Into the red light: Prostitution in Singapore

By Paul Fitzpatrick

Prostitution in Singapore is legal, but various prostitution-related activities are not. This includes public solicitation, living on the earnings of a prostitute and maintaining a brothel.

In practice, police unofficially tolerate and monitor a limited number of brothels. Prostitutes in such establishments are required to undergo periodic health checks and must carry a health card.

Apart from these regulated brothels, commercial sex workers can be found in many "massage" or "spa" establishments. Some massage parlours, including Tui na outlets, employ scantily clad women from mainland China and offer massages as a pretext for sexual services.

These activities are illegal, and the operators of such massage establishments risk jail if exposed by anti-vice police raids. The main red-light district in Singapore used to be in Geylang, Orchard Towers, nicknamed the "Four Floors Of Whores", is a shopping centre frequented by prostitutes. Some bars in Duxton Hill also offer sexual services.

Prostitution is an activity which is shunned by society yet the ‘sex industry’ makes a significant contribution to the Chinese economy. It is estimated that there are 20 million sex workers in China. Two anti vice campaigns conducted in Beijing suggested that Beijing alone has between 200,000 and 300,000 sex workers. Earnings from providing sexual services are considerable.

For obvious reasons most of this doesn’t appear as taxable income. Where the state does gain is through personal consumption. Prostitutes need to buy quite a lot of equipment. Condoms and other sexual aids. But also more expensive items like cell phones, apartments, rooms, nice clothes, cosmetics, cars and even bodyguards.

When we consider that the Chinese GNP was 8.3 trillion in 1999 the sex industry comes in at 12.8%. Economist Yang Fan estimates that recent legislation introduced in the PRC to curb prostitution caused the GNP to drop by 1%.

What is prostitution?
‘Prostitutes’ increasingly referred to as ‘sex workers’ which is seen as more acceptable are females or possibly males that provide sexual services in return for money.

A study conducted in China identified the following categories of ‘sex worker’.

‘Second wives’. Traditionally referred to as concubines, ‘second wives’ provide ongoing sexual services to married men.

‘Packaged women’. Accompany clients on business trips.

‘Female companions’. A nebulous term to describe women who entertain male clients in karoke or similar venues.

‘Ding Dong girls’. ‘Ding dong’ refer to the door bell. Ding-dong girls rent rooms in which to entertain clients.

‘Massage parlour girls’. At face they value provide massage services, often in hotels or in high street salons. ‘Massage’ is a term that is somewhat loosely used in the sex industry.

‘Street girls’. Literally approach men on the street.

‘Underclass women’. Generally service migrant workers. They represent the lowest stratum of sex work.

Why is the sex industry in China so big?

There are estimated to be a one hundred million unemployed women in China today. A by product of China’s economic expansion which has taken place within an unprecedented short period of time.

Education and training however has failed to keep pace with economic change. Many of the women come from rural areas where traditional forms of employment have been displaced by rapid industrialization.

Often, not having any qualifications or the opportunity to acquire the necessary skills, prostitution is their only option. Similarly many females in the cities find themselves unemployed as a consequence of new technology and changes in patterns of employment.

Combined with this the break down of the old social order in China has brought with it a new morality in which promiscuity in it various forms is seen as more acceptable. Mass consumerism also has also given rise to an acquisitive instinct particularly among the young and what one author aptly described as a ‘no money no honey’ mentality.

‘The Six Devil Women’ directed by Ma Tin Yin is a lurid tale of sex and murder. The sort of movie you might find for sale for $9 in the rack at the back of your local convenience store. Six country girls are drawn to Shenzhen, initially to work in beauty salons but are drawn into prostitution, car jacking and ultimately murder. Not the most philosophical of films yet it makes some interesting sociological observations. How, for example, in the ‘new’ China, the allure of materialism is gaining a hold on young people’s lives. And how many see prostitution as one way of making money quickly. An extreme scenario perhaps, but the underlying message is a moralistic and cautionary indictment of the flip side of life in the ‘new’ China’.

Who are the ‘sex workers’?
In 1999 Professor Pam Suiming of Renimim University conducted an interesting study of the sex industry in China. Specifically she was able to profile a ‘typical’ Chinese sex worker.

According to her study, rural girls are most likely to become sex workers. Simply because they are most likely to find themselves unemployed through, either lack of opportunity or skills. Another feature is that they tend to lack a cohesive social or family network.

In many instances the woman had been disowned by her family or she had deliberately severed contact with them. She is no longer likely to be a virgin. Virginity is highly prized in China. In all probability she is likely to be divorced or to have been abandoned by a boy friend. She is also likely to have friends already working in the sex industry.

So what of the women who become sex workers? According to Professor Suimin, their aspirations as much the same as the rest of us.

Typically they want their own home and family. Another characteristic of the women she met was that they didn’t complain about their lot but, at the same time, they didn’t express feelings of contentment or of happiness.

Except when they were trying to keep up appearances of the benefit of a client. Generally their lives seemed characterized by emptiness and very little fulfillment. Perhaps most significantly the majority of the women saw prostitution as a temporary phase in their lives and something that they intended to put behind them once things get better. They saw their situation as a form of deferred gratification. As one girl put it ‘no one chooses to be a sex worker’.

Prostitution is rarely undertaken as an individual venture. Most women work in groups which are controlled by male or females bosses. Males bosses are sometimes known as ‘hen heads’.

Strong bonds and group norms also tend to exist within groups of sex workers. Perhaps this is inevitable when we consider that virtually all the factors identified by social psychologists as promoting group cohesiveness are a feature.

Prostitution is an activity which is shunned by society. This has the effect reinforcing the group sense of togetherness. Social bonding helps alleviate the feelings of being stigmatized. Even if society disowns us we still have each other.

To many girls the group becomes a substitute for the family that they never had or that disowned them because of the work that they do. Sex workers typically spend a lot of time together waiting for clients.

Often in cramped conditions. Physical proximity promotes cohesiveness. But at the same time many sex workers command high earnings. This is facilitated by the support of the group. So like a football team that keeps winning, this has the effect of inspiring and motivating the women to carry on.

Dragon Girls is a term used by Chinese author Jiu Dan in her published novel “Crows’ to describe the Chinese women who come to Singapore, initially to work in the sex industry but with the hope ultimately of meeting and marrying a rich foreigner. Many come in on student passes or on social passes.

After all Singapore Immigration is unlikely to grant an employment pass or work permit to a Karoke bar hostess, even if she does describe herself as a ‘guest relations officer’! The book stirred up a controversy in China and even more so when it was published in Singapore.

On one level it is seen as an attempt to vilify Chinese women. Crows are scavengers and many see the Chinese girls as being depicted in a similar light. On another level it is seen as a reaction to a society dominated by men and money.

Perhaps, in a sense, it is neither. The girls from China simply desire something better. And many succeed. Away from the hostess bars of Shenzhen and Shanghai; living in a condominium in Singapore and driving a Mercedes Benz, people will soon forget that you were once a Dragon Girl.

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