Geylang Serai's buzzing bazaar

It is 9pm on a Sunday. A snaking queue has formed outside Soulhunterz Haunted House, which is shrouded in a piece of black tarpaulin marked with spray paint.

An employee with a loudhailer calls out to passers-by, promising supernatural mysteries. Appropriately eerie music is playing and, occasionally, a scream can be heard from inside the house.

The setting is not a fun fair but the annual Hari Raya bazaar that has been held in Geylang Serai during the month of Ramadan since the 1970s.

This year's bazaar, which started on June 29, will close on July 27. Muslims will celebrate Hari Raya Puasa the next day.

For Mr Shaiful Sa'ad, 35, who has run the haunted house at the bazaar for the past four years, drawing repeat customers is key.

"What we offer is unique. There's no other haunted house in the bazaar," he says.

Standing out is important as stallholders face growing competition.

Ms Vivienna Hamzah, 30, business development manager of MegaXpress International, one of the companies managing the bazaar, estimates that there are around 1,200 stalls this year, up from about 800 last year. About 500 stalls have sprung up on the parcel of land where Malay Village used to stand.

To keep things fresh, the Soulhunterz crew changes the haunted house's layout every four days.

The tactic seems to be working. Last Saturday, the stall saw about 250 customers, who each paid $7 for entry. Mr Shaiful believes there is room for growth. For example, on the eve of Hari Raya Puasa last year, he saw up to 500 customers.

The bazaar in Geylang Serai remains a crowd magnet even though there are at least five other Hari Raya markets this year, such as in Kampong Glam and Woodlands.

Colourful displays of festive clothing and homeware are aplenty in Geylang Serai, but food is the main draw.

As Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset during Ramadan, the bazaar starts buzzing only from 6pm. Fasting involves abstaining from consuming food and water, as well as observing additional religious obligations.

While most food stalls offer the bazaar staple of burgers, fried snacks and Malay kuih, some stallholders have also come up with novel options.

At Mama Coconut, located in front of Geylang Road, 53-year-old Jennifer Neo is hard at work serving coconut ice cream at $4 a scoop. Customers can sit on chairs lined up by the roadside to enjoy their cool treats. A cartoon likeness of Ms Neo smiles at everyone from a blue banner that bears the shop's name.

Business is brisk for the first-time stallholder, who also sells coconut smoothies. Her husband, Mr Patrick Lim, 57, says the stall sees a continuous stream of customers daily from about 7pm, when Muslims break their fast, till it closes at about midnight.

But he is uncertain if the venture will be profitable.

"This is an experiment for us. I tell my staff, 'We don't know if we will make money or not'," he says. He is paying $10,000 in rent for the month. Mr Alan Toh, 60, owner of Trade Fair Village, another company behind the bazaar, says rental ranges from $3,500 to $10,000 a stall.

Those with a sweet tooth can also head to Chubby Churros, a small stall located near the Singapore Post Centre that sells churros, a cinnamon sugar-coated fried Spanish pastry doused in chocolate syrup, for $4.50 a serving. Be prepared to wait, though, as the stall has become a crowd favourite.

Mr Sofhian Jaafar, 36, one of the stall's three owners, is thankful for the good response. He says that they had to buy one more fryer to meet the overwhelming demand.

Another shop that stands out is Truly Islamic Gallery, which offers Islamic artworks done in Chinese calligraphy style. Prices range from $50 for a 45cm by 25cm piece to $500 for larger, framed pieces measuring 1.6m by 80cm.

Owner Muhammad Ihsan Chew, a Singaporean Chinese Muslim convert, first brought in these wall hangings from the Yiwu region in Zhejiang, China, in 2006. Since then, he has returned to Singapore every year to set up shop in the bazaar.

The 49-year-old, who moved to a region near Xi'an six years ago, now lives there with his China-born wife and two kids. He says his customers are mainly young Muslim couples with modern tastes who are looking to decorate their new homes.

There is a lot of ground to cover, so make sure you wear comfortable shoes. This year's bazaar takes up three swathes of land: The first is at the open space next to Singapore Post Centre; the second occupies the site of the former Malay Village and the third is adjacent to Joo Chiat Complex.

After a night of traipsing about, make your way to Ezah Traditional Massage for foot reflexology. The open-concept Javanese massage shop, marked by its batik-cloth frontage, is a hit with weary shoppers.

Mr Abdul Rahman Jafar, 59, and his wife, Madam Zaleka Amat, 55, see about 100 customers on weekdays and double the number on weekends, who keep his team of eight on their toes. Those looking for a full body massage can head to their permanent shop at the nearby Tristar Complex.

Mr Rahman, who has set up shop at the bazaar for the past six years, says he has managed to turn a profit every year and remains optimistic this year.

"We are different from the rest - there are too many clothes and food shops here," he says. He knows of one other shop offering similar services in the bazaar but says he has loyal customers who look for him every year.

The Geylang Serai bazaar has a pool of regulars too.

Housewife Jumie Haron, 42, says: "I've been going to the bazaar since I was seven. The atmosphere, the shops, the festive spirit - other bazaars just don't have it all."

She adds with a laugh: "Even if I'm not supposed to buy anything, I will find something to spend my money on. And even if I'd just come from Orchard Road."


What: Haunted house
Where: Stall Nos. D213-216 in the Singapore Post Centre section, next to Block 417 Eunos Road 5
How much: $7 per entry
When: 8.30 to 11pm on weekdays, till midnight or 1am on weekends

What: Coconut ice cream and drinks
Where: Stall No. 3 in the former Malay Village section, near Engku Aman Road
How much: $4 for ice cream, $3 for smoothies
When: 3pm to midnight or 1am daily

What: Churros and frappes
Where: Stall No. 5 in the Singapore Post Centre section, next to the MRT tracks
How much: $4.50 for churro bites
When: 7 to 11pm on weekdays, till midnight on weekends

What: Islamic Chinese calligraphy and decorative works
Where: Stall Nos. 113 and 114 in the former Malay Village section
How much: $100 to $500, depending on size and medium
When: 11am to midnight on weekdays, till 1am on weekends

What: Reflexology and ear candling
Where: Stall Nos. 47 and 48 in the Singapore Post Centre section, facing Sims Avenue
How much: Foot reflexology ranges from $12 for 20 minutes to $32 for 60 minutes. Ear candling costs $10
When: Noon to 11.30pm on weekdays, till 1am on weekends

This article was first published on July 13, 2014.
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