Welcome to My Backyard

One of Geylang Adventuresʼ initiatives is Majulah Belanja, an annual cookout involving Singaporeans and migrant workers.

Geylang Adventures is a community group that seeks to change perceptions by creating opportunities for interaction between Singaporeans and migrant communities.

BY CHARLENE CHUA
PHOTOS SPH LIBRARY
 

G

eylang, a neighbourhood in the southeastern part of Singapore, is home to many migrant workers. Many of them work as manual labourers, building the city’s modern infrastructure and contributing to its development in other ways.

Singaporean Cai Yinzhou, 27, who has lived in Geylang all his life, counts some of these workers as friends. He says: “Years ago, I saw a bunch of workers playing badminton behind my house. So I went up to them and asked to join their game. Since then, we have shared food and stories in the back alleys of Geylang. They speak little English but we manage to understand each other.”

In January, Geylang Adventures attended an appreciation event for migrant workers of Nee Soon Town Council, which looks after estates in the north of Singapore;

Cai wanted to do something to get Singaporeans and migrant workers together. So in December 2013, he formed a community group called Geylang Adventures to recognise migrant workers’ contributions to Singapore as well as build bridges between them and Singaporeans.

One of the friends that Cai has made through his outreach is Md Mukul Hossine, 27, from Bangladesh. He has been in Singapore since 2008 and works in the construction industry. He is also a published writer, whose novel, Buker Simanaye Sukh, which means “Happiness at Heart’s Edge”, and his poetry collection Apurna Vasana, or “Unfulfilled Desire”, have been published in Bangladesh.

He also has an English poetry collection, Me Migrant, published by local publisher Ethos Books. Besides sharing his experiences as a migrant worker and poet at educational institutions in Singapore, Mukul also volunteers as a translator at non-profit community clinic HealthServe in his free time.

Grateful for the friendship and support that Cai had extended to him, Mukul says: “Yinzhou is a very good brother to me and has supported me in many ways. He helped out with my book launch and he often helps me prepare for my public speaking engagements. I am very thankful for this friendship.”

Volunteers from Geylang Adventures held a Migrant Mail session for workers during the event; Md Mukul Hossine, a Bangladeshi poet whom Cai Yinzhou befriended through one of his outreaches.

Cai also hopes to get more people to experience Geylang, hear the stories of the different communities that are part of its multicultural landscape, and learn about the area’s rich history and cultural heritage. Geylang Adventures conducts walking tours around the lorongs, or lanes, of Geylang for Singaporeans and foreign visitors to explore the sights, sounds and cultural diversity that the area has to offer.

GIVING BACK
One of its key initiatives is Back Alley Barbers, where local volunteers provide free haircuts to migrant workers and the poor in the back alleys of Geylang on weekends. The idea is to save the money they would have spent on haircuts so that they can send more to their families back home. The activity also allows workers and volunteers a chance to get to know each other better, and exchange stories and perspectives.

“Singaporeans have a lot of misperceptions of migrant workers. These events help bring the two communities together. ”


Cai Yinzhou, founder of Geylang Adventures

Yvonne Huang, 30, one of the Singaporean volunteers for Back Alley Barbers, says: “After we cut their hair, they would insist on offering us money. And when we refuse to take it, they would then go to the provision shop and buy us drinks. I hope that more Singaporeans will talk to these workers.”

Another Geylang Adventures initiative is Majulah Belanja, which translates literally as “onwards, to treat”. It is an annual cookout that gathers groups of Singaporeans and migrant workers to prepare lunch at a worker’s dormitory. Everyone gains a better understanding of each other’s culture, and Singaporeans get a chance to visit a dormitory to learn more about the lives of migrant workers.

To help these workers cope with homesickness, there is Migrant Mail, where volunteers collect handwritten letters from workers and take Polaroid photos of them. They then send the letters and photos to the workers’ loved ones back home.

Ultimately, Cai says that Geylang Adventures is not about doing charity or raising funds to radically change the lives of these workers. Instead, it is a platform for ground-up initiatives that contribute to changing social norms and perceptions. He adds: “Singaporeans have a lot of misperceptions of migrant workers. These events help bring the two communities together.”


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