Passing through the Geylang area of Singapore, it is probably hard to imagine it as anything other than a destination to indulge in two of the seven deadly sins. The two ‘sins’, gluttony and lust, is a reputation that the district has acquired – gluttony in that it is a destination to search for some of the best food in Singapore; and lust that can be satisfied in the glow of the red lights of some of its lorongs (streets). It is perhaps not the ‘sins’ that meets the eye down Geylang Road but the rows of shophouses that line the busy thoroughfare. Although there are many that have been spruced up of late, it is the tired look that many wear that you would first notice.
It is easy to forget where you are in Geylang, there streets bear no resemblance to the futuristic looking city centre just a few kilometres to the west, having a look and feel of perhaps the main street of one of the larger towns across the causeway. A large proportion of the area’s architecture, is made up of buildings that date back to the turn of the last century, seemingly at odds with the futuristic looking city centre that lies at the end of the main street that has all but discarded the same buildings that dominate Geylang’s landscape. Within the landscape, it is the less familiar accents that seem to be heard – the area draws many who have come to seek their fortune – a reprise of a role that it once, interestingly enough, played, a role that perhaps gave the area some of the attractions we are about to discover.
It is in peeling the tired and worn veneer that Geylang wears, and looking beyond the reputation it has acquired, that you will find that Geylang does have a lot more to offer. It is a district that is rich in history, having traced its origins to the resettlement of the sea gypsies that once lived around much of our shoreline – the Orang Laut from their homes in and around the swamps that dominated much of the Kallang Basin. Over time, as the city to the west expanded outwards, being close to the banks of two large rivers, it naturally drew many industries to the area, and with them, the immigrant population needed to keep the factories running as well as businesses that supported both the industries and the growing population. One thing that is also very apparent in and around the area is the ample sprinkling of places to perhaps seek salvation in – mosques, temples and churches, nestled in between Geylang’s buildings, that were established to support the spiritual needs of Geylang’s booming population and have survived till today.
Geylang’s history is well represented in its architecture, a lot of which, fortunately for our future generations, has received conservation status. The area is rich particularly in shophouses built from the early 1900s to just before the war – many are in the Late style that dominated in first four decades of the 1900s and also in the Late Transitional style of the late 1930s. There is also many delightful buildings that feature elements of the Art Deco style that was popular in buildings in Singapore just before and after the war. Many are hidden away in Geylang’s lorongs along with some other charming discoveries that can only be found in walking the many streets – which with a small group in tow I attempted to do over the weekend.
One street that I take particular delight in is Lorong 24A. Here, two rows of beautifully conserved and brightly (but tastefully) decorated Late style terrace shophouses stand across from each other and is a must-see if one is in the area. The cluster of lorongs around Lorong 24A (and even the main road) is blessed with some other gems as well. Running parallel to Lorong 24A, Lorong 26 has a few. One is a two storey bungalow that sits at the junction of Geylang Road and Lorong 26 – used by the Meng Yew Hotel. Further in, there is also a two storey bungalow at No. 5 for which conservation takes the form of it being incorporated as part of a condominium development that is fast changing the architectural landscape of Geylang’s lorongs. Also on Lorong 26, there is a temple to be discovered – one that is in a setting that harks back to a time when much of the area around would have been in a similar setting – a time we have chosen to forget.
In the same area on Geylang Road, there are some noteworthy buildings. One is the conservation of Late style shophouses at Lorong 28 / Geylang Road as part of a residential / commercial development ‘The Sunflower’. Another is a pink building that bears not just the history of the building on its face, but also points to a time when the many small players in the soft drink manufacturing were able to compete alongside the big boys for a share of the market. The words on the Art Deco building tell that it was once the home of the Eastern Aerated Water Company, which had moved its factory here in 1951 from its former premises in Middle Road. The shift of the factory here represented a milestone for the company which produced ‘Ship Brand’ carbonated drinks with the introduction of automated production. The company stopped production in the 1980s. Across the road at Lorong 25, there are a few temples and a church. However, it will again probably be the row of beautiful Late style houses that will catch the eye.
Crossing Aljunied Road, the very obvious sale of items that are linked to the area’s seedy side reminds us of where we are. We quickly walk past and over to what were the premises of Geylang English School and Geylang West School – now put to commercial use. We had taken the route to bring us towards Lorong 17, where we were to meet up with someone who was going to introduce us to a spiritual gem – a temple that is a physical marker of the area’s industrial past and one that lives on borrowed time. That I will come to in another post. There was still time to walk along Lorong Bachok where at the corner of the street and Lorong 19, there is a very fancifully decorated set of two storey Late style shophouses from 1929 that are rather interesting.
This brought a thoroughly enjoyable two-hour walk of discovery to its end. We stopped by a kopi-tiam (coffeeshop) to grab a much needed drink and for some rest before we embarked on the next part of the journey of discovery … The walk provided a glimpse of what the often misunderstood lorongs of Geylang has to offer. There are many more streets that will take more than a few walks to discover and that will certainly ones that I will look forward to.
Online Resources on Geylang:
- Infopedia (National Library Board Singapore).
- On Wikipedia.
- Discovering Singapore through Pictures (National Library Board Singapore).
- Changing Landscapes: Geylang.