Wednesday, July 15, 2009


how keong saik road developed
into a red-light district

picture from national archives of singapore





keong saik road which links north bridge road to neil road did not start off as a red-light district in spite of its close proximity to the notorious smith street. i had thought that the prostitute trade was a spill-over from nearby smith street.

according to my friend, this was not the case. keong saik road used to have a concentration of clan associations where well-to-do merchants and businessmen would meet for recreation in the forms of food, gambling and entertainment by women.

some of these women eventually became mistresses of these rich businessmen and were housed in the rooms above the association premises. there, some would stay with an amah (servant), hired by their businessman lovers, to serve them. so, keong saik road became known as the mistresses avenue. (today, which two places in singapore have earned this title?)

the rest of the story is quite familiar. some got bored while waiting for their sugar daddies and so took on other lovers or clients. some, who fell out of favour, were abandoned and they ended up servicing other men to earn a living. the amah ended up as being the mamasan who played the role of soliciting customers for the lady, earning a commission in the process. some of these mamasans eventually bought over the place.

so, in the 60s, keong saik road became a seedy area with brothels located in the 3-storey shophouses on both sides of the road. unlike geylang and desker road, where the protitute dens are on the ground level, at keong saik street, the rooms were originally (and still are?) above the ground level. access to the 2nd and 3rd levels was usually via a side staircase.

my friend tells me that the trade (at keong saik road) is still alive. i did not ask him why he was so sure about it because, during our last exploration of chinatown, we tried to look for evidence that the place was still in business but we could not find any indication. maybe, we did not look hard enough.

33 comments:

peter said...

YG
U can still see the big RED NUMBERS on the Keong Siak buildings nearer to Neil Road side. Since you have been walking in that area, did you see a very "up-market" ground floor shop decked in the reddest colour (I ever seen) opposite to a modern building in Keong Siak Street.

The last I knew the girls were from Malaysia, Ipoh I think. Cantonese was widely spoken but not sure these days.

One of my university friends wrote an Honours thesis about how they operated in Keong Siak. This sociology thesis gave a good insight into the world of prostitution, the "training" the girls received to handle customers/angry clients/how to survive in the sisterhood and why many girls went into the trade. My friend was lucky because his sister was working as a social escort and had "connections" to do "face 2 face" interview.

The "going rate" was S$30 for 1 shot (got time limit) but I believe times are changed.

peter said...

The joke used to be:

"If u are young (<26 yrs), you work in Keong Siak. If age catches up with you and you no longer Ang Pai, you move to Desker Road (26-30) and finally Johore Road" (30 or depreciated in physical looks. Is this not sad that there is such a thing call a "life cycle"? Then we heard of the crude jokes like:

When u are young and pretty you service clean men. When u r old, you service Beh Chia men or coolies.

Uncle Phil said...

It was an open secret amongst the students in Victoria School when it was situated next to the Jalan Besar Football Stadium, that they get an angpow from a prostitute if they lost your virginity to them.It was said that the young virgin boys do wonder to their beauty therapy. I wonder the myth still exist?

yg said...

phil, you mean those from nearby maude road? so, when did you get your angpow? in sec 3 or sec 4?

Anonymous said...

Is it River Valley Road and Balestier Road?

peter said...

Uncle Philip
You mean facial therapy? The rate was S$5/- at Johore Road.

PChew said...

Another Jalan Besar red light area was Petain Road nearby former New World. They were a class lower than Maude Road.

peter said...

Classier ones were at Sandy Lane.

There was one big difference between Keong Siak and the others. Keong Siak offered massage plus special services. Others offered special services. The only competittor to Keong Siak was Geylang lorong 8.

nah said...

Once upon a time, you can only find 'chickens' from those houses with a red light at the front of the house. Now, there is no need to have any signage or red lanterns. These un-feathered fowls patrol all over the streets of Singapore. Those days, the flesh trade was only carried out discreetly in dimly lit cubicles. Now, in broad daylight, they block your path, flash their megawatt smiles, and say "ni yao wo ma?” Those days, the rates charged were: look, see - $1/, touch - $2/, and do - $??? Of course, there was a time limit. For $1/, you can only start admiring once a match stick is lighted and your viewing time is up when the flame dies off. For your $1’s worth, you have to be very alert. But, of course, you can opt for the ‘do’ part, in which case, you only have to pay GST (goods and service tax).

yg said...

nah, the kind of shows that you all watched at mechinta in jb and bangkok were actually available in s'pore in the 60s, though not on a regular basis. my friends, who were touring desker road, were approached by a pimp. the old woman charged each of them $2 to watch a 'woman f... woman' show. so, they did not have to go to thailand (siam) because thailand came to s'pore.

yg said...

hi anonymous, that's what i hear - river valley, more up-market; balestier, ordinary ones.

Victor said...

Looks like YG is quite an expert on my favourite topic, eh? Hmm... a case of experiential learning?

peter said...

River Vally - that's Pacific Mansion.

Today I hear the action is at the pubs opposite Hoot Kiam Road.

peter said...

I am not sure whether readers can remember when Singapore was used as a R&R for US Vietnam servicemen. I think it was 1968 when I saw bus-loads of Singapore girls "sent" to Serene House (between Cluny Road and Farrer Road)to entertain the Americans. It was a whore house and they had to fence the place. I think there were 2 more official whore houses - one was at Katong Palace Hotel in Lucky Heights and the other I believe at Shelford Road.

Today the US Navy still stops by at Changi East and proceed to town. But I think more discrete these days. They proceed to hotels and make hotel bookings in Orchard Road.

Pacific Mansion was "up-market joint" in those days. Usually taxi drivers drive customers to the blocks (I believe the 2 blocks face Singapore River and Kim Yam Road). So they operated differently from Keong Siak or Geylang. Market rate was S$100 and above then, so quality better.

yg said...

victor, it is a case of n.a.t.o. (no action, talk only).

yg said...

victor, the one with the knowledge and/or experience to write a book on this topic is peter.

Anonymous said...

Anybody heard of Malay Street and Bolo Street?

yg said...

anonymous, can't find the two streets in the directory. are you sure there are such streets in s'pore?

Anonymous said...

yg Yes there were. Malay Street was famous during wartime for Japanese wartime services and was located where Bugis Junction now stands. Bolo Street was very much like Desker Road and was located in the Peoples Park area. Two other places were Tapah Street and one other place whose name I have forgotten but it was somewhere near Rochore Road.All have disappeared from the map.

Anonymous said...

Also Peter's knowledge can be found in a book called Saint Jack by Paul Theroux. It is a story of a pimp who is approached by the US in Singapore to run a whorehouse. Very interesting read. The movie was banned for some time in Singapore. The line I like in the book is about the ability to look at the Istana from the saddle!

yg said...

anonymous, it was silly of me to look them up in the latest street directory. i found the streets that you mentioned in my 1969 street directory. all those you mentioned happened to have been very short streets. malay street joined victoria street to north bridge road. it intersected malabar street and hylam street. it was between middle road and bugis street.
bolo street joined park road to havelock road. it was almost parallel to new market road.
tapah road joined tanjong pagar road to tras street.
thanks for sharing the info.

Anonymous said...

No problem bro.
I know of Bolo Street when I followed my friend to his father's watch stop. My friend told me never to go into Bolo Street because if his dad saw me or him there he would give us hell. I asked why and he told me it was a place where women sell themselves. I could watch the action from the main road but I never went inside out of respect for my friend's dad.
Much later the street vanished due to buildings put on the site.My friend's father's shop closed too and he had so many surplus clocks that he gave me one because I was always tardy in keeping appointments!

Victor said...

The street near Rochore Road which Anonymous (July 18, 2009 12:49 PM) forgot about is Johore Road.

Now, time for a commercial break. I have blogged about a redlight district near Queen Street here.

I have also mentioned about the movie Saint Jack here, here and here.

Anonymous said...

No.It was not Johore Road. That was big time. This was a small outfit. I think it was Nordin Lane or something like that. Very near to present day Fu Lu Shou Complex.

yg said...

victor, a small outfit. must be like the one near your former cheang yan place. still, could not fit you in because you were too small, i mean, too young then.

Victor said...

YG, Peter has taken up your challenge.

huang said...

Wow, what an interesting exchange of info on an interesting aspect of life in Spore and on road names that can only bring nostalgic feelings to those of us in the 50s and above. If my memory serves me right, there used to a popular zhi char road side stall at Malay Street that was well frequented by those of us who enjoyed excellent food at very honestly priced charges.

yg said...

hi huang, have you visted this site to read about some research conducted by an nus student?

Anonymous said...

Here is an interesting story one of my buddies told me of his visit to Desker Road. He took a little longer time than usual and the pros remarked, " Wah, you pay so little but want to make a baby ha?"

yg said...

anonymous, i guess prostitutes do not like those whose are too long (can be painful) and those who take too long. i think they much prefer the 'wham, bam, thank you ma'am' approach.

Anonymous said...

I agree. One more horror story was told to me by an Army buddy. He had gone along to Geylang with his friend and in was custom in those days to call for a hooker by phone. When one came along you could either have her or pay a transport allowance if you did not want her. When the woman came along a fight nearly erupted because she turned out to be the sister-in-law of his friend who had told the family she worked in a factory. My army buddy had to stop the fight because there was a real chance of gangsters getting involved.He told his buddy family differences were best solved at home. The sister in law had claimed his brother was a useless layabout and she had to support the family somehow. The end result-both went off without doing anything, the experience had been a turnoff.He told me that since then he always went to do his thing alone!

yg said...

anonymous, i imagine it would have been a very awkward situation for your army buddy, his friend and the friend's sister-in-law. and a great shock for the two in-laws. circumstances can compel some people to go into this line of work.

Anonymous said...

I think the in-laws never knew. According to my buddy they sort of reached an agreement. He would hush up the matter and in return she would stop the line of work.My buddy did counsel him that was the best course- and he did agree his brother was a layabout who never held a job for long.