Geylang Isn’t What It Used to Be

Update 1 Sep 2019: What it’s like to live in Geylang’s red light district for a year?

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.

10 Hawkers Tell Us Why Geylang Isn’t What It Used to Be

Ask anyone above the age of 50 and they’ll tell you that Geylang was once a thriving place with a reputation that precedes itself, and a nightlife best described as “colourful”. And although much less visible now, illegal gambling dens, contraband sales, prostitution, secret societies, and drunken fights still continue to this day Online forum posts dating back to 2007 describe how Geylang Lorong 18 was “infested with 369 people,” a known territory of the gang. As for the sex work that takes place in Geylang, it has been covered time and time again.

Exactly how these vices came to congregate in Geylang is a little known fact. Blogger Jerome Lim says that illicit activities and prostitution have been around even before the rise of Geylang, in places like Chinatown and Bugis. Hazarding a guess, he tells me that these activities probably started to spill over to Geylang due to overcrowding and increased regulations in Chinatown. It was also thanks to the steady influx of soldiers and single, migrant men from the Vietnam War (60s and 70s) when Singapore served as a supply centre to the US. These men had needs, evidenced by the boom in the number of hotels along Geylang Road. Hawkers tell me that there used to only be 2 to 4 hotels along the entire stretch. At its peak, there were 4 to 5 hotels along every Lorong.

While Geylang’s seedy reputation for vice has made it a less desirable area to operate a traditional business from, it has on the flip side, become an attractive location for food businesses.

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Singapore’s sex trade: licensed brothels, ‘sugar babies’, and laws you can run rings around

Most nights, Lisa Jaafar heads to the Singapore red-light district of Geylang, and stands in the streets waiting for men to buy her services – S$50 (US$37) for 30 minutes of her time. Five years ago, when business was brisk, she could earn more than S$200 in about five hours, then head home to her two children.

Working a five-day week, she would make about S$4,000 a month, tax free. But now, she says, there are fewer clients on the streets. It’s probably not a reflection of city state’s economic performance, however. The signs are that the sex industry in clean, green Singapore – where prostitution is legal – is as vibrant as ever. That’s despite the fact most activities associated with the world’s oldest profession are outlawed.

“Owning a brothel, pimping, online advertising of sex work, recruiting a woman, all are illegal,” says Vanessa Ho, director of sex worker advocacy group Project X. Soliciting prostitution in public places is also illegal in the Lion City.

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Shedding light on freelance prostitutes in Geylang
Based on face-to-face interviews with 177 freelance prostitutes over the last 2 years, the study found that almost all of them are foreigners from China, Vietnam, Thailand & Indonesia. The freelancers are not based in brothels and many come to Singapore as tourists; others moonlight while holding other jobs here. ST FOTO: DESMOND WEE

The typical streetwalker in Geylang is 26 years old, services 4 clients a day for $70 each on average & earns about $3,200 a month after deducting rent and other expenses.

Almost all are foreigners from China, Vietnam, Thailand & Indonesia, said a study by three universities which has, for the first time, shed some light on the veiled world of freelance prostitutes in Geylang.

The findings are based on face-to-face interviews with 177 prostitutes over the last two years by three academics from the Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Boston University & Fudan University.

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Rampant vice in Geylang

Geylang is a hotbed of illegal gambling, contraband cigarette peddling and drug dealing, Commissioner of Police Ng Joo Hee told the Committee of Inquiry hearings into the Little India riot last week.

The police chief also noted the "overt hostility & antagonism towards the police" in Geylang, all of which make the district "a potential powder keg".

He added: "It is common knowledge that the gangsters and the crooks like to congregate in Geylang. So all in all, Geylang presents an ecosystem which is complex, which is tinged with a certain criminal undertone, & this is quite in contrast with Little India, although Little India also has changed," he said.

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Best Singapore Nightlife For Singles Guide

Singapore is the heaven country and the most preferable spot for nightlife lovers right behind Thailand. Country is now among the richest and more developed country in Asia after Japan.

In terms of nightlife, Singapore Nightlife For Singles is the second best and most popular through the Asia. “Nightlife in Singapore” calls you to fulfill all your desires and expectations. With Beautiful Singaporean Girls, Exotic Cocktails, Ultra-Modern Nightclubs, Neat, Safe, Chirping Streets and Singaporean Hospitality, Nightlife in Singapore extends limitations and expectations of singles.

Are you single and looking for best nightlife advice in Singapore? Then let’s start the best Singapore Nightlife Guide article ever!

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Young & W!LD Presents Geylang - A Glimpse of Life in Singapore's Infamous Red-light District
Created and performed by young & W!LD, W!LD RICE’s youth development division, Geylang gives audiences a peek into the lives of those who have lived, loved and lost in Singapore’s infamous red-light district

When we think of Geylang, the first thoughts that pop into our minds would revolve around prostitution, vice, and all that is shunned and rejected by society. Amidst all this prejudice, there’s an overwhelming sense of intrigue within us about life in this ‘untouchable’ society.

This play weaves 6 original stories that promise to be saucy, controversial, hilarious, heartbreaking and highly entertaining. Allow the cast to take you on a thought-provoking journey as you follow star-crossed lovers defying all odds to be together, mediums and mamasans preying on lost souls, mothers losing their children, landowners trading away their heritage, and gangsters tangled in a web of drugs and violence.

Geylang will challenge preconceived notions of life in one of Singapore’s most colourful districts, seeking to portray the bare truth of its past, present and future. A blend of history and fiction, Geylang promises to knock down all walls of propriety to bring you a powerful piece of art that’ll make you question society’s judgements and stereotypes.

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Singapore's seedy side

Without Sheena, I'd probably be at Raffles Hotel right now, slapping another $26 on the bar for an uninspiring Singapore sling. I'd probably then consider a few conservative dining options, tossing up between the German theme pub and the Hainanese chicken place, before drinking yet another bank-busting sling. And then I'd go to bed.

But things have panned out a little differently. I'm about to eat frog porridge - chilli-fried legs in congee - washed down with a Tiger beer on ice. Then Sheena and I are off in search of the best clay-pot rice in the world. And later, if I'm feeling up to it, the two of us are going to walk past a couple of brothels. This doesn't feel like Singapore. But Sheena, self-proclaimed "Queen of the Jungle" and unofficial tour guide for the night, is out to show me a thing or two about her city.

See, Singapore is famous for many things - safety, cleanliness, a really big airport - but edgy nightlife isn't one of them. There might be plenty of fancy bars where you can spend a lot of money in the company of fellow expats, but it isn't the kind of place you would expect to find a red-light district to rival Amsterdam's.

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I am an exchange student in one of the university in Singapore due to budget constraint I choose to stay nearby the red light district where rent is cheaper I thought since I quite well travelled plus it only for a few months. After all back in the states I used to live in hood.

The first few week was pretty much fine routine with few of them approaching me to say hi I just smile and walk on. One fateful night it was after a house party that uni mates organized I had much too drink so I was heading home with a bit of stumble.

Tonight out the blue the lady approached me which caught me off guard as they usually won’t will not harass me as they know I stay around that area. I tried to walk away but she gave me a hug from behind and whisper to my ear I want to see your anaconda. I keep tell her I need to go home and tried to break free from her. But being high with alcohol I guess my resistance was futile.

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Economics of prostitution in Geylang

The typical freelance streetwalker in Geylang is 26 years old, services four clients a day for $70 each on average, and earns about $3,200 a month after deducting rent and other expenses. Almost all are foreigners from China, Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia, said a study by three universities which has, for the first time, shed some light on the veiled world of freelance prostitutes in Geylang.

The findings are based on face-to-face interviews with 177 prostitutes over the last two years by three academics from the Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Boston University and Fudan University. The study is "an important contribution to the field of labour economics in general", said researcher Leong Kaiwen, an assistant professor in economics at NTU. "To the best of our knowledge, our work is the first of its kind because such data is rare." The freelancers are not based in brothels. Many come to Singapore as tourists; others moonlight while holding other jobs here.

Prostitution is not an offence in Singapore, but it is against the law to solicit in public or for pimps to live off the earnings of prostitutes. One of the study's key findings is that prostitutes pick and choose their clients, charging some more and others less.

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How do you solve a problem as big as Geylang?

For years, Geylang has stayed out of the nation's eye, with the sex trade & criminal elements mainly confined to those who look after the area.

People either went there for the food or to find pleasures of another kind. But over time, more vices - such as gambling dens, drugs & contraband cigarettes - became rampant.

The area, which is flanked by lanes better known as lorongs on either side of Geylang Road, has been thrust back under the national spotlight.

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The changing face of vice in Geylang
A street walker & her customer seen entering a house that offer transit hourly rates along Lorong 18 Geylang. ST FOTO: DESMOND WEE

Online vice is on the rise and the authorities have changed the laws to combat it.

Changes to the Women's Charter kicked in on July 1 and they include a new section, 146A, which targets those who operate or maintain websites which offer sexual services or allow prostitutes to advertise.

Those convicted can be fined up to $10,000 or jailed for up to 5 years, or both.

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Things to do in Geylang

Once upon a time, Bugis Street was Singapore's premier red light district (and forever immortalized in Peter Bogdanovich's Saint Jack).

But the crown has long since passed to Geylang, an atmospheric quarter on Singapore's east coast that bristles with great period architecture, leggy street walkers and some of the best local food on the island.

On offer is a greedy grab of Peranakan, Indian, Malay and regional Chinese standards including the coconut rice and curry chicken at Bali Nasi Lemak, spicy noodles with roast pork and prawns at Kuching Kolo Mee and the Hakka favourite of rice, vegetables, tofu and peanuts in a tea-based broth at Lei Cha Fan.

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Geylang residents gather to stamp out neighbourhood sleaze
GEYLANG residents are moving to reclaim the night

Fed-up with prostitutes spilling over from the traditional red-light area & plying their trade in just about every dimly-lit alley in the neighbourhood, the residents are taking to the streets themselves. Their plan has been to light up the streets, throw some parties & stage community events to deny prostitutes the space to operate & claim back territory.

The latest salvo in the 'turf war' came on Friday night, when the Member of Parliament for the area, Fatimah Lateef, lit up a 300m stretch of alleyway between Lorong 34 and 36, where streetwalkers are known to roam. This follows a similar light up last November in the backlanes of Lorong 24 & 24A.

There is more to come: Additional street lamps will be put up in both the odd and even-numbered lanes from Lorong 20 to Lorong 44, although exact locations have yet to be announced. The moves are part of a 'ring-fencing' strategy led by Dr Fatimah to address concerns by residents that streetwalkers are moving out of their traditional space - in the even-numbered Lorongs between 16 & 24 where theyply their trade - to residential areas.

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Crime 'rife' in Geylang

Geylang is a hot spot of illegal gambling, street cons, contraband cigarette peddling & drug dealing, Commissioner of Police Ng Joo Hee told the Committee of Inquiry hearings into the Little India riot last Tuesday.

"Today, despite the riot in Little India, I worry more for Geylang than about Serangoon Road," he said.

Mr Ng noted the "overt hostility and antagonism towards the police" in Geylang, all of which make the district "a potential powder keg".

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Geylang Yálóng 芽笼

Geylang (Chinese: 芽笼, Tamil: கேலாங்) is a planning area and township located on the eastern fringe of the Central Region of Singapore, bordering Hougang and Toa Payoh in the north, Marine Parade in the south, Bedok in the east, and Kallang in the west.

Geylang is known perhaps most infamously as a red-light district, particularly the areas along Geylang Road. Geylang is also where one of Singapore's oldest Malay settlements, Geylang Serai, is.

The word Geylang is found early in Singapore's history and also in early topographical maps showing marsh and coconut plantations beside and adjacent to the mouth of the Kallang River, home to the Orang Laut (sea gypsies). One possible etymological link in the stock vocabulary of the Malay is 'geylanggan' meaning to 'twist' or 'crush' a reference to the process of extracting the coconut meat and milk used by the locals to thicken curries in Malay-Chinese (Peranakan) cuisine. The idea persists to this day, of the process of heartache and desperation associated with the broken and hurting lives of those involved in buying and selling of sex and drugs on the streets and in the registered brothel in the area. The word Geylang may be derived from a corrupted spelling of the Malay word 'gelang' which is a type of edible creeper (Portulaca oleracea). This is a more plausible explanation for the name because Malays typically name places based on the abundance of certain plant species (e.g. Melaka after the tree species of the same name) or geological formations (e.g. Bukit Gombak based on the comb-like hill summit).

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Police raids massage parlours & entertainment outlets
Geylang Isn’t What It Used to Be
Geylang, the final frontier
An Undercurrent Of Fear In Geylang
Where sleaze and food coexist
Sex in the city drags you down
Women, Sex and Singapore
Police raids massage parlours & public entertainment outlets