Nov 28, 2019
The old school rules in Geylang, where a colorful jumble of heritage shops, ornate temples, bustling kopitiams and legendary eateries invites a closer look at Singapore’s grittiest neighborhood.
Story and photographs by Lester V. Ledesma
1. Five/6 Hotel Splendour In a neighborhood that famously caters to the budget guest, this colorful hotel is one of the few that manage to elevate the affordable-travel experience. Sporting pops of artsy flair in its brightly painted façade and cheery interiors, Hotel Splendour may not be five-star, but its rooms come awash in thoughtful extras. Relax in your egg chair at the end of the day with free Netflix and complimentary minibar. hotelsplendour.sg; S$117 per night.
2. 19 Lorong Bachok This ornate Singaporean shophouse hasn’t changed in the 90 years since it was built—from the ancient Chinese folktales depicted on its exterior to its intricate Malay fretwork to the Sikh-guard bas-reliefs that adorn its main pillars. Located at the heart of Geylang’s most traditional Chinese area (a network of narrow side streets with martial arts schools, clan associations, and Buddhist and Taoist temples), it’s a good starting point for a self-guided Geylang tour.
3. The Skewer Bar Chef Vincent Low mixes Japanese culinary techniques with homegrown cuisine in this cozy neighborhood yakitori joint. The Skewer Bar complements its sea salt–seasoned and teriyaki-flavored meats with fusion dishes like local otah fishcakes rolled tamago-style and hawthorn-laced grilled chicken thigh. There’s also a novel take on the onigiri rice snack using nasi lemak coconut rice. The drinks list offers an extensive lineup of beer, whisky, wine, soju—and yes, sake. theskewerbar.com; skewers from S$1.50, mains from S$10.
4. Keng Wah Sung Kopitiam This little kopitiam (traditional café) has long been a fixture on Geylang Road, its resident food hawkers serving up tasty local fare like curry rice and bee hoon noodles for almost five decades. However, Keng Wah Sung’s main attraction is its roti kaya and kopi. The former is a thick coconut jam served between slices of charcoal-toasted bread, while the latter is sweet, syrupy Hainanese-style coffee. Both are made using old family recipes handed down from the proprietor’s parents. 783 Geylang Road; kayakopi set from S$4.
5. Durian 36 The spiky, pungent “king of fruits” is a Singaporean obsession, and Geylang is the place to get it. Follow that unmistakable scent to Durian 36, one of the neighborhood’s abundant 24-hour roadside eateries, and the vendors there will happily crack open a durian for inspection. First-timers would do well to sample the red prawn variety, which has a mild flavor and sweet aftertaste, while true durian connoisseurs should go for the more intense, bittersweet mao shan wang or XO varieties. durian36.com; servings from S$10.
6. Chinese Cultural Shop It may look and feel like a regular antique shop, but this quirky little heirloom store is much more than just a repository of old things. In fact, most items here brim with cultural significance for the Singaporean Chinese. Vintage embroidered tapestries are on display, along with traditional Chinese instruments, martial arts equipment, wedding dowry baskets and countless other heritage finds. Third-generation owner Jeffrey Eng knows the merchandise by heart, and is keen to chat with visitors about the history of each object. fb.com/ChineseCulturalShop.
7. Yuu Xiang Dam Get your sugar hit at this pint-sized one-stop shop for Asian desserts. Fill up on traditional Chinese sweets like yam paste, mango pudding and chewy, springy taro balls. Or go for crispy Malay apam balik pancakes stuffed with anything from sweet corn and peanuts to chocolate and cheese. The house specialty, muak muak ice, gets top billing, though—a mouth-watering bowl of shredded, flavored ice lashed with kaleidoscopic toppings and tropical fruit. fb.com/yuuxiangdamsg.
8. The Sultan Hotel This heritage hotel offers Art-Deco polish just five minutes from western Geylang. Occupying a row of restored early- 1900s shophouses, it screams “old Singapore” with its original French windows, plaster moldings and floor tiles. All rooms are elegantly furnished, but it’s The Sultan’s 18 luxury suites—and its 2012 URA Architectural Heritage Award—that really set it apart, not to mention the highly regarded One Bowl, its in-house Cantonese resto. thesultan.com.sg; S$199 per night for a Sky Suite.