Geylang Serai

by _People:Cornelius, Vernon

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 in the Malay Archipelago including Malaya, Brunei and Indonesia.1

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 latter half of the 19th century. At the time, the rich Arab family of the Alsagoffs owned the large Perseverance Estate on which the extensive cultivation and growth of lemongrass plants led the settlement area to be known as Geylang Serai (serai meaning “lemongrass” in Malay).2 Some suggest that the name Geylang is a corruption of the Malay kilang, which means “press”, “mill” or “factory”.3

In the early 1900s, after the failure of the lemongrass industry, the Malays and the Chinese farmers remained on the Alsagoff estate but turned to cultivating coconut, rubber and vegetables, as well as rearing poultry for a living.4 By 1910, Singapore’s first tramline service had its eastern terminal at Geylang Serai.5 The landscape changed during the Japanese Occupation (1942–45) when people started planting tapioca, or ubi in Malay. Part of Geylang Serai then became known as Kampong Ubi.6

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.7 On 12 April 1964, during the Indonesia–Malaysia Confrontation (1963–66), 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.8

In 1965, the Geylang Serai Housing Scheme redevelopment programme saw the construction of three blocks of flats.9 By the early 1980s, Housing and Development Board (HDB) flats, industrial estates of light industries, and modern shopping complexes had been completed. Along with the modernisation programme, the Singapore government decided to preserve the Malay cultural heritage. To this end, 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 (village) and to promote traditional Malay handicraft and cultural activities.10


Vernon Cornelius-Takahama

1. National Archives (Singapore), Geylang Serai: Down Memory Lane: Kenangan Abadi (Singapore: Heinemann Asia, 1996), 24 (Call no. RSING 779.995957 GEY); Saat A. Rahman, et al. eds., The Heart of Geylang Serai: A Commemorative Book by Kampung Ubi Citizens’ Consultative Committee (Singapore: Kampong Ubi Citizens’ Consultative Committee, 2005), 88. (Call no. RSING q959.57 HEA)
2. National Archives (Singapore), Geylang Serai, 16–19.
3. Rahman, et al., Heart of Geylang Serai, 61.
4. National Archives (Singapore), Geylang Serai, 21.
5. National Archives (Singapore), Geylang Serai, 20.
6. National Archives (Singapore), Geylang Serai, 23.
7. National Archives (Singapore), Geylang Serai, 25.
8. National Archives (Singapore), Geylang Serai, 31–33.
9. National Archives (Singapore), Geylang Serai, 27, 35.
10. National Archives (Singapore), Geylang Serai, 40–43.

Further resource
Urban Redevelopment Authority (Singapore), Geylang Planning Area: Planning Report 1994 (Singapore: Urban Redevelopment Authority, 1994), 4, 6, 8. (Call no. RSING 711.4095957 SIN)

The information in this article is valid as at May 2018 and correct as far as we can 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.


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Street names--Singapore
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