For some men, women are props. Ornaments used to signify status and desirability in society. Beautiful women, in this specific sense, are like expensive cars, watches, or fine bottles of wine.
For the right price, you get to take it home with you.
Before Covid hit, nothing laid bare (pun intended) the transactional nature of this relationship between men and women more than at Thai discos and Chinese KTVs.
At siam dius in Singapore, for example, men ‘hang flowers’ or diao hua. Thai women in low cut dresses stand on stage, wearing flower sashes with price tags emblazoned across their (typically) ample chests. Like at an auction house, the tables of men offstage make their bids. The goods (i.e. the women) always go to the highest bidder.
At Chinese KTVs, on the other hand, you have the girl butterflies, with a going rate of anywhere between S$50-100. For this fixed sum, you get to pick your own girl from a line-up at the front of the room and she will sing and drink with you for 15-20 minute increments, before she flits off to another room to do the same with another paying customer (hence, the term ‘girl butterflies’).
After the night is over, dabao is always extra. What takes place after these venues close is between two mutually consenting parties, and dependent on your chemistry with your girl.
By ‘chemistry,’ what we actually mean is a suitable exchange of money for goods and services.
To an outsider like me looking in on this part of Singapore’s nightlife, this entire process seems like an extremely inefficient and convoluted way for Singaporean men to get laid.
If the end goal is to buy sex, why not cut out the middleman and visit a brothel instead? Or pay a private escort? After all, the money spent on beer towers and Hennessy bottles alone is more than enough to pay for a staycation at a nice hotel (#SingapoRediscovers).
What exactly is it about these places that keep men coming back? And now that some Thai discos and Chinese KTVs have pivoted to the F&B model to avoid a Phase 2 shutdown, what exactly is the appeal?
In short: what’s a Thai disco without the flower hanging? What’s a Chinese KTV without the KTV?
That’s what I wanted to find out through this food review.
Food Review #1: Club Illusion (Thai Disco)
It’s Thursday. My photographer Zach and I have made 5:30 PM reservations to dine at Illusions Exclusive Bistro, formerly known as Club Illusions, located inside a third storey walk-up in the Clarke Quay club district.
Honestly, it feels like an illusion to be sitting inside a Thai disco while the sun is still shining through the windows. But we’re running on a tight schedule. We have many more discos and KTVs to hit for the night, and according to regulations, all such venues must close by 10:30 PM.
We order the spam fries, the fried prawn bean curd rolls, and a truffle mushroom pizza.
At the table behind us sit two middle-aged men. Each man is accompanied by one scantily clad and young-looking female companion. The men are red-faced, sweaty, and breathing heavily. The man with heavy male-pattern baldness is groping his girl and trying to tongue kiss her on the mouth. The woman laughs and pushes him away.
The food arrives. The spam fries are ordinary, but the fried prawn bean curd rolls are excellent. The bean curd skin is crisp and flaky and the prawn filling is fresh-tasting with a pleasant crunch of radish.
The truffle mushroom pizza, on the other hand, is a different story. Despite the forty-five minute wait, the pizza still comes out undercooked and soggy in the middle. Instead of actual truffles, we are treated to a drizzle of truffle oil that tastes like sadness.
In the middle of our meal, a young woman in a white low-cut dress walks over to our table. Even before she sits down and pours herself a glass of water, I recognise her familiar Mandarin accent. Her name is Summer. She’s half-Taiwanese. We fall into conversation easily.
Ten minutes later, Summer is telling us about her struggles this year, moving from one Thai disco to the next in search of customers. I learn that she lives in a cramped HDB flat with her parents, and that this year has been especially tough. If I want to buy her a drink, that would be okay with her. Prices start at $75.
She really was a sweet girl. So I had to come clean. I confess that Zach and I are journalists from RICE here to do a food review.
Her eyes widen. “So your employer pays for all your food and drinks for the whole night?”
“That’s right,” I say.
“Wow,” she says. “This is why I like talking to customers. It’s so interesting to learn about how other people live.”
Later that night, I would feel a sense of shame thinking back to this conversation. When I took this assignment, I’d envisioned this article to be light-hearted and humorous. The headline even wrote itself: Married Man With No Game Visits a Thai Disco. Hijinks ensues.
I would laugh at the absurdity of the situation while also laughing at myself, thereby projecting the image that I was a writer who was comfortable in my own skin.
But in Summer’s case, this was her livelihood, and I’d been treating it all like a joke. To add insult to injury, this was a business expense for me, one that I’d likely harvest for clicks, to seek validation on the internet for my own insecurities as a writer.
Food Review #2: Club Mao at Barcode (Thai Disco)
We’re seated at Mao Thai Kitchen, formerly known as Club Mao, inside the Resident Evil-looking building otherwise known as Oriental Plaza.
It’s 8:30 PM. Aside from the three staff on duty and a forlorn-looking Thai girl playing with her phone in a red booth, we are the only customers in the place. It’s dark, the stage is empty, and the air-conditioning is on full blast.
On my way to the bathroom, I caught a glimpse of the state of the kitchen. It was so dark and dingy, I half-expected Gordon Ramsay to storm in at any moment to cuss out the owners.
To be honest, I’m also growing increasingly frustrated with how the night is unfolding.
It’s now two hours before closing time, and nothing is happening. When we entered, the only Thai girl in the disco barely looked up from her phone to acknowledge our existence.
How am I supposed to write this article? Who wants to read about two losers sitting in an empty Thai disco eating a bowl of Thai Basil Pork Rice and pork skewers? (Although side note: the pork skewers at Mao turned out to be excellent—the perfect combination of smokiness from the char-grill, with perfectly marbled cuts of meat. You can’t judge a kitchen by appearances alone).
I stew in my impotence, recalling all the times my guy friends and I would rave about the crazy night we had at the bars or clubs the night before. Personally, I’d always found these retellings to be greatly exaggerated. Yet somehow, we all bought into the illusion.
For the sake of the story, we would accept the lie that in our alcohol-induced haze, good times were had by all, and that we, the boys, the bros, had more than lived up to the night’s promise of conquest and glory.
Food Review #3: Supreme KTV (Chinese KTV)
“Follow me, boys! I know the shortcut to this place,” says Magic Mike as he strolls confidently down the ramp towards the B1 parking garage.
Magic Mike is a friend of Zach’s, who we pick up at Chijmes in our Grab on our way to Orchard Towers.
Zach and I had decided that we needed to call up reinforcements for our third and final venue, because our night so far had been the blind leading the blind. Magic Mike, Zach hyped, was an experienced player. He knew the ins-and-outs of the Chinese KTV scene like the back of his hand.
But strong men also stumble. Because after following Magic Mike down a series of winding parking garages, towards what I assumed would be Supreme KTV and Bistro, we hit a locked door. A dead end.
As it turns out, we aren’t even in the right building. Supreme KTV is proving to be as elusive as the female clitoris. The real venue is not at Orchard Towers, but across the road at Far East Shopping Centre.
It’s 9:45 PM by the time we make it to the correct Supreme Bistro, and I have to plead with the KTV staff to let us order food before the kitchen closes at 10:15 PM. The staff at Supreme escort us into an empty blue KTV room, turn on some music, then close the door behind them. Of course, the microphones are all unplugged. There’s no singing allowed at this KTV.
Since Phase 2, Supreme Bistro started serving Korean food and dim sum. But I can’t tell you whether the food is any good, because by the time we’d arrived, all the kitchen had left were 5 cans of Kirin beer and their recommended sausage platter.
The sausages arrive—too quickly. They taste store-bought from the cheapest rack at NTUC. The fries are stale and dries out our already parched throats. Only the canned Kirin beers are acceptable.
As we munch on this disappointment, the three of us get into a discussion about the appeal of these places.
“I personally don’t get why some men still want to come here with all of these restrictions,” says Magic Mike. “But I know some friends who still do.”
“But why?” I ask. “What do they get out of a KTV with no KTV?”
“Well, some of these KTV places are still operating illegally. So the butterfly girls are still there. Depending on your chemistry with the girl, you can still dabao her home afterwards.”
“I get the rationale behind sex work,” I say. “But why not just cut out the middleman? Just visit a brothel or hire an escort instead.”
“I think it’s about more than the sex. Some ah bengs just need a place to show off to their friends. To prove that even in this recession there’s still money coming in. That they can still afford to let loose and enjoy themselves.”
“And the Thai discos?”
Magic Mike shrugs. “For some it’s just another place to unwind with the bros. For others, it’s about making an appearance and being seen at these places. To be seen as the kind of person who can spend on women and booze without caring so much about money.”
“So it’s about ego,” I conclude. “When men visit these places, the ones they’re actually trying to impress are other men.”
Later in the Grab ride home, I realise that my assessment of these men may have been too simplistic and one-dimensional.
Online, there are entire communities dedicated to helping gong taos, the term used for Singaporean men who fall head over heels for a Thai disco girl, deal with their heartbreak (see: Gong Tao Help Desk). To these men, the Thai disco isn’t just another transaction or a way of showing off. The gong tao believe—or at least want to believe—that they are worthy of genuine love and attention from these exotic Thai women, beyond the exchange of money.
Maybe this goes back to the basic human need: we all want to feel wanted. We all want to feel seen.
To get this feeling, we use each other, sometimes carelessly and thoughtlessly. In our loneliness and desire, we become incapable of recognising that same yearning in others.
The Bill Arrives
The total damage for the night, including the Grab rides home, is $243. But in the days following, I struggle to figure out what our night of eating and drinking had amounted to.
They say that life doesn’t end in death. It ends when we get addicted to comfort. I wonder if Singaporeans are starting to realise this.
Because despite the superficial novelty of these venues (i.e. struggling Thai discos and KTVs), the night felt painfully familiar to me. Moving from place to place eating and drinking is the one thing we’ve all been doing since the lifting of the circuit breaker.
So if there’s one interesting takeaway from this night, it’s what this pandemic has laid bare: the sometimes transactional nature of our pre-Covid relationships in the face of the five-person per table dine-in limit. Or the ways we’ve been deriving our sense of identity and self-worth—whether that’s tying our self esteem to our jobs or the venues that we frequent as regulars.
Perhaps we can all use the remainder of this year to figure out what actually matters and let the rest fall away.
Because when Covid strips away all the pageantry, the props and fantasies we use to massage our fragile egos, what are we really left with?
Just three men sitting in a dark KTV room, talking cock, and munching on sausages.