Geylang Serai

Geylang Serai (5)

The Geylang Serai neighourhood, often simply known as Geylang, is the heart of the Malay community in Singapore as it has been for a very long time. Therefore, visitors are always fascinated by how it has managed to keep its unmistakable authenticity outside the hustle and bustle of ultra-modern Singapore.

The Malays are the native population of Singapore. At first they lived in a small floating city at the mouth of the Singapore River, but the British dismantled it and thousands of families had to resettle in different parts of the city.

Many of these Orang Lauts, or men of the sea, settled in the Geylang River and towards the second half of the nineteenth century, spread out to the Geylang Serai area.  This area was full of serai plantations, owned by the rich Arab Alsagoffs family. Serai is the Malay word for lemon grass.  This plant is a native of India and has been used from time immemorial both for cooking and medicine.  It is becoming increasingly popular in the West.

In the early twentieth century, after the failure of the lemon grass plantations, the Malay and Chinese farmers started planting coconut, rubber plants, vegetables as well as raising poultry. This has led to other interpretations of the origin of the name Geylang Serai. One is the widespread belief that it is a deformation of the Malayan word Kilang, meaning factory or mill, which relates to the presses and mills of the coconut plantations in the same area. Another theory is that it refers to the Chinese word for chicken cage.

One sure thing is that it is a fascinating neighbourhood. Wander through the streets and go back in time. You will find endless rows of traditional Malay shop houses, karaoke rooms that are crowded day and night and even a red light district full of brothels, easily recognizable with their large numbers in very bright red.

You can also visit the Malay Village, opened in 1985. As you’ll see, it has little to do with the Malay Heritage Centre, located next to the Sultan mosque, but it does provide other details of this community’s traditional life in the 50s and 60s so it is worth a visit. It is a small Malay village where you can admire arts and crafts and musical instruments as well as learning how to make kites or paint batiks.

In addition, you will find the Malay Art Gallery and a bunch of little shops where you can buy a souvenir or something to decorate your home.

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