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Geylang - hard to forget, hard to resist

GROUND ZERO

I am a Geylang brat.

A good part of my childhood was spent running on the streets surrounding Geylang Square, where my family and I used to live in a two-room HDB flat.

It explains why I feel an inextricable link to the place that stretches from Lorong 1 to Lorong 41.

I don't remember the 'sin city' label that was tagged to the place.

Instead, my memory is filled with the rustic charm of old buildings, welding factories and streets filled with good food.

And the wonderful people - from our kampung-spirited neighbours to the friendly Chinese 'towkays' (business owners) and mama-shop Indians.

I'd weave in and out of some shops, sometimes pretending that I was the (unfortunate) owner's (fortunate) kid.

I've had my share of fights with the neighbourhood kids, but those were fun days.

It was in Geylang that I picked up different Chinese dialects - Hokkien, Teochew, Hakka and Cantonese - and Bahasa Melayu.

While the area has evolved and is now littered with all kind of vices, including prostitution and suspected illegal drug-peddling, I still feel connected to Geylang.

"It's like once you know the place really well, you will keep coming back," says Madam Eva Ngan, 60, a housewife.

She had lived in Geylang until she got married at 25, and now lives in Jurong.

Yet, Madam Ngan says she makes it a point to visit Geylang once a month.

"Sometimes for a meal, sometimes just to get my son to drive through the long stretch of road to soak in the sights," says the retired secondary school teacher.

One-time resident Alvin Lai, 52, does not think Geylang is as bad as it has been painted out to be.

"If you observe carefully, the unsavoury characters generally leave you alone," he says.

This is a view shared by many I approached.

Mr Ang Chee Boon, 53, who owns No Name Karaoke, says that he avoids troublemakers by not allowing streetwalkers who pretend to be customers into his KTV lounge.

"You just have to be very firm because if you let the wrong people in, there is bound to be repercussions and you end up hurting the business," says Mr Ang, who has bouncers stationed at the entrance of his 10-year-old lounge near Lorong 27.

I enjoy popping over to Geylang at least once a month.

Which other place offers a mix of food, nightlife, shopping and illicit activities?

It is about creating the right balance.

This is my Geylang, the place where I used to take my children when they were toddlers for supper.

It's a place where I still take them - they are in their teens now - though I now give them a little lesson on history, and one on the sometimes seedy facts of life.