The unlikely character of Geylang: A walk through a red light district

Singapore before the facelift: old and organic.

He was an unlikely character. A stereotype riding on two wheels: that of his biker mystique, and the other of a stranger.

His eye bags were full, not with weariness but stories of the endless hours spent on the road, traversing the world on his motorcycle, once with the Himalayan wind as his guide.

I definitely have not met anyone like him before. Why would I? I was taught never to talk to strangers, lest those with a crooked smile, a black bandana and a two-wheel drive with no doors. As a young woman, I’m supposed to know better. Maybe that’s why I don’t have friends like him. Maybe that’s why I took a risk, albeit a potentially foolish one, to trust.

A monk’s day off in Geylang.

So that day I walked through Geylang with him, a small part of what’s left of Singapore before the facelift of Orchard road. I spent an afternoon learning about the country before it was branded as an economy; a place that could still feel organic; a reality tucked away from sight.

As the implicit red light district of Singapore, there were more unlikely characters lurking everywhere. I could feel them. Oddly enough, these workers — with their dark, perspiring skin, and women with their mismatched, tight and unpolished clothing and high heels, — they struck me both as familiar and not.

Cigarette butts and beer caps. What happens when Heineken and Tiger hang out.

When I first visited Singapore I remember feeling bemused at how a place, with its comfort and convenience, can make you miss the soul of third world. However, when I moved here five months later from the Philippines, I unknowingly traded this sense of comfort for complacency.

Then it hit me. It’s one thing to miss third world, but another to forget how it feels once you leave it behind. Yes, it was familiar, but it was a slow sensation that should not feel the need to creep back into my system. In a place like Singapore that can easily spoil you, it’s imperative to never forget. I know that I don’t want to.

But you don’t need to be poor in order to write about poverty and suffering, he said. Take Salman Rushdie, for example. He was rich but had the empathy to write with such a deep understanding of humanity.

So the question is: How do I empathize with a country that appears to have everything? By trying to understand its past, the people, tucked away from signs of progress.

If you look closely, the date is when the building was constructed.

He told me, among other things, that back then the immigrants came to Singapore for cheap housing and to find work. This explains the rapid development of affordable HDB’s. I laughed at the irony.

Today Singapore is still an expat capital, even despite the high cost of rent, (which is usually split with other flat mates.) The country may have been occupied, first as a British colony then briefly as a Japanese one in 1942, but today it’s representative to what I think is the modern day conqueror: foreign workers who till the globe with remittances. So in an offhanded way I am Singapore. I empathize because I am cosmopolitan. Success!

A “Fishtank”

Finally the neon lights blinked, illuminating the nondescript alleyway with subliminal signs of “fish tanks,” his term for the places where men can go “fishing” at night.

The uncles were trying to hide the unlikely characters inside, disallowing us from even staring. But as we approached the street where he parked his motorcycle, I knew that unlikely characters would always reside.

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10 thoughts on “The unlikely character of Geylang: A walk through a red light district

  1. Came across your guest post on Sole sisters and I would say I am impressed with your inspirations. I am also a Filipino who had the chance to work in Singapore for a certain period of time. and I could not agree with you more with rewarding yourself with travel after having a hard month of work in Singapore knowing the state and working environments over there. Great post! by the way, before, I was living near Geylang hahahaha

    • Hi Carlo. Cool. You were here as well! Any suggestions on new places to explore/ eat in?

      How was it like living in Geylang (or SG in general)? How long were you here for?

      My inspirations keep me… inspired? Haha! Gotta find something to keep me going. But thanks! :)

  2. Great post! I agree with you – Singapore can seem so comfortable, so…sterilized, so clean and convenient to the point that it seems boring, without soul. But places like this provide it with the character that every great city needs. I remember staying in a hostel in Little India overnight once after watching a concert. Walking along the streets, I saw a different side to Singapore I never would’ve witnessed had I stuck to the massive malls of Orchard Road.

  3. Pingback: A lesson from hawkerism | Foreign Filipina

  4. Pingback: A lesson on hawkerism | Foreign Filipina

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