In early maps, Geylang is spelt as Gaylang or Gelang (gelang means anklet in Malay).1 In an 1849 map, there are mentions of Gaylang village and Pulo Gelang (Geylang Island), which vanished with the land-fills and reclamation of the Kallang Basin. The 1849 map also shows the presence of a large coconut plantation.2
Some suggest that Geylang is a corruption of the Malay word kilang, meaning press, mill or factory. This could be a reference to the presses and mills in the coconut plantations in the area used to produce oil from copra (dried coconut flesh).3 The settlement named Geylang Kelapa (kelapa means coconut) began when some of the Orang Laut (sea nomads) residing at the mouth of the Singapore River were moved and resettled along the Geylang River area between 1842 and 1843.4
In 1848, Alsagoff and Company − a company founded by an Arab family, bought land near Geylang Serai. They established the Alsagoff Estate at the site and it was subsequently merged with another 1,000-acre (404.69-ha) land in Geylang Serai belonging to one of the co-founders, Ahmed Alsagoff. The entire estate, which was renamed Perseverance Estate, became the largest estate in the area stretching from Geylang Serai to Jalan Eunos.5
In the mid-19th century, the Alsagoff family began cultivating lemongrass at Perseverance Estate. Besides being an antiseptic cure for rheumatism, the oil of the lemongrass, known also as citronella oil, was also used in the manufacture of scents and soap. The Citronella Press Factory closed in the 1890s after the lemongrass industry failed.6 The factory was subsequently converted into the eastern terminal of the first tramline in Singapore.7 The residents then turned to coconut, rubber and vegetable cultivation as well as poultry rearing. At the beginning of the 20th century, the growth of the lemongrass-related industry gave rise to the name Geylang Serai (serai means lemongrass in Malay), which eventually became a town centre.8
During the Japanese Occupation, large tracts of land were used for tapioca cultivation. Ubi Kayu (tapioca) became an important staple and left such a mark on Geylang that a portion of the land was known as Kampong Ubi, which means “tapioca village”.9
Until the late 1960s, the Geylang area had a concentration of congested Malay and Chinese villages. Growing distrust between the Malays and Chinese in 1964 led to communal riots that largely affected Geylang.10 In 1962, the Singapore government acquired a 400,000 sq ft plot of land in Geylang Serai for a S$3.8 million development.11 Other improvements included the widening and expansion of Geylang River into a canal in 1963.12 The second stage of developing Geylang into a modern satellite town was launched in 1970s. In 1976, the Eunos Crescent Estate (previously Jalan Eunos Estate) replaced Kampong Ubi.13
1. Adli Yashir Kuchit, et al., The Heart of Geylang Serai: A Commemorative Book by Kampung Ubi Citizens’ Consultative Committee (Singapore: Kampong Ubi Citizens’ Consultative Committee, 2005), 57. (Call no. RSING q959.57 HEA)
2. Urban Redevelopment Authority (Singapore), Geylang Planning Area: Planning Report 1994 (Singapore: Urban Redevelopment Authority, 1994), 8 (Call no. RSING 711.4095957 SIN); Malaya, Survey Dept., Singapore 1:25,000 Provisional Issue [Cartographic Material] ([Kuala Lumpur?]: Surveyor General, Malaya, 1953). (Call no. RCLOS 912.5957 MAL)
3. H. Hamel Smith and F.A.G. Pape, Coco-nuts: The Consols of the East (London: Tropical Life, 1914), 46‒56, 361, 526‒38 (Call no. RCLOS 634.61 SMI); National Archives of Singapore, Geylang Serai: Down Memory Lane: Kenangan Abadi (Singapore: Heinemann Asia, 19960, 16‒17. (Call no. RSING 779.995957 GEY)
4. National Archives of Singapore, Geylang Serai, 16–17.
5. Jamari Mohtar, Pasar Geylang Serai: 50 Years of Continuity Amidst Change (Singapore: Pasar Geylang Serai Merchant's Association, 2014), 25. (Call no. RSING 959.57 PAS-[LHL])
6. V. Gopalakrishnan and Ananda Perera, Singapore Changing Landscapes: Geylang, Chinatown, Serangoon :Based on the SBC TV Documentaries (Singapore: FEP International, 1983), 2‒27 (Call no. RSING 959.57 SIN-[HIS]); National Archives of Singapore, Geylang Serai, 19–21.
7. Mohtar, Pasar Geylang Serai, 42.
8. Gopalakrishnan and Perera, Singapore Changing Landscapes, 2–27; National Archives of Singapore, Geylang Serai, 19–21.
9. National Archives of Singapore, Geylang Serai, 22–23.
10. National Archives of Singapore, Geylang Serai, 32–34.
11. National Archives of Singapore, Geylang Serai, 29.
12. Gopalakrishnan and Perera, Singapore Changing Landscapes, 12–13.
13. National Archives of Singapore, Geylang Serai, 36–42.
The information in this article is valid as at November 2018 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.