Aerial view of the night bazaar at Geylang Serai, which runs throughout the month of Ramadan.
Geylang is undergoing a major facelift with new HDB flats and condominium projects being built in the area, but it still retains its unique culture and reputation as a foodie’s paradise.
By Joanne Poh
Geylang has a reputation for being one of Singapore’s grittiest neighbourhoods. Home to the nation’s most infamous red-light district, the area is rather unexpectedly an immensely popular commercial and residential precinct.
But thanks to its excellent food scene, desirable location near Singapore’s Central Business District, lively cultural scene and authenticity of its historic shophouses, Geylang has become a highly sought-after place to live.
Steeped in history
In the 19th century, the banks of the Geylang River were home to a small settlement occupied by kampong-dwelling Malay households whose homes were constructed on stilts.
These villages were later removed when the British took control of the waterways for trade. Those living in the area were forced to shift their settlement inland, and some settled in the area that is now modern day Geylang Serai, a name purportedly derived from the orang laut or sea gypsies who populated the area, and the lemon grass that was cultivated there.
While most of the families in the Geylang area supported themselves through farming, this slowly changed as agricultural land saw a reduction in area to make room for a steadily growing population. The settlement expanded inland and to the east in the years before the Second World War.
After the Second World War, the area changed significantly, and as tapioca grew in importance as a staple food, tapioca farms replaced many of the coconut and rubber plantations in the vicinity. The area known as Kampung Ubi takes its name from the ubi kayu, or tapioca plant.
This was also the start of a dark period in Geylang’s history. Thanks to the baby boom, Geylang’s population grew rapidly in the postwar years and the existing infrastructure could not cope, turning the area into a slum.
The first blocks of flats appeared in Geylang Serai in 1963, and that marked the beginning of Geylang’s transformation into the exciting neighbourhood it is today.
A vibrant neighbourhood
In recent years, Geylang has become one of the final bastions of authenticity in an increasingly gentrified landscape. The area is home to some of the nation’s most atmospheric markets, including the Geylang Serai Market.
The cultural heart of Singapore’s ethnic Malays, Geylang is one of the few places in Singapore where the kampong spirit can still be felt.
During Ramadan and in the lead up to Hari Raya Puasa, the month-long Geylang Serai Bazaar opens to massive crowds set on gorging themselves on snacks like Ramly burger and ice cream sandwiches, and enjoying the spectacular light-up that transforms the two km stretch on Sims Avenue and Changi Road into a rainbow of colours.
Even outside of the festive period, Geylang remains one of the most refreshing and most atmospheric areas to visit.
Geylang’s main thoroughfare, Geylang Road, is a familiar sight to durian fans. The area has become a hotbed of durian stalls. The spiky fruit can be opened on the spot by stallholders and enjoyed at a roadside table.
Geylang has also become famous for the uncommon number of good food stalls, some of which have been around for decades, which line the area’s lorongs or lanes. Some noteworthy eateries include the fresh frog porridge stall and beef noodles at Lorong 9, and the famous Anthony Bourdain-endorsed Sin Huat Eating House at Lorong 35.
City Plaza, an aging mall a stone’s throw from Paya Lebar MRT station, is popular with teenagers for its cheap wholesale clothes and accessories imported from Thailand, China and the like.
One of Geylang’s most distinctive features is the way in which its many lorongs are arranged, branching out from Geylang Road in an orderly fashion, with odd-numbered lorongs on the north side of the road and even-numbered lorongs on the south side. Singaporeans often identify their favourite eateries using the number of the lorong on which it is located.
Geylang’s proximity to the city centre has no doubt been a key contributor to the area’s popularity. The area lies on the eastern fringe of the city core and is a mere 15 minutes away from the CBD.
Public transport connectivity is excellent, the area being served by several MRT stations including Aljunied on the East-West Line, Dakota and MacPherson on the Circle Line, Paya Lebar which connects the two, as well as a bus terminal in Kallang. The East-West Line connects the area to the CBD in under 15 minutes.
Connectivity in the area will be boosted even further when Geylang Bahru, Mattar and Ubi stations on the Downtown Line 3 are opened later this year, connecting Geylang directly with the northwest of Singapore.
Sims Urban Oasis is a new condominium currently being developed at Sims Drive.
A bright future near the city core
Unbeknownst to the foodies and hedonists who flock to Geylang, the area is also one of the most promising places to buy property with attractive rental yields, a great location and excellent connectivity.
A recent Build-To-Order exercise saw applicants scrambling to get a unit in the new Dakota Breeze project situated between Jalan Satu and Jalan Dua, which saw more than 3,100 applicants vying for about 670 flats, working out to roughly five applicants per unit.
The HDB residential development, comprising five 18-storey blocks of two-room flexi, three-room and four-room flats, is located right beside the Geylang Park Connector and the scenic Geylang River.
The private property market in Geylang looks upbeat too, as evidenced by the popularity of Sims Urban Oasis, a 99-year leasehold condominium development by GuocoLand, located on Sims Drive. The Temporary Occupation Permit for the property is expected in 2019. Many of the development’s smaller units have been snapped up due to its excellent location on the city fringe and potential rental yield.
According to Tay Huey Ying, Head of Research at JLL Singapore, Sims Urban Oasis units sold in 2017 averaged $1,380 psf in price.
Tay points to Park Place Residences at Paya Lebar Quarter (PLQ) as another promising upcoming development. She said, “The first phase of the 429-unit 99-year leasehold Park Place Residences at PLQ was launched in March 2017, and more than 200 units were sold within one weekend of the launch at an average price of $1,800 psf. Interested buyers who have missed out on the first phase of the project can still await the launch of phase two.”
Following the Urban Redevelopment Authority’s proposal to re-zone the stretch bounded by Lorong 22 and Lorong 4 to reduce the residential area, housing in Geylang looks set to grow scarcer, and is expected to raise condo prices in the area.
What is more, the development of Paya Lebar Central looks likely to boost property values in the area.
Tay said, “The Government has earmarked the area as a commercial hub to be fully developed by 2030. The area is starting to build up as can be seen from the upcoming mixed-use development, PLQ. The pre-leasing activity for its office component of about 0.9 million sq ft has commenced and has garnered some interest from occupiers, given its proximity to the CBD and Changi International Airport.”
This is great news for property owners and investors who’ve already managed to obtain a slice of the pie in this one-of-a-kind neighbourhood.
Did you know?
– Geylang used to be home to the Malay Village, a museum showcasing the traditions of the Malay community which contained replicas of authentic kampongs. The museum is now permanently closed.
– Geylang has a football team named after it. Geylang International Football Club used to be one of the country’s best in its heyday in the 70s and 80s.
– The Rose of Singapore by Peter Neville is a novel about a prostitute who works in the Geylang area, and offers detailed descriptions of Geylang in the pre-war and post-war years.