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Secondary Settlement

The establishment of the Geylang area as a place of settlement dates back to the second half of the 19th century. It is defined by the boundaries of Sims Avenue, Paya Lebar Road, Guillemard Road and Mountbatten Road. Synonymous with its multiplicity of uses, mix of cultures, wealth of eateries and roadside fruit stalls, colourful Geylang is a hive ofactivity round-the-clock.

The History

Geylang was established during the early 1840s when the British Government dispersed the Malay floating village at the mouth of the Singapore River. The Malays and the Orang Laut then resettled at the mouths of the Kallang and Geylang Rivers that flowed into a common bay, known today as the Kallang Basin.
Geylang was first known as Geylang Kelapa, indicating the presence of coconut plantations back then. The initial settlers of Geylang lived in houses built on stilts over the river basin, all congregating along the river to form residential enclaves. The first Malay kampong formed was Kampong Melayu (the original name for today’s Geylang Serai).

Geylang Road originated as the earliest trunk road linking the downtown in Singapore River to the northeastern part of Singapore. It had an electric tramline running along its length and terminating at a lemongrass processing factory, located where Geylang Serai Market is today. This early agricultural area was known for the fragrant lemongrass, serai, grown as a cash crop by the Malays that settled here. The name Geylang Serai is therefore said to be derived from the lemongrass factory or Kilang Serai in Malay.
By the early 20th century, Geylang had expanded into two parts separated by the Geylang River. The eastern part (Geylang Serai today) was populated by the Malays who lived in traditional houses and used the land for agriculture. The western area was divided into a series of lanes termed “lorongs”, and was mainly inhabited by the Chinese. Most of the Chinese shops were set up strategically between the Kallang and Geylang Rivers, providing goods and services, such as jewellery and pawn shops. Subsequently, these two distinct communities gave Geylang the split in the character of its population, streetscapes and building layouts.
At the turn of the century, with population growth and a housing boom, Geylang transformed from an agricultural centre into an area for speculative housing ventures. The kampongs along the rivers were also phased out due to frequent flooding and poor sanitation, leading to the major urban
redevelopment of Geylang. The Post-WW1 building boom also led to the urbanisation of the lower Geylang Road, the parallel Sims Avenue and the Lorongs in between.

Geylang also acquired for itself a name as an entertainment district. In 1936, a group of businessmen started the Happy World Amusement Park (later known as the Gay World) along Lorong 2. The main draws of the park then were its cinemas and indoor stadium. The park eventually closed in the 1970s.

The Buildings

Geylang Road can be described as a commercial spine with the lorongs forming residential enclaves. The combination ofthe low-rise bungalows and rows of shophouses along the lorongs provides a gentle contrast to the buildings along the main Geylang Road.
Geylang is an area with a rich architectural heritage. It has a wide range of shophouses, depicting Early, First Transitional, Late, Second Transitional and Art Deco styles which demonstrate the range of building types and styles spanning the 1910s to the 1950s. It also has a good selection of bungalows that can be truly considered as “Singapore Eclectic”, a polyglot style drawn from a potpourri of Malay, European and Chinese influences. Besides these, there are many new expressions of the shophouse form. Together, they give Geylang a unique urban character, but one with a human scale.
Geylang architecture is diverse in form, typology and style. With the housing boom and population explosion after World War I, Geylang became an experimental ground for new housing types that incorporated variations on the shophouse and the bungalow typologies.
The distribution of these styles follows the historical development of Geylang. Along the main street, Geylang Road, Early-style shophouses are situated between Lorongs 11 and 13, 12 and 14, and 27A and 29. This concentration suggests
a multi-nodal linear development pattern where all these nodes were eventually merged until a contiguous streetscape resulted. The large proportion of First Transitional, Late, and Second Transitional shophouses reflects that very intensive development has taken place during the boom period. The substantial number of Art Deco buildings further indicates the flourishing of Geylang as a secondary settlement later.

The Geylang Shophouse

The repetitive rhythm set up by the columns and pilasters on the ground floor of the shophouses at regular intervals contribute to the overall unifying character of the Geylang streetscape.
The area also has a number of eye-catching Late-styled shophouses that demonstrate the full flowering of the cultural hybridisation that occurred in Singapore between WW1 and WW2, when the simplified Art-Deco/Moderne styles became popular. Buildings such as those at Lorong Bachok exemplify the coming together of the Asian and European tastes to create a unified and pleasing whole. Wooden fretwork from the Malay house is present together with Peranakan aesthetic influence can be seen in the use of colourful European tiles on the front walls; Chinese influence is typified by the V-shaped, natural clay tiles of the roof and the unique 3-dimensional plaster reliefs used extensively on facades; European features include the French windows that are louvred on the upper half and panelled below, glazed fanlights, and neo-Classical cornice work. The traditional door-gods of Chinese culture are replaced by almost life-sized plaster figures of Indian soldiers of the 19th Century.
These most ornate of shophouses have ‘relatives’ in the other parts of Singapore that urbanised around the same time – such as Balestier Road, Jalan Besar, Joo Chiat and Tanjong Katong.

The Geylang Bungalow

Compared with the palatial colonial bungalows in the Central Area, the Geylang bungalow is smaller in scale, occupying a smaller lot, with higher site coverage. The Geylang bungalow embodies a uniquely Singaporean vernacular domestic architecture. The three predominant bungalow styles are Early, Victorian and Art Deco. However, these styles incorporate a fusion of Malay, Chinese and European features. Their presence in this neighbourhood is a rare visible reminder of the start of the urbanisation of the fringes of Singapore city. The small stock of ‘bungalows’ here in Geylang are also representative of the range of detached housing types that used to be widely seen in Singapore.
Malay roof forms are utilized such as the bumbong perak and the bumbong lima. The layout of the Malay village house has also been adopted, in the form of the so-called “Malay bungalow plan”. Preceding the Rumah Ibu (main body of the
bungalow) is the serambi (reception verandah); other Malay-inspired features include the anjung (porch), rumah tangga (staircase) and awan larat (wood carving motif). The domestic architecture in Geylang can thus be defined as either “Singaporean Eclectic” or “Singaporean Malay”.

Nos. 6 & 10 Lorong 29 Geylang - A pair of two-storey Art Deco bungalows were restored, converted into maisonette flats and integrated with a new eight-storey condominium. They can be seen through a double volume opening creatively punched through the eight-storey condominium. This project received a URA Architectural Heritage Award in 1996 [].

Other buildings

Nestled in the long Geylang Road and surrounding areas are other building types which are both local landmarks and
also markers of Singapore’s architectural and social development.

Post Office

The Geylang Post Office is a 3 storey building of an Early-Modern style which moved away from the use of ‘excessive’façade decoration, a restrained look that perhaps was considered more suitable for a public building.

Former Queens Theatre (Grandlink Square)

This was one of the major theatres along the road, catering to the then burgeoning cinema industry. It is an architectural exercise in the use of neo-Classical features to create a grand and exotic foreign appearance – with a large pediment, half dome and double storey arch-way, better perhaps to stand out amongst the 2 storey surroundings.

Masjid Khadijah

This mosque is an good example of a late 19th century hybridisation between the neo-Classical styles that were becoming popular amongst the Indian Muslim community and the traditional Malay Mosque that has a pitched roof as its central feature. Of particular note are the elegant arches around the main prayer hall, and the delicate moulded plaster work throughout.

Former Eastern Aerated Water Factory

This building is a reminder of the light industries that sprang up in the area to serve a population that was growing and that demanded the latest in modern goods and modern tastes. As with many industry building, while the production line was a functional shed, much resources was poured into the ‘face’ at the front of the site, in order to advertise the business. The building is a good example of the Moderne style of the 1930s, with a elongated stepped pediment and a flag-post on top of a two storey building. A row of well proportioned windows that are sheltered by very thin concrete sun-shades create a light feel to the façade. The main decorative feature, and highlight of the façade are the words (in
English and Chinese) proclaiming the business’s name which are of pre-cast 3-dimensional plaster-work. The English lettering is in a flowing cursive script, while the Chinese lettering is a rare example of ‘Art-Deco’ Chinese style characters. The pre-cast diamond shaped terrazzo plaque with the image of a steam-ship is perhaps one of the few known examples remaining of this form of decorative architectural device.

The Legacy

The buildings of Geylang depict a part of the history of Singapore’s ethnic communities and form a
tangible part of our local culture and identity. A melting-pot of building typologies, the built heritage of Geylang also charts the social and economic evolution of the area.

Conserved on 25 October 1991


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