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One Last Walk Down Lorong 3 Geylang

One Last Walk Down Lorong 3 Geylang

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Photography by Marisse Caine.

A stillness fills the air as I turn onto Lorong 3 Geylang, which is quietly tucked away in between an industrial loading bay, a canal, and a HDB block. The only crackle of sound within earshot comes from an uncle riding his bicycle down the lane. 

I stop him for a moment to ask him about this place. 

“A lot of artists used to come here to paint,” he says bluntly, taking a last look at the place before zooming off. Occasionally, I notice a painted strip of canvas among the debris on the floor, or hanging crooked off a dusty wall.

The road makes the perfect set for a zombie apocalypse movie—doors and windows are barricaded, and debris from shoes to mattresses are scattered on the floor.
I venture into the strips between the homes, at first taken back by the stench and crawling insects. 

Seeing it in these conditions, I find it hard to believe it was once a thriving community, one I imagine looked vastly different in its prime. But that community came to an end on December 31 2020, when the 60-year-leases of the terrace houses of Lorong 3 Geylang expired, marking the first time Singapore has seen the government take back residential properties. 

Which is why I find myself here, to take one last look at the two hectare block of land before it gets permanently sealed off for redevelopment.

The neighbourhood was first built in 1961, when a fire in the 1950s destroyed over 100 houses in the nearby Kampung Kuchai. Each family was relocated to and sold a house for roughly $5,000 from the state, which equates to around $18,000 now
The word ‘CCTV’ is painted on the walls, with arrows pointing to where I assume cameras were once installed. I peek into one of the windows near where a CCTV camera was once positioned, and peep into a dilapidated kitchen. The creak of the window I push aside startles a rat, which scampers into the next room and out of sight. Stained cooking utensils sit uncovered next to an array of scattered domestic objects. 
135 of the 191 units at Lorong 3 were rented out to foreigners workers. Others were residential or were used as temples. 

And what strikes me most about Lorong 3 is the diversity of establishments that coexist in one place. Walking through, I pass a home, a migrant worker dorm, a Hindu temple, and a Buddhist temple within steps of each other.

I try to imagine what it must have been like on any regular evening. Temple chants filling the air while workers gather on the streets. Locals walking their dogs, stopping to chat with their neighbours drinking on their porch. I sense a kind of closeness, the sort unseen now in our new Covid-19 reality. I also imagine a kind of integration we won’t be seeing anymore, as the Lorong 3 forieign workers are relocated to purpose-built dormitories.

I’m interrupted by a cockroach emerging from a pile of trash next to me, getting too close for comfort.

As I turn back onto the main street, I bump into an auntie walking swiftly with a trolley. “I’m looking for a plant,” she answers when I ask her why she is here. “My friend who used to live here told me they used to plant many medicinal herbs and flowers.”

When I ask what she thinks of the lease ending, her tone softens. This kind of kampong architecture is what a lot of Singapore used to look like when she grew up, she recalls.

“I want to see my childhood before it’s gone.”

Not only is it the end of the kampong style of living, it also marks the end of an era in which many more had access to landed property. And as more and more mid-tier terrace houses and landed properties are removed, the idea of living on the ground or having a porch becomes  increasingly exclusive to the wealthy. 

“Move back!” a man shouts, holding a stick at least two meters long to a tree, which he uses to push fruits I can’t recognise from a tree. 

“These are mangoes. Perfect for mango salad. Do you want one?” he laughs as I approach him.

He was never a resident of this neighbourhood, but I find out he used to frequent the temple just behind the mango tree. While the temple has now moved to Serangoon now, he still comes regularly with his wife to forage for mangoes and moringa plants. 

It was a small family temple, his wife shares as she emerges from the next lane with a moringa plant in hand. Only 5 or 6 people would go in to pray at a time, but they liked it because they knew everyone in the neighbourhood. 

“I like the houses here, they all have a small garden to grow plants or chickens.”

The couple struggles to wave goodbye as they enter their car juggling two hands full of produce. 

I look at the toys, old photographs, and notes to loved ones that are left behind. It’s a nostalgic site, but it’s hard to indulge in when you’re interrupted by the decaying surroundings. 

What would have come of this place if the lease had not expired? Maybe the rustic lifestyle of such a place would have attracted creatives to the neighbourhood—allowing a splash of colour to thrive in a sea of monotonous architecture.

But maybe—and quite possibly—it would have continued to decay.

Is it best, then, to let go of a place whose beauty has faded to make way for new communities? 

Today, Singapore continues to grapple with this question.

What parts of Singapore are you scared of losing? It can be a neighbourhood, temple, or even a single road. Tell us at community@ricemedia.co. If you haven’t already, follow RICE on InstagramSpotifyFacebook, and Telegram.

Author

Edoardo Liotta Staff writer