A first-of-its-kind walking tour pulls back the curtain on Singapore’s gritty past marked by gangs, gambling joints and opium dens, seen through the lens of ex-offenders.
Standing before a stretch of shophouses along North Canal Road, former gang member Alvin Chiong shared how this sleepy street was once the territory of the third-largest secret society in Singapore in the 1800s, with 14,000 members.
These secret societies got their income from vice activities such as running gambling dens and prostitution houses, bankrolled by wealthy businessmen, and collecting protection money from businesses, said Chiong.
The 50-year-old is our tour guide on today’s walking tour, dubbed Triad Trails, which peels back the squeaky-clean image of Singapore to reveal the city-state’s dark underbelly past.
The tour is organised by Singapore tour agency Actxplorer, in collaboration with Architects of Life (AOL), a social enterprise that aims to develop the potential of ex-offenders and youth-at-risks.
Leading these tours are ex-offenders like Chiong, who brings participants on an eye-opening journey to discover the seedy side of old Chinatown characterised by secret societies, opium dens and gambling joints.
“The aim of Triad Trails is to challenge the stereotypes that many have about ex-offenders. Through this tour, the public gets a first-hand experience listening to the stories of these ex-offenders. Not only will this give the public an insight into the life of a previous gang-member, it also makes the public understand the struggles they (ex-offenders) have,” said Nurfilzah Hanis Razali, a project executive at AOL.
“Additionally, the purpose of this tour is to empower and provide employment opportunities for the ex-offenders by allowing them to take charge of the tour.”
The tour kicks off with Chiong giving us a brief history of how Singapore’s gangland past had its roots in union groups formed by Chinese immigrants who came to Singapore to work in the 1800s. These union groups, which gave the migrants “a sense of security” and brotherhood, eventually evolved into secret societies.
From the gambling joints that once lined China Street to 34 Pagoda Street that was once home to an opium den, Chinatown’s sordid past as a hotbed of vices is brought to life during this tour. Chiong’s narrative blends the enclave’s history with related events from his own life, making for a tour that is equal parts informative and revelatory.
Recounting his past drug addiction journey mired with frequent brushes with the law, Chiong recalled: “My first arrest was in 1997 (during a police crackdown). I was arrested with about 2kg of heroin. I escaped the gallows. My friend (was hanged) because all his fingerprints were (found at the crime scene). They couldn’t find my fingerprints, and the evidence was not enough to sentence me to the gallows.”
Still, it was a decade-long journey to recovery, and it was only after four prison stints and several halfway house placements later, that Chiong decided to mend his ways. He started joining Christian support groups where he met his mentor-slash-pastor and decided to leave his criminal past behind for good.
Today, he works as a chef, and has been serving as a prison counsellor for more than six years. He also holds motivational talks at schools and volunteers with the Singapore Anti-Narcotics Association, helping drug users to overcome their addictions and find employment and lodging when they are released from prison.
The two-hour tour comprises of five pit stops around the Chinatown district. Each tour takes up to 16 participants, spilt into two groups, with no intermingling between groups during the tour, as part of Covid-safe measures.
The tour is supposed to conclude with a dining experience with the tour guides, where participants can learn more about their past involvement with drugs and gangs. But as dining-in at F&B venues are capped at groups of two under the current Phase 3 (Heightened Alert) regulations, participants were given takeaways instead.
However, at the end of the tour, we still got the chance to sit down for a no-holds-barred small group conversation with Chiong’s mentee – also an ex-offender – who is training to one day lead these tours on his own. Our chat gave us a rare behind-the-scenes glimpse into gang life and the secret goings-on behind prison bars.
According to an AOL representative, response for the tour has been “very good”, with slots fully booked for this month. Notably, the tour has drawn a mixed bag of participants, from both expats and locals, couples and families, and even church groups. Interest from corporate groups have also been forthcoming, with the majority waiting for the dining-in restrictions to ease before committing.
Acting as a conduit for ex-inmates to find meaningful employment and integrate back into society aside, these tours go a long way in subverting stereotypes about reformed convicts through up-close and personal conversations.
While appealing to all ages, the tour may be especially eye-opening to younger Singaporeans who may be surprised to learn how one of the world’s safest countries was once a breeding ground for organised crime. Guided by ex-convicts who have been there, done that, it’s a refreshing take on the city-state’s gritty colonial past.
Rate: S$70 (US$52) per person
Dates: Every Saturday
Tel: +65 6222 2777