Cai Yinzhou tells us about the rapid changes to the neighborhood he calls home, with increasing gentrification and the alcohol ban.

We first learned of Yinzhou when we saw photos of his initiative, Backalley Barbers—folks who give free haircuts to migrant workers—on Facebook. When we met him, we were blown away by the 25 year-old’s drive and his passion for Geylang, where he grew up. Here he tells us about the changes he sees in his neighborhood and his recent trip to Nepal.

I’m part of the Singapore Nepal Relief Community. We’ve been collecting food in Singapore, but a lot of it is canned sardines. Kathmandu is land-locked. They don’t know how to eat that kind of stuff.

Singaporeans donate a lot of irky stuff, like expired medicine and lingerie. We’re trying to discourage that, but people still do it due to insensitivity or ignorance.

I quit my job and went to Australia for three months to work as a shed builder. I wanted to experience what it was like to be a migrant worker.

A lot of events are organized for migrant workers, but they would rather be resting or chilling with their friends. So I went there to feel what it was like. When I came back, I concluded that I would organize events with migrant workers—collaborations that would involve locals. With interactions, you break down social barriers.

Being a migrant worker was tough work. It was 45 degrees. The hours were long—wake up early, head to work site, get home flat tired. But in Australia, it’s different. We are called tradies, and people respect you. When I wore a tradie uniform, the shop I went to for lunch would be happy to give me an extra bottled water. People would nod and smile in acknowledgement. In Singapore, people look away. 

There are lots of migrant workers in Geylang, and there’s a group that I used to play badminton with. I met them last year. I found out each of their life stories, their love stories, how many kids they have, all through sessions of badminton in the backalleys.

There was one time the police came because some neighbors complained, even though it was only 9pm. I was away in Australia and when I came back, I found out the police had come again. 

I felt there was something innately wrong with society. If a bunch of children were playing in a back alley, people wouldn’t call the police on them. 

I wanted to do something for the guys I played badminton with to show we weren't all of a bad sort. It wasn’t practical to give money or food for the sake of giving and to feel like you’re “helping them”. I wanted to do something personal, like the equivalent of writing a card. Thats when I decided to try and cut hair. 

There was a guy we played with. He would have to sweep the hair from his eyes. I would tell him, “Go and cut your hair, lah.” And he’d say, “No, save money. Next month.” I thought, “That’s what he said last month.” 

I tried cutting my own hair for six months before I actually decided to attempt cutting their hair. That’s when the first Backalley Barbers was born, last Deepavali. After that I roped in my cousin, who was in the army at that point of time, and his mom cuts his hair for him, and he cuts a bit himself.

Have you been to a migrant worker dormitory? You should—it’s an eye opener.

I’ve lived in Geylang all my life. I’ve seen prostitutes, migrant workers, gangsters—they were all part of the community. 

The guy sitting opposite you in a coffee shop could be a pimp on the lookout for police cars. The guy walking past you could be looking for a prostitute—you can tell by his eye contact. I was a kid, but I understood.

I graduated last year with a degree in events and tourism from Murdoch University. This program has a particular emphasis on social science, how tourism has evolved towards sustainability. I want to think of long-term strategies for Nepal and Geylang.

We have the increasing trend in Geylang of new shoebox apartments springing up, and the expats who live there. Their companies rent the place—it’s close to the city, it’s 24 hours, it’s prime location and it’s relatively cheaper. You see them sometimes in the coffee shops, reading their Kindles or reading the news on their iPads. That’s an interesting new development in Geylang.

Another weird trend after the alcohol restrictions is coffee shops that sell zero percent beer. And you’ll see sad uncles who sit there pouring and drinking. They eventually move on to new watering holes.

There’s a 70 year-old business that took an 80 percent hit because her main income was from selling alcohol and cigarettes. She’s contemplating closing because she’s a bit old and her kids probably wouldn’t want to take over. It’s a rustic provision shop with old-fashioned tins, old shelves and a pulley system with the money inside.

Development is inevitable, but I feel that not enough is done to preserve the spirit of this place—like how Tiong Bahru was documented. I can’t see the same thing happening for Geylang, because it’s known for the sleaze. The scene has also been changing so rapidly I'm afraid that it'll be lost, before it has been remembered.

My parents have been pretty non-interruptive of what I’ve been doing—not exactly supportive, but they’re not against it.

I’m exploring a sustainable business organizing events: to provide opportunities for companies interested in corporate social responsibility for the community. This would include projects with marginalized people, whether it’s the elderly, migrant workers or the poor.