Tuesday, 10 January 2017

The Business of Adventures: Talking with Cai Yinzhou, Founder of Geylang Adventures

by So Young Chang

Adventure: an unusual, exciting, and possibly dangerous activity, such as a trip or experience, or the excitement produced by such an activity. (from the Cambridge Dictionary)

By definition, an adventure is something that takes place far from one’s comfort zone. It is not a word that would be used to describe activities in one’s own neighbourhood, that is, unless you live in Singapore’s red light district. Having grown up in Geylang all his life, the connotations of the place weren’t always known to Yinzhou. It was when classmates laughed at his introduction, or when army mates probed him about brothels in the area, that he realised how Geylang configures in the Singaporean imagination. 

In his own words, an adventure is “a sense of the unknown and an experience that you can’t define if you haven’t been on it before.” To counter some of the stereotypes he encountered, Yinzhou began doing walking tours of Geylang for friends, which eventually expanded to friends of friends. Two years ago, he quit his full-time job to start Geylang Adventures, a social enterprise that organises trails around Geylang among other activities such as Back Alley Barbers, an initiative that began by offering free haircuts to migrant workers, and Majulah Belanja, an annual event that brings together teams of three migrant workers and one Singaporean for a cookout competition. In the long run, his project is ambitious and idealistic: he hopes for a change in perspective where people’s work can be recognised in terms of their contribution to society and not by how much they are paid for the job. In fulfilling that vision, he is using Geylang Adventures as a platform to start a conversation, starting with those with an appetite for a bit of adventure. 

So, what is Geylang? It is indeed the only legalised red light district in Singapore, and over the years it has also gained a reputation for having some of the best food joints. It is also where a lot of changes have taken place post-Little India riots due to its large migrant worker population, becoming the testing grounds for the newest and latest surveillance technologies. 

Where most tour operators would stop at the curbside restaurant and a sideways glance at the “vices” in the streets, Yinzhou is much more nuanced and thorough in his approach. He makes you notice how right next to a brothel at street number 69, there is an established Buddhist association, speaking to the salvation and sin that co-exist in Geylang. Or facing an old apartment building, he makes you guess which flats have been converted into workers’ dormitories (hint: they are not supposed to be seen.) He points out how local residents would sometimes spray water on the ground to keep workers from gathering or how ultra-bright street lamps have been installed in every corner and alley to discourage people from hanging around. 

As a resident himself, he has a vested interest in the welfare of Geylang and emphasises multiple times throughout the trail that he operates on the principles of neutrality and mutual respect. His intention is not to protest the changes taking place in Geylang. Rather, he wants to ensure that all the stakeholders—whether local or migrant, influential or overlooked, rich or poor—are included in the dialogue and remain aware of each other’s needs in the space. 

Yinzhou does not see himself as an activist, but more as a facilitator who mediates the process of change. As a young Singaporean, he is wary of how his generation grew up without understanding how the current model of economic development has happened at the expense of a certain demographic of people, where low-wage migrant workers are seen as an economic asset.

“And when they get injured, they become a liability in this equation for growth, unscrupulous employers cancel their work permits, demanding that they should be taken out, and sent back as soon as possible. This chain of events is a direct consequence of their sudden lack of ability to contribute to the company's economic success.” 

This attitude is reflected in how migrant workers are geographically isolated and hidden from view by design—the ‘invisible’ dormitories being the most obvious example. He places a lot of importance on debunking this logic of “if you don’t see it, it means it’s not there.” 

“Because it’s not just a behaviour we are developing, it’s a culture. It’s a culture of being ungrateful to people who we know contribute directly to our success.” 

Seeing youth as a critical group, he also devotes a lot of time to speaking with students on leadership and community involvement. 

Walking through Geylang with Yinzhou, you get the feeling that he sees life itself to be an adventure. He is someone who is continually learning at every moment, whether at a library, from the street talk, or through plain old observation. Talking about why Singapore needs Geylang, he stresses that the lack of conflict and tension is not equivalent to harmony. Trying to keep people from gathering on the streets may bring down the level of noise or even the number of disturbances, but it may also take away the freedom and agency that everyone needs. He may not have the solutions to the problems that he sees, but with Geylang Adventures, he is helping to carve out opportunities for people to construct their future together. 

As he says, “real change is not about changing the dynamics of the ecosystem, but firstly to objectively accept and secondly to have the safe space for that conversation to happen.”

Talking with the sage of Geylang, who amongst his many endeavours, was once salvaging shipwrecks off the coast of Indonesia. (Photo by Kae Yuan)

Find out more about Geylang Adventures on their website or follow their Facebook page for updates on their upcoming events.

So Young Chang has recently finished a 3 month internship with Migrating out of Poverty based at the Asia Research Institute at the National University of Singapore.

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