Cafe owners said they opened illegal shisha areas for "survival"

SINGAPORE - Behind an inconspicuous white door in a Kampong Glam shophouse, about 30 people sit shrouded in fruit-scented smoke.

They are smoking shisha at an illegal joint - one of at least three such places in the area.

Shisha smoking is allowed only if it is done outdoors and within designated smoking areas.

Businesses with smoking licences are allowed to offer shisha in 20 per cent of their outdoor space.

To rake in extra cash, some have secretly converted their second-floor shophouse units into additional shisha dens.

At least one locks its customers in a room. MyPaper found that the only way a customer could go in and out was to wait for staff to open the door.

Inside, customers sprawl on sofas and cushions smoking shisha in the enclosed room - windows tightly shut, save for a small one in the attached bathroom. About 15 pipes dotted the room, which was about the size of two shophouse units.

The other two cafes with smoking dens upstairs also had their windows shut.

The authorities, meanwhile, are trying to clamp down on illegal shisha smoking.

The National Environment Agency (NEA) has already rescinded the smoking corners of 14 businesses in the Kampong Glam area, and 110 fines, up to $1,200 per offence, have been meted out to businesses offering shisha in unlicensed areas since January last year.

Cafe owners, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said they opened illegal shisha areas for "survival". Shisha sales can make up 60 per cent of business, with the rest coming from sales of food and drinks.

With customers paying between $18 and $25 for a shisha pipe, a cafe can earn at least $400 per round of customers with its illegal smoking area.

NEA said that it is "continuing with its inspections and enforcement action against any smoking violations in Kampong Glam and at other smoking hot spots".

Cafe owners and staff now play a cat-and-mouse game with the authorities.

They alert one another when familiar NEA officers, or uniformed ones, appear. One man carrying a walkie-talkie even patrols the area on a bicycle to look out for the authorities.

Ms Priya, 27, a former patron, said she had her pipe confiscated eight times by the cafe staff who had heard of officers in the area.

Mr Benedict Koh, president of the Fire Safety Managers' Association, said such indoor smoking is a fire disaster waiting to happen, especially considering the open fire and combustible objects such as cushions and carpets.

"The area is not meant for such purposes, so it may not have fire protection features such as sprinklers," he said.

Ms Priya stopped frequenting the indoor venues when she realised how dangerous it could be.

"It gets very congested. Every time the shisha pipe falls over, either the carpet gets burnt or someone gets injured," said the education officer who carries a burn mark on her arm from when a pipe toppled over and the coal grazed her skin.

Get MyPaper for more stories.