Geylang in the early light of day

12 11 2013

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.

Migrant workers lining the Geylang kerbside  - a common sight in first hour of daylight.

Migrant workers lining the Geylang kerbside – a common sight in the early light of day.

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.

Geylang Road as the sun rises.

The waking Geylang Road as the sun rises.

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.

An area of modern Singapore society for which there is low interest in.

An area of modern Singapore society for which there is low interest in.

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.

Transporting the foreign legion.

Transporting the foreign legion.

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.

As night time Geylang goes to sleep, another side of Geylang awakes.

As night time Geylang goes to sleep, another side of Geylang awakes.

Migrant workers along the five-foot-way of a shophouse.

Migrant workers along the five-foot-way of a shophouse.

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.

Businesses open at the break of day to cater to migrant workers leaving for work.

Businesses open at the break of day to cater to migrant workers leaving for work.

Food stalls with offerings more appropriate for lunch do a roaring trade as many pack food for lunch.

Food stalls with offerings more appropriate for lunch do a roaring trade as many pack food for lunch.

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.

Migrant workers queuing up at a cooked food stall.

Migrant workers queuing up with the odd local breakfast patron at a cooked food stall.

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 …

Seeking enlightenment - many houses of worship found in Geylang catered to the early immigrants community in the area.

Seeking enlightenment – many houses of worship found in Geylang catered to the early immigrants community in the area.

A scene along the foot-foot-way.

An early morning scene along the foot-foot-way.

Businesses catering to the needs of the migrant workers are in clear evidence.

Businesses catering to the needs of the migrant workers are in clear evidence.


Other posts on Geylang:

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The river I once knew

7 07 2011

I first set eyes on the Singapore River in my very early years when I accompanied my mother on her regular forays to the department stores in Raffles Place. To get to them, we would cross the river on the wonderfully designed Cavenagh Bridge. The open balustrades of the bridge offered an excellent view of the comings and goings on the busy river. It was fascinating to the curious child that I was, to watch the heavily laden wooden twakows (cargo boats) straining upriver with the cargoes that their much larger, steel-hulled cousins in the inner harbour had fed them. Even more fascinating to me was the spirited movement downriver of the boats whose bellies had been emptied by the industrious coolies at the many godowns (warehouses) lining the river.

Cavenagh Bridge.

Watching the coolies at work fascinated me more than seeing the passing of the twakows. I would stop and stare at the men as they took small but quick steps across the narrow planks that linked the boats to the stepped, concrete banks of the river. The planks would strain under the weight – not so much that of the bare-bodied men themselves, but of the load that each balanced on one shoulder. The loads seemed not just to outweigh the men who bore them, but to also be larger than the coolies’ lightly built frames. At times it looked as if the planks were too narrow, but I never once saw those men lose the ability to balance themselves and the offset loads that they carried.

A scan from an old postcard showing the river in busier days, filled with the twakows that transported goods from their steel hulled cousins upriver to the numerous godowns that lined the river.

In those days, besides the colourful distractions that the twakows, godowns and coolies provided, the waterway had a reputation for its less than pleasant smell. In fact, many visitors who arrived prior to the late 1980s remember Singapore for the river’s smells. It was an odour that I well remember myself and was reason enough for my mother to avoid stopping by the very popular Boat Quay food stalls. These had fitted themselves onto the narrow strip of land between the back of the buildings that lined the river (one was the Bank of China Building) and the river itself.

The (old) bank of China Building set against the new building has been one of the few survivors of the area around the river since I first became acquainted with the area in the late 1960s.

Much of what went on in and around the river had indeed contributed to how it smelled, as well as to the murky waters that the twakows ploughed through. A massive effort to clean up the river began in 1977 and meant that life in and around the river as it was, would soon be a thing of the past. The twakows, a feature of the river for over a hundred years, disappeared in the early 1980s, an event that I somehow missed. By the time I got around to visiting the river again, they had vanished from the waters that had once held hundreds of them. Soon, the river was to be cut off from the sea that had given it life, with reclamation work at Marina South and the construction of the Marina Barrage. The river did not go quietly, however, and is now entering its second life, integrated into a potential source of fresh water for the modern metropolis that has grown around it.

A massive effort to clean up the river began in 1977 and the twakows, a feature of the river for over a hundred years, disappeared in the early 1980s, Many of the godowns along Boat Quay (seen here dwarfed by the steel and glass of new Singapore) have since been transformed into food and entertainment outlets.

Nevertheless, the river will always evoke its colourful past for me. I still look at it through the eyes of the child, and what I see are images of the twakows, coolies and godowns that are today all but forgotten.


This post has been published in the July / August 2011 issue of Passage, a Friends of the Museums, Singapore publication as “Singapore River Reminisces, Boat Quay in the 1970s”.