Behind those neon lights

SINGAPORE - Big neon signs, grand chandeliers, ornate furniture and an elaborate fountain make up the scene at the entrance of the posh KTV lounge.

Uniformed staff members that include bouncers man the reception, where you wait before being ushered into one of the rooms that is lined with sprawling leather sofas, small pouffe seats, glass-top tables and large flat-screen TVs.

As you meander through the passageways, what greets you are rows of heavily made-up, young, nubile girls. Most carry a small wristlet or clutch bag, and their mobile phones.

Many smile coquettishly and try to attract the men, hoping they will be called into the private rooms where customers begin to have fun singing and the money starts to roll.

For a few hours each night, the men come to spend thousands of dollars, attended to by attractive mamasans and their bevy of sweet young things.

Each nightclub typically has at least 100 hostesses, many of whom are from various parts of China.

Go past the rooms - there are about 30 to 40 in a single nightclub - and you come to a large hall where "live" performances and fashion shows take place throughout the night.

New girls sometimes go through an initiation ceremony where they line themselves on the stage, dance and try to attract generous customers who pay for garlands - in denominations of S$100 onwards. That, of course, means they will have to entertain those who have been open with their wallets later.

Shelves of hard liquor, which costs S$400 a bottle, line the walls.

There are at least 10 such high-end lounges in Singapore, but among the more well-known are Las Vegas De'Palace and Tiananmen KTV & Lounge on Havelock Road, and Deluxe Lido Palace on Outram Road.

But Las Vegas De'Palace closed its doors on June 27 after nearly 10 years, after its lease expired. Tiananmen and two other clubs, Club Infinitude and Golden Million, which are located in the same building, are likely to move too, reported Shin Min Daily News on Tuesday.

A spokesman for Furama tells The New Paper on Sunday: "The owning company of Furama RiverFront Hotel intends to change the concept of its annex block next year, so as to better complement the hotel offerings to our local and international guests.

"With planned conversion of the current space to retail, showroom, office and commercial usage, there have been keen interest and commitments from various potential tenants.

"However, the owning company has yet to finalise the eventual tenants, given its objective to optimise the tenant mix for its hotel guests.

"Our tenants have been faithful partners over the last decade. Given the desires of these tenants to stay at the current premise, mutual arrangements have been made with some of these tenants to extend their tenancy.

"However, due to a confidentiality clause with our tenants, we are not able to provide further details until further notice."

The nightclubs' regular clients, who are mostly Mandarin-speaking businessmen and towkays in their 30s to late 50s, greet the news with some unhappiness.

Mr Leon Tay, 52, is miffed even though there are other options.

"It's a matter of familiarity. I know almost everyone, from the parking valet to the bouncers, the mamasans and their hostesses, and even the service staff," says the businessman who goes to Tiananmen at least once a week.

He splurges between S$3,000 and S$5,000 each visit - depending on whether it is personal or official.

Miss Wei-wei, 28, a mamasan at Tiananmen, says she has received many calls since the news report.

"Many of my regular customers are calling to find out if we are moving out soon, and if we have found another spot," she says.

The New Paper on Sunday understands that the various club management are looking for alternative premises, but nothing has been confirmed so far.

One club's senior manager, who declines to be named, says: "My boss told us that one of the problems is getting a good location with a decent rent.

"He said those places that can take a nightclub are already taken up."

Mr Ted Chan, 40, a regional business director who entertains clients at Las Vegas De'Palace and Tiananmen, describes the possible closure as "a real pity".

He likes that the KTV lounges are not all that seedy, contrary to popular impression.

Mr Chan, who usually spends about S$5,000 on liquor and the girls, says: "The hanky-panky really does not happen inside the rooms.

The deal is cut inside but takes place outside, where you 'mai zhong' (go out for supper or other arrangements)."

Then again, says Miss Wei-wei: "Not all the girls will be willing to do that, especially those who are from Malaysia or Singapore.

"Some of them really have their pride - they don't mind drinking till their guts spill or singing till their voices are hoarse, but they will not provide extra services."

Miss Tian-xin, 20, is one such example. The Malaysian, who has been working at Club Infinitude for eight months, says: "I can hold my liquor very well and that is enough for me to earn the commission from opening the bottles. I don't need to debase myself.

"I have a boyfriend and I hope I can 'shang an' (retire) in another two years."

‘This is my fate and I’ll just accept it’

She came to Singapore with all of her belongings packed into a bright red cabin luggage.

She carried a journal that had pretty flowers on its front cover. Written on the first page in Chinese were the words “mai xiang wu bai wan”.

In English, it means: Towards Five Million.

Miss Chanel Luo, 24, who is from Hubei, China, tells The New Paper on Sunday in Mandarin: “I came here with high expectations. I even told my father, who is a boatman, that I would return with five million yuan (S$1 million) after two years.”

But Miss Luo, is barely at the halfway mark. She declines to share exactly how much she has made so far.

Miss Luo admits that she was lured by the promise of easy money.

Her father is told that his daughter is carving out a career as a singer, and looks forward to the S$1,000 she sends home every month.

The money pays for her 18-year-old brother’s medical fees, she says. He suffers from juvenile Parkinson’s disease and now stays in a convalescent home.

Their mother packed up and left home eight years ago after she was unable to cope with taking care of her son.

Her father, she says, makes about 500 yuan a month from ferrying passengers at a tourist spot.

Miss Luo says: “I think if I didn’t have to share the burden of raising my brother, I would be in a better state.

“But this is my fate and I’ll just accept it. And no, I don’t think my life is a sob story. If anything, it serves to push me to earn as much money as I can.”

Dressed in a pink sleeveless blouse and a pair of black tights sans make-up, she looks more like a teenager.

She laughs at the “compliment” and says: “Maybe I should dress like this when I go to work? Then I can attract more customers.”

Sources say a mamasan can easily earn S$200,000 to S$300,000 a month, while popular hostesses can take home a five-figure sum every month.

Ask Miss Luo if her original goal was unrealistic to begin with and she says: “Well, if you live frugally, save as much as you can, and are also willing to provide extra services, why not?”

She shoots this correspondent a look of disbelief when asked to elaborate on the extra services. “Please, as if you don’t know and have to ask,” she says.

Miss Chanel Luo, who worked in a nightclub in Shanghai for three years before coming to Singapore, blames the closure of Las Vegas De’Palace for a part of her income loss. She estimates that she will lose “at least S$5,000 a month”.

She does not have a full-time contract with any club. Hostesses who are confident enough – they are mostly from China – strike out on their own as freelancers.

That means they can flit from lounge to lounge, without being tied down. It also means bigger bucks because the mamasans do not get a cut from the hostesses’ earnings.

The earnings come mainly from booking commissions, as well as liquor sale commissions and tips from customers.

While Miss Luo does not know when exactly the other clubs – Tiananmen KTV & Lounge, Golden Million and Club Infinitude – are expected to move, she is determined not to wait idly.

Miss Luo, who is considered to be an “ang pai” (which translates literally from Hokkien to mean the more popular hostesses), reveals that she has been approached by a five-star nightclub to join them as a mamasan.

The basic package, she says, is attractive but she wants to “work out the sums very carefully” before signing the contract.

“I want to make sure that even if I cannot meet my five-million goal, I am still not too far off the mark,” she says.

Another offer in the works is from a businessman “old enough to be my father” who wants her exclusive companionship for six months.

Miss Luo says: “He has been supporting me since I first started and just last month, he made the proposition and said he’d double what I am earning now.”

Whichever option she picks, she hopes it will be one that allows her to return to Hubei and live comfortably.

“My dream is to marry a man who loves me as much as I love him, live with my father who can retire, and hire a full-time nurse for my brother,” she says wistfully.

This article was first published on July 6, 2014.
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