Eye on Geylang: At a turning point

Conveniently located at the city fringe, Geylang is a culturally and historically rich area filled with great period architecture, street walkers from all over Asia, and some of the best local food on the island. It is also on the cusp of major change.

by Michelle Yee

In a rapidly changing country like Singapore, Geylang is truly a rare find — the area remains relatively untouched. Unlike many other parts of Singapore, you won’t find skyscrapers or megamalls here.

Rather, the streets of Geylang are lined with charming shophouses, some of them home to old Chinese clan associations and traditional Chinese medical shops, while some are occupied by sex shops and massage parlours.

Despite its seedy veneer, Geylang — an area typically associated with prostitution — remains a popular destination among both locals and tourists, thanks to its abundant food choices, affordable hotel rates, and eye-catching architecture.

Foodie paradise

The streets, which are numbered from Lorong 1 to 42 (odd-numbered lorongs run between Geylang Road and Sims Avenue, while even-numbered lorongs run between Geylang Road and Guillemard Road), are peppered with food stalls offering a tasty selection of Peranakan, Indian, Malay and regional Chinese cuisine.

Some of the popular food stalls found here include the Lor 9 Beef Kway Teow, Leong Kee Bak Kut Teh (Lorong 11), Sia Kee Duck Rice (Lorong 35), and People’s Prawn Noodles (Lorong 12). Seafood lovers, on the other hand, should definitely check out Sin Huat Seafood Restaurant (Lorong 35), which was listed on renowned chef Anthony Bourdain’s list of 13 Places to Eat Before You Die in 2011; the highlight here is the Sri Lankan crab bee hoon.

Unique architecture

Another distinctive hallmark of Geylang is no doubt its iconic architecture. Designated conservation areas make for an intriguing blend of past and present, as seen in old temples and traditional trades alongside eclectic cafés, chic restaurants, and boutique design firms.

For those who appreciate architecture, Lorong 24A is a must-visit. Unlike the worn and tired-looking shophouses found on the other streets, the ones here are exceptionally stylish, thanks to a group of local architects who have given new life to eight conservation 1920s shophouses via a collective project: The Lorong 24A Shophouse Series, started and carried out by Pocket Projects, a development consultancy firm specialising in non-mainstream boutique projects.

According to the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA), the façades of these eight conserved Chinese baroque-style shophouses, built circa the early 1900s, have been respectably restored. Entrusted to different architects, each unit has been given a new lease of life with a distinctive interior that captures the eclectic character of its Geylang neighbourhood.

A thriving business hub

But that is not all Geylang has to offer. Today, it is fast transforming into a bustling town on the city fringe. Its speed of transformation can be seen in the widespread construction work and new property showflats that have sprouted up in the area in recent years. Earlier this year, the URA announced a proposal to rezone parts of Geylang, which, according to analysts, could turn this area into a thriving business hub.

Gerald Tay, founder and coach at CREI Academy Group, says: “The URA proposes to rezone the area bounded by Geylang Road, Lorong 22 Geylang, Guillemard Road and Lorong 4 Geylang, from ‘Residential/Institution’ to a new ‘Commercial/Institution’ zoning, excluding the parcels of land zoned Road, the lots fronting Geylang Road, and the sports field bounded by Talma Road and Lorong 12 Geylang.

“In short, the URA will not approve any more new residential projects in a 14-ha stretch of Geylang from Lorong 4 to Lorong 22 under the proposed rezoning exercise. Existing residential projects may remain as they are. Likewise, new residential projects in the area which have been approved may proceed to be built. Residential use is barred in the new zone.”

The URA believes that with more new residential developments in the area, residents have been growing more dissatisfied with the increasing number of non-residential features there. As such, after consulting with the police and other relevant agencies, the URA assessed that the growth of the residential community between Lorongs 4 and 22 needed to be moderated to minimise friction, and avoid eroding the character of the area.

Tay adds that the government wants to “give small and medium enterprises (SMEs) easy access to the CBD and other nearby business hubs at more affordable rents”, citing “the vision of Jurong Lake District and Woodlands as commercial hubs for SMEs” as good examples of what is in store for areas like Geylang and Paya Lebar.

Wong Xian Yang, Research and Consultancy Manager at OrangeTee, says, “Given Geylang’s close proximity to the CBD, and the commercial hub in Paya Lebar, its location allows it to enjoy the positive spillover effects of these established commercial areas. Businesses supporting the main business activities within those commercial hubs could find themselves settling down within Geylang. Such synergy and collaboration will likely see Geylang through the next phase of gentrification. As such, it is well positioned to develop into a thriving business hub, which would help complement the Paya Lebar regional centre.”

Coming clean, affordably

Wong says, “Rezoning parts of Geylang could be part of the government’s attempt to clean it up and control the vices it houses. While businesses and vices in the area seem to have established mutual reliance, it seems inevitable that Geylang will be cleaned up one day, given its proximity to the CBD and Paya Lebar regional centre. Therefore, the potential upside for this area is significant. However, investors are advised to take a long-term view on this area; even though talks on relocation have been going on for many years, progress seems to be slow.”’

Furthermore, property in Geylang is significantly more affordable than in other parts of the island. Tay says, “In 2003, Geylang properties 2343 priced in the region of S$300 psf. In 2014, prices were below S$1,000 psf for a majority of the older freehold properties in the area. This has made Geylang one of the most affordable places for living and business in Singapore.”

Wong agrees, saying that despite its central location and surrounding amenities, prices in the area remain locked due to the negative perception it gives people. But with the government’s efforts to clean up this area and with the new zoning, industry watchers expect property values and rental incomes to rise sharply in the long run, due to a stronger synergy in the area with nearby business hubs.

Developments to look at

For home buyers and investors looking to own a property in Geylang, here are some launches to look at:

Sims Urban Oasis

Developed by GuocoLand Limited, Sims Urban Oasis is a 99-year leasehold residential development located at 60 Sims Drive (the junction of Sims Drive and Aljunied Road). Upon completion, a total of 1,024 units of various apartment types will cater to multi-generation households, families, young couples, singles, and their diverse lifestyles.

TRE Residences

Located at Geylang East Avenue 1, this 250-unit residential development, which is jointly developed by SL (Serangoon) Pte Ltd and MCC Land, offers residents utmost convenience and accessibility — the development is served by Aljunied MRT and various expressways, and is surrounded by a slew of F&B outlets, retails shops, and good schools.