Lust in Bangkok and Singapore

Battle of the red-light districts.

Step out of a warm, muggy night into an air-conditioned little bungalow on a quiet side street. Inside is a holding area with a waist-high partition and behind it, a curved bench along the wall. Five young Thai women, wearing numbers for easy ordering, lean forward and smile. It could be any night on many a street in Bangkok. But it’s in Singapore. And unlike in Bangkok, it’s perfectly legal.

They are two cities with well-entrenched reputations. Singapore is an island of probity where vandals are caned and dope fiends hung. Bangkok is a land of licence and licentious foreigners, eager to indulge their multifarious lusts.

It’s not that the popular images are false, exactly. It’s just that the reality can sometimes be surprising, with Bangkok the scene of sporadic crackdowns and Singapore providing plenty of government-approved sin. Still, each town runs the sex trade in its own way, and those ways tend to be very much in keeping with their respective civic characters.

Singapore is often misunderstood. Incidents like the 1994 caning of American Michael Fay for vandalism have led to the popular image of a moralistic nanny state. But the true motivating principle for the government is not morality but order. Drugs can be kept out through strict enforcement, and so can chewing gum. But no one has yet figured how to stop people from bringing their sexual organs into a country. So Singapore has made prostitution legal and designated an area for it. That area is Geylang. Located a 20-minute bus ride east of the Orchard Road shopping district, Geylang is also renowned as a place for great, cheap food and even produce. Surely there are not many red-light districts offering tomatoes and melons that are not metaphorical.

Government control notwithstanding, not everything is tidy in the Singapore sex trade. While the discreet little side-street bungalows are home to the legal operations, there are plenty of other girls on the street and outside the law, many from China and Vietnam. Nor have the authorities entirely succeeded in corralling the business in Geylang.

At the Kerbau Hotel in the Little India district, the ordinary weekday trade takes an odd turn on Sundays. A small crowd of Bangladeshi construction workers loiters out front, and with them an equal number of women in bright saris. The women don’t really look like stereotypical prostitutes—more like middle-aged relatives who have popped in to help out with some laundry and perhaps a home-cooked meal. But when the men dutifully line up at the counter, each receives a key and a couple of condoms before heading down the hall with a companion. Whether these Sunday outings are government-sanctioned is hard to say. But it’s unlikely the authorities are overly concerned.

In Thailand, prostitution is illegal. No, really. It is also part of the societal fabric to an extent that may be unequalled anywhere on Earth. One study claimed that former farm girls sending earnings home from the Bangkok sex trade constitute the main form of agricultural subsidy in Thailand. And although it may lack the legal fig leaf that the Singapore industry enjoys, the Bangkok sex business is unrivalled in scope and complexity. In fact Thai traditions and practices at times blur the line between prostitution and what Westerners might consider simple gold-digging.

But for a glimpse of the sleaze that made Bangkok infamous, tourists head for Patpong. Lately this nightlife district has been trying to broaden its image and become an all-around food, market, and entertainment centre. There are plenty of restaurants and regular bars, and rows of stalls selling the usual souvenirs. There’s even a Le Méridien hotel nearby.

But really, how are you going to change your image when big neon signs in front of many clubs feature gynecological slang? And the men on the street still offer those storied Patpong menus describing the spectacles to be seen in live shows. These involve women playing ping pong, popping balloons, smoking cigarettes, doing tricks with razor blades, or shooting bananas across the stage. None of the aforementioned feats are accomplished with the assistance of hands, feet, mouths, slingshots, catapults, etc. At least the banana sounds healthy. As for the razor blade routine, it’s probably best not to know. None of it sounds very much like foreplay.

Across town at Sukhumvit Soi 4, Nana Plaza dispenses with the sexual freak shows in favour of more straightforward Thai display—black-lit bars where bikinied young women bounce on stage for the clientele. Girls receive a commission on drinks bought for them, and should things progress further, the customer must pay a “bar fine” to take the woman away. After that, the price is paid directly to the woman. This segment of the Thai prostitution industry, catering mostly to foreigners, is mercifully free of pimps or controlling brothel madams. Further down the food chain, others are reportedly not so lucky—segments of the domestic industry still feature children sold into slavery by impoverished parents.

Even within the farang (foreigner) sector there appear to be gradations. Lek, a 42-year-old mother of three who works at Nana’s Hollywood bar, insists that girls have it worse up the road at the well-known dance club street called Soi Cowboy. “Soi Cowboys girls dance with no clothes,” she points out. “Here we wear bikini.”

Lek also confirms that Thai bar girls tend to have both short- and long-term agendas. Paying the rent is important, but most of the young women here are also hoping to attract a foreign boyfriend. Lek insists that a real relationship can indeed result from what begins as a business transaction. But, she cautions, the resulting relationship must involve financial support. Otherwise, Lek opines, “Better I just fuck him and get money.”

In the welter of neon above Nana Plaza a blue sign reads “Pretty Ladies”. To which the prudent response is, well, maybe. Nana Plaza also offers kathoey (ladyboy) bars. Thai transvestites are world-renowned for their convincing appearances. Hence the following encounter on a street close to Nana: a British man is dragging along a tipsy bar girl when he spots a Western face. “D’ye speak English?” he asks the bystander, who nods.

Each town runs the sex trade its own way, with Bangkok the scene of sporadic crackdowns and Singapore providing government-approved sin.

Pointing to his companion, the man asks: “D’ye reckon that’s a bloke?”

Grasping the point of the exchange, the young woman is incensed. “He think I ladyboy!” she complains. After reassurance is offered to both, the couple totters away to consummate their relationship.

Other relationships are not so clear-cut. Western society firmly places prostitution in a separate file, distinct from all other sexual interactions serious or casual. You are either a prostitute or you’re not. But foreigners who dip into Thai nightlife sometimes find the divisions are not so clear.

Q Bar, located on Sukhumvit Soi 11, is no dance bar. Co-owned by Vancouver Island native Andrew Clark, Q Bar is widely credited with helping to bring Western nightclub culture to Bangkok nightlife. Yet even here, Thai conventions persist.

According to a young Q Bar patron named Nung, the great majority of single women in the bar on any given night are moonlighting from low-paying day jobs, looking to supplement their income with one-night stands. “I work at a convenience store,” she says. “I am sending money back to my parents in the country, and I am helping to look after my brothers and sisters here.” For young women like Nung, 7-11 wages don’t cut it. Thus in Bangkok, barroom romances generally come with a price tag.

As do most things around here. Corruption is as much a part of Thai society as prostitution, a point made horribly clear by the New Year’s Eve fire that killed more than 60 at Santika nightclub. Aside from the safety violations that went unpunished, reports revealed that Santika had never paid applicable nightclub taxes because, according to tax inspectors, there was no evidence of drinking or dancing going on. In Bangkok it seems blindness is just one more item on the menu.

Yet crackdowns do happen. During the reign of now-deposed prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, police imposed curfews and sometimes shut down entire streets for drug testing. Even as Singapore was trying to spice up its image with casinos, Bangkok was attempting to clean up its own. But with government officials heavily invested in the sex and entertainment industries, few think that meaningful long-term change is likely.

For proof, look at the elephants. The practice of marching pachyderms into Bangkok to beg money from tourists has officially been squelched for years; in 2006 a Stray Elephant Task Force was created to deal with the problem. Yet it appears more of them are pounding the pavement than ever. In Bangkok, enforcement can be as seasonal as the weather.

Despite what would seem to be plentiful domestic opportunities, at least some Thai women travel to the government-sponsored scene in Singapore in search of fortune. Sitting in the Geylang bungalow, several of the women identify themselves as northern Thai natives. (Most of the young women in Bangkok’s Nana Plaza also come from Isan, the poor rural northeast region.) There appears to be no question of trafficking here—when asked what brought them to Singapore the women chorus: “To make money!”

One Singapore local told me that the “legality” of civic prostitution is in effect an official sanction for criminal activity. The Singapore government, he claimed, allocates particular territories to the control of particular gangsters and leaves them to run the business.

In Bangkok, it’s the illegality of the trade that is questionable. Loopholes in the law make it virtually impossible to police what takes place behind closed doors so long as the people involved reach an agreement.

On Singapore’s Geylang Lor 6, foot traffic is light. A group of women loiters in front of Hotel 6. One girl scampers out to a sidewalk shrine and kneels to offer prayers. Down the street at the little bungalow, the manager signals that the audience is over. The Thai girls wave goodbye, and sit back to await visitors who will do more than ask questions. Back home in Bangkok, their sisters will be preparing for another night at Nana.

All over Southeast Asia, the neon is blinking to life. Night is falling—there’s money to be made.