Insight: Down South
By Seah Chiang Nee
Building on its history of prostitution and triads, this red light district has evolved into a mini United Nations of sorts.
SEVERAL Singaporean housewives, as strait-laced and as prim-and-proper as they came, surprised me recently when they proposed to organise a bus tour of the city's hot sex-spot.
"We've heard so much about Geylang and we want to see it," said a retired teacher. Would I - being a know-it-all journalist - be the guide? she asked to the applause of all.
The tour hasn't taken place yet but given the curiosity of these friends, I'm pretty sure one day it will.
These are half a dozen of the society's most conservative senior citizens, some of them church-going grandmothers. So what propelled them to want to visit the capital of Singapore's sex industry?
The place is not only renowned for its women but also for the hawker delicacies that have added up to make it a potential tourist icon.
Geylang has a known history of prostitution and triads. But it has been expanded into a more sophisticated business and becoming more international.
It is bringing in a small army of men looking for sex and food, as well as a fair mix of foreign and local tourists.
I've lost count of the number of foreign friends who have insisted that I take them there. At one time, it was Chinatown. Now it's Geylang! They absolutely feel they must see it.
The evolution is by itself, and the crowds were not the result of any tourism drive. Yet this 2km stretch has become one of South-East Asia's top red-light districts.
The area's fame - or notoriety - is something that this conservative city had never planned for, but like it or not, it seems to be flourishing.
Every night hundreds - if not thousands - of women speaking a cackle of languages from all over Asia ply the world's oldest profession from 8pm to the pre-dawn hours.
Prostitution is legal, but controlled, in Singapore (unlike even in fun-loving Thailand, where it is banned). Soliciting and pimping, however, are illegal.
Of the half a dozen areas designated for the sex trade, Geylang is the biggest and most colourful.
I have reported many cities in Asia, but none can boast of a red-light zone comparable to Geylang's multi-racial and multiple culture diversity.
"In which other country can you find thousands of women from seven or eight different countries gathered together, working side by side on the streets," asked a retired Asian journalist.
"It's like a mini-United Nations. There's nothing that Bangkok, or any other sex city, has that we don't have here."
I think I know what he meant. A visitor to Bangkok can find Thai prostitutes, or when in Shenzhen encounter Chinese sex ladies.
But it is only in Geylang, on the south-central part of Singapore, that can one see so many nationalities working in the sex trade in one spot.
Recently, a web-blogger filmed three of the streets - Lanes 8, 10, 12 - and posted them for public viewing.
They showed large groups of women standing almost shoulder to shoulder in some places, smiling at the parade of men passing by.
Many carry a yellow health card, and must report in "regularly" for medical checks.
The government doesn't encourage it, but allows it out of a social need. There are 1.2 million foreign workers living here without their wives.
Geylang is not to everyone's liking. The conservative citizenry condemns it and wants it closed. Residents in the area worry about security for their women and loss of value for their homes.
There is no denying that it has stirred a great deal of interest and curiosity far and near.
From this pragmatic beginning, a new industry, one of the few that the current recession has not affected, is spawning.
Some curious neighbours come here just to have a look and to try out the Geylang food.
Restaurants dot the landscape dominated by budget hotels and "love nests" - S$20 (RM48) for two hours - and hawker stalls.
Massage parlours with two-way mirrors and pink-coloured lights measure up well to those on Bangkok's Sukhumvit Road.
The girls come from China, Thailand, Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam, India, Sri Lanka and even as far away as Croatia and the Czech Republic.
Like in other fields, Geylang's sex trade (from Lorong 6 to Lorong 30) is dominated by women from China, who make up the largest number.
They are managed by Chinese pimps. At Lorong 15, small groups of Bangladeshi women walk the beat under the watchful eyes of their countrymen.
And as Geylang prepares for the Lunar New Year, a local newspaper columnist wrote last week: "The first appearance of street buskers in Geylang brought out an enthusiastic crowd behind me and across the street.
"The talented PRC (China) man in white sang with a karaoke set while his equally skilful companion in blue performed an exotic folk dance.
"Later, an eccentric old Ang Moh (Caucasian) handed his can of beer to someone and joined in. A police car cruised by."
This then is today's Geylang. One young Singaporean man blogged recently: "Everything I need is in Geylang. I need nothing else."
With the economy entering a dire era, some exuberant observers see a possibility of prostitution one day being recognised as a service profession, like in Amsterdam, where the women have to pay tax.
And presumably the customer will have to pay GST (Goods and Service Tax).
"If this squeaky clean city can legalise casino gambling, why not prostitution?" argued a photographer. "At any rate it's only one step from Geylang!"
This article was first published in The Star on Jan 24, 2009.