Geylang Serai is the “bad boy” of Singapore – a gritty, rough-around-the-edges neighborhood by Singapore standards – which is to say it really isn’t.
If you’ve discussed Singapore’s collection of neighborhoods you’ve undoubtedly heard of Geylang Serai. Geylang (as it’s loosely called) isn’t as tidy and ordered as other parts of Singapore. It’s crowded and bustling with few tall trees shading the busy streets. In the 1840s the island’s Malay population was relocated from the mouth of the Singapore River to this area, transforming if from coconut plantations and lemongrass farms (‘serai’is Malay for ‘lemongrass’) to what is best described as a concreted, 1970s low-rise urbana. Today it’s a densely populated neighborhood of predominantly Malay and Chinese residents and – not least in notoriety – prostitutes.
Intermixed between shops, bars and eateries are numerous Chinese and Buddhist clan associations and small ornate temples on nearly every block, making for an experience of both food and culture. Configured like the skeleton of a fish, the spine is Geylang Road and “ribs” the side streets (“lorongs”), numbered from lowest (at Sims Way) to highest (Paya Labar Road). It’s a busy business area by day, catering to the needs of local merchants of every industry. But like a chameleon, the neighborhood changes complexion at night when the dusk sets, the restaurants and countless pubs open up and the neon lights come on.
Many locals argue that Geylang is the best after-hours neighborhood on the island, with excellent, hole-in-the-wall eating houses serving savory dumplings, stir-fry, vegetarian and seafood dishes at almost any hour. The main drag and most side streets are abuzz with people of all ages and ethnicity – though a noticeable dearth of ang moh (read: "gringo" in the US). Corner eateries are crowded; people eat and drink while watching the activity along the street; old guys sip coffee and stare at Chinese soap operas playing on a TV mounted near the ceiling, the blaring volume spilling over the curb and blending with everything into cacophony of noise; the sound of Geylang after hours.
XXX in Geylang
One can’t talk for long about Geylang without mentioning it’s most infamous virtue: prostitution. It’s here that prostitution in Singapore is a legal activity, not only tolerated but regulated by the government. Even health facilities have been established for the many girls who come from all over Asia to make a living from the world’s oldest profession. While it’s not the only spot on the little red dot where this occurs, it is notoriously known as Singapore’s main red light district. There’s no denying that it’s a clear and obvious trademark of this area, but not so obvious that it’s in your face or threatening. Still, with such a profession comes an underbelly that not’s attractive, and if you want to find trouble on the streets of Singapore, this is a choice place to come. But you have to almost seek it out – it won’t come to you uninvited. And for titillating street-watching over drinks or dinner this is as low-to-the-ground as you can get on the island without having to actually shower when you get home.
An easy way to get in and out of Geylang is from the Aljunied MRT. If you exit toward Sims Avenue just a few steps along Lorong Avenue 25A is Mufiz Restaurant (#80 Lor 25A) offering murtabak or roti prata and a curry gravy that’s robust and delicious. For a classic, if not lesser-known, Malaysian style (assam) laksa until 1:00am, there’s Penang Seafood Restaurant (#76 Lor 25A). Completely different from the more common nonya laksa found everywhere, assam laksa is fish based, with sweet and sour flavors and chunks of pineapple mixing with the noodles.
A block across from the MRT is the neighborhood’s heart, Geylang Road, where there are many corner coffeeshops offering a variety of excellent local cuisines. Like frog legs - a signature snack here - served all night long in forms ranging from stewed, stir-fried, grilled or cooked into thick porridge. And as you walk the streets don’t miss
The Eastern Restaurant
(487 Geylang Rd) or the many other duck houses, which serve up a head-to-web selection of cooked duck parts – another de rigger delicacy here. Order your choice of “parts” with rice or noodles or even better, try them “neat” with a cold beer and discover the tasty wonders of Geylang’s fowl food trademark.
Late night in Geylang dining often focuses on noodles and Kong Kee Seafood Restaurant (611/13 Lor 31) is a great spot that’s open until 2:00am. Here you’ll find the most authentic Kuala Lumpur-style Hokkien Mee this side of the Woodlands/Johor Bahru checkpoint. Unlike local versions, the KL style has thicker, firmer noodles that you can really sink your teeth into. And when one of the tiny cubes of lardon explodes in your teeth it will send you to Flavor Heaven. If you’re pretty hungry, add an order ofsang har hokkien crispy mee. The crispy little tiles of shredded wanton noodles fried together and oozing with thick, rich sauce will compel you to lick the plate. If you like noodles – or even if you think you don’t – Kong Kee should not be missed.
To really experience the late night energy of Geylang dining that will take you back to Old Singapore, head to JB Ah Meng (2 Lor 23) for some of the best on-the-street eats until 3:00am. It’s done the old school way here, with such sensational dishes as white pepper crab, fried fish skins with sweet mango and spicy sauce, seafood bee hoon and crispy-fried snake beans with dried prawns.
At night tables are pulled outdoors, blocking the entire dank alley along the side of this small corner dive. Awnings connected with tarps tied to plastic sheets keep out, well, most of the rain. The rest drips down the encroaching walls of the narrow passage, making it hard for the resident feral cats to stay dry. It’s the closes thing you’ll find to Bangkok street eating, where the food is actually served on the street.
If you pass nearly any nighttime corner of Geylang Road and its side lorongs you’ll find men sitting at tables along the uneven sidewalks, laden with plates of noodles, pork, assorted duck parts and buckets of cold beer. An alluring “Beer Girl” in her shiny faux leather miniskirt or shorty shorts will be plying them with more beer – usually of the label employing her – and hanging with feigned interest on their every word until it’s time to, y’know, bring more beer. What group of older men don’t love a young woman doting over them with cold beer and an engaging smile? The conversation at the tables is raucous and loud, and despite that you might not understand the language, you’ll feel as if you “get it” as the guys make a quip – perhaps about you – and the whole table bursts into brew-lubed laughter. Laugh with them and you’ll probably get a chair and cold bottle slid in your direction.
Want to go “high end” Geylang style? If you’re with a group and really want to blow the budget then check out Sin Huat Eating House (659 Gaylang Rd at Lor 35), where infamous rude-boy Chef Danny cooks his trademark seafood dishes that are so fresh there’s not even a fridge on site. Wait times may be long and prices are shockingly high for such a run down, open air joint as this, but it’s well worth it and you can eat until midnight. Even Anthony Bourdain lost his mind over the legendary Crab Bee Hoon, in-shell scallops with black bean sauce and a host of classic Singaporean dishes that are as good or better than any you’ll find anywhere.
Back on Sims Avenue follow your nose to the ticklish fragrance of a Geylang trademark – durian – sold at many fruit stands along the street throughout the area, including Metro Trading Fruit Company (183 Sims Ave). You can find different varieties of the king of fruits like D15 and the most beloved quality: D24. Try it on the spot – it’s a good finisher to a night of dining and will guarantee ample open space around you on the MRT ride home.
Geylang has long been thought of as a place not easily accessible to the uninitiated, but few beliefs could be more wrong. It offers a vastly different feel and rhythm than the rest of the island, perhaps best described as "sleazy with Singaporean characteristics." Which is to say that one can still safely walk the streets day or night, observing the underbelly verve without actually being a part of it. Despite its “red-light” reputation, it’s revered by most Singaporeans as one of the go-to places for the best local food. So dive into the heart of this most colorful area with it’s festive, grown-up scene and get a taste of the place that so many speak of but so few go.