isop: geylang


by suiyi tang

on the warmest days, the singaporean sun is impossible to bear. think: eighty-degree mornings in the middle of december and the sudden cackle of a blue sky turned grey, so that the half-truth of temperate refuge is overshadowed by a volatility of its own making. but more often than not, everything is a stifling grey. mistress sun hides in the crevasses of dim subway lights and the sparse glitter of slick concrete, as if a muse whose shadow stretches longer than the lore of her beauty. in the eastern hemisphere of the unsettling sun, singapore’s winter light nestles in strange places. but no matter the adage: winter in singapore is a hinterland of its own, though it’s unclear by whom this fact is manifested. siao lah (see footnote), all of it, especially the fugitive sun.

in the absence of sunlight, i have come to lose myself in unmapped alleyways bereft of shadow. on some days, i can find no trace of myself but for a pale blue dot swimming in pixels that echo pastel, drowning in clipped tongues and unholy assemblages of my own unmaking. i have become an it, and google can no longer find me, despite audio-visual trackers and an ever-expanding network of simulated neural connections. there is a grammar beyond the processor’s comprehension: singlish, they call it, whose lilting tune has wrenched my teeth loose from the crowbars of colonial grammar. i have become untethered from my station in the perfect sentence; i have become lost even to the unblinking coordinates of google earth, cousin to alexa’s frozen mouth.

sun or not, there are moments of comprehension: an oyanagi filled to the brim with custard, dimsum served at all hours of the day, aunties who codeswitch faster than the downpour of a sudden shower. there are other continuities between this world and the one i have left behind: hierarchies and moral ambiguities, legal quandaries and the ever-gleaming eye of cctvs caught in public surveillance. of the latter, geylang is the materialization of a delicate contract struck between the sun and her shadow; official cartography and the unnamed street. where rome had bread and circuses, the people’s action party has geylang: a practice as much as it is a place and a metonym for policy more revealing than any policy itself. i visited geylang on the first day of the new year, accompanied by a friend. J had under his belt both an anthropology degree and a mandatory national service stint in the police force, a fact that might have deterred or invigorated my preternatural interest in all things illicit, but did neither. the irony of such a traipse into the grey area of the law, embarked by a former SPF cadet and his privileged asian american charge, struck neither of us as strange. perhaps, in retrospect, it should have—but geylang is full of such contradictions. the district itself is a grand gesture of rebellion against the visage of sleek political machinery and the singaporean government’s janitorial efforts to prove otherwise.

geylang is not so much disorganized as it is a carefully mediated microcosm with its own rigorous, if difficult, logic. while it’s impossible to talk about the difficult without resorting to the pathos of discovery or spectacle, geylang is neither spectacular nor new. its difficulty is a matter of question: ask the sweating uncle selling counterfeit viagra on his make-shift styrofoam table, and he will say, eh, business is sparse; ask the drunken workman or the ma-jong-toting ah beng (see footnote), and he may look you askance and walk away. after all, you are of neither service nor partnership (in multiple senses of the word): that much is made clear by your $100 adidas. the difficulty of seeing and being seen is a matter of revelation vis-a-vis positionality, but there are some things that cannot be said, kept as they are behind glass doors, or stalked by flickering petals, or littered with dirtied plastic chairs. geylang is a time and place asynchronous to the singaporean national anthem. some things, as the transient spectator knows, are only for looking, not touching.

for the unknowing, geylang, as a singaporean might tell you, is the underbelly of the lion. cordoned from the spic-and-span of harbor front, it is the sodom to downtown’s babylon, the vegas to singapore “proper”—or so a sensationalizing tale might go. but sin is a difficult indictment to levy on so fertile a place as geylang. in the court of impossible justice, guilt is assigned not to geylang nor its commandment-defying refugees, but the white american sex tourist and his accomplice, a social economy dependent on the disposable bodies of the global south, the working poor, and young women as nubile as they are destitute. if las vegas is an ironic simulacrum of american capitalism at large, then geylang is a simulacrum of a simulacrum, more ironic and real than the thing itself.

here, amidst open drains and tattered streets, the rubric for singaporean flavor changes. while the government, with its neoliberal puritanism may label geylang’s fare unsavory, the street-side vendor, with her hefty greens and plump durians, proves otherwise. new year’s day saw an unusual quiet settle over the uneven streets. gamblers and drinkers, chaste in the family holiday, were scarce. in their wake, empty allies and abandoned chairs littered darkened corners. on side-streets and through the looking-glass of brothels’ transparent doors, made-up women sat, cross-legged or pacing, their long locks swishing in synchronization with the tap of their stiletto heels. down a tree-lined street J and i walked, nodding slightly to cruisers and plain-clothed police (identified by their glowing bluetooth headsets) as we passed. nearby, a police car crawled, its muted sirens flashing.

it is unclear from where the name geylang comes. various sources cite the district’s past as the ground of coconut plantations, and the striking similarity between geylang and the malay word, “geylanggan,” meaning to twist, seems more than a coincidence. but this is a speculation as synchronistic as it is unverifiable. it could be that a melancholic poetry indeed sews the seams of geylang’s propitious past and present, but i am unsure if truth allays itself to such easy excavation. it’s difficult to make sense of geylang, a word which, like the place, sits unevenly on the tongue, and through uneasy deliverance by a foreigner’s lips. there is a lingering shadow in the drawn-out consonants themselves as if covering all that which lingers beneath easy sight. the cartography of geylang is littered with such subtleties: zoom over google maps, and no mention of brothel appears. famed gambling alleyways, local landmarks though they may be, are but strips of white, as if reabsorbed into a knowing shadow signed by government and polis. in their place, beige blocks boast the innocuous pleasures of food and lodging. a blind eye to the darker hues of exploits which commence behind closed doors.

at my request, J took me through geylang’s maze of cheap motels to the brothels for which the district is well-known. you look, he said, i’ll direct us. we laughed, but the warning of discretion lingered. for all its accessibility and softcore illegalities, geylang is a place teeming with the uneven discipline of the panoptic eye. cctvs line the mouth of every street, but no one seems to pay them any mind. come a police car, and entire alleyways will suddenly clear—or so i am told. before then, it’s business as usual, under the government’s selective gaze. we walked past neon-lit shanties. I peered through glass doors and half-covered back lots, while J did his best to explain geylang’s abjection, looking straight ahead.

we must have made quite a comical scene, two young people wandering streets otherwise frequented by the lonely. if dispossession is the name of the game, then voyeurism is a luxury which marks players from juries. we were voyeurs, i more than J, in uncomfortable intimacy to a world we didn’t belong, a part of the landscape but anxiously aware of our distance from it. more than once, we saw drunken workers stumbling past, a vestige of geylang’s significance in the government’s social contract with the working class, and a reminder of our own furtive presence in this silent agreement. for every group of the dispossessed, there is another faction upon which their sustenance is built. we were neither the dispossessed nor their fuel.

geylang, with its colorful combination of regulation and willful illegality, represents precisely that zone of indistinction wherein stability meets exploitation, in the amorphous territory of bare life and its re-production. but to say, as pseudo-intellectuals of the woody allen-caliber do, that it all boils down to sex and death, is to overlook the adjacency of life itself. for isn’t it sex and death which open up pandora’s box of impossible touches, to erode the porous boundaries stitching the fabric of the living? between corpse and ground, wail and howl, and bodies moving in motion against a chrononormative drive which seeks to harvest their maximum productivity, the commingling of work and pleasure obscure the ever-approaching horizon of the weary. in geylang, it is possible for the dispossessed to sow their seeds and hope for a long road to the good life. or, in its absence, the simple graces of survival and dignity. in this way, geylang is a zone of indistinction rife with both misery and opportunity. as margins go, geylang and its denizens threaten singapore’s myth of law and order. for their misfortune, they have been cast into the shadows, where, in the absence of sun, they have harvested a livelihood unconstrained by the range and complexity of its assemblage. funny that for the botanical, rot and manure--misery and opportunity--are two sides of that same coin which disrupts the soil, and coaxes it into habitability.

leisure—that rare pause in the demanding fabric of productive time—sings with the laugh of the gambler, sweetens the call girl’s smile, and wafts like ripe durian through the air. a fugitive place on the far reaches of legal formalism and subsequent gendarmes of moral ideology, geylang rejects the myth of “freedom,” and, furthermore, the fallacy of a liberating fence. look closely, and you might see the organizing principle of the garden itself. contextualized, eden—babylon, jerusalem, singapore—is but a chain-linked paradise for whom the choice-less eke out a living. is there a door from which to escape, toward an everlasting promise? unclear—but as fugitivity goes, perhaps the only way out is treason, disguised as sin.



siao: a hokkien term connoting surprise or disbelief

ah beng: singlish term for a stereotypical chinese man in southeast asia whose lower or lower-middle class standing and refusal to assimilate into respectable dress and speech place him on the margins of social fabric

suiyi tang