From its lacklustre rainbow treats to the questionable Halal status of its stalls, we believe that the increasingly commercialised Geylang Serai Ramadan bazaar has lost touch with its humble, cultural roots
Ramadan, for all practising Muslims, is a month of purification and reflection marked by fasting, prayer and charity work. For those who don’t follow Islam, the annual Geylang Serai Ramadan bazaar is great exposure to what the month means to Muslims and is an introduction to aspects of Malay-Muslim culture such as its food, clothing, and traditions. All these elements, though significant to our culture, is for everyone to experience.
A #throwback to the old Geylang Serai bazaar
Set up a month before Hari Raya Aidilfitri, this mega market traditionally features Malay and Middle Eastern delicacies (rewards for a long day of fasting), a variety of baju kurung, as well as all the things you need to prepare for celebrations, including lights, sampul duit (money packets) and snacks for your guests during Hari Raya visiting. The bazaar typically is a merry affair, with festive songs blaring on the speakers and stall owners shouting out hourly deals on carpets and clothes.
Some of our fondest memories of the bazaar of yesteryear include the twinkly street lights, the smell of charcoal smoke in the air, and the allure of kuih bakar (a traditional dense baked cake) and otak-otak (grilled fish cake). Though the crowds were packed like sardines and the air was always stuffy, the bazaar was home – there was a sense of comfort in knowing that once a year every year, we could depend on Geylang Serai to heighten the experience of Ramadan in Singapore.
But in the trough of the controversies of this year’s Ramadan bazaar – from stalls being exposed of their non-Halal status to social media “reviews” that we did not ask for – what’s been brought to light is how much it has changed over the years. We visited it last weekend, in the hopes of finding the perfect balance between hipster eats and cultural food but left sorely disappointed. With the classic staples scattered sparsely around, lost among an explosion of rainbow-coloured food and cheese-covered meats, it’s safe to say the Geylang Serai Ramadan bazaar has been properly gentrified.
Not everything should be about the ‘gram
With the startling variety of “Insta-worthy” food on display, it seems that the bazaar is only inches away from being a colossal hipster market. Perhaps all could be forgiven if the gimmicky grub did live up to the hype, but as Instagrammable as smoke-emitting Dragon’s Breath corn crackers or neon candy floss burritos are, they can’t replace what made these markets great in the first place: the traditional food, which includes kuih, variations of nasi briyani, and quintessential Malay dishes (including mee goreng and padang). Ironically, while we didn’t spot these at Geylang Serai’s bazaar (dubbed ‘the mother of pasar malams in Singapore’), we’ve repeatedly seen them at smaller, and less commercialised markets around the island.
The big Halal hoo-ha
On a more serious matter are allegations of sellers passing off non-Halal food as Halal, with a particular dendeng (dried meat) seller’s food now being investigated by the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (MUIS). What also stirred up a ruckus over the weekend were the findings of two of Singapore’s Halal food blogs: that nearly half of the stalls at the bazaar aren’t verified as Halal. Naturally, the Muslim community was up in arms about this. Our take? While we aren’t saying that everything at the bazaar should be Halal, it’s only respectful (and understandable) for sellers to be upfront about the Halal status of their food. After all, the bazaar isn’t your average pasar malam (night market); traditionally, it caters to the Muslim population for the holy month of Ramadan and is held at Geylang Serai no less (a focal destination for Singaporean Malay-Muslims).
Of course, it is inevitable that progress would encourage some innovative changes to keep up with the times, and the Malay community – or even Islam – is not immune to that, but it is important to not confuse modernisation for innovation. If Geylang set out to rebrand the Ramadan bazaar from yesteryear – well, they’ve succeeded. But somewhere in this makeover, they’ve also lost what the Ramadan bazaar means to the community. The culture, the practices, respect and understanding – all these things need to remain. Perhaps the question is how organisers can reconcile the Instagram-hungry desires of today’s young crowds, with the soulful, traditional food of our roots.
Besides, what cultural significance does a unicorn drink bring to the table anyway?
Still want a closer look at food stalls found at the Geylang Ramadan Bazaar? Watch the video below.
This article was written by Delfina Utomo and Nafeesa Saini