You never forget the first time you’re chased by a prostitute. It’s an unexpected milestone in one’s life.
Naturally, my encounter took place in Singapore.
In the UK, I was young, gangly and skint and not considered a prospective client for the vice industry. Besides, I grew up in a housing estate that once had the highest teenage pregnancy rate in London, a statistic that I proudly include in all job applications.
We never had time for prostitutes. We were too busy having sex with strangers for free in the back of a Ford Cortina.
The British weather was bitingly cold, money was tight and far too many car owners forgot to lock their doors.
So I had to venture to the sunny island in the sea, our restrained sanctuary of staunch family values, to be harassed by a sex worker in a verminous back alley.
It was late, a weeknight, too, so the crumbling, dimly lit Geylang street was filled with too many prostitutes and not enough punters. I was there to research one of my books—insert your joke here—and felt a tug at my arm.
“Hi ham-some,” a sultry voice whispered. “You come with me, ang moh.”
(In these surreal circumstances, I’m always struck by how quickly strangers use my skin colour as the suitable noun of choice. I’m sure no one ever says, “you come with me, black man” or “follow me, brown-skinned sex addict”.)
"We never had time for prostitutes. We were too busy having sex with strangers for free in the back of a Ford Cortina."
Nevertheless, being the mature and sophisticated 30-year-old scribe that I was at the time, I behaved appropriately. I shit myself.
And then I ran. I resisted the temptation to scream, but all decorum was lost when I clattered into bamboo poles filled with washing. My water bottle, notepad and pen scattered in every direction, disappearing into the darkness, along with my ego.
The young woman pursued me through the dilapidated shophouses, still shouting, “ang moh, stop, come; ang moh, stop, come,” which is usually the order of business in Geylang.
I escaped, but it wasn’t an isolated incident. There were other insalubrious encounters. About a year later, an older woman joined me at a bench, patted my knee and offered her services.
Beneath the faint glare of the streetlight, however, this woman bore a passing resemblance to my mother, a Freudian nightmare on Orchard Road.
I left immediately. And I didn’t call my mother for a week either.
Indeed, infrequent trips to Orchard Towers often triggered a Kafkaesque metamorphosis. Pasty-faced Caucasian became Affluent Sex God. The skin colour was a calling card for sex workers.
Being the only white, non-Singaporean in the group, I once experienced a Filipino woman bending over backwards, standing on her hands and feet with the grace of a nubile gymnast as she presented me with a red rose—via her teeth.
I had to open my empty wallet to demonstrate that I was not the man she thought I was.
“Families share plates of prata in Jalan Besar while over-eager customers wait for hand-jobs in the massage parlours next door.”
Orchard Towers’ bars have always boasted terrific house bands. But telling folks that one frequented the red-light district to admire a band’s rhythm section often sounded like the perverted uncle who insisted he only read Playboy for its prose.
Still, the shiny city-state with the sordid underbelly continues to both intrigue and irritate for its distinct brand of bipolar morality. I’ve long struggled not only with the omnipresence of prostitutes here, but also the overwhelming indifference towards their treatment.
The tiny island, so safe, so sanitised, also makes room for the sleazy, often in the same street. Singapore is a schizophrenic mishmash of virtues and vices, all clashing and conflicting in one hypocritical city.
Families share plates of prata in Jalan Besar while over-eager customers wait for hand-jobs in the massage parlours next door.
International Women’s Day allows prominent figures to salivate over Singapore’s wondrous deeds, while prostitutes can be found online, on the streets and on damp grass patches behind building sites, servicing construction workers through the night.
The Women’s Charter, which is often trumpeted to demonstrate the country’s commitment to gender equality, prohibits pimping (someone “living in part on the prostitution of another person”), but there are designated red-light districts. Everyone knows where the brothels are.
In Geylang, pimps are easier to find than policemen. Such a Jekyll and Hyde approach towards a society’s integrity is confusing, rather like saying it’s illegal to profit from selling firearms while allowing designated shooting ranges where they could kill each other.
"Singapore is a schizophrenic mishmash of virtues and vices, all clashing and conflicting in one hypocritical city."
Unlicensed massage parlours are Singapore’s hydra heads. To pacify the masses, the authorities will raid a few every now and then, allowing the media to take those degrading photos of handcuffed women, heads bowed, sitting on the edge of a bed (just to ramp up the seediness for the Chinese evening papers).
But new massage parlours soon pop up. ‘Sugar babies’, pimps and punters will always have a place in a patriarchal society struck down with the kind of myopia that comes from closing one eye for decades.
Look, most of us enjoy sex.
Many of us want sex as often as possible, if one’s age and personal circumstances allow. As a 43-year-old father, being naked on a sofa or being in front of Netflix on a sofa can be a close-run thing.
Growing up on a London housing estate, everyone was having sex. We didn’t have Farm Heroes then. There was nothing else to do.
But we had a choice. We knew what we doing. Actually, we had no idea what we were doing, hence the impressive teenage pregnancy statistics. But we did have a choice. We weren’t pressured or coerced for socio-economic or cultural reasons.
If only every woman—and man—in Singapore could say the same. Sex should be a messy, sweaty, funny, consensual coming together of two equally aroused people, committed to the moment and each other.
All things considered, I’d rather my sexual partner was thinking only of me, rather than my wallet.
I have my principles. I don’t have sex very often, but I have my principles.
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