Will Geylang lose its flavour when new laws kick in?
Geylang was unceremoniously thrust into the spotlight during the Little India riot inquiry last year.
It was described by former Police Commissioner Ng Joo Hee as a potential powder keg, with unsavoury characters abound, “a hint of lawlessness” and hostility against the police.
Since then, the area has been hit by a slew of measures.
Enforcement raids against illegal immigrants, vice workers and contraband sellers have been stepped up.
There are frequent enforcement raids, along with police raids every month, say those who work in the area.
There have also been two measures to turn off the alcohol taps in Geylang.
Over the last nine months, some 40 coffee shops in the area have lost their liquor licences as they had infringed various regulations, the Foochow Coffee Restaurant and Bar Merchants Association told The New Paper.
There were initially 96 coffee shops in the area with beer licences.
Then on Jan 19, the Liquor Control (Supply and Consumption) Bill was tabled in Parliament, with Geylang one of the areas targeted by the Bill.
While specific details have not been released, part of the Bill suggests no drinking in public places after 10.30pm. Alcohol sales at take-away shops would also be stopped at that time.
Separately, the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) has proposed to rezone the heart of the red-light district such that no new residential premises can be built there.
The URA said this was to “rebalance and moderate” the mix of properties in the area. The diverse mix of shophouses, eateries, freehold properties and even brothels have led to increasing “friction on the ground”.
But what does this mean for the colourful area, well known in equal parts for its food as well as for other less savoury activities?
Member of Parliament Edwin Tong, who oversees part of Geylang, sought to reassure both residents and retailers.
He told TNP that while retailers have expressed concern, especially with the looming increased alcohol restrictions, residents welcome the new measures that will reduce ill behaviour in the area.
“I can understand the anxiety of the impending alcohol control laws, but they are not meant to prohibit drinking. It’s just to cut down on unruly drinking,” said Mr Tong, who often sees drinkers spilling over onto roads from the coffee shops, which can be a safety concern.
WAIT AND SEE
As for many of the coffee shop owners, they are taking a wait-and-see approach, said Mr Hong Poh Hin, (below) vice-chairman of the Foochow Coffee Restaurant and Bar Merchants Association, which represents more than 400 coffee shop owners in Singapore.
Many of those whose liquor licences were revoked had been caught violating rules, such as having customers still consuming alcohol on their premises in the wee hours despite a midnight cutoff time. And some others were caught selling liquor past their licensed timings.
“When you ask customers to stop drinking and leave, they get angry with the employees and a fight breaks out. But if you let them continue with their drinks, you get fined. So it can be quite difficult for the coffee shops,” he said.
Mr Hong added that most coffee shops would stop selling beer at midnight but would allow patrons to stay on and finish their beers.
But the increased enforcement raids have meant that many of them were caught flouting the rules just for letting customers stay on past midnight.
Mr Hong said: “I think as long as the new laws don’t shorten the on-premise drinking hours on our licences, we should still be okay.”
On the property side, things may be looking up for Geylang, said Mr Colin Tan, Suntec Real Estate Consultants’ director of research and consultancy.
When there are fewer residential properties in the area, people are less likely to complain about noise and bad traffic, which can affect business operations. At the same time, it pushes up the prices of existing homes due to its limited supply.
“Geylang is a very central area and people certainly will be willing to pay more for the convenience,” he said.
And historically, it seems unlikely that the new restrictions would do much to alter the face of Geylang either, said heritage blogger and naval architect Jerome Lim, 50.
“Over the years, while there have been changes, Geylang always returns to being the same vibrant area that it is,” he said.
A sterile Geylang is no fun
HOPPING: Geylang is a hive of activity late into the night.
When The New Paper team visited Geylang last Wednesday night, it was a hive of activity.
Lorongs were lined with bright neon lights and roadside restaurants were packed with people enjoying supper.
Some, however, expressed a growing concern with the increasing alcohol restrictions and recently proposed rezoning.
Food trader Melvin Yang, 31, said: "Geylang will become more family-friendly. It is not wrong for the area to be cleaned up, but it also shouldn't be completely sterile."
A balance should be struck, he added, especially when it would be near impossible to eradicate everything that is unique about Geylang, including its vices.
Another patron, Mr Clarence Lim, a 24-year-old events planner, said: "I think this will still be an interesting place with great food.
"I don't think it will change too much, unless you want to drink through the night."
- BASIL TING
Brief history of Geylang
The name Geylang is believed to have come from the corruption of the Malay word "kilang", which means press, mill or factory.
This came from the presses and mills in coconut plantations in the area in the 19th century.
Around the same time, the first settlers in the area were believed to have been sea gypsies, who were moved from the mouth of the Singapore River to what is now Kallang Basin.
By the early 1900s, small factories were being set up in Geylang because of its proximity to two rivers, Whampoa and Kallang. Most significant among them were the brick kilns.
Along with the wave of immigrants who went there to work in the factories, clan associations and places of worship also moved in.
Heritage blogger and naval architect Jerome Lim said: "You could say it's a second Chinatown.
"While not the traditional area that Chinese immigrants settled in, there was a larger variety of Chinese clan associations, mostly from the minor dialect groups."
And much like in Chinatown, vice quickly followed. But when redevelopment started in the 1970s, Geylang was largely left untouched, Mr Lim said.
Today, most of the shophouses along Geylang Road have received conservation status from the Urban Redevelopment Authority, along with some shophouses on the sidestreets such as Lorong 24A and Lorong 28.