It is Sunday afternoon and I am two blocks away from my home in Singapore’s Geylang district. But it might as well be another country. As I stroll down the street, I hear voices chattering in mainland Chinese-accented Mandarin, which I follow back to the crowds of expats from China, most of whom live, work or simply hang out in the area. I pass a line of internet cafés, mobile shops, printing stations and sidewalk tables laden with not-so-Singaporean food. Their menus list all dishes and prices in Chinese; no English translations are provided.
Geylang Road is one of this city’s most storied streets, and recent arrivals are adding a new chapter. I’m in the middle of a tang ren jie — a word that native Chinese use to refer to a place where their countrymen congregate. Singapore has its three main population groups — Malay, Tamil and Chinese, the latter tracing their roots back to southern provinces like Yunnan, Hainan and Guangdong — but it clearly has made room for many others. Foreigners comprise roughly a quarter of this island’s population, and many expat communities have carved out little enclaves like the tang ren jie of Geylang. The relatively new ethnic spaces of Singapore aren’t listed in most guidebooks, but true locals know where to find them.
Geylang: The new Chinatown
It was five years ago that I moved to Geylang with my wife, to a street that was then lined with crumbling colonial-era mansions. It was a gritty neighborhood, its numerous back alleys lined with seedy massage parlors and karaoke bars. At the same time, there was a great deal of color and tradition. Old businesses stood alongside clan houses, ancient temples and excellent local food shops. And besides, the apartments were affordable. That and the promise of government-backed development was enough to lure us (and many other expats) to this not-so-squeaky clean corner of Singapore.
Roughly a third of Geylang’s 2km main strip has since been made cleaner and more expat-friendly. But things are as interesting as ever. For decades, businessmen, students and blue-collar workers from China have been coming in droves, bringing with them their culture and their cuisine.
Nowadays I only have to walk a few minutes get a delectable dose of the Middle Kingdom. Between old-school Indian prata shops and Malay coconut rice vendors now stand clusters of hawker stalls selling northern Chinese staples. Menu items once found only in specialty restaurants — Chongqing hotpots, handmade noodles and bing flatbreads — are now everyday fare. And at the nearby grocery stores, vats of pickled mustard seeds, Sichuan peppers and bottles of plum vinegar share shelf space with more familiar pantry items.
In fact, many services offered in the neighborhood are now done by Chinese. “I came here eight years ago to look for a job,” says my next-door hairdresser, a Hunan native named Sam. Sam doesn’t speak much English but that doesn’t seem to matter in the new Chinatown. “I love Singapore. People are friendly and well-educated here. There are many difficult things in China that I just don’t have to deal with in Singapore.”
Later at a nearby food stall, I share a xian bing or a meat pancake with a Tibetan Buddhist monk and his local friend. “Chinatown is just for sightseeing. It’s expensive to live there,” declares the Singaporean companion, referring to the area frequented by tourists near Singapore’s central business district. “The real tang ren jie is in Geylang. Mainlanders like to live here because the rent is cheap and the food is familiar.”
This “Chinatown effect” is by no means limited to Geylang, as time-honored (and considerably more famous) neighborhoods like Little India and Arab Street will attest. And Singapore, being a multicultural entrepôt state, has many more such examples. A few kilometers south of Geylang stands the Golden Mile Complex, a mall that’s been around for four decades and that would have been demolished had it not been reinvented by the local Thai expat community. Once described as a vertical slum, this 16-storey building was a badly maintained eyesore before Thai businesses started moving in. Now its lower floors are buzzing with energy — affordable eateries touch elbows with bus services to southern Thailand and shops selling Thai magazines.