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The Economics of Dodgy Massage Parlours

The Economics of Dodgy Massage Parlours

  • Current Affairs
Drop by Orchard Towers in the afternoon and it is pretty much a ghost town. Drop by at night and you might begin to understand how it earned its notorious moniker, ‘four floors of whores’.

This juxtaposition aptly captures the irony of how Singapore, as a country, continues to both view and persecute sex work. The laws regulating it are hypocritical, and national narratives tout “family values” while conveniently leaving out the fact that sex work continues to be a booming industry (for both single and married men), contributing significantly to the country’s economy.

Earlier this year in October, it was announced that unlicensed massage parlour operators will face harsher penalties for offering “illegal services”, along with landlords who knowingly lease their premises for such “vice activities”. And even more recently in December 2017, the government endorsed stronger police raid tactics on illegal brothels.  

All this has led us to wonder, how much exactly is the “dodgy” massage parlour industry in Singapore worth? While there are no available statistics, we know for a fact that these establishments exist, and that they are everywhere.

With their occupation of corner units in strata malls and the ground floors of shophouse-populated areas like Jalan Besar, we’ve learnt to recognise them with their plastered up facades—usually achieved with the use of cheap, colourful wallpaper, and magnified stock images.

They also have names like ‘Jia Jia Beauty’, ‘Refresh Touch Beauty’, or ‘B & W Beauty and Wellness’, spelt out in gaudy font against characteristically blue, green, or pink backgrounds. Often, they’re also accompanied by neon signages that simply read, ‘SPA’.

Other telltale signs that it’s “dodgy” include the visible presence of young women dressed in tight, skimpy dresses rather than uniforms, and the use of a buzzer at the door, which acts as an alarm system to notify workers when a place is being raided.

The "SPA" signage is synonymous with the dodgy massage parlour. This shop even advertises the nationalities of its masseuses.
For those who are unsure how these establishments work, this is how it usually goes:

Most dodgy massage parlours charge an entrance fee of $30 to $50 per customer. After about 15-30 minutes of a regular massage, the masseuse will ask if you want something “extra”. This usually means a handjob, which can set you back an additional $50 to $70.

In certain establishments, you can also ask for additional services such as a blowjob and/or sex, and the prices for these services can range from S$80 (for a blowjob) to S$150 (for sex). As these are less commonly provided (or requested) for than handjobs, this study will focus only on handjobs.

Anyone who says no to these services will quickly find themselves faced with the wrath of these women. This happens for the simple reason that they only make money on the commission they get from offering this “extra” service. If you refuse that “happy ending”, they don’t get paid, and you’ve basically wasted their time.

One customer that I ran into outside one such establishment shared that he preferred these massages because they feel more intimate.

He tells me, “When you pay for sex, sometimes they just lie there until you finish. And you can see when they’re not into it because you can see their face. These places, the girl lies next to you and you can touch her, close your eyes, pretend it’s your lover. It’s nicer.”

These figures are conservative estimations.
To get some sense of the scale of this industry, we dropped by the districts most well-known for it, like Parklane Shopping Centre and Orchard Towers. Spend enough time in one of these malls and you begin to recognise the smell of vice: a heady combination of cold air, fresh laundry, and cheap perfume–not unlike the smell of most hotel rooms.

But apart from these, we also visited some lesser-known ones in Katong Shopping Centre and along Macpherson Road. In total, we covered 127 of such establishments over four days, mostly clustered around the Central and Central/East parts of Singapore.

To be clear, these were not your Natureland or Green Apple type of joints. We only counted establishments that fit the ‘dodgy’ aesthetic described above i.e. shops with the “SPA” branding / signage and which had female masseuses who were actively wooing us to go in.

Based on our observations, most of these massage parlours employ an average of 4 workers. Each worker services around 5 customers a day. Without extra services, each massage parlour thus pulls in approximately S$360,000 in revenue per year (based on an entrance fee of S$50 per pax, 30 days a month). With extra services, they pull in an extra S$504,000 in revenue per year (figure based on S$70 per handjob, 30 days a month).

So in total, each massage parlour pulls in approximately S$864,000 a year from entrance fees and handjobs. Multiplied across the 127 shops we covered, this works out to an approximate industry value of S$45,720,000 every year in cover charges, and a total amount of S$109,728,000 with handjobs included.

That’s over S$100 million per year spent on handjobs.

Using the numbers we pulled from CommercialGuru, these 127 establishments pay approximately S$4,050,000 in rent every year in total.

Bearing in mind that these numbers are simply a conservative estimate, we now know that the “dodgy” massage parlour industry in Singapore is worth at least S$113,778,000 annually (revenue + rental).  

And we aren’t even counting the revenue generated from other extra services such as sex and blowjobs, massage parlours outside of the Central/East area, and massage services that are transacted online.

Some of the women we spoke to share that the bulk of their expenditure goes towards food, make-up, mobile plans, and other personal expenses. Many of them live in-house (which explains why many massage parlours operate 24 hours a day), and so they don’t fork anything out for housing.

One lady shared that she was saving up so she could return to China to start her own business. On average, she manages to save about 60 percent of her salary. Others shared that they were happy with their work, and had no plans at the moment.

None of them would share if they had come to Singapore as tourists, or on a work permit.

After covering 127 establishments, we realised that all of these dodgy massage parlours look the same.
At many of the establishments I visit in the day, I see men approaching women to enquire after their services. In places like Parklane Shopping Centre, corridors that wind away from the escalators and out of sight are home to ladies in skin-tight dresses who wink, smile, and purr as you walk past.

It’s in the safety of these hidden corridors that men engage in banter with women who look half their age. Contrary to what one might expect, this clientele includes everyone from sloppy uncles to sharply dressed professionals, both local and expat. Many of them also look like they wouldn’t have problems picking up women.  

After speaking to 6 of them, all of whom declined to share their names, I learn their reasons for patronising these establishments.

They tell me that while they’re generally comfortable with the idea of paying for sex, they don’t feel the same way about having vaginal intercourse with a sex worker. Some also share their belief that you aren’t cheating on your wife or partner if you’re only getting a handjob.

When I clarified if this meant that they were either married or attached, they responded in the affirmative.

“It’s just an orgasm and some company,” they tell me. “And you get to have different girls.”

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Julian Wong Managing editor