Thursday, 15 March 2007

A week in Singapore—and a somewhat different picture of the city of the Merlion: Geylang —Singapore ‘at night’

I spent a pleasant and enjoyable time in Singapore (it is hard not to do so). Singapore is a nation and city designed to keep the tourist busy and entertained (and spending). However, beneath the (thick and well maintained) facade of confucian conformity, and mandated prosperity lurks a “heart of darkness”. That is, a city of sin, which caters to the carnal desires of the native Singaporeans, and their lackeys (more on this later). This libidinous locale is the suburb of Geylang. It is this story, not that of the bright spires of the metropolis, nor the dancing dragons of the Chinese New Year, that I shall expound tonight!

You will not find Geyland marked on any map of Singapore (that is not correct, it is clearly marked on all the maps, but to deny this is far better story telling). It is a low income area, where in fact few, if any, Singaporeans live. It is the abode of the “guest workers”, those who get there hands dirty in Singapore. This group is composed of Indonesians, Phillippinos, Indians, and a miscellaneous mix of other nationalities.

It is amidst this eclectic diversity of people and nationalities that I decided to spend my time in Singapore. I stayed in a hotel, the Fragrance Hotel: Crystal, for 7 days, and 7 nights. An entirely adequate room set me back the princely sum of aus$60 a night. The only drawback to the room and the hotel, was the quality of several of the staff. They were entirely unperturbed by the sight of patrons leading girls past reception (and past the sign saying ‘visitors must see reception’) and into their rooms (I am certain that the only time I saw a look of shock on the night manager’s face was when I returned one night from a coffee shop with a BOOK in my hand), however, ask for something as traditional as laundry, or to extend your stay by an extra day, and you wading into deep and difficult waters.

My first venture into Geylang took place on the night of my arrival (which was at around midnight—nothing ventured, nothing gained). While the rest of industrious Singapore was was sleeping the sleep of the just, Geylang was humming with activity. In fact I was surprised that there was so much activity, this was supposed to be the guest worker area, when did these guest workers, who do the work the natives are unable (unwilling) to do, sleep? I was to find that from my earliest awakening, 8am, to my latest sleepening, 3am, that there were always people, and girls, on the streets. A busy place.

However, gentle reader, let me describe to you what I saw upon my initial peregrination. The first impression of Geylang is that it is markedly different from the shiny, super-sized shopping mall that is the rest of city. Geylang is the closest you will find in Sing to something that resembles a ‘traditional’, or old, or whatever, Asian city. That is to say the streets and footpaths are broken and cracked, there is rubbish strewn about (not much, this is after all Sing), open drains, and the shops and apartments are in need of a coat of paint. There are street vendors, seedy bars and clubs. In other words, the place has character. Yet, it is not the architectural anachronism which gives Geylang its notoriety, it is the people.

The second thing you will notice about Geylang are the hundreds, maybe thousands of girls standing on the streets. These girls are in groups, leaning against fences, perched on small footstools or casually strolling around corners. Their profession is clearly revealed by their scanty, tight, slit, taunt, colourful, clothing, and their brassy demeanour. These girls ply the ‘oldest profession’, no, they are not priests or lawyers, their calling is both useful and spiritual—they are hookers—attractive young women who trade sex for money.

Being an (enthusiastic) amateur anthropologist I took the time and trouble to discuss life and philosophical issues with these girls. I found them always willing, even eager, to practice their English and to talk to a ‘nice man’. Since I can fulfil both categories, all went well. The girls come from a variety of countries. They enter Sing for one month on a tourist visa (just like me), then return home. I found that many of the Thai girls came from Chang Mai (northern Thailand), while the Chinese girls come from towns in western China. Perhaps, not surprisingly, I did not find any native Singaporean girls on display. Most of the girls have a pimp, who organised their work and stay in Sing. There is a continual stream of these girls entering and leaving Sing on a well organised conveyor belt of pulchritude. However, there were a few girls who seemed to be ‘independents’—always good to see.

The organisation of the biz is shown by the location of the girls, they are segregated by nationality on different streets. If you are after a specific either wander around yourself, or ask any taxi driver. As always, taxi drivers are an excellent source of knowledge. There is one street that any traveller should be aware of, it is the street reserved for transsexuals (if that is your thing). If you find yourself in Geylang keep in mind that while some in this last category can be clearly discerned, others cannot. The unwary explorer could receive a big shock (or maybe not so big) at an inconvenient moment.

The economics of the transaction are simply. For a white guy, such as myself, the charge is sing$90 (the girls gets $20), plus $10 for a room (or use your own at no charge). This sum buys you 30 minutes of time, which includes a shower, suck, fuck, and massage. I did ask around and the price was about the same for each group of girls. This to me sounds like price fixing! In a free market this should not occur! However, for the guest workers the price is a little less (maybe $70). These prices do refer to the good looking girls, which the ‘pimped’ girls are. However, while wandering around I saw some women who looked to be grandmothers. I overhead one of these women say “$35” to a prospective customer. There are also some serious heffers sitting around. Unless the taste of some men runs considerably different to mine I can only imagine that these girls were there simply for the social activities, which is to say, these girls sit, talk, eat and hang out together. Geylang is a social place!

The girls seem genuinely happy to work in Sing, they expect to make more money than in their native lands, and they enjoy their free time in the city. One girl told me she worked in Chang Mai, as a sales assistant, selling clothes. She made 6,000Baht (about aus$200) a month, thus the attraction of a month in Sing is obvious. However, from what I could gather they seem to spend all of their money on clothes, shoes, and handbags. Being the good samaritan that I am, I did in fact give the girls some financial advice—buy a house/apartment, buy shares, put your money in the bank, but I fear my advice fell on unresponsive ears. I also counselled the girls against smoking, but again, no great joy (it is not often that phrase is used in Geylang). The girls told me that standing on a street corner can be boring, having a smoke makes the time go by better. I did consider suggesting a copy of “The Economist”, but I decided to let that one slide.

While wandering around I had a look in a few of the bordellos. These are small ‘shops’ with a tout standing outside assuring you that his girls inside are the best. One enters the front door, turns around and views the girls who sit behind a glass screen. Each had only 3 or 4 girls, and none of the girls looked great. They smile at the interested voyeur, and make gesturing gestures. All very amusing.

The funniest thing I saw in Sing happened outside these bordellos. As part of New Year celebration young men dressed in dragon costumes and in (what look to me like) orange jump suits, dance and bang drums outside stores, soliciting donations for community activities (schools etc). So, one day these guys visited the bordellos outside my hotel. Girls with towels wrapped around them, girls in lingerie, and girls in skimpy clothes came running out to watch the dragon dance and to donate a few dollars to the local community. It is good to see this sort of spirit in the local population!

In addition to prostitution there is also a lot of illegal gambling going on, if that is your thing (not mine). I will confess that I found the gambling a sad spectacle to watch. The betting I saw took place in the back alleys and side streets. The specific procedure involved placing money onto a large number, printed on a sheet of paper, resting on a table, and then rolling dice to see who wins (it is the invariable rule of gambling that the house invariably wins). What is sad is that the gamblers were the guest workers. These guys I am sure do not make a lot of money, they were however, placing bets of sing$10s to $100s. It is obvious that the gambling ‘houses’ rely on herd instinct and competitivess to get these guys to fork over their hard earned. Yet, what can I say or do? I did speak to these guys and point out that they were giving away days of work, but from their replies I could tell that they were lonely and isolated in a big city. They found gambling an exciting and compelling anodyne to the rigours of their life.

As you may gather the bulk of the male population of Geylang are young men, from lower income countries, living and working in Sing to make some big big money to support their families and make a start in life. I spoke to many of these chaps, like the girls they like to practise their English. The Philippines seemed to be the most common country of origin, but India/Pakistan, even Malaysia were also fully represented. These guys are sponsored by a company, either directly or through an agency, and stay in Sing for up to a year. Some of course keep coming back. One question I was asked again and again was how to get an Australian visa, it seems to be the holy grail of work places.

I can add that in this mix of race, ethnicity and religion, there were very few other white folk around. The only Euros I saw were four Russian men who stayed in my hotel. I had no contact with them, and only saw them when they came out to pick up their frequent and sizeable quantities of delivered, take away food (these four were living in a smallish room, with one bed, the same as me? I never ask inconvenient questions). At first, the locals were a little taken aback to see me wandering around the streets with a can of cola in hand, stopping, gazing, and talking to all and sundry. My beard also drew attention to itself, somewhat rare thereabouts. However, after a day or two, as I walked by about on my way here, there and back again, the girls waved at me, asked me how I was, while the pimps came to me for English (the lingua franca of the world) advice in the composition of their flyers! Always ready to help the free market.

All this activity raises the question of the legality of these exercises, and the attitude of the police. I decided not to ask too many questions on this score, but being the enterprising chap that I am, I did manage to uncover two and two, and put them together. Prostitution is legal in Sing, however, there are lots of caveats. Also, the girls are working illegally (they are tourists). This means that their presence in Geylang is a de-facto reality, tolerated by the authorities for the obvious reasons, and, even though I did not ask, I strongly suspect that a percentage of the money from Geylang finds its way into the pockets of the police and government officials. The effective result of this is that the police ‘keep and eye on things’.

This police ocular was revealed to me one evening. I was walking back to my hotel at around 10pm when a police car drove along the street, as it passed the streets emptied, there was a pitter-patter of high heels, and in about 5 seconds there was only one confused looking white guy standing on the footpath wondering where everyone went. The girls, pimps, gamblers, hustlers, etc, disappeared down alleys and into hotels. Things stayed quiet for 1/2 an hour or so, and then quickly resumed.

What can I say? Geylang is a fun place, never a dull moment. Far better and more exciting than the rest of Singapore. If you stay anywhere else in Singapore you are likely to meet: accountants, lawyers, and other parasites, but not in Geylang, where you will only meet: pimps, prostitutes and gamblers! Give it a try—and be protected!

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