What it’s like to live in Geylang’s red light district for a year
Just how “lively” does it get in a place known for good food and sleaze? One person who briefly lived there shares what he found out while renting a place somewhere between Lorong 18 and 20.
While “family-friendly” isn’t something you’d normally use to describe Geylang, it’s a real estate area that’s not to be ignored. It remains one of the best priced, centrally located areas for tenants – it’s a mere six minute-drive from the CBD and packed with retail and eateries.
On top of that, the URA is no longer zoning residential units for Geylang, giving its existing units a high scarcity value – all of which are things prospective landlords or single tenants should consider.
Oh, and it’s gradually being cleaned up, too, if you know what we mean.
But what’s it like to actually live in such a “notorious” area? To get a picture, 99.co spoke to one person who has rented and lived in Geylang for a year.
Back in 2016, Marcos Teng, a Malaysian who worked in Singapore for three years before moving back to Kuala Lumpur, once made the decision to boldly rent in the heart of Singapore’s infamous red light district: Geylang Lorong 18 to 20.
The residence he chose was at Treasures@G20, a 400-plus sq ft unit with a fantastically low rent of just S$1,500 a month.
“I knew it was not a clean area but it was about a five minute-drive to my office in town,” said Teng. “And when I scouted some alternatives, they were all about S$500 to S$700 more per month – and many actually had fewer amenities. Since I was living alone, I thought why not? I’m not really bothered, and it’s cheap and convenient.”
He added: “My mother wasn’t very happy, of course. She made me promise not to visit the ‘red lantern’ houses. And she bought a feng shui candle for me to light and walk around the room when I moved in!”
But Teng said he soon learned a few unexpected things about living there.
1. THE FRIENDLINESS OF THE PEOPLE WILL SURPRISE YOU
After a year in Geylang, Teng moved to Tampines but it was clear what he preferred. “Between the two, I feel Geylang was actually more friendly. In Geylang, the coffeeshop people knew their customers’ names. There was once I left my phone on the table, and the zi char guy – his name is Alex – he actually came to the ground floor of my unit to return it. In Tampines, I left a bag at McDonald’s, it never came back,” he recalled.
“And there were these two acquaintances from China, I kept passing them on the way home. I ended up having coffee with them once or twice a week. The people in Geylang don’t have airs about them; if you sit at a table with anyone, they are willing to include you in the conversation, even if you’ve never met.”
2. FOREIGN WORKERS WHO GAWKED AT PROSTITUTES GOT CHASED OFF WITH WATER GUNS
“I think it was Lorong 18,” Marcos said. “I can’t remember it too clearly now. But one unusual spectacle was that these working girls would line up there, and big mobs of foreign workers would walk up and down to take a peek. But there were always angry people in the houses nearby, and they would come out and yell at the workers to go away. And sometimes they would spray water at them, with a water gun or a hose.”
He added: “Probably the ugliest thing I saw in Geylang or in Singapore. But the image stuck with me – where else do you see this sort of thing? Geylang really is a world on its own at times.”
The “working girls” Teng referred to are, of course, illegal prostitutes. But when last we checked, this no longer happens as the police have cleared the streets.
3. THERE ARE MORE ILLEGAL CIGARETTE SELLERS THAN ILLEGAL-ANYTHING ELSE
While most people associate Geylang with commercial sex, the real vice in that area – according to Teng – was smoking. During his time there, Geylang was the go-to place for shady people to get unlicensed cigarettes. In fact, this was a far bigger problem than illegal prostitution or gang fights, from what he saw.
“Illegal cigarette sellers were all over the place,” Teng said. “They sold unlicensed cigarettes from big trash bags. Everywhere along the lorongs, you would see men with trash bags nearby, and then one guy running out to cars and pedestrians yelling something like ‘Marlboro Marlboro Camel, Marlboro Light’.”
Teng continued: “If you walk down the street at night you might be approached a sex worker; but you’d (also) almost definitely be approached by seven or eight cigarette peddlers. They outnumbered the gamblers and prostitutes by maybe five to one.”
This resulted in one memorable incident, where Teng accidentally started a stampede. “I was halfway down the road in a taxi when I realised my laptop was still in the house. So I told the driver to wait a few minutes, and I ran out and sprinted down to my block.
“A few cigarette sellers saw me running, and they must have thought the police were coming! I heard some of them shout a warning, and the next second, there was a crowd of people sprinting in the same direction. It was like I started a marathon.”
Of course, the situation has since died down. Most of the sellers have taken their business online, although the occasional peddler still appears.
4. YOU’LL GAIN WEIGHT LIVING THERE
Teng’s vow to try all the food in Geylang in a year was a failure – but he did come close.
“I put on four kilos that year,” he recalled. “And the same will happen to anyone who lives there. Every two steps you walk in Geylang, someone is trying to sell you food. And I guess the nature of intense competition is why the restaurants still standing are always the good ones.”
He also pointed out that food is readily available almost around the clock: “Some of the places, like one nasi lemak place, is open 24 hours; as are at least two of the halal coffee shops. And because the food is stationed at both ends of the lorong, you die-die also will see them when you’re coming or leaving home. The temptation to step in is just too strong.”
The food prices are surprisingly divergent, too, said Teng. “Sin Huat Eating House, where Anthony Bourdain went to eat crab, was still famous when I was there. The place looks damn run down and old, so I got a shock when I ate there with two other people and the bill was over S$200. That is the first coffee shop I’ve ever had to use my credit card in – and they had the card machine and all, so it was clearly common.”
Overall, he packed on the pounds, and spent a disproportionate amount of it on food. Both are unavoidable hazards of living in an exotic foodie haven.
5. IF YOU’RE EXPECTING DANGEROUS TRIADS, YOU’LL BE DISAPPOINTED
Geylang is still home to many clan associations, some of which were once considered dangerous. But Teng pointed out that clan associations are not triads, although long ago there was some relation. For the most part, they’re heritage clubs aimed at preserving a dying culture.
According to him, most of them “seem to spend all day playing mah jong, or practicing cultural arts like lion dances. I think I never saw more than a dozen people – and there was never any shouting or swearing, except the friendly sort.”
Teng also said the fights in the area are more commonly due to drunk individuals, than actual gangs. “The few times I saw fighting in the coffee shop, it was between individuals. A lot of it was just due to drinking, and then someone would make a comment that irritates someone else at the table. Way different from those dangerous triads in movies.”
Marcos did, however, remember that there were specific groups of drinkers who were a hazard in Geylang coffee shops. “It’s the same group all the time that fight among themselves,” he said. “So when I spot them I just da pao (take-away) or sit far away.”
This story first appeared in 99.co.