Hair salon, hair salon, nail parlour. Hair salon, hair salon, hair salon, nail parlour. Hair salon, nail parlour, massage parlour …
*opaque glass store swings open*
“Hello, would you like a massaaage, 50 dollars.”
“Hi, I’m actually a journalist writing a story about sex work in strata malls, could I interview …”
“Yesss, 50 dollars, I give you hand-job, blow-job extra 50, okay??”
“No no, I just want to talk … ugh … you don’t understand what I’m saying, do you?”
“Yess, I …”
“Alright, thank you.”
Actually, I’m Far East Plaza, which like many other strata malls on the island, has seen sex work gradually creep onto their premises in the last 5 years.
Compared to their modern counterparts, strata malls are dishevelled, disorganised, and aesthetically unappealing, which many have attributed to their weak overarching management and individual storefront ownership. At strata malls, it’s virtually impossible to get stakeholders to agree on any sort of mall wide aesthetic upgrade, and storefront owners can rent to whomever is willing to pay.
As a result, these pioneering bastions of Singaporean consumerism have been slowly decaying physically, financially, and even morally as more and more seedy massage parlours and girlie bars with the semi-transparent Chivas sticker glass doors are gradually replacing the few retailers that haven’t already been replaced by a hair salon, tuition centre, maid service, etc.
The proud longstanding shop owners of any strata mall all tell a similarly nostalgic story about an era 2 to 4 decades ago, when their mall was the creme de la creme of contemporary commercialism.
“Far East Plaza used to be people’s first stop when they came down on the bus from the north for their weekend shopping spree,” says Ben of Kingsmen shop, which has been at Far East Plaza since 1983.
“While wives were trying on clothes elsewhere, husbands were here trying on suits. But once the MRT came along, things started to change. People could go straight to the center of Orchard road and skip over us. Starting in the late 90’s till the mid 2000’s this place was a cool mall for teenagers, but with the internet, even they stopped coming. Now the mall is almost completely covered with beauty parlours. The reason why we survive is because we are bespoke and our customers come back. Like beauty parlours, you can’t just buy our services off the internet.”
Even at the perennially notorious Orchard Towers, OG tenants wax poetic about the good ol’ days when one could still find families with children frequenting the mall in the daytime, and anything that might lead to transactions of a sexual nature were contained to the bars, which wouldn’t open until after retailers had packed up and gone home.
Mr. Hussain, owner of the Sultan Enterprise certified money changer at Orchard Towers, tells me: “Orchard Towers used to be one of the busiest shopping centres in Singapore when I hung out here as a kid in the 70’s and 80’s. There was clothing, jewelry, a supermarket—some of the top restaurants in Singapore were even located here. It was the place to be, and I would always come by here when my dad was running the shop. Not to help out, but to hang out. Overtime though, the image got worse and worse. How old are you?”
“When you think of Orchard Towers, do you think of shopping?”
“Exactly, the younger generations only know it as the ‘4 floors of whores’ or a place where people get killed. When people of your generation think about Orchard Towers, they don’t think about shopping. Luckily, people from the older generation know that I am here and I have many regular customers, but people from your generation would never even put shopping and Orchard Towers in the same sentence.”
Today, strata malls are hairdressers and beauty salons whose customers make a b-line from the entrance to the store front and back out again without so much as looking at the other stores. Maid services taking advantage of relatively cheap office spaces. And of the boutique clothing stores, bespoke tailors and jewelers still surviving, most cite loyal customers—whose who have come to the mall specifically for their store for decades—as their main source of revenue.
If you’re going to a strata mall, you’re getting what you need and then getting the hell out. No one would ever just hang out and ‘go shopping’ at a strata mall when a newer, better curated, more aesthetically pleasing mall is waiting right next door.
Most of the long standing shop owners recognise that it’s only a matter of time before strata malls will be replaced by something newer, prettier, and with wider mass appeal.
“All these strata malls along Orchard Road are going to go en bloc within the next 10 years anyway. For now, I’m still attached to this place. I’ll leave when it’s time,” Hussain adds.
But until strata malls are turned into nothing more than a memory, they’re allowing for a uniquely Singaporean kind of sex trade: air conditioned and out of the public eye. All the variety of Amsterdam, without the same potential for traumatising families who take a turn down the wrong street.
Essentially, there seems to be two main reasons why sex work has flourished in strata malls.
First, strata malls provide a sense of privacy unparalleled by other red light districts.
At 2 AM on a recent weekday, I run into a very drunk, self proclaimed ‘oil man’ with an American southern accent on the first floor of Orchard Towers.
“In most places I travel for work, if I want to hire a hooker, I’ll do it online because I get embarrassed approaching them on the street, ya know? Out in the open, where everyone can see you, and all. Singapore has the best of both worlds: you get to see the whole list of merchandise in person with the discretion of being indoors. I think it’s great,” he slurs.
I’ve never considered soliciting a ‘woman of the night’, but I see how places like Orchard Towers make the experience feel a little less daunting, risky, or even wrong.
Walk through the doors and you’re transported into a self-contained universe of 4 floors where tequila is the main source of nutrition, and prosperity is measured in blowjobs per capita. From my left, right, and the 2nd floor balcony above, working girls beckon me with winks, less-than-subtle hand gestures and infantilising calls: “Hello, baby!” / “Come here, boy!”
While the narrow corridors and lack of windows magnify strata malls’ dingy datedness in the daytime, at night, they create a sense of privacy—they are ”safe spaces” where men can indulge in vice without worry of judgement.
You aren’t gonna get that sort of environment in Geylang or on Desker Road.
“It would be easy to just choose one immediately, but I don’t just go for the first girl that pays me any mind. At Orchard Towers, it’s not just about gettin’ your rocks off as fast as possible, it’s a whole experience. Do a bit of ‘window shopping’, get a drink or two. Eventually, you’ll find one that’ll pitch your tent faster than a hot knife through butter,” says my new ‘oil man’ compatriot.
Whether it’s happy endings or pretty dresses, people like a bit of ‘window shopping’ before making any final purchases. That’s why we have malls in the first place: they put all the retail options in a single convenient space.
Earlier in the night, a friend and I did a bit of inadvertent interactive ‘window shopping’ of our own at Orchard Towers’ classier sibling, Cuppage Plaza. At 12:30 AM, The only light comes from illuminated signs of the various Japanese themed pubs and brothels.
First, we crash one of the 6th floor gigolo clubs. There was at least 5 boy bands worth of K-Pop looking dudes chilling on swanky leather couches with older women, awkward house music assaulting my eardrums and strobe lights hurting my eyes.
“Excuse me sir, you need to leave right now”—we weren’t in there more than 3 seconds before a short female bouncer poked us out with what seemed like a police baton.
From there, we headed downstairs. On each floor, middle-aged lady pimps wielding akimbo working girls appeared out of the shadows to lure us and the other men walking past.
“Would you like to see all our ladies?” says one hostess to us.
“Yeah, let’s see all the ladies,” I say.
We walk through the brothel door, and straddling a narrow hallway there are 2 rows of 15 Thai girls.
A hand on the small of my back forcefully ushers me through the Amazon river of sex workers. Approximately 60 hands wash over me, groping at places I’d rather not specify.
More than ‘window shopping’, we’re in the fitting room trying on the clothes. And if we didn’t like any of the Thai cotton pants, we could go around the corner and try on some of the Chinese silk shirts.
And that’s what we did, metaphorically speaking. After escaping the Thai hostess and her 30 girls, we had a nearly identical experience in an establishment downstairs, only the girls there were Chinese.
8 floors multiplied by 4 brothel/bars multiplied by about 15 sex workers each gives you a conservative esitmate of 480 women (and some dudes) of various shapes, sizes, and origins all at one single address. Even the pickiest prostitute connoisseur would find something to satisfy him.
At Concorde Shopping Mall, a single story strata mall hidden right below the luxurious Concorde Hotel, over half of the storefronts have been taken over by Filipina girlie bars. Another storefront is being converted into a girlie bar as we speak.
Where Orchard Towers has carved out a niche as the white tourist red light district and Cuppage Plaza as the choice sex-centre for well-paid Japanese businessmen, Concorde’s defining characteristic seems to be its relatively reasonable prices. The price of a massage runs about $40, and to get a nice bar girl to leave with you is $52 in drinks (at least $10 less than anywhere else I checked).
But with the price, comes a different ‘quality’: at the one girlie bar we actually spent much time in, one of the girls was talking on her phone the entire time, and the other 4 were glued to their phones like it was a crack pipe playing Mobile Legends. They told us how much it would cost to get one of them to leave with us, and then basically let us sit there without ordering more than a $5 coke to split.
But while the vibe and quality of the working girls at each strata mall varies, the essential appeal is the same across the board. Sitting on the stairs leading up to the hotel, we meet a Grab driver who says he comes to various strata malls about once every other month for the girlie bars.
“I don’t go to Geylang anymore because it’s more risky. There are police there doing raids a lot. Here, I feel more comfortable looking around at the bars and hanging out with the girls because it is hidden and it doesn’t bother anyone,” he says.
In the view of the public and authorities, strata malls provide the most palatable kinds of red light district. Out of sight and except in cases of especially grotesque violence, out of mind.
Muhammed Faruk of AM Armani tailors at Orchard Towers put it aptly, “Every place needs the good, the bad and the ugly. I’ve been to places like this all over the world. Amsterdam, San Francisco, and even neighboring countries have it. What makes Singapore unique is that ours are in malls.”