In this post, my friend Peter Chan talks about the oldest profession in the world. Yes, even for this topic, Singapore has its heritage too. And it goes back much more than the 30 years in this true story, I can assure you that. Yet nothing much has changed through the years. Basically, it is a commercial transaction, i.e. money for sex. No prizes for guessing which gender offers what.
Prostitution is legal in Singapore, provided it is licensed. It is probably easier to control and track STIs that way. There is even empirical evidence that sexual crimes are moderated because horny men have an outlet for satisfying their innate carnal desires.
The phrase in the title, “Money See, Monkey Do” is not a typographical error. It is a deliberate play of words by Peter - one party sees the money and then does the monkey trick. It is all mimicking or acting. Little or no feelings involved, usually. Maybe lust on the man’s part. (“Part” here means “role” and not any physical organ, so make no mistake about that.) As for feelings, there are usually none, not even for the men.
Because Peter likes to use Cantonese phrases in his articles (to add colour and authenticity to his masterpieces and not due to his lack of vocabulary, I am sure), I have included a glossary at the end of the article to benefit readers who do not know Cantonese.
I have also included some relevant photos, mostly taken by me while out on a purely photography trip and ahem… not for any other purpose you are imagining.
This article is so good (the one that follows, not the one above) that it deserves a “foreword” just like that in a good book and I have the honour to write it for Peter. And
So enjoy reading Peter’s masterpiece:
I am inspired by YG article: How Keong Saik Road developed into a red-light district to shed more light on this taboo subject. Some 30 years ago, I was approached by a fellow University of Singapore undergraduate friend to help with her Sociology Hons. academic thesis. It was a difficult topic considering she was the “kwai” type but I could detect that she carried early indications of a passionate and future social activist.
At that time, her only link with the topic was her cousin who worked as a social escort with a very well-known social escort agency called “My Fair Lady”, whose office was at the old Heeren Building down in Orchard Road. Her cousin ably connected us with a number of people but my friend needed someone to accompany her on those face-to-face interviews and to ask those difficult questions only a man would know better. I had in me plenty of “curious genes”, the sort who wishes to know about the unpublicized. The other reason for helping out was because I was “in-between” jobs as it was a very difficult time for Social Science graduates to find employment. Now I continue the story where YG stopped.
My friend used a simple closed-ended questionnaire; the first-cut I felt would not get us anywhere. She could think of only 5 questions to ask and focused on the social demographics and “Why you want to enter this profession?” I advised her to create plenty of open-ended questions (because we didn’t have any literatures or clues as to what intelligent questions should be asked) in order to produce a good thesis (see I got the makings of a future market researcher. Hehehe). So we headed to places such as Keong Saik Street, Lorong 18 Geylang, the cabarets at Golden Million@Peninsular Hotel, Multi-Storey Carpark and Datuk Rajah@ The Great Eastern Hotel (now Hotel Windsor) - three of the largest known cabarets at that time – and “Top 10” a discotheque at Orchard Tower. We had to finish all interviews by October for her to submit her thesis the following January. We needed a sample size of about 60 respondents. Remember this was the mid-70s and there was a stigma attached to somebody in this trade. It was not easy to obtain tightly held information and my friend knew it too well that ending up with one category of workers could skew the research findings.
Now I know there are 3 categories of sex workers; licensed prostitutes who operate in a fixed geographical area, hostesses in night clubs and escorts who have a main job but occasionally make side incomes when necessary, and street walkers who are not confined to a specific geographical area. There are many things one can talk about but due to space constraint, I confine it to licensed prostitutes.
What was most informative for me was to understand the “period of apprenticeship” and how to make the client happy. Like any other industry, to be a successful worker one had to go through a period of apprenticeship; how short or long that depended on how fast one learned the skills. But there was no such thing as a “stupid worker” who couldn’t learn anything.
The most important skill was personal grooming to make one more “saleable”. First stop was the dressing and a good fashion sense meant wearing low-cut tank-tops, mini-skirts, push-up/wired bras but no jeans. Of course if one had a 36” C cup and a slim waist of less than 25”, you were lucky because body-hugging material (no black colours for dress; black was for panties) would have made you easily stand out from the competition. “Never dress too old or older than your age” was a wise line I recalled from one interview session. One thing though, Brazilian Waxing to remove unsightly hairs was an unheard procedure in the 1970s. Most workers manipulated their skin condition to “fit” the trade. The means of manipulation included maintaining the smoothness of their skin by using good-quality moisturizers and cosmetics; only Asian brands for Asian girls, so brands like POLA Cosmetics and Shiseido were preferred over Max Factor. Not surprising, “pakor foochok” was a favorite dessert consumed by the girls.
“More bang for the Bucks” required the licensed workers to “squeeze the customer dry” on quiet days. How was this achieved? One answer we got: “Prolong the period of foreplay so the customer would take more than twenty minutes to orgasm and had to pay for the additional time block”. Sometimes the worker pretended that a particular customer was her first client for the day. A crucial skill was on the bed itself; often clients paid more than the agreed price because of the perceived satisfaction when she “talked dirty”, comparing and praising the size of the private part, “doing all positions” and faking orgasm. Most times clients could not differentiate between KY cream and natural wetness, according to one respondent.
Supposedly a first-time worker felt shy about handling a male customer, no problem. We were very shocked to know that there were classroom sessions conducted whereby a male “shifu” would demonstrate to all the girls how to make the “shifu” happy. All the girls had hands-on lessons mind you. The lessons taught the correct techniques for BJ, HJ and (powder or oil) body massage. These were paid lessons and cost not less than S$300 per person. As a reward the “shifu” would hand-out red packets to the best performing student.
Learning the “tag-team” (“Tar Mah”) skill was left to the “Ka Cheh” who taught junior during the actual session itself; something like Monkey See Monkey Do or rather, Money See Monkey Do. What is “tag-team” for the uninitiated? It is a threesome where 2 females are booked for one session and the client pays for each person as if he booked for a single sex partner. For example if you booked for a S$150 girl and you ordered two, you ended paying $300 plus tips for a 30 min session and not 60 minutes. In a nutshell, if you have preference for wild fun, get prepared to burn big notes. In a “tag-team”, no coercion is applied to team-up if one of the workers didn’t feel like doing it; so it was down to individual comfort levels and personalities. We were told this was where the juniors pick-up newer skills or remedy their weakness by observing the “Ka Cheh”.
First-time licensed workers had an estimated “value” (price) tagged on them by their agents or pimps. The “value” was predominantly based on perceived attractiveness/age, “shifu inputs” and customer compliments. However workers were also subjected to reviews with most declining in value after one year unless she was a “Hung Pai”. Prices started at S$80, S$100 and S$150 per shot for Chinese girls; high prices commensurate with less than a year of experience, those of West Malaysian origin and those very “pak shuet shuet” from Tanah Ratah, Perak. We knew of one respondent who earned almost S$15,000 a month because she had great credentials from her fellow customers; she was a “Hung Pai”. For those who did very well in the trade, their investments went into purchasing gold jewellery (never diamonds), ladies Rolexes and the rest into FDs.
Licensed workers were more careful over money matters than their counterparts in the health centers who offered illegal services. The former seldom borrow against “future earnings” nor recklessly gambled away their hard-earned savings at Genting Highlands or the race track. Many told of their future plan when they exited the trade. Unfortunately marriage was not in the plans. The thesis found many Malaysian sex workers preferred to establish a beauty salon back home, keeping their dark secrets in Singapore away from other hometown folks. Sometimes, forgetfulness breeds happiness and secrets are best burned with their holders.
Cantonese was the lingua franca of the licensed workers and communicating in a language other than Cantonese was considered disrespectful to the elders and other actors of the industry; .e.g. the drivers who send/pickup the girls from various houses in the lorongs and “Sum Ku” the supervisor of the brothel. The girls in Keong Saik only need to walk from one block to another from their rented rooms in People’s Park.
It was a practice to always tip “Sum Ku” handsomely. Unlike places like Bangkok or Manila where the customer can check out and select the girls “inside the fish bowl”, in Geylang and Keong Saik Street you don’t get to see the “goods”. On some days your favorite girl could be “yau sek” or “chou gan gung” and you are running out of patience waiting. “This is where “Sum Ku” is also so important to the customer because she could visualize the kind of girls most suited to each customer’s taste – you just tell her what kind of action you need, she has a memory bank of which licensed worker can do it. “Sum Ku” could literally roll-out the names of the licensed workers – Betty, Ling Ling or Mimi - and their house telephone numbers to call. After what has been said, is there any truth to a common belief that Cantonese girls make the best mistresses?
Because of the social stigma, the only friends they knew were the people connected with the trade itself. They were united because of their dependency on each other whilst facing cold stares and hostility from others. There was also the dilemma because they live in an Asian society which is conservative, yet at the same time a society that endorses erotic entertainment.
In Singapore, the authorities have de-politicised public debates over the existence of the industry by the enactment of laws. The laws ensure that the industry operates in a confined location sanctioned by the authorities and always under the radar of the anti-vice department. Legalised sex workers need to carry the Yellow Card and undergo regular medical check-up at the Department of STI Control in Kelantan Lane. There are legislations for the protection of women, so there is no evidence that women cannot leave the trade because of bondage, or employing under-aged girls.
Glossary of terms
chou gan gung - doing work, performing another assignment
hung pai - literally “red card”, a very popular girl who is everyone’s favorite
ka cheh - elder sister
kwai - goody-two-shoes type or well-behaved
pak shuet shuet - white as snow (of complexion)
pakor foochok - gingko nuts and dry soya sticks (usually boiled to make a dessert)
shifu - “old master”, someone (usually a man) who is a subject expert
sum ku - “third aunt” (address for an elderly woman)
tar mah - doing a double
yau sek - literally “rest day” or “day-off”. However in this business, it is a commonly used euphemism for the girl who is having “that time of the month”. (Prostitutes do not have official rest days.)
HJ, BJ, KY - Sorry, you have to find out yourself what these acronyms stand for because if you don’t already know, then you are probably too young to know. I can safely tell you that FD stands for Fixed Deposit though.)
STI - This one you should know, whatever your age. It stands for “sexually transmitted infections”. You get it from an infected partner whom you have had sex with. Often the infected person is seen by others as being promiscuous but there are actually innocent victims too.
1. Singapore’s Growing Sex Trade
2. Secret Singapore
Other legitimate businesses on Keong Saik Road.
But somehow, other businesses on this road always have names or numbers with a sexual connotation. They talk about cocks…
that are suggestive
Some like No 9 are on the ground floor
No 4 is on the ground floor too but 4B is on the 3rd storey
Don’t pray pray, this old man can still do it. (Climb the stairs that is, what were you thinking?)
I swear this man is innocent. I witnessed him going in to deliver newspaper and he came out in 1 minute.
Over at Geylang, things seem quiet on a weekday afternoon. But if you look hard enough, you can still find some on-going activity.
A place for lion dance in the day and some other kind of dance at night.
The number 30 is displayed on something that looks like a dice. Perhaps to warn you that this is a dicey activity.
Some "operate in a fixed geographical area" like just a street corner to stand…
While some are mobile…
And can afford life’s little luxuries.