THE Friday evening has barely started, yet business is brisk at Victoria Food Court, a coffee shop at the corner of Geylang Lorong 23.
A sole figure in green waltzes through limited free space between the tables, taking orders with a bright and cheery smile.
With each tray of Carlsberg bottles she puts down on the table, she chats animatedly with her customers before being called away to take another order.
It seems deceptively easy, but beer promoter Miss Tian Qin said: 'On the first night after I finished work, I went home, plonked myself down on the bed and had to prop my legs up.'
China coffee-shop waitresses such as Miss Tian, who is from the Shangdong province in China, became a talking point recently after local waitresses lamented to Minister Lim Boon Heng that the arrival of the young, pretty foreigners was threatening their jobs.
The Minister in the Prime Minister's Office replied that the brisk business attracted by the China girls was actually helping local waitresses keep their jobs.
And business is booming. Coffee-shop owners say that business has increased by up to 50 per cent, thanks to promoters such as Miss Tian.
The 22-year-old, who was a Chinese dancer in a performing troupe back home, arrived in Singapore about five months ago.
She works from 3pm to 11pm each day and gets a day off in the week.
When the beer company headed to her hometown on a recruitment drive, Miss Tian jumped at the opportunity.
But it was not without sweat and tears.
Miss Tian said: 'It's not all so easy. We had to go through a series of interviews before we were shortlisted for selection.'
She added: 'During the interviews, we were asked for our responses to various scenes, such as dealing with difficult customers.'
And when she was selected for the job, her mother went around to raise 38,000 yuan ($7,400) for her to go to Singapore.
Miss Tian said: 'It's an opportunity for me... but while I want to earn whatever I can when I'm still young, I also have to learn to 'zi ai' (respect myself).
'I suppose it all depends on how we portray ourselves. If we can't even respect ourselves, how do we expect others to respect us?'
She was initially assigned to a coffee shop at Bedok Central but had been transferred to the Geylang one just this week.
Miss Tian added: 'Of course, I've heard of all the negative things said about women from China.'
She admitted that she had come across her fair share of lusty advances from cheeky old men, especially those who meet her for the first time.
|"When they find out you're not a threat to them, they'd change their attitude." - Miss Wang, who has been working here for the past three months, talking about her co-workers.
'I guess it can't be helped... it's the bad vibes that some of our fellow people have created,' Miss Tian said.
'I just tell the customers in a firm but friendly way that I'm here to make a decent living. Usually, when they get to know you better, they would actually treat you with respect.'
In the short time Miss Tian has been here, she has built up a fan base of sorts. Some customers from Bedok go all the way to Geylang to support her.
As The New Paper on Sunday scoured more than 50 neighbourhood coffee shops across the island in the past week, the 'Bedok Central Carlsberg girl' topped the list of our search for pretty promoter girls with a healthy image.
Sales manager Joshua Kok, 38, said: 'She's personable and has a ready smile for you - she would ask you how work was, but not in a slutty manner.'
Mr Kok's wife, who was him at the Geylang coffee shop, added: 'At first, I was worried that Tian Qin was one of those women, but after meeting her, I find her pleasant.
'Now, instead of going to the pubs, we would come here where we can even have good food.'
Over at Geylang Lorong 13, Miss Wang Cheng Jia, 25, from Hangzhou, sells imported Thai beer. She has been working here for about three months.
Miss Wang said: 'Service with a smile is most important.'
Local co-workers had treated her with animosity at first, but she added: 'When they find out you're not a threat to them, they'd change their attitude.'
But it is not just the Chinese girls who get the cold shoulder at times.
Malaysian Cheery Long, 23, who promotes Tiger beer at a coffee shop in Clementi, said: 'Sometimes, there are territorial 'fights', but really, it all boils down to working hard.'
At the Hao Yun coffee shop in Marsiling, two Malaysian girls and two Chinese girls promote beer of four different brands.
Owner Madam Ong Wei Leng, 56, said: 'I was hesitant about hiring the girls at first, but since we extended opening hours, we've realised that it helps to have them around.
'They're hardworking and they don't mind working long hours.'
The owner of Victoria Food Court, who has seen the jump in business, agreed.
The jovial 51-year-old, who wanted to be known only as Mr Loo, said: 'Business has gone up by 50 per cent just this week after Miss Tian Qin came.
'Customers want service. Sometimes, when you've had a lousy day, you just want to have a drink before heading home.'
This is why it helps to have someone who bothers to ask you how the day has been, Mr Loo reasoned.
'Don't always associate beer promoters with sleaze,' he said.
Mr Chew Saokang, 54, who owns Tian Tian Fa in People's Park, said: 'When there are pretty and chatty girls who provide the good service for a bottle of $5 or $6 beer, people are happier to spend their money.
'Here, it's so brightly lit, so please, how much sleaze do you really expect?'
This article was first published in The New Paper on Apr 27, 2008.