The “ruins” by Kallang Airport’s gates

16 07 2021

Right by the old gates of the former Kallang Airport, is a crumbling set of structures that pre-date the construction of Singapore’s first civil airport. With a little imagination, the sight of the rather mysterious looking structures could to transport the travel-starved observer to a place like Siem Reap. A closer inspection of the structures will however reveal that the crumbling walls belong not to an ancient temple … or for that matter anything like a palace or istana as recent suggestions have had it as, but to a raised burial plot.

The raised former burial plot, seen in August 2018.

The plot, which shared a boundary with the former Firestone Factory that was established in the 1920s (some may remember the former factory building on the banks of the Kallang River near Sir Arthur Bridge being used by electrical good and furniture retailer Courts in the 1990s), is marked in a 1930 survey map as a “Mohammedan Cemetery” and in a 1936 plan for the new Civil Aerodrome (i.e. Kallang Airport) quite simply as “graves”. An explanation as to why the graves were placed on a raised plot can be found in a 1939 letter to the Straits Times. The writer, who described its location to a tee in saying that an elevated plot of graves could be “seen just inside the entrance to the civil aerodrome, on the right”, recalled seeing them on small eyots or “patches of higher ground” in the mangrove swamp “before the place was reclaimed”. Reclamation work for the airport, it should be noted, was carried out in the 1930s.

The plot in January 2014, with the old airport gates in the background.

While there are no traces of the graves today — they were exhumed sometime in the late 1980s, there is still an item of physical evidence that still exists, if one looks for it along the base on which the structures rests. There, a tablet with inscriptions in the Tamil script can be found and that does in fact confirm that the site was indeed a burial plot — at least based on a translation provided by a local urban exploration group on Facebook in 2019. This translation dates the tablet to 1854, as a burial site for the “kith and kin” of Chinnakkani” — a descendant of “Hajji Ismail of Thiruvarur”.

The tablet seen in September 2018.
The plot in September 2018.
The plot shown in a 1930 survey map (NAS).
The plot shown in a 1936 plan for the aerodrome (NAS).




Geylang, through the eyes of a long time “street-walker”

4 01 2021


I have been walking the streets of Geylang for close to a decade now. As much as it is a destination for a gluttonous excursion, and, if that isn’t sinful enough for the disreputable indulgences that Geylang has gained a certain notoriety for, the district’s main roads and numerous lorong-lorong (lanes) running off the main streets, are also full of colour — having been spared from the level of development that has robbed much of modern Singapore of character. An amazing array of religious institutions and houses of worship exist in the area, which has also become an abode for many transient workers. There is certainly no shortage of what the explorer and the photographer in me can take joy in. Here are some of what I have captured of Geylang, seen in quite different light, in fifty photographs:


1 | Seeing the light | 14 Nov 2014
Geylang is possibly home to Singapore’s largest concentration of religious institutions. This photograph shows one of them, the Masjid Khadijah and particularly its minaret, brought to prominence by the light of the rising sun as dark rain clouds cast a shadow on Geylang Road.
2 | Playing with Fire | 11 Sep 2016
The Mun San Fook Tuck Chee temple, a temple with more than a century of history and is threatened by redevelopment, lies off Sims Drive and what used to be an extension of Geylang’s Lorong 17. One of its traditions, albeit relatively recently introduced in the 1980s, is the fire dragon dance – for more information on the dance, and the temple, do click on the photograph.
3 | Rain Coloured Streets | 16 Nov 2016
The rain-coloured Geylang Road.
4 | Seeing the light II | 11 Oct 2018
Like much of Singapore, Geylang Road is constantly under repair and maintenance. This sometimes presents rather unique opportunities for the photographer.
5 | Breakfast / Fast Break | 7 Jun 2019
Home to many migrant workers, Geylang comes to life almost as soon as its nocturnal side comes to a rest,
6 | Light and Shadow | 16 Oct 2018
Patrons at a coffeeshop partially illuminated by the light of the rising sun.
7 | Restocking | 26 Sep 2018
Breakfast time at a metal section supplier — just after the day’s supply of hollow metal sections of various cross-sectional shapes have been delivered.
8 | Shelter from the Storm | 8 Aug 2018
A five-foot-way illuminated by the neon signs of the Buddhist Art Centre.
9 | The Rain Again | 16 Nov 2016
10 | Lorong 34 | 17 Jan 2018
A view down Lorong 34, one of Geylang’s prettier lorong-lorong.
11 | Lorong 34 II | 26 Jul 2019
A set of pretty conservation shophouses along Lorong 34 – seen in the morning light,
12 | Old Made New | 20 Jun 2012
“Conservation” work to turn shophouses along Lorong 41 into The Lotus.
13 | Green Lane | 1 Oct 2018
Geylang may be greener than you think!
14 | Survivor | 17 Jan 2018
Hidden in Geylang’s lorong-lorong are a few survivors of Geylang’s past.
15 | Survivor II | 30 Aug 2017
Another house temple, this one set in a compound house that is a reminder not only of Geylang’s past, but also of a rural Singapore that we no longer see.
16 | A New Old World | 30 Aug 2017
A replica of a two-storey conservation bungalow that was demolished by the developer of a condominium at 5 Lorong 26. A photograph of the actual bungalow can be viewed by clicking on the photograph.
17 | A New World in an Old | 22 Jun 2012
A view of a conservation shophouse along Lorong 24A – from another.
18 | Back Alley Colours | 11 Jun 2012
Geylang’s back lanes can be especially colourful.
19 | SG50 | 7 Sep 2015
A lorong dressed up for National Day.
20 | Reflections on Geylang | 14 Nov 2014
A reflection of Geylang Road off a bus window.
21 | Portals into the Past | 18 Oct 2018
Night soil ports seen in a Geylang back lane.
22 | Backstage Colours | 10 Mar 2016
Backstage at a Cantonese opera performance at the Mun San Fook Tuck Chee temple.
23 | Backstage Colours II | 10 Mar 2016
A Cantonese opera performer at the Mun San Fook Tuck Chee temple.
24 | Off to School | 9 Oct 2016
A grandparent accompanying a child to school — Geylang is also home to many families.
25 | Against the Tide| 23 Feb 2016
Another set of rules does seem to apply in Geylang.
26 | Seeing No Light | 7 Sep 2015
The day begins when the night has not ended for some.
27 | Festive Light | 23 Jan 2017
Bee Cheng Hiang opening early for the Chinese New Year shopper.
28 | Painted Face | 23 Feb 2016
One of the most photographed corners of Geylang.
29 | Door Guardians | 22 Oct 2018
Entrance to a temple in Geylang.
30 | Stairway to Heaven| 12 Jan 2017
A long vacant house that has recently been renovated.
31 | Kopitiam | 9 Oct 2018
An early morning Geylang coffeeshop scene.
32 | A Different Light | 25 Oct 2014
Inside a conservation shophouse along Lorong 24A.
33 | Crossing | 16 Oct 2018
Madrasah Al-Ma’arif students crossing Geylang Road.
34 | Teamwork| 26 Sep 2018
Unloading a delivery truck.
35 | Light of a New Day | 26 Sep 2018
With an east-west alignment, Geylang Road is well positioned to welcome the new day.
36 | Milestone | 1 May 2014
The last mile(stone) — a reminder of days when roads were marked with milestones. The milestone was removed by the National Heritage Board in 2014 and is now in the Heritage Conservation Centre.
37 | Upward Spiral | 22 Nov 2018
Colourful reminders of the “back lane” scheme in Singapore.
38 | Overgrowth | 17 May 2018
Conservation in Geylang often involves the addition of taller apartment blocks — within height limits – to the rear of conservation shophouses.
39 | Pretty in Pink | 30 Aug 2017
Geylang Road was once lined with private residences such as this bungalow — built possibly c. 1920. This is now used as a hotel.
40 | Takeaway | 15 Jan 2015
Members of the migrant workforce waiting for transport by the roadside, seen with packets of takeaway food bought from Geylang’s enterprising food vendors, many of whom open before the sun rises.
41 | Backend | 17 May 2018
Much of the Geylang’s streetscape is dominated by conservation shophouses.
42 | Rush Hour| 22 Nov 2018
Geylang’s bus-stops are especially busy during morning rush hour. The pillars of shophouses by the bus stops serve as convenient advertising board for accommodation and services that the transient population in Geylang may require.
43 | A Geylang Tragedy I| 9 Mar 2017
The Huang Clan house, which has since been demolished for a residential development. The house was where the “Father of Modern Chinese Art”, Xu Beihong, painted some of his most famous works, whilst a guest at the clan house in the 1930s. Some of the paintings, which expressed Xu’s anti-Japanese sentiments, were hidden away in Han Wai Toon’s rambutan orchard in Upper Thomson (now Thomson Nature Park).
44 | A Geylang Tragedy II | 9 Mar 2017
The former house of a Banjarese diamond merchant, which was earmarked for conservation but had deteriorated to a point that it is being rebuilt as part of a new residential development.
45 | Spillover | 18 Oct 2018
A worker getting preparing for the work day in a Geylang back lane.
46 | Gatepost Guardian| 2 Oct 2015
The qilin is commonly seen across the district.
47 | Unclothed| 15 Feb 2016
A break in the plaster of a shophouse exposing the red bricks — possibly from the kilns of the Geylang area — used in its construction.
48 | Rush Hour II | 15 Feb 2016
Geylang’s bus-stops during the morning rush hour are often very photographable.
49 | The Promised Land| 26 Jul 2019
All roads lead to a new residential development, or so it seems.
50 | Seeing the Light II | 15 Nov 2018
Masjid Khadijah in the light of another new day.





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:





A new world in an old: A peek inside a Geylang conservation house

23 06 2012

I was able to add on to my recent discovery of the streets of sin and salvation by taking a peek into a conservation Late style shophouse that dates back to the 1920s. The shophouse is one along a row of eight delightful shophouses along Lorong 24A that is part of an collective effort by seven architects known as the Lorong 24A Shophouse Series. The project’s aim was to turn each unit into an architect’s mini-showpiece which takes advantage of the features of the buildings and in the case of the unit I was able to visit, no. 21, something that has to be one that one has to see.

I was able to take a peek into a Late style conservation house along Lorong 24A that has been beautifully transformed internally.

Stepping through the foyer at the entrance area and up a short flight of stairs, I found myself transported into a world that seems far removed from the one that I had only just left behind. The lap pool is sure to catch the eye as well as the gorgeous soft light that filters through the frosted glass panels at the front. At the back of the very long unit, clear glass panels allow light into the wet kitchen area as well as up on a beautiful mezzanine area which would serve as a dining area. Also opened is the second level on which one finds a living area and at the front – a room that would serve as a master bedroom which is naturally lit through the original set of front windows at the level. The shophouse is currently opened to the public for an exhibition of second year architecture students’ projects which is on until Monday 25th June 2012. More information on the unit can be found at the Lorong 24A Shophouse Series’ website.

The ground level with the lap pool.

A top view of the lap pool with the reflection of a skylight on the pool’s surface.

The dining area (on the mezzanine).

The lower level and the living area on the second floor as seen from the mezzanine.

What would be the master bedroom at the front end of the second level.

A second level front window.

A juxtaposition of the present on the past … on and through the master bedroom’s window.





Streets of sin and salvation

13 06 2012

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.

A green light at a traffic junction in Geylang. There is more to Geylang than the red lights that is has acquired a reputation for.

Much of Geylang wears a worn and tired look.

The tired veneer hides a world that awaits discovery such as this five-foot-way of a Late style unit along Lorong Bachok.

The area does seem to be well policed and is a relatively safe area to explore. However, it’s best (especially for ladies) to avoid walking alone.

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.

The streets bear very little resemblance to the ones of the futuristic city just a few kilometres to the west.

Migrant workers from China line the sidewalks to await transport to their work sites – Geylang with its cheap lodgings attracts many migrant workers – a reprise of a role it played in the pre-war years for those coming from China seeking a fortune.

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 has historically attracted many factories to the area, being close to the banks of the Geylang and Kallang Rivers and as a result many spiritual and commercial enterprises – many of which survive until today.

Besides having a reputation for its streets of sin, Geylang’s streets are also streets of salvation in the form of the many houses of worship that were established to meet the spiritual needs of the area’s diverse population.

One of many temples along Geylang Road.

Several mosques can be found in the area. The photo shows Masjid Khadijah along Geylang Road built in the early 1900s.

A more recent introduction – a temple housed in a conservation double storey Late style shophouse in Lorong 25.

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.

A row of Art Deco style shophouses built in 1939 between Lorong 30 and Lorong 28. The architectural landscape of Geylang is representative of its history of settlement and development which took-off at the turn of the century up to the pre-war years.

Late Transitional style shophouses along Geylang Road.

The back alleys around the Lorongs can be quite colourful – in more ways than one.

The spiral staircase is common architectural feature found at the back of many of the shophouses.

A discovery that awaits in one of the many lorongs of Geylang – colourful tiles behind the barbed wire of a fence.

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.

Lorong 24A contains two delightful rows of very well conserved and brightly decorated Late style houses.

Another two storey Late style house along Lorong 24A.

Close-up of a Late style house in Lorong 24A.

Meng Yew Hotel at the junction of Lorong 26 with Geylang Road.

A private home temple at No. 14 Lorong 26 takes us back to a forgotten time.

A view of the temple building housed in a single storey bungalow of a type that was found all over the area in a setting that harks back to the good old kampong days.

The side of the temple’s building that is raised on stilts – a measure made necessary by frequent flooding.

A two storey bungalow at Lorong 26 which is being conserved within a larger condominium development that it will be a part of.

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.

The Sunflower at the junction of Geylang Road and Lorong 28.

The Art Deco style former premises of Eastern Aerated Water Company close to the junction of Geylang Road with Aljunied Road.

A row of conservation Late style houses along Lorong 25.

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.

The former Geylang English School and Geylang West School premises.

A gaily decorated Late style house along Lorong Bachok.

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.

Decoration on the pillar at the corner unit at Lorong Bachok / Lorong 19.

Decoration on the complementing pillar.


Online Resources on Geylang: