In the second installment of our Cultural Gems Series, we will be taking a virtual trip to Geylang Serai, a neighbourhood in the eastern part of Singapore that was historically attributed to the Malay community.
Historically, Singapore was initially populated by the Malays and was ruled by the Sultan of Johor. Many of the Malays were then staying near the sea and working as fishermen and farmers. The demographics of the population began to change when the Chinese migrants began to land on shore and started up businesses. Today, Singapore’s population is predominantly Chinese, followed by Malays, Indians and other races.
When one enters Geylang Serai, you will notice a certain rustic charm about the place. Unlike many areas of Singapore which are all hustle and bustle, Geylang Serai has a slightly more laid back feel to it – no sky scrapers, no mega malls, just rows of preserved shop houses that are now home to offices and small businesses. You will find shopkeepers mingling and chatting with their customers, providing the almost lost tradition of customer service in today’s fast-paced Singapore.
The hustle and bustle only comes to Geylang Serai once a year, when throngs of Singaporean flock the streets. That time is during the month of Ramadan – the Muslim’s fasting month. During this month, a large-scale bazaar is set up, selling a wide range of things, from food items and delicacies to clothes and accessories, and sometimes even cars to bring in the celebration of Hari Raya Puasa (Eid-ul-Fitri) at the end of the fasting month. Many Malays, and even Chinese and Indians, will make the effort to head down to Geylang Serai just to soak in the festivities. The area will be brightly lit with an elaborate décor of lights and designs, which are reflective of the upcoming festive occasion observed by the Muslims.
Walking along the streets of Geylang Serai you will come across a wide variety of things belonging to the Malay culture. The most iconic would be the array of food places offering authentic Malay cuisines, such as Nasi Campur (mixed rice) which is white rice eaten with dishes such as the Ayam Lemak (Malay style chicken curry) and Ikan Belado (fish cooked in chilli).
Geylang Serai is also home to one of Singapore’s most iconic eatery, Hjh Maimunah, which offers an authentic flavour of Kampung (village) style dishes such as Beef Rendang (beef cooked with coconut), tahu telur (deep fried beancurd and egg), grilled fish, and many others. Many Singaporeans head down to this eatery to enjoy the array of dishes they have to offer, so be prepared to queue up. But the wait will be well worth it for your taste buds!
This cultural gem is also known for its wet market amongst the Muslim community especially as it is convenient to find halal meat here. The market, which is located along Changi Road, just a few minutes walk from the heart of Geylang Serai, underwent a major revamp a few years ago to provide a better environment for the sellers and customers. It is now located in a two story complex, with the bottom level being the wet market and the upper level being an open air food court selling a variety of cuisines.
Depending on what you would like to get out of your trip to Geylang Serai, different people choose to go to this cultural heritage area at varied times. A trip to Geylang Serai in the morning will give you the opportunity to observe the elders in the Malay community going about their routines of marketing and socializing in a very laid-back manner. By the afternoons, you will find the slightly buzzing work crowd from that area lunching at the many food outlets, giving you a completely different vibe from the morning crowd. Evenings at Geylang Serai are usually quite quiet, with only a few shops open selling items such as carpets and the traditional Malay dresses.
We would suggest that if you would like a respite from the rush of the city life, Geylang Serai would be a good place to get it, without having to travel too far out from the main city.