All Geylang Serai Bazaar Stall Images, Understanding why Pasar Malams suck, and why 2019 is significant


Ok, I lied. It isn’t really all of the stalls. Pretty sure I missed some since the venue is pretty big.

There might be some repeat stalls in the album, but that’s not a double take. Those shops rented more than one stall. Some stalls are empty and looking for operators, which also means that this list is only accurate as of 8th May 2019 (it takes time for these articles).

Geylang Serai Bazaar only lasts from May 3 to June 5, 2019, but the points made in this article are meant to be timeless.

This post is also submitted to Reddit, got gilded Platinum within 1 hour and 1,000 up-votes (97% ups) in 21 hours. What you see on this blog is intended to be updated and hopefully prettier.

(For the people going This guy is bragging! Burn him!, it’s so that others won’t just close this tab immediately.)

u/MiloDinoStylo’s TL;DR, edited: 2019 is the Revival of Pasar Malam. Rents are capped, all food is Halal, with a larger ratio of Traditional food instead of hipster food. Hipster food is good tho, because Entrepreneurship. Plus the traditional food we know, was actually hipster back then. See photos for stalls.

What this article is for

Recently there were two threads on the Geylang Serai Bazaar on reddit. One about Lobster Roll complaints, and the other discussion not being too enthusiastic about it. Last year, there was a thread talking about rents being a problem.

Here’s the deal: If you worry about spending money or think it’s expensive, it’s not worth it to go.

My role here is just to understand why things are the way it is and explain what 2019 did differently that might make Geylang Serai Pasar Malam special again if not now, then in the future.  

Geylang Serai is worth visiting for a Pasar Malam (Malay for Night Market) experience with a mix of Hipster food. Hipster trends actually started way back in 1970 or earlier, despite what people think of “tradition”. No, the rent problem which resulted in hipsterization didn’t start in recent years. 1970. It’s a long existing ‘problem’.

(to the foreigners, ‘hipster’ is slightly different here and is closer to a meaning of ‘trendy’ with a mix of ‘weird’)

It’s not the only Pasar Malam, though it is the biggest. There’s one at Tampines Hub and another at Woodlands (shameless promotion since I wrote that article). There are also others around the island under or near HDB blocks, called Bazaar Bawah Block (Bazaar under the block in Malay). It shouldn’t be hard to find them if you’re physically near one, but these don’t have any official registries.

Foreigners should check out the nearest one. A couple of hours should be enough for an enjoyable experience if you haven’t been to one before.

If you just want some highlights of the hipster food, go to any other “Top 10 Geylang Serai Bazaar 2019” blog posts. This post isn’t about that.

If you want the full price list, browse the Imgur album. The picture quality should be just good enough to see the prices.

If you just want a general feel of what it is like there, skim through YouTube videos by DancingBacons, or other smaller YouTubers. EatBook, HHWT, Ryan Sylvia videos are mostly just people sitting there eating. Though, watch whatever you enjoy.

Geylang Serai Bazaar 2019 Images, about 7 distinctive areas:

Blue = Not food
Red with utensils icon = Food area

The large middle one is drawn inaccurately, which I realized after posting and editing, but it shouldn’t make a difference.

Also taking photos here I realize people are surprisingly cooperative towards people taking photos. When it is more crowded people will purposely walk behind me or slightly bend to avoid the camera. Thank you 😛

Why Pasar Malams Suck, and will NEVER be like the good ol’ days

I have to agree that going to a Pasar Malam is not as cheap as it used to be. Anyone who thinks that you’d rather eat at a food court or restaurant for better quality food won’t enjoy it.

There’s also the people who says that Pasar Malams just don’t feel the same anymore.

And you’re right.

In fact you’re so right that this problem existed god damn 50 years ago in 1970. But let’s dig into WHY this problem happens.

The Hipsterization 50 years ago

The “good old days” version of Pasar Malam started around 1960s. HDB housings just started and there weren’t many amenities around. Most people were poor, and hawking at night gave them cash while also serving the demands of the market.

Pasar Malam in 1963, Ministry of Information and the Arts Collection, courtesy of National Archives of Singapore

Also during the late 1960s, globalization brought in MNCs that started to hire, and people got richer in general. Hawking became not a necessity for extra income but instead an alternative income method.

Pasar Malams were such good money that shops paying rent started doing Pasar Malams too. But this, along with hawkers, created problems due to diseases, hygiene and road blockage.

PASAR MALAM IN WOODLANDS, 1965, by Singapore Press Holdings (SPH)

So Pasar Malams started to be regulated, but proved hard since they were making so much money that fines didn’t do shit. In 1970, the government just outright ban them.

It seems cruel, but without doing that Singapore would probably look more 3rd world now. If you want to blame anything, blame modernization.

Pasar Malam 1962, Photograph taken by Wong Ken Foo (K F Wong)

People’s Park Complex was built in 1970 to accommodate some of the Pasar Malam and hawkers. But with rents to pay and an actual building, prices had to go up.

Remember that people got richer? People’s Park got way more customers despite the rise in price. The “fashion-conscious” people who visited this new complex with nicer facilities and higher prices looked for different, or may I say, HIPSTER things that were different from the ones offered by Pasar Malam.

People’s Park Complex, 1972, by SPH

Keep in mind, this is in 1970. That means that any currently middle-income family’s grandpa and grandma were like to be part of this “fashion-conscious” group.

You can argue that technically moving into People’s Park made them a shopping mall and not Pasar Malam, but technicalities aside the demands of the market meant that prices will go up and people will want to buy hipster shit.

Revival of Pasar Malam

With the ban, what happened later on? It revived in 1983 as a tourist trap in Sentosa. But it wasn’t until 1991 when Pasar Malams officially returned to HDBs, mainly as a boost business, revive older estate and do fundraising for organizations like charities, religious and social institutions. Somehow later on, private organizations are allowed to organize them as well. This then became the modern version where a Pasar Malam is held whenever there is some sort of holiday or festival.

PASAR MALAM AT PAGODA STREET, EARLY 1990s, by SINGAPORE TOURIST PROMOTION BOARD (STPB)

A longer version of the history will soon be coming in a separate post.

Why Hipster food are a good thing

Here’s the difference between then and now. The roasted chestnuts, steamed peanuts, steamed corn, steamed coconut cakes, fried tapioca puddings were the hipster food of the past. They were rarities that people didn’t know about because they were too poor and too ignorant to know otherwise.

Part of the charm of the Pasar Malam, other than the boisterous atmosphere, is the prospect of discovering something you haven’t seen before.

In an age where Singaporeans are now relatively rich and can just browse Taobao, Amazon, YouTube, Instagram for unique products, Pasar Malam have to fulfill that sense of discovery in a different way by producing hipster food.

As much as people want to complain about the prices, with changing circumstances it doesn’t make sense NOT to use that as a reason to create weirder food. And seeing the same food for 20 years can make you feel like a snob for saying the food is traditional, but it’s also making the bazaar boring.

And I’m saying this as someone who wrote a few several thousand word articles about food history that each required at least 4 full days of sitting down and reading academic papers, articles, research blogs, specialized forums, then actually writing. I’m certainly not an expert on the subject, but don’t just simply tell me that traditional = good.

With a richer customer base stalls can use more expensive ingredients and come up with more ridiculous ideas. And it is clear from the trend and market spending that PEOPLE WANT HIPSTER food.

I’m not lying I want this too

You can criticize me and point to the lobster roll articles or the countless other complains about hipster food, but do know that terrible inventions are mostly part of the process, and whether that survives depends on the market.

Why are Hipster Food found at Bazaars/Pasar Malam

Entrepreneurship. That’s really what it is about, and why Bazaars seem to attract more hipster food than any other location.

The Lobster’s super consistent pose is bothering me

Think back to the history of Pasar Malams again. It started as a way for extra or alternative income, with a low commitment. Same thing now. Pasar Malams are fantastic product testing grounds for a random idea, as they have a relatively low startup cost, except now the cost isn’t free like in the past.

The difference between entrepreneurship in the past and now is that people back then did it to survive. People now do it to earn more money or for some sort of experience, whether that is passion or just for learning.

Examples: Beef Bro, Katoshka, Loco Loco.

The world is different now, and that is the same reason why certain non-food items are less common and attractive.  

Like these kinds 🙁

Why are Bazaar/Pasar Malam Food Unhealthy

Practical concerns. You have to remember that Bazaars/Night Markets/Pasar Malams are still pop-up stalls with limited space and equipment. Traditional kueh, kolehkoleh, puteri salat, nasi padang are simply not practical to keep under these conditions and people have actually complained about them going bad before. Tweaking recipes or adjusting something else will likely result in lower quality food.

Donut Burgers

So what happens is that there are more food you can cook on the spot upon order with simple equipment, which are grilled and fried food.

Additional information by u/itzuitzu (needs verification): The use of open flame cooking was banned from Pasar Malams as well due to safety concerns. This in-turn deterred hawkers who preferred fire style cooking from setting up stalls at bazaars.

Why Hipster Food is Expensive

Rent. An island like Singapore, in the long term, will NEVER go to a state where land prices drop. And when I mean long term. I don’t mean 5 or 10 years. I mean 20, 50 years.

There’s a reason why the Urban Redevelopment Authority plans land in Singapore for the next 50 years and 10-15 years. Because we literally don’t have this thing called land and we will optimize the shit out of it.

And what happens if there’s something that EVERYBODY NEEDS BUT NOBODY HAS? Price increase.

Like the Lobster roll that got the price complaint

Unless of course something drastic happens, like a meteorite drops on Singapore rendering the entire island unlivable.

But what exactly is the current market process for Pasar Malams that resulted in high rents? This part needs confirmation, but it is a land tender and should work like this:

  1. Land has an owner, which is usually the State (In Geylang Serai’s case, HDB)
  2. HDB decides to hold a bazaar, but needs to find people to organize it
  3. HDB conducts a Request for Tender, which is basically a job listing asking for event managers/planners
  4. Event planners earn a profit from doing so, so instead of HDB paying them to organize the event, they pay HDB for the right to do so
  5. There are multiple event planners who want money, but only one land. So they compete with price offers and proposals.
  6. Event planners does everything required to make the event work.
  7. This includes searching for business owners, entrepreneurs to rent spaces to.

How to Check:

Like any auction, prices will get as high as people are willing to pay. So as long as there are people buying expensive hipster food, business owners will stay profitable, event planners will be able to charge high rents and can bid higher to use state land.

In other words, people are paying for goods they want at the price they are willing to pay, and therefore the price stays high.

Examining the process it is easy to blame the government for not introducing price control. I can’t really comment more on their actual stance, but history leads me to believe they want the free market to reign, up to a certain point.

But I don’t think they are to blame. If we have to find a root problem that might actually solve this problem, it is income inequality (although we can somehow blame that on the government as well but…).

Woah, that’s a far bit to suddenly stretch your argument isn’t it? Maybe it is, but hipster expensive food are targeting a crowd who can afford it, and they clearly have customers. So who are the ones feeling that they are scammed by the high prices? Either the ones who are stingy or are just poor. We have an income problem that is accompanied by a price problem.

Actual rents of Geylang Serai Bazaar

Renting a stall at Geylang Serai Bazaars depends on size, popularity of location and whether type of vendor (food has higher rent). In 2018, it is S$20,000 for a stall (estimated 2.7m by 2.7m), which is double the amount in 2014. In 2017, S$15,000.

For comparison, the tender for the whole Geylang Serai Bazaar was S$300,000 10 to 15 years ago, and in 2018 was S$3 million.

Another comparison for 2018: Our Tampines Hub Hari Raya Bazaar, rentals for retail start from S$3,800 and for food and beverage it is S$6,000 per month. The higher rents at Geylang Serai mean that Geylang Serai is more likely to produce hipster, or at least more profitable things.

Why Geylang Serai Bazaar 2019 is Significant

We’re going full circle here. After telling you the reasons why it is shit, I’m here to convince you to go. Or rather, what makes 2019 different from the others, and why it is important. The TLDR version is that it feels more like the good ol’ days, and there are signs of improving towards that way.

PASAR MALAM AT THE JUNCTION OF SMITH STREET AND TRENGGANU STREET, EARLY 1990s, STPB

True Purpose of Geylang Serai Pasar Malam

Although I rambled on about the history of Pasar Malams and what not, that was a discussion that only partly has to do with Geylang Serai Pasar Malam. The true purpose of Geylang Serai Pasar Malam is actually Ramadan (or Ramadhan. Malay spellings are really inconsistent.), and for the preparation of Hari Raya Puasa.

What the heck is Ramadan, and Hari Raya Puasa?

Vox has a pretty comprehensive article on the subject (international context), and Singapore National Library here. Basically Ramadan is the most sacred month in the year for Muslims, in the Muslim calendar. It is a time for reflection and repentance, and Muslims are required to fast, avoid smoking and sexual activity or other vices, from dawn to sunset.

And that’s why there’s so many carpet stalls

Doing all this is for the preparation of Eid al-Fitr, or in Singapore and some other South East Asian countries, Hari Raya Puasa. It marks the end of Ramadan, and is a time of forgiveness and strengthening of bonds. The usual festive things like new clothes, decorating houses, exchange of invitations, feasts happen.

Role of Geylang Serai Bazaar During Ramadan

A market that happens at night… when people are breaking the fast… Yeah, Geylang Serai’s purpose, other than profits, was to break the fast during Ramadan and have the new clothes, decorations, gifts and other good stuff for Hari Raya Puasa.

Why Geylang Serai is more special than other Bazaars

Geylang Serai (the place, not the bazaar) is one of the oldest Malay settlements in Singapore. You can read more about the history here. Now, Geylang Serai Wet Market is still the place to buy Malay things, with or without the Pasar Malam.

Random Question

What are the fairy lights for? This was an unanswered question that I had while researching. Not because I didn’t try to search for answers, but because most sources seem to just say that it is there. Though, I learn that butterflies have a symbolism for friendship.

And now that you know the context, I can finally tell you 2019 Geylang Serai Pasar Malam is significant because…

People finally give a shit about what Geylang Serai is about

Or maybe people did all the time, but only in 2019 was this actually reflected in the bazaar. Because, this is the first year Wisma Geylang Serai has full control over the bazaar.

Rents Are Capped

This was probably the biggest issue always raised, and money problems always leads to other problems (if you question this statement, just gimme your money). So that long ass rant above about why things are expensive and why some of the magic is lost? This is the solution.

Just now we talked about how rents in 2018 were S$20k, which is double of that in 2014. In 2019 this is capped at S$14k.

And this change affects everything down the list because people can sell cheaper stuff and also signifies that the authorities care about the event more than just monetarily.

All Food Are Halal

Believe it or not, before 2019 non-Halal stalls actually managed to get into an event meant for a Muslim event. In 2017 almost 50% of the food stalls are not Halal. Only in 2019 did the event start to be 100% Halal.

Which makes me wonder if people sold Bak Kwa as Dendeng

Ratio of Traditional:Hipster

With more than half the article implying that people don’t like Hipster, you can really see this one coming a mile away. Ramadan being a pretty old tradition, there are foods associated with it too, and people really didn’t like if these were gone or overshadowed.

Food in 2019 Geylang Serai will be 60:40 traditional:modern/hipster. Non-food, 80:20 traditional Malay-Muslim goods:other lifestyle items.

But the exact ratio isn’t the point, it’s that we understand the Pasar Malam is more than for profits.

More Space

Geylang Serai Pasar Malam being supposedly for Ramadan, where you can break the fast, it seems obvious there should be more spaces for eating. Except it wasn’t the case, and in 2018 they had 1000 stalls. 2019’s is 500 to 700 stalls.

Looking at this with hindsight 20-20, it almost seems like Geylang Serai Pasar Malams in the past few years were a disaster. But at least, from 2019, we know that some of the magic of the good ol’ days will retain, if not return in the future.

Sources that probably no one will read except myself

History:

A Study on Malaysian Night Market, business perspective

Geylang Serai News:

Geylang Serai Costs:


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