Geylang is a strange land. It’s a little enclave of transactions in all things bordering on illegality – sex, drugs, viagra peddlers, counterfeit watches, loansharking and the many victimless crimes that stereotypes the infamous street. Oh and durians, don’t forget the durians.
S and I spent roughly four hours this evening snaking through Lorong 29 all the way down to Lorong 5. We’ve walked past an eclectic avenue of cuisines – South Indian, North, Hakka, Jiang Su, Sichuan, and the likes of the many Chinese provinces that our low-wage migrants hail from. Whenever our legs failed on us, we adjourned for prata, bandung, frog leg porridge and mee pok.
S counted at least a dozen internet cafes and a dozen more streetwalkers – one held my wrist and remarked with an inviting smile that I should eat more. I counted hotels, there were probably more hotels here than in the entire country, all charging by the hour. At one intersection of two Lorongs, there were easily a dozen hotels – all high-rise tenements of soiled condoms, cheap lipstick and transacted moans.
At one whorehouse, marked conveniently by the red-painted “20” sign, a pimp stands guard at the ajar sliding door. He beckons to us. Pink neon light spills out into the street and the lush pink insides reveal seven Chinese women clad in low-cut little black dresses. They are but a mass-produced sight that replicates itself Lorong after Lorong. Customers, middle-aged men with pot bellies and of varied skin colours, come and go aplenty.
Just beside the whorehouse, is yet another one of those hundreds of pugilist clan associations. It is vaulted by dignified tradition: every bit of the Peranakan-influenced tiles and wood carvings exudes old-fashioned gentility. Inside, through the frosted glass panels, we see the silhouette of men huddled around tables accompanied by the clatter of mahjong tiles and raucous laughter. Outside, stands a look-out, forlornly smoking a stick of Winston Red, its ashes raining on a littering of preceding cigarette stubs.
Our conversations meanders from Baudrillard and his post-structuralism to S and his obsessive and no less nihilistic theories on love and Jean-Paul Sartre. S remarked that he never thought it possible that we could amuse ourselves with sober conversation free from the influence of hard alcohol.
At the next turn, nestled under a dilapidated row of low-rise rental apartments, Bangladeshi men in sarongs stand around a table where another Bangladeshi rolls up and hands out little paper satchels of whitish powder in exchange for wads of cash. Another table beside him presents a colourful assortment of tablets, powder satchels and pills. The shopkeeper of the liquor stall behind him looks away behind his defensive fortifications of cigarettes, bottles, shelves, cabinets and a cash register. It is only the familiar five stars and the red and white of the Singaporean flag hanging outside that reminds us that we’re still in Singapore.
And then, like a little lighthouse drowned in the darkness of flashing neon lights, omnipresent CCTV cameras and harsh fluorescents, a Buddhist free clinic stands, hemmed in between two whorehouses. But it’s doors are shuttered, windows dark, much like the Covenant of Christ at the next Lorong and the little Masjid along the preceding Lorong.
S laments the commercialisation of human deprivation and I retort that no other place in this entire bloody island will ever be as raw, as authentic and as unpretentious as these Lorongs.
On a short ten-minute bus ride later on the number 70, we are flying across the Nicoll Highway. To our left is the glistening skyline of Singapore city – proud, aloft and sterilised.