Sex Spaces in Singapore: Encounters, Inhabitants, and Identities > Terence Chong

by Terence Chong

Sex spaces in global cities are transnational ones. In much the same way the service sector in the metropolis is laden with labourers and workers from the Third World, so too has Singapore experienced the globalisation of sex work. Global economic trends, geopolitical shifts and national insecurities have led to international and regional labour migration which, in turn, has had impact on the feminisation of the informal market. The sex industry is one such example. But while transnational, these sex spaces are simultaneously nationally or ethnically segmented. From the PRC Chinese ladies strolling along the streets of Geylang, to the Vietnamese girls spilling out of the karaoke bars in Joo Chiat, to the Thai and Eastern European women slinking in the pubs in Orchard Towers, sex spaces in Singapore have evolved in tandem with the leisure activities, consumption habits and clientele that have converged there.

But what is a sex space? Is it the same as a red light district? A red light district suggests a geographical site in which commercial and sexual transactions are tied together in close proximity. However, the reality of sex work in a small hyper-capitalist city-state with a vigilant and punitive state has meant that the site where the client encounters the sex worker and the site of sexual transaction are often not the same one. Sex spaces are concerned with the spill over of sexual relations over traditional sites. The Chinese men who take a fancy to their Vietnamese companion in the karaoke bars will have to drive out of Joo Chiat because the hotels in the vicinity are no longer transit hotels. The combination of citizenry action, a responsive state and regulatory changes have, in effect, forced the leisure activity, the agreement to sex, and the sexual transaction itself to be stretched across space.

Technology has also played an important role in breaking down the physical boundaries of red light districts. Websites allow clients to view the sex workers available and then inform the pimp of their choice via SMS. Clients are then told of the hotel to go to thus problematising the notion of a traditional bounded red light district. The traditional red light district may also overemphasise the commercial dimension of sex work with a strict sequence – men visit the site, they buy sex, they leave the site – that (over)accentuates the impersonal nature of the transaction. However, as the essays here show, the sexual encounter may go beyond libidinal bonds. It may be laden with the transference of other emotions from the need for intimacy, to show warmth or to be desired. Likewise, these transferences challenge the dichotomy of the sex worker as either proud and empowered wage earner or exploited objectification of male desire, depending on which side of the feminist fence you fall on.

This issue of s/pores looks at sex spaces in Singapore. It is less concerned with the buying and selling of sex but the socio-cultural and economic character of these spaces, as well as the relations between different agents located in them. With original ethnographical work from the various authors, this issue goes beyond the physical and economic activity of commercial sex and, instead, examines the configuration of relations between agents and their positions as defined by other agents or institutions in the structure of the distribution of species of power.

Vanessa Ho draws from her experience as an activist to describe how sex workers are portrayed in the media and regarded by the state. She explores the impact of describing sex workers and sex spaces as ‘necessary evils’ and argues that police raids are ‘performances of public morality’ meant more for conservative Singaporeans than the eradicating of commercial sex. Ho concludes with a closer look at Desker Road and Rowell Road to demonstrate the behaviour of sex spaces under surveillance.

Nicolas Lainez looks at the sex space of Joo Chiat. He describes the social and economic transformation of the area and shows the forces at work. Residents have mobilised amongst themselves in response to the convergence of Vietnamese women in the area and, together with a sympathetic media, generally succeeded in imposing a gentrified middle-class morality. Lainez, however, argues that Joo Chiat remains a resilient sex space not by resisting middle-class morality but simply by continuing to quietly serve lower middle-class Singaporean men.

Sallie Yea broadens the notion of sex space by looking at the “open incarceration” of migrant women who have been hauled by the police for vice activities. Women who are arrested for vice activities fall under three categories – women deemed to be victims of trafficking (usually under 18 years of age); women who have been issued a Special Pass by authorities and released into the community in order to raise the funds for their deportation; and women who are put in prison after having been charged and convicted. She looks at the second category of women and shows how they exercise their network of friends and compatriots, boyfriends and customers, former managers and bosses, in order to reduce their vulnerability in their “in between” space.

Lu Huiyi presents a personal journey in ethnographic methodology and self-awareness. She enters the sex spaces of Orchard Towers and Geylang curious if the nationality and ethnicity of migrant sex workers have any influence on their work, their prices and the clientele they attract. Very quickly she realises her own identity as a female researcher in an essentially patriarchal space, as well as the tendency of non-sex workers to exoticise the sexual nature of the job at the expense of its occupational character. Lu concludes that ethnographer must either rid herself of biases, or focus on studying the attitudes towards sex work, instead of sex workers themselves.

Terence Chong looks at how the sex space in Batam has been constructed by Singaporean working class men. He argues that Batam is an imaginary frontier for many working class men who have been marginalised in the metropolis. This imaginary frontier allows such men to not just buy sex but also express affection or play out traditional masculine roles that are deemed surfeit requirements in the metropolis. The imaginary frontier is thus a sex space in which working class men can defer their masculinity.


Terence Chong is a sociologist at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.


Public Morality in Sex Spaces
Vanessa Ho

Is Joo Chiat’s ‘Little Vietnam of pho and sex’ a thing of the past? – Essay and Photo Essay
Nicolas Lainez

Social Visits and Special Passes: Carceral Spaces of Migrant Sexual Labour in Singapore
Sallie Yea

Ethnographic Sex Work Research in Singapore: Who gets to speak?
Lu Huiyi

Imaginary Frontiers and Deferred Masculinity: Singapore Working Class Men in Batam
Terence Chong