Singapore is a multi-racial, multi-religion country. The fun of it is that we get to experience, share and taste the festivals of our friends and neighbors of different ethnicity or religions. I took one such walk down Geylang Serai at the start of the Ramadan Festival and came away with an urban adventure!
Historically, Geylang Serai is the site of one of the oldest Malay settlements in Singapore dating back to 1840’s or so. It was thought that the word “Geylang” was a derivative of the word ‘kilang” which meant press or mill – a indication of the major coconut mills in the area then, producing oil from the copra palm. “Serai”, is the Malay word for the fragrant lemongrass, which once was cultivated in the area.
As farm villages, known as “kampongs”, gave way to urbanization, Geylang Serai continued to be at the heart of Malay culture.
Thus, Ramadan, which is celebrated by the Malays and Muslims in Singapore, takes special pride of place during this time of the year at Geyang Serai. A canopy of colored lights sparkles in the dark. Streets are covered over with makeshift tentage, and row upon row of vendors begin to hawk wares that are a must for the festival.
For the house proud, there’s carpets, curtains, furniture and décor items to adorn your home with. Brightly colored traditional dress vies for the attention of the “makcik” (madam) shopper. What’s interesting is also that the bazaars have taken on a very global feel. There are Turkish vendors with their carpets (and doner kebabs!) and I believed I passed by a calligraphy stand where the vendor spoke Mandarin and Arabic and looked like he could be a Muslim from China.
Then there’s the food. There are stalls stacked with dates, a must-have food item for the festival, and rows upon rows of cookies, which will be served to your guests after the month of fasting is over. At separate intervals, the bazaar features cooked food stalls selling portable snack that’s easy for you to hold, eat and wander through the bazaar at the same time. These cooked food stalls are also important during the fasting period of Ramadan, as many people would grab a snack at the break of fast on their way home from work…before hitting the real meal at home!
I was totally thrilled when I saw that many of these stalls sold a deep fried fish cake called “keropok” which I used to eat when I was a kid. Unlike the crunchy chip type keropok that is easy to find in convenience stores, these ones are crisp yet chewy in the centre. Another popular item, judging by the line that was forming around the stall, was the Ramlee Burger. Since my partner in crime wanted one, I had to stand in line for about 30mins…what better thing to do than to shoot away with my LC-A+ to witness the birth of the Ramlee Burger?
Wandering around the never-ending stalls of food and clothing and knick-knacks…I suddenly heard a live band playing and decided to investigate. There was a mega stage with strobe lights and all – right in the middle of an open –air car park. That’s when I realized that the band was singing in Mandarin!
And that’s when I also realized that it was also the time of the year, where the Chinese community observe the month of the Hungry Ghost – where offerings of joss sticks, gold paper…. and entertainment were made to appease wandering spirits. So what I had stumbled upon was a “getai” (literally meaning song stage) which by the looks of the ruptured audience was pretty much entertaining the living as well as the dead!
That’s when it struck me that this was one of those urban adventures that one just stumbles on in Singapore. Where else, could I find two festivals, observed by two different religions and ethnicities being celebrated about a block apart?