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Diary of a Hotel 81 Voyeur

Diary of a Hotel 81 Voyeur

  • Culture
  • Life
All illustrations by Lam Yik Chun

Isn’t it funny how we not only associate, but transform numbers—in and of themselves insignificant—into something with much deeper meaning?

1, for example, is, and will always be king. To be number one means that you’re the best; the champion of whatever competition you were in. In an argument, the first point made is often the strongest. In love, everyone looks for “The One”. One is always good, never bad.

The number 8 is afforded similar reverence, especially by Asians. In Japan, eight represents growing prosperity because its kanji broadens gradually. In Chinese culture, the number’s mere similarity in pronunciation to the Mandarin word for wealth is enough of a reason to confer upon it near god-like status.

Such is this odd relationship we have with numbers that if you put the two integers together, then reverse them, everything drastically changes. To Singaporeans, 81 brings to mind very specific imagery: that of sex, sleaze, and all around debauchery.

This is, of course, thanks to Hotel 81, commonly thought of by Singaporeans as a cheap love-hotel chain in Geylang, frequented by horny, old men with their “girlfriends”. But though that might’ve been the case a long time ago, up until today, it’s less-than-stellar reputation remains difficult to shake off.

Interesting isn’t it? Well, I’ve always thought so, but I only bring this up because, through sheer coincidence, I find myself on a rooftop, eyes inexplicably drawn to the Hotel 81 on a corner of a street nowhere near the red-light district.

I had been doing fieldwork for another one of my stories earlier and deciding that I needed a break, headed up here for a quick puff.

Something tells me to stay; to watch what happens—to satisfy my curiosity about the hotel’s esteemed clientele.  

Ditching my burnt-out cigarette, I give in to temptation and settle in for a night of reconnaissance with only my Spotify library for company.

As the music washes over me, blurring my perception of time, I wait.

Before sunset, Hotel 81 is just like any other hotel—a place for backpackers to rest for the night.
9 PM: Hotel California

/ And still, those voices are calling from far away. / Wake you up in the middle of the night just to hear them say. / Welcome to the Hotel California. / Such a lovely place, such a lovely face. / They livin’ it up at the Hotel California. / What a nice surprise, bring your alibis. /

Atop my perch from a building across the road, I have a bird’s-eye view of the Hotel 81 located on the outskirts of the city centre. Not too far that I can’t see what happens, and not too near that I’m noticed by the hotel’s potential guests.

Tonight, I do not seek to influence what happens around me. There will be no judgement. There will be no right or wrong. Tonight, I am nothing more than a spectator. A voyeur, if you will.

I’ve been here for about two and a half hours now, and in that time I’ve seen the sky slowly grow steadily darker and the street lights flicker on, illuminating the hotel’s powder-blue exterior in a way the sun’s rays cannot—a strangely beautiful sight.

There won’t be anything to see in the day, logic told me. But instinct sang a different tune.

And so I find myself seeing the hotel for what it’s supposed to be. In the hours before sunset, European travellers dressed in loose-fitting tee shirts and cargo shorts gleefully set their enormous backpacks down before checking in. Likewise, their luggage-wheeling, fanny-pack-wearing Asian counterparts do the same.

Nothing appears the slightest bit out of the ordinary. For them, this place offers the perfect balance of affordability and proximity to the area’s cultural offerings. They don’t know their accommodation of choice is shunned by locals.

Some, I don’t see for the rest of the night, presumably exhausted from the jet-lag that’s beginning to set in. Others head out for a quick dinner, spoilt for choice thanks to the many eateries nearby. But the one thing these tourists have in common is that all of them will eventually go to bed blissfully unaware of the characters they’ll soon find themselves surrounded by.

Then again, the walls are thin.

 

12:52 AM: Lips of an Angel  

/ It’s really good to hear your voice saying my name. / It sounds so sweet. / Coming from the lips of an angel. / Hearing those words – it makes me weak. / And I never wanna say goodbye. / But, girl, you make it hard to be faithful. / With the lips of an angel. /

It’s been six hours since I started standing sentinel, waiting for the hotel to give up its secrets. My patience is wearing thin.

Other than occasional passers-by, the streets are eerily quiet, and I begin to wonder if this is all an exercise in futility. The waiting game is never an easy one to play; made exceptionally difficult when you have no idea what exactly it is you’re waiting for. Suddenly, movement from out of the corner of my eye prevents me from abandoning my post.

A handsome man who looks to be in his early 50s strolls in my direction together with an equally attractive, younger lady who looks to be in her mid-20s. Between them: a gaping chasm of respectful distance.

He looks good. His business shirt is tight in all the right places, and his rolled-up sleeves reveal sinewy forearms that match his chiselled jaw. He oozes a kind of casual masculine charm that would look right at home on the cover of GQ. A “silver-fox”, I believe, is the appropriate term.

She’s no slouch either. A white, tube peplum top paired with dark skinny jeans and strappy heels serve as a testament to the fact that she’s dressed to impress. She’s probably used to lesser men throwing themselves at her on a daily basis, and worshipping the ground she walks on. But this guy’s different. He stands tall, keeps his distance, and remains unfazed by Aphrodite next to him.

Perhaps power and money does this to a man.

Judging by their body language, they’ve known each other for a while. They appear relaxed, and if I had to guess, he’s her superior at work. But while he might’ve thought this evening was just another night out bonding with the rest of the company, she probably saw it as a chance to get to know him outside of the office.   

It’s obvious she fancies him. I count her hand breach the boundaries of professionalism and playfully touch him six times as they share a joke while taking in the cool night air. Just as they arrive between the hotel and me, the distance between them vanishes as she surprises him with a kiss. He looks stunned but not repulsed. She hangs on, arms wrapped around his torso in a tight hug.

He stands still for the next 5 minutes or so. His brain whirls, undoubtedly trying to comprehend what just happened. I watch his right-hand fidget with something on his left. I watch her break the silence by whispering something in his ear.  

After a few moments, I watch them push open the hotel’s tinted doors together.

Let’s take a walk on the wild side, baby.
1:36 AM: Your Body is a Wonderland

/ And if you want love. / We’ll make it. / Swim in a deep sea of blankets. / Take all your big plans and break ’em. / This is bound to be a while. /

Slightly more than half an hour later, the empty street shows signs of life once more.

A couple in their late teens stumble out of the adjacent alleyway, bellies full from the supper they’ve probably just shared.

Seeing his arm lovingly draped over his companion’s shoulder, her head leaning into his body, I can only assume they’re in a committed relationship. With both of them dressed in the simple combination of t-shirt, shorts, and flip-flops, it’s obvious that the honeymoon stage in their relationship has long since ended.

Unlike the faux-couple before them, there is no need for false pretence here. They’re comfortable with each other, and nothing one does can truly surprise the other anymore. Or can it?

Midway through one of their private jokes, the guy stops laughing and looks away from his girlfriend, temporarily distracted by something. It’s he who notices the hotel first and draws his partner’s attention to the building by chin-jutting in its direction. As he does this, he raises an eyebrow in as much jest as judgement. His girlfriend, however, has other ideas.

From my vantage point, I can just about see her lips curl into a sly smile. She starts walking towards the hotel. Arm still wrapped around her, he follows his girlfriend’s lead.

Ah, the spontaneity of youth.  

 

2:48 AM: Kristy, Are You Doing Okay?

/ Oh, clouds of time. / Seem to rain on innocence left behind. / It never goes away. / Can you stay strong? / Can you go on? / Kristy, are you doing okay? / A rose that won’t bloom. / Winter’s kept you. / Don’t waste your whole life trying to get back what was taken away. /

Closer to witching hour, yet another younger couple arrives. This time, however, the hotel is not a building they pass by chance. Instead, it’s a destination.

Based on the time of their arrival, the booming nightlife not too far away, and his slightly unsteady gait, I deduce they most likely came from a club nearby.

As soon as he alights from the cab, the man appears eager to enter. Too eager. Sporting the trendiest sneakers, an oversized bowling shirt and cap, the fuckboy is well-versed in this routine. But she takes much slower steps. She doesn’t look drunk or tipsy. Instead, she looks hesitant. Is this her first one-night-stand?

Before he gets a hand on the hotel’s door, she lights a cigarette. He realises that he can’t do this dance alone, so he mirrors her, lighting one of his own. But while he takes fast, hurried puffs, she takes deeper, longer drags. She’s buying time.

Soon, she sits down on the pavement and whips out her phone. Maybe she’s texting her parents that she’s going for breakfast with friends. Maybe she’s texting those same friends that she’s safely home.

I watch her finish her cigarette and immediately light another one.

All this while, her male friend remains standing, growing visibly impatient with every passing second. Even from across the road, I can almost hear the voice in his head say, “Are we doing this or not?”

I know I said I wouldn’t judge, but watching the scene play out in front of me, a knot forms and tightens in the pit of my stomach. This time, it’s the voyeur’s turn to light up.

When the last wisps of smoke finally escape her rosebud lips, she flicks her cigarette and goes inside with him. The heavens open and a light drizzle begins to fall.

Tonight, the universe mourns the little bit of innocence lost.

Trust me, my dear. You’re going to be just fine.
3:20 AM: The A Team

/ Light’s gone, day’s end. / Struggling to pay rent. / Long nights, strange men. / And they say she’s in the Class A Team. / Stuck in her daydream. / Been this way since eighteen. / But lately her face seems. / Slowly sinking, wasting. / Crumbling like pastries. / And they scream. / The worst things in life come free to us. /

Continuing my observations with a heavier heart and blearier eyes, I notice a balding, 60-year old man standing in front of the hotel, waiting for something. Or someone. His date—in a black bodycon dress—arrives shortly after. Wait a minute. I recognise her.

Earlier, when I left my makeshift crow’s nest in search of a lavatory, I had run into her standing alone a couple of streets away. Noticing my presence, she immediately called out and proceeded to eye-fuck the shit out of me. I smiled politely and declined.

Despite the thick layers of makeup, I could tell she was beautiful even though there was no life behind those come-hither eyes. There was an air of jadedness about her, but watching her now, I’m amazed at her ability to fake happiness.

In the warm glow of the streetlights, it’s striking just how shabby he looks next to her. While she’s an 8, he’s a 2. At best.

But neither of them cares. There’s not a shred of emotion here.

This is purely transactional.

 

4:03 AM: They Don’t Care About Us

/ Beat me, hate me. / You can never break me. / Will me, thrill me. / You can never kill me. / Shoot me, sue me. / Everybody do me. / Kick me, strike me. / Don’t you black or white me. / All I want to say is that they don’t really care about us. /

The last of the hotel’s guests I happen to see are two men who have arrived holding hands.

Both look to be in their early-30s, and both are equally good-looking, well-groomed, and muscular.

The taller of the two is wearing a red, fitting polo shirt paired with neatly cuffed chinos. The other is in a black tee and jeans, both of which hug every painstakingly sculpted muscle.

To some Singaporeans, their relationship is one that shouldn’t even be allowed to exist, let alone be displayed openly in public. I, however, am not one of those Singaporeans. Seeing these two men so openly display their affection for each other loosens the aforementioned knot in my stomach. It gives me hope.  

They approach their destination with purpose, embracing and sharing a quick kiss before going in.

Tonight, they are free.

6:30 AM: Let It Be

/ And when the night is cloudy. / There is still a light that shines on me. / Shine until tomorrow, let it be. /

As dawn breaks over the horizon, and the sinners ready themselves for Sunday absolution, I finally abandon my perch. But before I leave, I can’t help but take one last look at the powder-blue building that’s on street across from me.

Thanks to the hotel, I witnessed a different side of Singapore—something I had only ever heard about from friends or in news reports—with my own two eyes. In the past twelve hours, I watched the spontaneity of young love; I saw the loss of innocence; I witnessed the damned find shelter.

I’m not saying that the scenes I watched played out exactly the way they did. Or that the characters lead the lives they do. I could be massively wrong.

But does it really matter?

The joy of people watching is found in how we write the stories of strangers’ lives for them. We might not be able to control what they do, but we weave elaborate backstories in intricate detail to try to make sense of their actions. We do this in an attempt to make sense of how we see the world; how we want to see it; how we think it must or should work.

Sometimes, it’s just fun to think about.

For example: have you ever looked at a block of HDB flats at night, its facade is dotted with lights that illuminate their occupants? It’s that same feeling of wonder. Of curiosity. Of that you shouldn’t look, but you want to anyway.

It’s also the amazement you feel when you realise that so many people go about their lives in such close proximity to one another, and yet, those lives may never cross paths. We don’t take that kind of interest in one another.

Maybe we feel this way because deep down, we know that most of us only get to live one life—that though we know of so many others, we will never get to be those people. This brings with it the pleasure of seeing people not really as fellow human beings, but stories—intrigue we gain access to in stolen moments.

We do it not just with our friends but with strangers as well. There is always that other life we could have lived; that other person we could be.

For now, realising that Hotel 81 will feature in the memories of all the characters, despite how different they are, and no matter how different their situations might be, is enough.

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Author

Justin Vanderstraaten Staff writer