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In Singapore , in a plaza at the intersection of Geylang Road and Aljunied, life putters along easily one Sunday afternoon. Women in headscarves sit on low concrete walls, chatting over late lunches, while old men squat and smoke on the periphery. A young woman stands by a traffic light aimlessly, harmlessly. Her clothes are modest, revealing just a hint of skin and lace, enough to make the eye linger for a moment. She flashes a furtive smile as I walk by, silent amid the din of heavy traffic.
Now and then a car comes to a stop nearby. One of the young men jogs over to the car, then back to his tarp, then back to the car with a delivery, and the car drives on. I ask each of the young men one by one if I can photograph his tarp, and each says no. Finally I offer to pay two Singapore dollars for the privilege. As I reach into my pocket and glance down at my cash, a commotion erupts in the plaza. Behind me a van comes to a halt at the curb and a sliding door scrapes violently open. I look up, but the kid and his tarp have vanished.
The young men have all grabbed their ingenious tarps at the center knot, turning them instantly into bags, and bolted. A handful of police spills out of the van. They shoot glances in all directions and just as quickly leap back into the vehicle and speed away. The men with their tarps return, laughing, and put their wares back into place.
The whole episode with the cops lasts all of 20 seconds. The tarp kid lets me photograph his merchandise, now scattered and disorganized. As I turn and continue down the street, he and his friends shout at me, calling me back.
He hands it back with a grin. This is seedy criminal underground, Singapore style. A neighborhood just east of the old city, made up primarily of the streets and alleys that jut off the main road—from which it gets its name— Geylang is an echo of a past that Singapore has worked hard to erase, with mostly stunning success.