Singapore Biennale 2019: Geylang Adventures' 'Lorongs of Wisdom' trail uncovers the underbelly of the notorious red light district
What's the first thing that comes to mind when we think of Geylang? I'm not a mind reader, but I'm pretty sure you thought of scantily clad streetwalkers, sleazy brothels, or unruly beer gardens. The more food-driven among us might have pondered about the famous hor fun on Lorong 9. In any case, over the years, it's this general perception of debauchery that has earned the neighbourhood a rather notorious reputation that's rooted in immoral vices.
As true as that might have been in the wild days of the 1980s, Geylang is simply not what it was today as I discovered on Geylang Adventures' Lorongs of Wisdom cutural trail for the Singapore Biennale. From the introduction of The Liquor Control Act in 2015 to curb public drinking to the influx of middle-class migrants of Asian diasporas, Geylang is swiftly becoming yet another gentrified heartland community. Nevertheless, I've rounded up a few things that came to my attention during the trail.
Geylang is home to a large population of low-wage migrant workers.
The current maximum occupancy cap in Singapore stands at six unrelated persons. Yet, in Geylang's shanty shophouses and old apartments, migrant workers have been found to be packed like sardines and living in squalor. In one particular case in April 2019, 66 foreign workers were illegally housed in two private residences within two adjoining shophouses on Lorong 14. Interestingly enough, since action against irresponsible employers can only be taken when photographic evidence of exploitation is available, many of these unsanctioned dormitories have blacked-out windows to keep out nosy on-lookers and authorities. I spotted several blacked-out flats with suspiciously large amounts of laundry while on the trail on Lorong 21.
Sex work in Geylang is alive, but barely.
I've lived in close promixity to Geylang for nearly 25 years. I can still remember being cajoled by lines of aggressive middle-aged women while heading back home after co-curricular activities in the late afternoons. Little did I know then that they were up to no good. On the day of the trail, that bitter memory was a far cry from the hushed scenes I witnessed on Lorong 18. By-the-hour hotels such as Hotel 81 still stand tall and the bright red lanterns of licensed brothels shine just as passionately, but there were less of than a handful of tired women plying the streets. With the installation of countless police surveillance cameras and bright-white street lights along the tiny alleyways, these days, they've succumbed to the waiting game.
Shady sex-drug dealers still sell their wares openly.
Stood at the busy junction of Lorong 22, Geylang Road, and Aljunied Road, I notice a few men on high alert across the road. They should be; operations and raids against vendors in this part of town are frequent. From animal-derived products such as pangolin scales and rhinoceros horns to multi-coloured synthetic variants of Viagra, these men are peddling illegal sexual enhancement drugs. Their clients, I observed, happen to be mature taxi drivers who appeared to be above the age of 40. With nothing more than a makeshift set-up consisting of a wooden plank propped up by a white styrofoam box, you could regard these steady number of sellers as the last resistance in Geylang. Just like their counterparts on Lorong 18, they return night after night to the same junction, lured by the promise of fast cash, but living dangerously under the steely watch of cameras.
Lorongs of Wisdom is an original production by Geylang Adventures. It is a coordinates project of Singapore Biennale 2019. Get your tickets now.
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