Monday, April 21, 2008

Of Street-Walkers and BBQ Crocodile - I

Geylang is famous for two reasons. It boasts some of the finest food in Singapore, and it happens to be the town's pre-eminent red-light district. I had heard about it within my first week in Singapore (it's one of the first things you get to learn about the place), but could manage a visit only now. My experience was both (hugely) entertaining and enlightening. What I saw there belied many cherished perceptions of Singapore, especially its claims to strict law-enforcement.

Going there was another impromptu decision. There were three of us sitting at a student lounge at a slightly loose end. We made a nice little United Nations - Freddy's from France and Jacinta from Uganda. Several options for dinner - Holland Village, Little India, Chinatown - were considered and rejected as too humdrum, when I thought of Geylang. Jacinta jumped at it, kept saying she'd never been there but always wanted to go. Freddy was initially apprehensive to the point of panic, but we managed to persuade him quickly enough.

The locality, properly called Geylang Serai, lies along either side of Geylang Road. One of the longest roads in Singapore, it runs from Changi in the east to Kallang towards the west. Little Lorongs or lanes lead off it, the odd-numbered ones northwards to Sims Avenue, the even-numbered ones the other way connecting with Guillemard Road. Our bus dropped us on Sims Avenue, right at the mouth of Lorong 11. (incidentally, both Sims Avenue and Geylang Road are one-way, running in opposite directons.) We made our way down the Lorong towards Geylang Road, and that's when the myths started crashing down.

#1: Prostitution in Singapore is both legal and strictly regulated

According to popular perceptions, the official view is that only licensed brothels can operate, and under strict legal supervision. Condoms are a must, girls are regularly made to undergo medical checkups. I'm not sure of the legal basis of these claims. Sections 146 and 148 of the Singapore Women's Charter prohibit pimping and brothels respectively.

In any case, that's only part of the story. A good deal of prostitution is illegal, and therefore unregulated. Homosexuality is officially illegal, but gay and particularly transsexual prostitution is rife - even in Geylang; Lorong 16 is a famous transvestite pick-up point.

A visit to the Rochor flea market took care of another few myths. Singapore's supposed to be tough on piracy, but there I saw both pirated DVDs and porn (another big official no-no) selling openly.

#2: Prostitution is restricted to the south of Geylang Road

Sources as diverse as Wikipedia and Makansutra assert so. One need spend only a few minutes in the vicinity to realise how hollow the claims are.

#3: Street-walking is illegal

Warren's Singapore presents a pretty picture of how business is done in officially-sanctioned brothels. They have their house numbers painted in red; some have red lanterns hanging outside; you go in and state your preferences, and so on. He admits street-walking exists, but claims they operate only along the even-numbered Lorongs.

No such luck. Lorong 11 was full of spectacularly-dressed women hanging out on the streets. Some ten of them were crowed together outside a nondescript eating-house in the middle of the street. This seemed peculiar, till I noticed the cheap hotel across the road.

Sitting outside the KTV bars on Geylang Road were some of the most stunning ladies I've ever seen. Stunning and aloof - they didn't even bother to look at us, not even at Freddy with his Caucasian looks and sandy-blond hair. Later we learnt they were BmD (Buy me Drinks) girls. Their job is to cuddle up to unsuspecting customers, get them to stand drinks, hint at good times once the bar closes, generally ensure the dupes keep spending, and disappear about twenty minutes before closing time.

#4: Soliciting is strictly, strictly prohibited

Correction: Soliciting is subdued, low-key, but there all right. While waiting for the food to come, I went out to take pictures of the restaurant's exterior. On the way back, I was accosted by three of 'em women. One started working on me, tried her damnedest to get me to have a 'massage'. (I have no idea if 'massage' meant just that or something more; didn't bother to find out either.) First she tried flirting, then holding my arm, then even flicking her hand over my chest!

Nothing doing. I explained I was with friends waiting for me in the restaurant. Didn't dare tell her I had exactly ten cents in my pocket. Sure, she'd have lost interest more quickly, but then she might have got her pimp to touch up my face just a little. I went back to the restaurant; the food arrived a few minutes later.

[Continued in Part II]


Wangui said...

Very interesting write up! Looking forward to part II, which is presumably where the crocs show up. Haha.

ys said...

Hahaha, looks like from moping around in Delhi red light area, you are promoted to that in S'pore - hohhohho!!! Remember the post on Moinuddin ustad's Kababs?

XL said...

I like this piece too!
Two comments: (1). I heard my supervisor is strongly against gay rights.One argument she delivered at the debate on the Parliament was "You can not make a human wrong human rights"... (2). Isn't it a bit absurd to allow prostitution while prohibit flirting..?

Leslie said...

Hi, I enjoyed reading your observations on this little red dot. Just to clear things up - prostitution is not illegal. Neither is homosexuality. You can't be hauled off to jail for being gay or a hooker.
However, soliciting for business is a crime, and that would include streetwalking if you are swishing in a manner that leaves no uncertainty that pleasure is your business.
And likewise, physical sexual acts between 2 persons of the same sex is against the law - even when there is consent.

Abhik Majumdar said...

Thanks for your comment, Leslie!

Your separating 'homosexuality' from 'sexual acts between 2 persons of the same sex' effectively amounts to the classic legal distinction between mens rea (the guilty mind), and actus reus (the guilty act).

The law punishes only the latter. I might choose to be a pedophile, keep dreaming about blonde ten-year-olds, the law is fine with it if I restrict myself to dreaming. It's only when I start inviting selfsame ten-year-olds for 'overnight stays' that the law begins to get uncomfortable :)

Debashish Sen Gupta said...

Abhik, I'm sure you've visited Orchard Tower. Write up something about that too!

Abhik Majumdar said...

Many thanks for your comment, Debashish :)

There are two problems to Orchard Towers. One, I've never actually seen the place from inside (and not likely to get a chance to go there any time soon either - I left Singa about six years ago). And two, it's not exactly known for food, is it? Have you seen Part II of the post? That's where the foodie bits lie.