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The Other Side of Singapore

I’m told about the ways of Singapore’s nightlife.

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“When I think about the nightlife something happens inside my head and I just get really excited,” Tim spoke.

I’d just invited him out for a drink and I could see the excited sparkle in his eyes. He was shaking his head no, but something buried not so deep inside was saying “f’ck yeah.” His new girlfriend was sitting at his side, and she seemed to be the only thing keeping him in his seat. I said that she could come too, but he said a big noooo and waved his arms in the air. It seemed as if he knew that if he went out drinking with his girlfriend he probably wouldn’t have a girlfriend anymore.

Everybody has these triggers, these objects, substances, and activities the mere thought of which release a flood of adrenaline, serotonin, dopamine, and what the f’ck ever into your brain, pulls your lips back into a fiend-like grin, raises your eyebrows into a steep arch, and puts a twinkle in your eye. For me, this particular thing is a plane or long distance train ticket. For others it’s sex, drugs, a sport, a collection, cosmetic surgery, a certain kind of pet, money . . . These are the things we obsess over, the things our brain knows makes it feel good to think about, the things we define ourselves by, and, most poignantly, the things we can’t control.

I spend all my money and create disharmony in my family buying tickets and traveling. When I hold a ticket in my hand it feels somehow warm, it looks somehow bright, and it provides me with some kind of proverbial fix that I seem to need. When I hold a ticket in my hand I get the same look on my face as the guy who was sitting across the table from me did at the offer of a beer.



I met Tim on Joo Chiat Road in Singapore. It was around 10PM on a Saturday night, he was sitting on the side of the street at a plastic table that was set up in front of a Halal restaurant. He was in his mid-twenties, wiry, had tan skin, and a look that didn’t betray his ethnicity. Tim’s head was completely tattooed. A young woman was sitting next to him. She had big black eyes, a chestnut complexion, and a flowing, thick mane of jet black hair. She was thin and curvy, attractive, and was wearing a tight, short dress, but was in a completely different category from the scant-clad, heavily make-up’ed boomboom girls who were flowing around us and propped up on display in front of the KTV bar next door.

“I used to be a bartender, I used to go out and drink every night,” Tim said.

But after years of degenerating into drink, he called it quits.

“I hated that, being sick everyday, waking up in the streets, it just got to be too much.” He paused for a moment and then added, “But there was just something about it that I really loved.”

Sitting before me was essentially the social gateway into the other side of Singapore. This was a guy who knew the nightlife here very well — and the nightlife of this city is not typical.

As we sat there, I watched the young makeup-caked bar girls working the KTV den next door.. By day, Joo Chiat Road was a low key commercial/ residential strip full of local shops, yoga parlors, art studios, restaurants, being operated out of historic Parankan shophouses. At night, the lights flip on and the girls arrive.

“So these girls,” I began, “are they just bar girls or are they prostitutes?” The two are basically one and the same everywhere, but the line is sometimes a little finer in some places than others.

“They are freelancers,” he replied. “When they want to be prostitutes, they’re prostitutes. They go to the bars and meet guys, and if they want to they become prostitutes.”

“Where are they from? They are not mostly not Singaporeans, are they?”

“These girls here,” he said as he pointed to the gaggle of short skirted women showing themselves off no more than ten feet from where we were sitting, “they are mostly Vietnamese, Thai, and Indonesian. They come in on ten day tourist visas, make some money, then go back home. But the girls in the massage parlors, they are mostly Chinese and they stay for a longer time.”

“How do the bars go about hiring them?”

“Oh no, no, no,” he exclaimed, “the bars don’t hire them. They can’t. The bars can’t have anything to do with them. The girls walk from KTV bar to KTV bar looking for the ones where they think they can make the most money. They can go wherever they want and leave when they want.”

These freelances essentially have a commercially symbiotic relationship with the bars they cruise. They are more business partners than employees. The bar provides the location, the drink, and the entertainment, while the girls provide the real reason anyone goes to these places.

red light district 5_DCE

The KTV bars that welcome these women will often have indications of such on their exteriors — the giant silhouettes of sexy women painted on their walls, the proper bright florescent or red lights — the ones that don’t will have a sign on the door that simply reads, “No bar girls.” The latter is not only a way of telling the girls to keep out but also a way to inform customers as to what kind of establishment it is.

“So what do they actually do at these bars?” I asked.

“Have you ever been in one of these places before?”

“No, not really,” I admitted, feeling a little lame.

“Come on, let’s go.”

We got up and walked into the KTV bar that we were sitting near. Tim immediately found the manager, and clasped his hand as they patted each other on the back. They knew each other. I was introduced. We then walked through the small, deathly dark bar. A ring of small tables with stools ringed the room, there was a big screen in the front that karaoke videos were projected on to, and a guy and a girl were pitifully belting out some pitiful pop song. The age demographics of the people in this place was of course extremely staggered: the dudes were old, the girls were young. “This is a place that guys come who can’t get a girlfriend or to cheat on their wives,” Tim explained with a laugh.

At the tables the men sat before pitchers of beer as the girls hovered around. I was told that this isn’t always an arrangement that leads to other activities. Sometimes the guys just want to drink with the girls, and they give them free beer to get them to stick around. The girls don’t usually work with the bars to railroad customers into buying them severely overpriced drinks, as they do in China. Though, at the end of the night the guy will either tip the girl (at least $20 SGD) or, if both parties are willing, strike up a deal for more ($150 to $200 SGD).

red light district 2_DCE

As Tim said, these working girls in the KTV bars of Singapore are completely freelance. They pick and choose the clients they want to sleep with, charging whatever they want — and race is a big factor in both. The freelance boomboom girls of Singapore have even served as the subject matter of a joint study by Nanyang Technological University, Boston University, and Fudan University about the economics of discrimination.

“Where do the girls take the guys if they decide to leave together? Do they have a brothel or hotel they can take them back to?”

“Sometimes they have a cheap apartment, but they usually go to wherever the guy wants to take them.”

We then exited the dark cave of the KTV bar and went back over to the restaurant.

red light district 4_DCE

“Do the police ever come around here and arrest the girls?” I asked.

Though prostitution isn’t necessarily illegal in Singapore, activities such as making money off of a prostitute or soliciting in public are. Though both of these activities are practiced openly in areas like Geylang, Singapore’s red light district, so there is definitely “a look the other way” approach to the entire industry. Though I was told that the police do come around sometimes searching for illegal aliens.

“Sometimes the police come and the girls go running away. I don’t really know why because they don’t do too much to them if they’re caught.”

Rather than outlawing prostitution, Singapore attempts to regulate it. There are regular bimonthly STD checks for those who are registered and working in brothels, and equipment like condoms seem a standard part of the trade. Though I can’t imagine how effective these could be when the bulk of the people engaging in this trade are coming in on tourist visas from countries with lesser regulation and higher STD prevalences.

This has resulted in a city where prostitution is very much a part of daily life. It’s everywhere. While there are definitely red light districts, this trade is generally spread out across all of Singapore — rivaling places such as Bangkok and Philippines. Though the sketchiness that often accompanies such places is vacant here.

“Do you know Orchard Towers?” Tim then asked me.

I shook my head.

“You don’t know Orchard Towers?!?”

I shook my head again. I’d just arrived in Singapore, though that was no excuse for not knowing the name of one of the city’s landmarks.

“You don’t know Four Floors of Whores?!?”

“Oh, yes, I’ve heard of that.”

“It is a building that is four floors high that is full of whores. That’s why we call it Four Floors of Whores.”

“Yes, I get it.”

“You should definitely take you camera around there. That is what is interesting. But watch out, not all of the girls are really what you think they are. Some of them have something extra. You take them home and only then do you see the booger!”

Yeah, he really called it that.

“Singapore is actually very boring,” Tim then concluded.

All Singaporeans seem to say this, but in the circumstances of our conversation I could only laugh at its ridiculousness.

red light district_DCE

When I walked back to my hotel that night I stopped out in front of a KTV bar and I listened to the conversations that the men were having with the girls. This fat, squat, grease pit of an old Indian guy was trying to pick up a young Vietnamese girl who was clearly not interested — so much so that she squirmed around and hid behind a wall of her coworkers to get away from him.

“I want to take her away,” he said to one of the girl’s companions.

“Away? Away to where?” the girl played dumb.

“I want to take her away? How much?”

“Uh, I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

He then found the girl.

“I want to take you away.”

“Uhhh, no, I don’t think so.”

She then ran away, back into the dark refuge of the KTV bar.


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Filed under: Singapore, Travel Stories

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 91 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3720 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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VBJ is currently in: New York City

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