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The word Geylang is found early in Singapore's history and also in early topographical maps showing marsh and coconut plantations beside and adjacent to the mouth of the Kallang river, home to the Orang Laut (sea gypsies).
One possible etymological link in the stock vocabulary of the Malay is 'geylanggan' meaning to 'twist' or 'crush' a reference to the process of extracting the coconut meat and milk used by the locals to thicken curries in Malay-Chinese (Peranakan) cuisine.
Micro-businesses founded by Malay, Indian and Chinese entrepreneurs seized start-up opportunities as mechanics in bicycle or motor repair workshops, suppliers of wood for making boats, houses, furniture and as merchants in iron, of floor and roofing tiles, in rubber and later plastics for all kinds of marine, industrial, factory and home use, including the mosaic of temples, mosques and churches in Geylang that have its roots serving local worshippers in search of spirituality and the divine.
One of the distinctive hallmarks of Geylang architecture is the preservation of its shophouses used by the clan (kinship) associations, set up as a (first) point of contact for newcomers in the migrant wave between 18 for the purpose of integrating the newcomers into the ways and customs of locals.
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Geylang Road and Sims Avenue are major roads that run through the area, connecting Geylang with Kallang and the Central Area in the west, as well as Bedok and Changi in the east.
Six Mass Rapid Transit stations serve the town, Aljunied, Dakota, Eunos, Mac Pherson, Mountbatten and Paya Lebar.
Peter Neville, British author of The Rose of Singapore (Monsoon, 2006) writes a novel of Lai Meng, a once famous prostitute in the Geylang area, who falls in love with an R. The detailed account of life in Geylang during and immediately after the war, the visits to Haw Par Villa, the types of food and services available among the main truck road toward Changi and all of its varied businesses (including the sex trade) stands at back of the reasons why prostitution, while officially illegal and outlawed in the Singapore constitution, is nevertheless seen as an accessible, public expedient and necessarily so in view of the large numbers of single male foreign workers and expatriates on the island.
James Francis Warren has studied the death (coroner's) reports in that colonial era that attest to the lives of the Hokkien, Teochew and Hakka and other dialect groups cast out of the Chinese mainland due to famine and abject poverty.
His research tells the story of illiterate Chinese migrants working as coolies and rickshaw pullers and gives a description of what life might have been for the poorest of the poor living in Singapore under the British and immediately before the Japanese Occupation.
The idea persists to this day, of the process of heartache and desperation associated with the broken and hurting lives of those involved in buying and selling of sex and drugs on the streets and in the registered brothel in the area.
The word Geylang may be derived from a corrupted spelling of the Malay word 'gelang' which is a type of edible creeper (Portulaca oleracea).