Geylang Serai is one of the oldest Malay Settlements in Singapore. The significance of early Geylang Serai lies not in its architectural features but in its reputation as the Malay emporium of Singapore, known to Malays of Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia. In the 1840s, some Orang Laut (sea nomads) settled on the bank of the Geylang River. The settlement expanded to the Geylang Serai area in the later half of the 19th century. At this time, the rich Arab family of the Alsagoffs owned the large Perseverance Estate on which the extensive cultivation and growth of lemon grass plants led the settlement area to be known as Geylang Serai - where serai is Malay for lemon grass. Some suggest that the name Geylang is a corruption of the Malay kilang meaning press, mill or factory, probably a reference to the presses and mills in the coconut plantations in the area which produced oil from the copra.
In the early 1900s, after the failure of the lemon grass industry, the Malays and the Chinese farmers remained on the Alsagoff estate but turned to cultivating coconut, rubber, vegetables, and rearing poultry for a living. By 1910, Singapore's first tramline service had its eastern terminal at Geylang Serai. The landscape changed during the Japanese Occupation when people started planting tapioca, or ubi in Malay. Part of Geylang Serai then became known as Kampong Ubi.
After the war, Geylang Serai's population increased and the uninhabited areas were gradually occupied. In the 1950s, when the better off Chinese moved out of the area, more Malay people moved in and the population of Geylang Serai became predominantly Malay. On 12 April 1964, during Indonesia's Confrontation, a bomb exploded at a block of flats at Geylang Serai, killing two men. Communal riots between Malays and Chinese broke out several months later on 21 July 1964 on Prophet Muhammad's birthday. In 1965, the Geylang Serai Housing Scheme redevelopment programme built three blocks of flats. Further redevelopment by the early 1980s, saw the completion of Housing Development Board (HDB) flats, Industrial Estates of light industries, and modern shopping complexes. Along with the modernisation programme, the Government decided to preserve the Malay cultural heritage. Thus, a one hectare site called the Malay Village (bordering Sims Avenue, Geylang Serai and Geylang Road) was set aside to showcase a replica of a Malay kampong and to promote traditional Malay handicraft and cultural activities.
National Archives, Singapore. (1996). Geylang Serai: Down memory lane: Kenangan abadi (pp. 16-30). Singapore: Heinemann Asia.
(Call no.: RSING 779.995957 GEY)
Urban Redevelopment Authority. (1994). Geylang Planning area: Planning report 1994 (pp. 4, 6, 8). Singapore: Urban Redevelopment Authority.
(Call no.: RSING 711.4095957 SIN)
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