As a scene of unzippered sordidness this should be a contender for the AVN (Adult Video News) awards, also known as the Porn Oscars - except it was real life.
At dusk in an open lane alongside a busy restaurant and well-lit road, the meat market was being stocked – a regular event.
Four women, who might once have been young, shuffled into line and stared through the crowd. They wore the standard uniform - stilettos, tiny skirt and tinier blouse. Before them their pimp vigorously spruiked their physical virtues to the ogling men. In case they couldn’t understand his language he raised three fingers, then circled the thumb and forefinger. S$30 (Rp 275,000) for a session.
Some red-light spot in San Francisco or Sydney’s King’s Cross? Maybe Amsterdam’s notorious De Wallen district where girls pose in shop windows? Or could it be Bangkok’s Soi Cowboy?
No, all those sex centers are too dignified. This one’s base and coarse, yet it’s in prim, clean, image-conscious Singapore, the heartland of Asia’s conservative moral values where failing to flush a public WC will get you a S$500 (Rp 4.6 million) fine.
The little red dot where the media is controlled, where graffiti vandals get whipped and chewing gum is banned, is also the center of sleaze.
You won’t find the wares and whores of Geylang listed in the splendid brochures handed out by the Singapore Visitors’ Center, though by chance we found the area through a tourist promotion officer at Changi Airport.
We’d arrived late, missed flights and had no prior booking. “I could get you into Geylang,” he said hesitantly, trying to gauge the likely reaction, “but it’s the red light area.”
“But is it safe?” asked my wife.
“Of course,” he bristled. “This is Singapore.”
That was more than a decade ago and we’ve used the suburb’s hotels on every trip since, finding them clean, convenient, well-located between two MRT (subway) stops just a few minutes ride to the upscale attractions, like museums and galleries.
It’s also surrounded by restaurants. No posh waiters to call you ‘sir’ and ‘madam’ as they shake out your serviette, only sweating girls in shorts and bum belts pointing at pictures on greasy menus; but the food is plentiful, good value and absolutely authentic.
However Geylang is no longer quite so secure, according to Police Commissioner Ng Joo He, since last December’s riots in Little India, a suburb just five kilometers distant. The first major public disturbance in the city state since 1969, the riot followed a fatal traffic accident, and involved 300 migrant laborers trashing emergency vehicles.
A Straits Times report of the Committee of Inquiry into the mayhem revealed the situation in Geylang is now a bigger concern.
“If Singaporeans are irked by the littering, the noise and the jaywalking in Little India they’ll certainly and quickly sense that there exists a hint of lawlessness in Geylang,” Commissioner Ng said.
Police statistics appear to uphold his claim. Last year 135 serious crimes were reported in Geylang (including ‘outrage of modesty’) compared with 85 in Little India, while the number of public order offences was double.
Yet none of this deters the tourists seeking relatively cheap rooms rather than participating in the street services. Some, elderly folk and those with children, have clearly not googled Geylang in depth.
Reality hits while filling in forms and having passport details copied by the smartly uniformed hotel receptionists. As the procedures drag on couples with no luggage hand over S$20 (Rp 185,000) bills, grab a key and bolt for the lift, no questions asked.
There’s so much to see in Geylang, and it’s non-stop. You won’t encounter Dior or Chanel here, but the stores sell most things found in Orchard Road, though the brands won’t be familiar.
Though a new regulation now prohibit alcohol sales between 2 am and 6 am the streets stay busy, and open-front coffee shops keep trading. Passersby flop into plastic chairs, dribble their way through soft-boiled eggs and rice porridge, then doze off hangovers till the fridge is unlocked.
Along with the prostitutes, mainly Chinese who rarely speak English, there’s a resident population of pensioners who spend their time exchanging banter with the girls between jobs.
These old men sleep in nearby rooms but spend their days in the cafes reminiscing of virilities lost while nursing S$6 (Rp 55,000) Tigers. The local bottled beer is twice the price of its Indonesian equivalent.
The old fellows’ days are numbered, not through police harassment but because Geylang is being gentrified. The colonial era buildings, including the curious blocks with curved concrete outside staircases, are being smashed down to build more hotels and apartments.
The men who do this work, mainly Tamils and Bangladeshis, wander Geylang in large numbers, picking their way through the sidewalk trade in bootleg cigarettes, video porn and drugs that are supposed to enhance men’s performance.
The law says such medicines can only be dispensed by registered chemists handling doctors’ prescriptions.
The law prohibits pornography and tobacco sales outside registered shops. It’s illegal to solicit for sex, but any man alone in Geylang (or even with his wife) can expect to be sleeve-plucked and invited to negotiate for the services of his choice.
The police say they now deploy five squad cars in Geylang every weekend though blue uniforms are rarely seen. Presumably they are busy elsewhere sniffing out unflushed toilets.
Singapore’s Ministry of Manpower says the total foreign workforce is now more than 1.3 million, with around a quarter working in the construction industry. These are mainly single young men who find freedoms in Singapore they’d never encounter back on the sub-continent.
Without outlets for their passions it’s reasoned that they’d tend to violence, so minor infractions are overlooked lest heavy handedness causes friction.
Those who step out of line lose their jobs, are blacklisted and on the next Boeing leaving Changi. After the Little India riot 55 men were deported. That tends to ensure some respect for the law.
Despite Commissioner Ng’s anxieties we’ll continue to use Geylang till the new hotels push prices into the stratosphere. By then the district will be dead, its sunset folk dispersed, the girls back in Shanghai and Geylang just another boring suburb in an emasculated Lion City.
Accommodation prices vary depending on whether there’s a convention in town. Rack rates start around S$150 (Rp 1.4 million) not including tax or breakfast, but Internet prices can be below S$100.
The rooms are small and poor value when compared to prices in Javanese cities, but usually clean, secure and well maintained.
Most of the foods familiar to Indonesians can be found in Geylang; Westerners who fumble chopsticks will have to adapt or go hungry. S$15 will get you a spectacular feed served on a chipped laminate-top.
Metered taxis from the airport cost under S$20 and take about 30 minutes. It’s more fun and cheaper at S$2.40 (Rp 22,000) to take the MRT direct to Aljunied or Kallang.
(First published in The Jakarta Post 12 September 2014)