Geylang has been firmly entrenched in Singapore for around 20 years as an enclave for workers from mainland China. Known as the Lion City’s red-light district, Geylang became a tightly knit community because of the low cost of food and rent, and its closeness to the city center.
However, things have begun to change for Geylang, as the South China Morning Post (SCMP) reports. Due to the fact that the sex trade has largely moved online, in addition to stricter labor policies, as well as tighter security after a 2013 riot, the future of the place dubbed ‘Little Chinatown’ may now be in question.
One worker who arrived in Singapore in 2013, Hu Fengkai, said, “The whole place has changed in the past two years because everyone is leaving. Soon enough, I will have no one else here and I will have to leave too.”
Many of the workers from China started arriving during Singapore’s construction boom shortly after the financial crisis in Asia in 1997, because of higher pay, as well as the ability to visit family back home easily. They settled in Geylang, especially at Wing Fong Court and Sunny Spring. Since these condominiums were flanked by brothels, they were considered undesirable by locals.
Paying S$150 per month for room, a fee that could be divided amongst themselves, was half of the rental fees they would pay in the country’s ‘official’ Chinatown district.
These savings were very important to the workers. According to Luke Tan, who works for the Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (HOME), “When you are a migrant worker in a foreign land, even the smallest cost can impact you greatly. In a place like Geylang, workers are able to save more because of the low costs of things.”
Sex workers from mainland China followed soon after. The women did not work for brothels licensed by the Government and managed to avoid periodic health exams. They were much sought-after in the country, where the majority is Chinese.
Geylang began to show more and more signs in Chinese, with even restaurants and cuisine reflecting the new residents.
However, some locals were less than thrilled with these developments, and by 2009 were writing letters to newspapers about how Geylang was becoming more and more Sinicised and was losing its multicultural atmosphere.
However, illegal trade also flourished in Geylang, particularly the illicit sales of liquor and cigarettes. Three years ago, over 5,600 cartons of contraband cigarettes from China were seized by the country’s Customs officials. Chinese nationals have also been arrested for selling contraband cigarettes over WeChat, a messaging app.
Some mainland Chinese were also openly operating gambling dens in Geylang. Despite repeated raids, these dens kept sprouting.
However, things took a turn in 2013, due to a riot in Little India, which is close to Geylang. Workers who had had too much to drink rioted after one Indian died in a traffic accident.
The country’s police force started a crackdown, which also affected Geylang as police felt that the area had “a hint of lawlessness.” A curfew for alcoholic beverages was imposed on weekdays and completely banned on weekend in Little India and Geylang.
They also increased the frequency of raids in the area, and installed cameras, which put a damper on the sex trade as well as gambling dens. At the same time, government policies concerning foreign workers had begun to shift.
The result was that fewer mainland Chinese have come to Singapore in the last few years.
This has affected Geylang, with establishments catering to the mainland Chinese beginning to close down.
Additionally, the sex worker trade had been moving online, to better escape detection from authorities.
SCMP quotes one longtime Geylang resident as saying, “Geylang is increasingly quiet and businesses are suffering. No alcohol and no girls. There’s no reason to come to Geylang any more.
The Chinese are slowly leaving. In a few years, Geylang won’t be ‘Little Chinatown’ anymore.”