It began life as a simple wet market under a zinc roof in 1964, a tumultuous year marked by racial riots. But Geylang Serai Market, which celebrated its 50th birthday recently, has prospered along with Singapore’s growth and continues to thrive despite competition from supermarkets.
Never quiet even on weekdays, it hosts a shoulder-to-shoulder crowd on weekends, which see 10,000 visitors a day on average, when people from across Singapore visit to get anything from spices to herbs or a good meal.
When The Straits Times visited one recent weekday, the two-storey market, which has around 360 stalls, was a bustle of activity as early as 7am.
Chinese fishmongers, displaying stingray, selar and other seafood freshly transported from the Jurong Fishery Port, speak fluent Malay as they serve customers.
At the vegetable section, bright green strings of petai, a Malay bean, hang from the stall fronts. Sitting in boxes are bakawali – a herb resembling a rope with thorns used to treat diabetes and high blood pressure.
Madam Azizah Hashim, 59, a nurse, comes fortnightly from Hougang to buy ulam rajah, a Malay herb eaten with sambal belacan, a spicy sauce made with chilli and shrimp paste.
“I tried looking for it in Chinese wet markets in Hougang, but the sellers didn’t know what it was. This is one of the few places where I can get it,” she said.
After shopping for groceries, she wanders up to the second storey, where a multitude of baju kurung and headscarves lie in wait.
She rounds off her trip with breakfast in one of the 60-plus Malay food stalls in the market, offering some of the best nasi padang and lontong in town.
“From clothes to food, there’s everything I need,” she said.
That is why Singapore’s only pork-free market is still a crowd-puller. It has everything under one roof.
Madam Wati Ridduan, 40, says it is one of the few markets where peeled and blended tapioca for making kueh can be bought. She, like many others, was introduced to Pasar Geylang Serai, as it is known in Malay, by her mother when she was young.
The place has turned into something of a meeting point. “I’ve even bumped into primary school friends who come from Jurong to buy stuff here,” said the data entry specialist.
But Pasar Geylang Serai got off to a tough start in 1964.
Two riots in the area meant that curfews were imposed and the prices of food skyrocketed, according to anecdotes collected in Pasar Geylang Serai: 50 Years Of Continuity Amidst Change, a book recently published by the Pasar Geylang Serai Merchants’ Association (PGSMA).
But Pasar Geylang Serai’s growing popularity saw it outlive the neighbouring Joo Chiat and Changi markets, which closed down in the 70s due to fires.
Former Geylang Serai resident Abdul Rahman Suradi, 59, remembers how Hari Raya – calculated based on sightings of the moon – arrived earlier than expected in the 1970s. “We heard the announcement on the radio and shopkeepers were shocked. They rushed back to open their stalls. Housewives bought what they could; it was a mad rush to prepare for the Hari Raya feast the next day,” said the owner of a food stall in Marine Parade.
As the Geylang Serai area further developed, the market was rebuilt in 2006 to cater to the growing neighbourhood. Its current premises, completed just five years ago, is aptly shaped like a Malay kampung house.
“It’s much cleaner compared to the old market,” said vegetable seller Ina Pakwan, 56. “There are partitions between our stalls so we don’t have to squeeze.”
While shoppers who come to do their daily marketing are mostly aged above 40, young people also visit the market and its surrounding area at least once a year for the massive Hari Raya bazaar.
“It’s just so colourful. You see festive lighting, baju kurung and food everywhere,” said 22-year-old student Jaffar Hussain. “There are other bazaars in Woodlands and Jurong but it doesn’t feel like Hari Raya if you don’t go to Geylang Serai.”
In recent years, the market has had its share of setbacks, in particular, the mass food poisoning case in 2009. Two people died and more than 150 fell ill after eating contaminated Indian rojak from the market.
That occurred when the market was housed in a temporary site as its new premises were being built. Three months later, Pasar Geylang Serai moved into its current $18.2 million building, helping business to bounce back.
“People wanted to see the building. We have been providing reliable services for years – so our business recovered quickly,” said PGSMA honorary treasurer Anwardeen Sulaiman, 57, a vegetable stall owner in the market.
Now, the future looks brighter with upgrading in its vicinity.
On the cards is a new civic centre – Wisma Geylang Serai – which will house a community club and Malay cultural activities. It will be completed in 2017 and built in place of the Malay Village, which closed down in 2011 due to bad business. New walkways will also link Pasar Geylang Serai to the new civic centre and Paya Lebar MRT station.
Many welcomed the changes.
As Mr Anwardeen said: “The gotong royong (kampung) spirit is strong in Pasar Geylang Serai. It’s been 50 years but I hope this cultural gem doesn’t fade away.”