Geylang is a study in contradictions: though primarily known as Singapore’s red-light district, there’s much more to the area than meets the eye, so much so that making assumptions based on its sketchy reputation does it—and yourself—a disservice. It’s a vibrant community with great historical and cultural significance, a place where you can score an unforgettable meal and spend an incredible evening. Below is our weekender’s guide to this charming working-class neighbourhood:
Peek into the Peranakan Culture
The word Peranakan is Indonesian or Malay for “local born” and is generally used to refer to Peranakan Chinese people—descendants of settlers from South China who decided to make the Malay Archipelago their home. They have a distinctive style of architecture, and many Peranakan shophouses and buildings can be found still standing, perfectly preserved, in Geylang. Visit The Intan, Singapore’s smallest museum dedicated to Peranakan culture. Owner Alvin Yapp meticulously maintains the property and showcases Peranakan antiques and trinkets while serving tea or dinner, which is wholly composed of Nonya dishes prepared by his mother. Then, visit the brightly-coloured Peranakan-style houses over at Joo Chiat Street—a dazzling backdrop for photos, making it a major tourist draw.
Test the Limits of Your Palate
There are plenty of places for a great meal here—there simply aren’t enough hours in the day to have a taste of them all. We recommend booking a room at a cheap hotel in Geylang before eating your way through the neighbourhood. The ironically-named No Signboard Seafood has been serving customers since the 1970s, making it a veritable neighbourhood institution where you can have what is said to be the best chilli crab in the city. Geylang Claypot Rice slings their signature dish out by the hundreds every day, even if it takes 25 minutes to prepare each time, which proves that people are willing to wait for the good stuff. Here, marinated chicken, salted fish, and Chinese sausage are cooked in a clay pot with rice until the bottom is good and charred for a filling, hearty meal.
Braised duck, a local favourite, is the specialty over at Sean Kee Duck Rice, where they’ve been making it since 1979. Hit two birds with one stone by visiting Swee Guan Hokkien Mee, where they still use traditional methods and charcoal fire to make their amazing noodle dish, before popping over to the stall right beside it, Kwong Satay, where they serve pork, chicken, and mutton skewers marinated and basted with a thick peanut sauce.
If the above choices are far too pedestrian, though, Geylang still has you covered. How about a bowl of frog porridge? Eminent Frog Porridge has the dish sitting comfortably atop the menu, where it joins similarly exciting fare as fried frog legs in your choice of sauce. Choose between Gong Bao, Spring Onion, Garlic and White Pepper, or Special Homemade Chilli.
Another exotic dish you can try in Geylang is turtle soup, proudly served over at Tan Ser Seng Herbs (Turtle) Restaurant. The herbal broth is made with traditional ingredients and is said to have healing properties. In fact, many of the restaurant’s signature dishes are said to promote better health and healing, such as Ginseng Black Chicken Soup and Herbal Cordycep Chicken Soup. For dessert, try the famous durian, a tropical fruit native to Southeast Asia known for its less-than-inviting odour (some have compared it to the smell of cheese). Crack one open, though, and if you can endure the aroma long enough, you may just be in for a lovely sweet treat. Get it from Wonderful Durian or Durian 36.
Make the Most of the Night
It’s no secret that Geylang’s energy changes once the sun has set. Experience it to the fullest by dropping into Geylang Serai Market, where you can score local souvenirs and textiles at bargain prices. Then, head to the food court on the second floor and check out the wide variety of available food, from stingray in a spicy, sour stew, to putu piring, steamed rice flour cakes filled with palm sugar that were recently featured in the Singapore episode of Netflix’s Street Food documentary series. Adventurous eaters can tuck into snakes and turtle eggs if they so please—these delicacies can also be found here.
Geylang is also home to some of the best bars and night clubs in Singapore where you can freely mingle with the locals and take in a live performance or two. If drinking and dancing isn’t your thing, there are still plenty of entertainment options available in the area. Onsight is Singapore’s biggest indoor rock-climbing gym, equipped with 43 climbing lanes you can get a real workout off of. They’re open until 10:30 PM on weekdays, and 9 PM on the weekends. g.Spa is a 24-hour self-proclaimed “recreation hub”, a haven for relaxation with heated pools and sauna rooms where you can unwind with a massage or some foot reflexology any time you want.
Stereotyping Geylang as “seedy” and “sleazy” short-changes you of a wonderful experience. Be brave enough to look past its reputation and you’ll surely discover a wealth of hidden gems that may just make it your favourite area in Singapore.