The new day brings with it freshness and hope. It is perhaps with fresh optimism (or maybe not) that Geylang, a neighbourhood in Singapore better known for what goes on after dark, wakes up to each morning as it wakens from a short and restless slumber, coming alive in a way that, because of its reputation, one might least expect.
I often enjoy a walk through its streets, numerous lorongs and five-foot-ways, in the early light of day. Without the chaotic scenes that is all too often associated with the worn and tired neighbourhood and the accompanying vehicular clutter, Geylang’s less appreciated architectural treats can best be shown some appreciation. Also adding colour in the early light, is a parallel world, a world much of Singapore has denied an existence to, laying claim to the streets fresh with litter left behind by the world we know Geylang to be.
The parallel world is one belonging to a large group of the neighbourhood’s transient residents, migrant workers who come from far and wide. Drawn to the area by the availability of low cost accommodation shunned by the locals, the coolies hole themselves up in overcrowded lodgings squeezed into the upper floors of the neighbourhood’s many shophouses.
The migrant workers are ones who toil for meagre spoils in jobs necessary to keep Singapore going, menial jobs that are below most of us. These workers, the modern coolies of a modern Singapore, rouse as the extinguished lights that painted the previous night are still warm, spilling onto the streets and five-foot-ways in scenes that are reminiscent of coolies squatting in wait along the five-foot-ways of old.
Unlike the scenes of old, the new coolies wait not for the call, but for blue and silver trucks to ferry them to places of work at which they remain well into the dark of night. The blank stares accompanying the scene seem however the same, brought about not by the numbness that opium would once have provided, but by the lure of false hope for an unattainable material nirvana.
Material nirvana aside, the migrant workers who do find themselves in Geylang are perhaps the lucky ones in a country which chooses to conceal the bulk of the new coolies in faraway dormitories well hidden from sight. The migrant workers in Geylang do at least find themselves in an environment where the conveniences of the urban world are at their disposal – their presence has in fact drawn a slew of new business catering to their needs to the area. Interspersed among the KTV outlets, dingy looking massage parlours, pubs and well established food outlets are mobile phone and service vendors, new food outlets, budget clothing shops, mini-marts, and internet cafes to serve the demands of the wider migrant communities – many opening at the break of day to catch the very early birds.
It is the food stalls that do particularly well in the early light. Many are stocked not so much for that breakfast bite, but with offerings more appropriate for lunch. Taken away by many migrant workers, the contents of the white styrofoam containers serve a hurried lunch which is taken during the morning’s break, allowing the lunch hour to be used to catch up on much needed sleep.
This parallel world is one we in Singapore, more often than not, choose not to see. It is a world that we can in fact draw many parallels to, one that opens a window into both Singapore’s and Geylang’s past – painted by stories not so different, only that … the stories do end in very different ways …
Other posts on Geylang: