Updated: Oct 26, 2021
WARNING: This article contains explicit information and images and should not be viewed by children or those with sensitive to these topics.
I've lived in Singapore for almost ten years and often I feel like I know everything there is to know about our Little Red Dot. Boy, was I wrong. Last night's tour of Geylang with the American Association was eye opening and so very cool. We were a large group, but stayed in groups of two thanks to transmitters and earphones which let us all hear what the guide was saying without having to crowd around him. (Hint: Bring your own headphones as the ones lent by the tour company's aren't that great.)
Besides the fact the tour was darn interesting, it was really nice to be with people again, even if they were "over there." I was with my friends, albeit from afar. We even texted across the sidewalk to comment on what the guide said. And I met new AAS people, too.
Geylang is known for it's great food, unique architecture ... and red light district. Sure, I've walked through Geylang before, but — call me naive — I didn't really know what I was looking at. Our guide, Yinzhou, grew up in Geylang so he really knows the ins and outs of the neighborhood. Throughout our three-hour walk through the back alleys, Yinzhou wove in the history of the neighborhood, complementing his narrative with historical articles and images on his iPad which really brought the streets to life. We learned about much more than just the red light part of the neighborhood.
While I discuss some of the seedier bits of Geylang below (because I realize that's what you really want to know!), the other complexities of the neighborhood were equally fascinating. So how is all this spicier stuff allowed to exist in squeaky-clean Singapore? Simply, vice is going to exist in every country. Former Minister for Home Affairs Wong Kan Seng said in Parliament in 1999 that “criminalising prostitution will only drive such activities underground, resulting in crime syndicates taking control over such activities." In Yinzhou's words, Geylang exists as the sacrificial lamb for the rest of Singapore.
Yinzhou also gave a few restaurant recommendations along the way. I'm now dying to try his highest recommendation, J.B. Ah Meng, but there are also a few frog porridge places that I need to screw up my courage to visit. I once went to a frog farm here, but haven't yet tried Singapore's infamous frog porridge. We did sample a pancake at Yuu Xiang Dam which was kind of like a crispy crepe. I gobbled it down so quickly, I forgot to take a photo so here's the sign. Ha.
A big part of community in Geylang now is the low-wage migrant worker population. Many migrant workers who don't live in the purpose-built or factory-converted dormitories live in private residences located in places like Geylang, including a large part of the workers today from Malaysia who used to commute daily across the causeway. We walked through a market with affordable prices frequented by these workers and learned that by selling fish whole and cuts of meat not as popular for the wealthier, they are able to keep costs low and prices down. The daily wage of a migrant worker in Singapore starts from $15-18/day.
Along the way, there was a corner with tables selling drugs to enhance sexual performance. The medications are likely counterfeit as drugs such as Viagra and Cialis are highly regulated in Singapore and available from the doctor only with a prescription. Still, it was a bit shocking to see here in the Lion City.
Next up, the beer garden. Let me just say that this is not the kind of beer garden I know. Nope. Beer girls here get commission from the beer they sell. For some of them, that means finding ways to incentivize men to drink faster or to earn tips by providing "extra service." This may involve everything from a two-handed boob squeeze to a "motorboat" where men may put their faces in the girl's chest and make a motorboat sound. Prices depends on the girl's age, looks and you guessed it – how big her breasts are. If you want a real meal, undisturbed by the raunchy crowds, eat inside.
Next up, Mimibox. What's Mimibox? Think back to the old automats in New York or Chicago. You know, the places you'd go with sandwiches in little boxes where you'd put in a quarter, open the door and get your meal. Mimibox is the same idea, but with sex toys. There's everything you can think of (and things you've never thought of), all available 24 hours a day, self service. There was another place around the corner offering larger items such as sex dolls. I've tried to show the least offensive images here. Let's just say there were a few "toys" that I had to stop and think about what they might be for. I'm still not sure about some of them.
As we walked the streets, Yinzhou taught us about the inexpensive hotels such as Hotel 81 as well as how the brothels work. The deposit for brothel licenses can cost up to $1 million! He taught us about where the girls come from and which girls are most popular; who can solicit sex and who can't; the different fee structure for different clients (expats pay more); the medical clinics now open to the workers; and so many more details. We learned about the gambling dens that used to occupy the streets and and the dance of the flaming assholes, that used to happen openly on Bugis Street. There was so much information packed into those three hours that my head is still spinning.
If you didn't get to go with the American Association, I highly recommend you sign up for a tour on your own. What I really love about this tour is that a portion of the proceeds goes to support positive change in the neighborhood. Yinzhou has a degree in tourism and graduated from Singapore Management University with a Masters of Tri-Sector Collaboration. He uses his knowledge so he can help his neighbors. There's nothing I respect more than somebody who sees a problem and does something about it.
In the meantime, please sign up for other AAS offerings. As I said, it was as close to being with a big group of friends as I've come in a while. Yes, it's not the same as sitting down with ten people at the same table, but there is something lovely about being together, even apart.