Geylang in Singapore, already famous for its food and red light district, has become a Chinatown as well.
This new Chinatown can be found along Geylang Road and its many side streets known as “lorongs” that branch out creating nooks and corners. Each lorong has a number (Lorong 9, Lorong 20 and so on) and is home to very diverse, specialized and contradicting activities.
A Chinatown is born
This new Chinatown was made visible by the increasing numbers of new Chinese migrants who live and work in the area. Rejecting the Official Singapore Chinatown as too touristy, they find Geylang closer to their concept of Tang Ren Jie, 唐人街, (Chinatown) and much cheaper too. They in turn attract other new migrants creating business opportunities for provisions from their hometown and food outlets suited to their tastes.
Although the new migrants increased the visibility of “Chinatowness”, local institutions moved in much earlier than they did. In fact, the famous Chinese painter Xu Bei Hong, 徐悲鸿, lived for a while in the Nanyang Huang Clan Association, 南洋黄氏总会, located in Geylang. During his stay in Geylang he produced some of his master pieces.
Meanwhile, many Chinese temples, clan associations and monasteries were displaced by development projects and found their new home in Geylang. An example is Soon Thian Keing, 顺天宫, a Chinese temple said to have existed before the British arrival in 1819. Although established much earlier than new Chinese migrants, these institutions have lower visibility as their activities are generally indoors and amongst their members.
Put displaced institutions and the new Chinese migrants in the same location, you have the basic formula for a Chinatown!
Geylang Chinatown can come across as chaotic, messy and unplanned. And maybe because of these, it comes across as more spontaneous, atmospheric and even authentic. Geylang Chinatown radiates the energy of a social node that is created by people for people and attracts people. It is neither a theme park nor a managed tourist attraction. It is REAL and well, also attracts tourists!
That is why we call Geylang Chinatown the People’s Chinatown. Like the Official Chinatown Niu Che Shui (牛车水), Geylang Chinatown has a multi racial and multi religious character. You can find mosques, churches and Indian temples very close to each other; part of the multi racial, multi religious fabric of Singapore.
The idea of Geylang as a Chinatown has its opposition. Some argued that the Official Singapore Chinatown is where their forefathers left their mark and therefore is THE Chinatown. Others have concerns over the chaotic and sleazy image.
But what’s to stop a city from having two Chinatowns? Paris and New York has several Chinatowns so why can’t Singapore have two Chinatowns; the Official Singapore Chinatown and Geylang, the People’s Chinatown?
Since we call it a People’s Chinatown, we shall let the people decide. Please take the poll and let us know if you consider Geylang a Chinatown, the People’s Chinatown.