Geylang Serai

Singapore Infopedia

by Cornelius, Vernon


Geylang Serai is one of the oldest Malay settlements in Singapore. The significance of early Geylang Serai lies not in its architectural features but in its reputation as the Malay emporium of Singapore, known to Malays in the Malay Archipelago including Malaya, Brunei and Indonesia.1

In the 1840s, some Orang Laut (sea nomads) settled on the bank of the Geylang River. The settlement expanded to the Geylang Serai area in the latter half of the 19th century. At the time, the rich Arab family of the Alsagoffs owned the large Perseverance Estate on which the extensive cultivation and growth of lemongrass plants led the settlement area to be known as Geylang Serai (serai meaning “lemongrass” in Malay).2 Some suggest that the name Geylang is a corruption of the Malay kilang, which means “press”, “mill” or “factory”.3

In the early 1900s, after the failure of the lemongrass industry, the Malays and the Chinese farmers remained on the Alsagoff estate but turned to cultivating coconut, rubber and vegetables, as well as rearing poultry for a living.4 By 1910, Singapore’s first tramline service had its eastern terminal at Geylang Serai.5 The landscape changed during the Japanese Occupation (1942–45) when people started planting tapioca, or ubi in Malay. Part of Geylang Serai then became known as Kampong Ubi.6

After the war, Geylang Serai’s population increased and the uninhabited areas were gradually occupied. In the 1950s, when the better-off Chinese moved out of the area, more Malay people moved in and the population of Geylang Serai became predominantly Malay.7 On 12 April 1964, during the Indonesia–Malaysia Confrontation (1963–66), a bomb exploded at a block of flats at Geylang Serai, killing two men. Communal riots between Malays and Chinese broke out several months later on 21 July 1964 on Prophet Muhammad’s birthday.8

In 1965, the Geylang Serai Housing Scheme redevelopment programme saw the construction of three blocks of flats.9 By the early 1980s, Housing and Development Board (HDB) flats, industrial estates of light industries, and modern shopping complexes had been completed. Along with the modernisation programme, the Singapore government decided to preserve the Malay cultural heritage. To this end, a one-hectare site called the Malay Village (bordering Sims Avenue, Geylang Serai and Geylang Road) was set aside to showcase a replica of a Malay kampong (village) and to promote traditional Malay handicraft and cultural activities.10


Vernon Cornelius-Takahama

1. National Archives (Singapore), Geylang Serai: Down Memory Lane: Kenangan Abadi (Singapore: Heinemann Asia, 1996), 24 (Call no. RSING 779.995957 GEY); Saat A. Rahman, et al. eds., The Heart of Geylang Serai: A Commemorative Book by Kampung Ubi Citizens’ Consultative Committee (Singapore: Kampong Ubi Citizens’ Consultative Committee, 2005), 88. (Call no. RSING q959.57 HEA)
2. National Archives (Singapore), Geylang Serai, 16–19.
3. Rahman, et al., Heart of Geylang Serai, 61.
4. National Archives (Singapore), Geylang Serai, 21.
5. National Archives (Singapore), Geylang Serai, 20.
6. National Archives (Singapore), Geylang Serai, 23.
7. National Archives (Singapore), Geylang Serai, 25.
8. National Archives (Singapore), Geylang Serai, 31–33.
9. National Archives (Singapore), Geylang Serai, 27, 35.
10. National Archives (Singapore), Geylang Serai, 40–43.

Further resource
Urban Redevelopment Authority (Singapore), Geylang Planning Area: Planning Report 1994 (Singapore: Urban Redevelopment Authority, 1994), 4, 6, 8. (Call no. RSING 711.4095957 SIN)

The information in this article is valid as at May 2018 and correct as far as we can ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.


Rights Statement

The information on this page and any images that appear here may be used for private research and study purposes only. They may not be copied, altered or amended in any way without first gaining the permission of the copyright holder.

More to Explore

Anderson Bridge


Anderson Bridge straddles the mouth of the Singapore River and connects Empress Place with Collyer Quay. It was named after John Anderson, governor of the Straits Settlements and high commissioner for the Federated Malay States (1904–11), who officially opened the bridge on 12 March 1910....

Katong Park Hotel


Katong Park Hotel, one of Singapore's oldest hotels, was located at 46 Meyer Road. Owned by several people since it was built in 1953, the hotel was previously known by three other names: Embassy Hotel, Hotel Ambassador and Duke Hotel. It was renamed Katong Park Hotel in 1992 before it...

Former Asia Insurance Building (Ascott Raffles Place)


The former Asia Insurance Building is located at 2 Finlayson Green. With 18 storeys rising above a double-volume ground floor, it was once the tallest building in Southeast Asia at a height of 270 ft (82 m). Designed by one of Singapore’s pioneer architects, Ng Keng Siang, the office building...

East Coast Parkway


The East Coast Parkway (ECP) is a 19-kilometre expressway built on reclaimed land along the southeastern coast of Singapore. Completed in 1981, it connects the Ayer Rajah Expressway (AYE) at Shenton Way in the Central Business District to Singapore Changi Airport in the east. ...

Bukit Merah


Located in the central region, the Bukit Merah planning area comprises 17 sub-zones. It is bounded by Alexandra Road to the west, Jervois Lane, Prince Charles Square and Alexandra Canal to the north, and Kim Seng and Outram roads to the east. The area spans approximately 1,413 ha. ...

Henderson Waves and Alexandra Arch


Henderson Waves and Alexandra Arch are two key linkages that form part of the Southern Ridges walking trail connecting Mount Faber, Telok Blangah Hill and Kent Ridge, in the southwestern part of Singapore. Spanning Henderson Road and Alexandra Road respectively, the two pedestrian bridges have striking designs that make them...



Pinnacle@Duxton is a public housing project at 1A Cantonment Road. It is the first 50-storey public housing project in Singapore, and also the first in the world with two sky bridges linking seven towers. The sky bridges create two layers of sky parks that offer panoramic views of the city....

Meyer Road


Meyer Road stretches from Tanjong Rhu Road to Tanjong Katong Road. Today, Meyer Road is a prime residential district with private houses as well as condominiums. A stone's throw away from the East Coast Park, Meyer Road is easily accessible by the East Coast Expressway extending from the city to...



Situated on the eastern fringe of the city centre, Aljunied broadly refers to the areas surrounding Aljunied Road, which connects Geylang Road and MacPherson Road, and Upper Aljunied Road, which extends from the MacPherson Road junction to Upper Serangoon Road....

Pasir Panjang


Named after a long stretch of sandy beach along the southwestern coastline of Singapore, the Pasir Panjang area developed around a main road of the same name that used to hug the coastline prior to land reclamation works. In the early days, the area was occupied by agricultural settlers who...