These stories capture my growing-up years in Geylang in the '60s and '70s. My home was along Sims Ave between Lor 17 and Lor 19.
Why write about this part of Geylang?
Well, a lot has been said of Geylang Serai and its large and infamous kampong. But nothing had been said about this part of Geylang which were mostly Chinese in character but stretches over not a small area: Lor 1 to Lor 44. In the earlier days when Geylang River was but a swampy river for logging, kampongs too existed along its banks; there was a Teochew kampong built on stilts at Lor 1 where apparently immigrants from China first set foot. Sar Kong (sand quarry in Cantonese), an area that stretched over three lorongs, too had a few Chinese kampongs. Two clans of gangsters were said to reside there. As a kid, I was advised to stay well clear of the place.
Apart from these kampong communities, this part of Geylang was home to the salaried worker and his working class or middle class family. They would be in the many three-storey terrace apartments easily identified by their open kitchen layout (often covered with a roll-up blind) and rear spiral staircase that leads to a backlane. In the past, these backlanes let lorries in to collect rubbish. But since the rubbish ports were shut up, the lanes became safe for children to play in. And that's how many of my childhood memories were established. Playing games and cycling in the backlanes were de rigeur for us kids. Young working adults fixed up basketball rings and boards for a game or two of three-on-threes.
Me and my friends simply loved cycling from one lorong to the next.
The other interesting thing about this area were the many different types of businesses. Shops were just not shopfronts - they were factories as well. When industrial parks got set up in HDB housing estates in the late 70s and 80s, these businesses were slowly moved out and white-collar offices moved in.
To give you a sample of the kinds of commerce in the area back then, consider the shops/factories below my home. On the ground there was a shop making window grills and those metal accordion gates. There was also a provision shop, a noodle and g-cheong-fun factory, a laundry shop, a snack and sweets distributor. Along Lor 17 was a shop cutting E-plates for making electrical transformers. There was a also printer for Chinese newsletters. A lady sold eggs from her farm from her living room. Between Lor 17 and Lor 15 was a shop making ice blocks and scoop ice cream and several hardware shops (they are still around). Every weekend would find ice cream sellers and their tricycles stopping over for a refill. It got even better when durian was in season. Then the ice cream was not just atapchee and red bean or vanilla flavour but durian as well! How delicious!
|This was the sort of ice cream vendor common during my childhood.|
So, you can imagine the scene and the noise that pervaded the environment around my home. For a kid growing up, it was eye-opening and precious education.
Today, apart from some hardware stores, all these shops and factories are gone, replaced by mostly eateries that cater to the palates of transient folk that now live upstairs in the homes formerly occupied by families in the past. You would be hardpressed to find a young child playing in the backlane, least of all a whole gang of them. As one old neighbour commented, "Sims Avenue/Geylang is just a place for work. It has lost that village feel."
So if no one writes about this part of Geylang in the past... this part of Geylang not part of the "even lorongs of the red light district", folks would imagine all Geylang to be the same: sleazy and people out to make a fast buck.
For the odd lorong areas, it was never like that. So I hope you will enjoy this trip down memory lane with me (or more appropriately "memory lorong") and experience the whole Geylang that was.
Also, the tales in this blog captures my years at Mattar Primary School along Mattar Road just outside of MacPherson Estate/Circuit Road. This school's claim to fame was having Singapore's first air-conditioned library with waxed terrazzo flooring. It has since been demolished to make way for the underground section of the KPE expressway. The school's uniform was top yellow and bottom grey, much like Pierce's today. Back then MPS shared a large field with neighbours Aljunied Primary and Mattar East Primary. What fun we had in that large field! Today, these schools have been absorbed into the new MacPherson Primary, which stands at the end of Mattar Road. MPS' building maybe gone but its mirror, MEPS still remains. It has become a home for troubled girls.
Please enjoy the stories and leave a comment or two. Thank you.