation process in an interactive way. Between Two Homes set up a volunteer group to help the elderly residents relocate to Cassia Crescent.

All for a meaningful cause

When Mr Cai decided to work on his social enterprises full-time, he received little support from friends and family, who could not understand his motivation.

“People around me thought that I should only do this as a hobby or a side gig. But now, after seeing the impact of my work, my parents understand my work better and even join in the initiatives,” he says.

Still, he often ponders the financial issues and commercial potential of the enterprises, especially when he often gets offers to commercialise his business.

Says Mr Cai: “It’s a real dilemma: Sell out this authentic knowledge that I’ve gained over the years, or stick to what I’m doing and focus on bettering society.

“At the end of the day, I value the content and information and do not want to commercialise it.”

But he faces daily business challenges of how to recruit passionate staff to grow and scale his various organisations.

Nonetheless, Mr Cai measures his successes against two yardsticks: Have the communities benefited from the initiatives? Has he changed mindsets and preconceptions toward these communities?

He is most heartened when the locals who attend his tours share how their perception of Geylang has changed, and offer to volunteer for his cause.

He is also proud that policy makers and academics have discovered his tours through word of mouth. He believes that it is testament to the value of his unfiltered knowledge and access to areas that they do not normally have.

“Before we started, an online search on Geylang churned out only unfavourable news. Right now, we are its only source of good news listed on the first page of Google search. I believe we are changing how people think about the place,” he says.

For a better tomorrow

Mr Cai wants to amplify what he is doing on a bigger scale to open conversations about migration, refugees and ageing issues to bring about improvements in related policies that will impact society in a positive way.

He believes that his methodology in Geylang and Dakota can be transferred to other neighbourhoods.

He hopes that his social enterprises can serve as platforms to educate people on pertinent issues, and more importantly, educate youth beyond the confines of their classrooms and inspire them to play an active part to improve society.

His advice to youth who are passionate about serving the community is to find a group of people whose needs call out to them. The next step: spend time and do research to get to know them better, and involve the beneficiaries when planning social initiatives.