Since then, Thai Discos have sprouted up all over the island. From dodgy looking bars with frosted Dester Beer decals on the front door, to giant, bastardised symbols of Thai culture the likes of Club Neverland. They are for the most part, legitimate businesses and the only thing that stands out is the fact that you can “pay” for a model to talk to you by buying her a flower garland (technically, these models are hostesses that do other jobs, such as singing and dancing, but for the sake of consistency, we’ll just call them models).
Beneath this veneer of legitimacy however, lies a hidden ecosystem of freelance agents that no one talks about. These agents work outside the law to ensure that the clubs are populated with a never ending stream of pretty hostesses, a critical component of the Thai Disco business. In fact, the success of most of these establishments can often be tied back to how good their agents are at sourcing for the right girls.
(It should be noted at this point that the concept of a Thai Disco has evolved beyond just Thai women – contemporary clubs feature a wide range of women from Koreans to Taiwanese, and there are agents for every nationality. While this piece only focuses on agents for Thai models, the principles and methods discussed are applicable across the board.)
Agents or Pimps?
“Almost every Thai Disco sources for their flower girls through agents, it’s an open secret”, said James (not his real name).
Sporting a mop of blonde hair, hoop earrings on both ears and roman numerals as tattoos, James is a throwback to late 90s grunge. Now a sound engineer, he had previously worked as a Thai Disco agent, and his job entailed brokering deals between Thai Discos and hopeful models from Thailand.
“Most of these girls are here on one-month social passes, so It’s obviously illegal for them to work,” he continues, in between drags of a Dunhill Light. “But the entire business of Thai Discos is reliant on staffing the clubs with as many pretty girls as possible. So they have no choice, and it’s more efficient for them to work with agents who are able to ensure a steady supply.”
Based on the commissions earned, there seems to be a lot of money to be made.
According to James, agents on average, can expect to earn a nightly rate of S$150 per model from the Thai Discos. On top of this, most agents also take a cut of about 10 – 20% from the models’ nightly flower garland earnings; the clubs typically give the models 45 – 60% commission from their flower garland sales.
The value of these flower garlands range from S$20 to S$5,000 (per garland), and each model can expect to earn, on average, about S$300 per night in garland sales alone. For a big club with a 100 girls, this equates to at least S$30,000 per night. So for a model who works a typical 20-day month, an agent can expect to make a total commission of S$3,000 – S$4,000 a month, per model.
Top tier agents, while few and far between, can expect to make in excess of S$100,000 a month.
But once you dig a little deeper, it becomes clear that they are different businesses. First, there’s no sex involved. And unlike pimps and prostitutes, the relationship between agent and model is generally based on trust, and not exploitation.
According to James, the models have no legal obligation to the agents, and one of the key challenges is thus maintaining a good relationship with them as doing so would make them more willing to do their jobs properly. “If my girls don’t show up to work on time, the Thai Discos will dock my pay, so I need to make sure that they are willing to listen to my instructions” he says.
Most times, an agent’s obligations includes taking on a “big brother” type of role and often involves giving the girls a lift to and from work, ensuring they get home safely, and lending a listening ear when needed. James sees this as an exercise in trust building, which is an essential component to most working relationships.
Maintaining good relations with the models is even more important when one considers that there’s no formal agreement between the parties. Ultimately, the agents have little control over the models that they manage, and they can easily leave the agency anytime they want. Models jumping between agents is a regular occurrence, and can be a cause for conflict.
Naturally, the close working relationships between agents and the models can lead to complications. Male agents have been known to get into relationships with the models that they manage, and this can lead to disputes when the relationship breaks down. This is generally frowned upon, and James insists that an agent who approaches the job with a professional mindset will never mix business with pleasure.
It certainly seems that any man with a pretty Thai girlfriend can become an agent.
The lure of easy money and pretty girls has attracted many Singaporean men to become Thai Disco agents. According to James, the industry is male-dominated, and agent outfits range from individuals to coordinated groups.
Larger scale outfits are run like structured businesses, some even holding auditions with modelling agencies in Thailand for prospective hires. On a smaller scale, operations usually involve making connections on a more personal level.
“Most of the agents are Singaporean guys who are in relationships with the Thai girls that they met at the discos. These girls usually have friends back home who want to come to work in Singapore,” said James. “The guys then help to recommend these girls for work at the Thai Discos.”
It certainly seems that any man with a pretty Thai girlfriend can become an agent, and given the low barriers to entry, it comes as no surprise that there are no shortage of new entrants into the industry.
Despite the prevalence of local agents, it seems that some of the most successful agents are not from Singapore. A number of agents are in fact former models who were enterprising enough to branch out on their own.
One ex-hostess in particular, Goy (not her real name), is considered by many to be one of the most successful agents in Singapore. A Thai national, she was a former model at a well-known Thai Disco, and now runs a “modelling agency” based in Thailand that specialises in job placements for girls looking to work in Singapore.
Being a woman in a male dominated industry gives her an immediate advantage as the models naturally trust her more than they would a male agent. The fact that she’s Thai also helps. More importantly, Goy is an aggressive and effective marketer on social media.
Importantly, the advertisement also states the application process, which requires the girls to submit 3 full body shots, and 3 half-body shots. Probably wary of photoshopped images, the advertisement goes on to warn the girls that if they do not resemble their photos, they will be sent home.
Through LINE, it seems that the girls are offered comprehensive packages which cover everything from payment to accommodation. Given the illegal nature of the job, most agents do not advertise on internet marketplaces such as forums, and choose to operate only on LINE group chats as it is harder for the authorities to track. Access to these group chats are by invitation only, and typically feature hundreds of prospective hostesses and models.
Getting past immigration
Fast money usually brings with it accompanying challenges and risks. And in this case, it’s no different.
Models who come to work in Singapore are usually here on a one-month social pass, and it is thus illegal for them to earn money or find employment. The immigration department is also always on the lookout for visitors who they suspect will work in Singapore illegally.
“Unlike Taiwanese, Korean and Japanese girls, Thai girls are unfairly profiled at customs and subject to heavier checks, it’s an open secret”, said Joshua Chen, a Thai Disco regular. Racial profiling, if and when it does happen, is unacceptable. But because there’s no official policy statement on this issue (for obvious reasons), we can only speculate as to how the Singapore customs carries out its functions.
A critical function of the Thai Disco agent is to thus find a way to bypass Singapore customs, and bring these women into Singapore without legal hassle. To facilitate this, the agents have devised clever schemes and procedures which, according to them, lessen the risk of getting caught at customs.
Wayne (not his real name), a friend of James, and also a former Thai Disco agent, says that, “Once you’ve arranged to fly a prospect into Singapore, you generally wouldn’t buy a budget airline ticket as people who fly on budget airlines are more likely to get stopped by customs. You will also need to book a hotel for the girl in case Singapore customs does ask for her place of residence.”
Part of the costs of being a Thai Disco agent are thus flight tickets and ensuring a one-night accommodation for custom clearing purposes. Budget airlines should be avoided, and so should budget transit hotels such as Hotel 81, as these are supposed red-flags at Singapore customs.
Aside from non-payment, the bigger risk includes facing jail time if they get caught.
If a girl happens to get caught at customs, she then gets deported back to Thailand, and the agent simply has to be absorb the costs of the flight ticket and accommodation. Obviously, there’s no legal recourse when this happens, and it’s just a risk that they have to take.
The illegal nature of the job also means that there are no formal contracts between agents and the Thai Discos. Everything is verbal, and the agents have little recourse if a Thai Disco refuses to pay them. This does not happen often, as according to Wayne, “Thai Discos who do not pay up have more to suffer in terms of reputation damage.”
Aside from non-payment, the bigger risk includes facing jail time if they get caught. According to James, a number of agents have since been caught and put in prison. “It’s like human trafficking”, he says. Except that the people being trafficked are earning a ton of money, and for all intents and purposes, actually want to come into the country.
But despite the dangers, James feels that it is not unlike the risks that entrepreneurs have to take with any other more legitimate business. “To earn good money, you need to take risks”, said James.
He’s not wrong. Most worthwhile endeavours carry with them opportunity costs and risks. The agency business is no different, and at the end of the day, these guys simply exist to fulfil a need. Without them, the Thai Discos that most of us have grown to love (and hate) would find it that much harder to operate in Singapore, and our nightlife scene would arguably be the poorer for it.