On our last foodwalk, we traipsed through the northern side of Singapore’s most notorious neighbourhood: Geylang Serai. This month, we dive into the very heart of this most colourful area to get a taste of the place so many expats speak of but so few go to.
Geylang is often thought of as a place not easily accessible to the uninitiated, but few beliefs could be more wrong. Despite its “red-light” reputation, Geylang is revered by most Singaporeans as one of the go-to places for the best local food. Originally a Malay community growing lemongrass (serai in Malay), it transformed into a predominantly Chinese area after a bridge connected it to the rest of Singapore and clan associations and temples sprang up. Since then it has become a low-rise neighbourhood of mixed ethnicities, social vices and, of course, great food.
Geylang is configured like the skeleton of a fish, with the spine of Geylang Road and ribs of side streets (lorong), numbered from lowest (starting at Sims Way to the west) to highest (ending at Paya Lebar Road to the east). Start your foodwalk near the middle, at Aljunied MRT, and head down Lor 25 where, if you missed the good eats on that short block mentioned in our last foodwalk (May 2012), you should try them now.
Crossing Sims Road, head left to Lor 27 and take a right. Here you will pass the Nan Hai Fei Lai Temple (35 Lor 27), whose smiling Buddha and youthful statuary is dedicated to children, and the Taoist Ma Cho Po Temple which protects sailors and seafarers. Continue down the street to Geylang Road and The Eastern Restaurant coffee shop (487 Geylang Road) which serves up a head-to-toe selection of cooked duck parts. Order your choice of parts with rice or noodles or, even better, try them “neat”.
Making a left onto Geylang Road you come upon the Changi Junk Store (493 Geylang Road) where a variety of Peranakan furniture, clocks and other objects, sometimes piled high, await your perusal. It’s fun to poke around here for home items not easily found elsewhere.
A couple of doors over is It Tian Heong (495 Geylang Road), famous for its vast array of funereal items in every colour imaginable. The paper replicas of real-life luxuries are astounding, including everything from food to furniture, motorcycles and even exotic cars – all to be burned as offerings to one’s ancestors.
Further down the street at Lor 29, make a left to see clan association buildings and the Soon Thian Keing Temple (19 Lor 29). This exotic structure houses a shrine dedicated to the Tiger God and other deities. Lining the top edge of the roof are ceramic animals in a typical hierarchical row to establish the importance of the building in the Taoist world (ranging from zero to 11 animals; 11 are found only at the Forbidden City in Beijing). Count the animals and decide for yourself how important this temple is to local believers.
If gazing at these revered temples whets your appetite, head back to Geylang Road and turn left to Ji Heng Coffee Shop (609 Geylang Road) for a small bowl of mutton soup at the New World Mutton Soup stall inside. This excellent Teochew version is fragrant, with healthful ingredients like wolfberries and cordyceps which deliver a herb-infused tender mutton flavour. A splash of white vinegar elevates the delicious experience even higher.
If your soup was small, as instructed, then you are ready for Kong Kee Seafood Restaurant (611/13 Lor 31) at the corner of Lor 31 for the most authentic Kuala Lumpur-style Hokkien mee this side of the Woodlands checkpoint. Unlike other versions of this classic noodle dish, the KL style has thicker, firmer noodles that you will sink your teeth into and swoon over their texture and taste. And when one of the tiny cubes of crunchy lardon explodes in your mouth it will send you to heaven! Everything here is from KL: the noodles, the secret dark sauce, even the cook, and there is no place like it on this island. Add to your order a second noodle dish: sang har hokkien crispy mee. Fried together, its light layers of shredded wanton noodles form crispy little tiles oozing thick, rich sauce that will compel you to lick the plate. If you like noodles – or even if you think you don’t – this place should not be missed.
Cross over Geylang and head back down the street, walking off your meal beneath the shady five-foot ways while taking in Geylang’s interesting sights. On Lor 34 are colourful residences painted in earthy ochres and blues and with balconies and ornate ceramic façades. At the corner of Lor 26 you’ll see the old Meng Yew Hotel (488 Geylang Road), restored to its original blue-and-pink splendour and with rooms still available at very low rates. Keep strolling to Lor 24A where, if you turn right, you’ll walk past more shophouses with intricate bird motifs until you reach a busy cardboard and paper recycling centre (33 Lor 24A) where guys on scooters loaded with two-metre-high piles of flattened boxes go to get cash for trash.
Back on Geylang Road you can browse pawnshops, teahouses and traditional Chinese medical halls while you restore your appetite. Then, at Lor 18, take the pedestrian overpass to Tanjung Rhu Pau (351 Geylang Road) for dim sum and steamy char siew pau. At Lor 19, make a right and head to the corner of Lor Bachok in the middle of the block. The gorgeous, painted plaster building here is home to a school for lion dancers: those athletic artists who bless grand openings and usher in important Chinese holidays. Beyond the corner doors guarded by two ceramic Sikh sentries embedded in the pillars, you may hear the drums and cymbals of lion dancers at work.
Continue up Lor 19 to Sims Avenue and turn right for your final flavour fix at Rochor Beancurd (158 Sims Avenue). This soya milk and bean curd establishment is a Singapore institution, serving a silky smooth elixir of beancurd and pandan syrup that you can enjoy warm or cold. There is no better place to experience the thick and satisfying mouth-feel of soya curd drinks than right here.
By now you are probably in full waddle for the MRT ride home, so cross Sims Avenue and continue back to where you started. And as you cool off in the luxury of the train’s air-con, you may realise that Geylang Serai – Singapore’s bad boy neighbourhood – isn’t bad at all, just a little misunderstood.
Foodwalker Tip: If you still want more of Geylang when you get back to the Aljunied MRT station, read the first Foodwalker tour of Geylang Serai here that starts at Lor 27.