I grew up in the red-light district of Keong Saik Road, where my mum operated a brothel
Soft truths to keep Singapore from stalling.
17A Keong Saik Road, published in 2017 by Ethos Books, is a memoir written by Charmaine Leung.
Leung is a Singaporean writer who has lived in Hong Kong for 15 years. This book recounts her experiences growing up in Keong Saik Road — a prominent red-light precinct in Chinatown — during the 1970s, where her mother was a brothel operator.
Leung shares personal memories of the Keong Saik area from the 1930s to the present, and in doing so, traces the transformation of the place over time.
17A Keong Saik Road is Leung’s first published book, and you can buy a copy of the book here.
Here, we reproduce an excerpt from the book:
By Charmaine Leung
The busiest hours for the brothels were from eight o’clock in the evening during the weeknights, and two o’clock in the afternoon during the weekends.
At its busiest in the evenings, Keong Saik was no different from a colourful night market. Except, in this market, flesh was traded.
The Keong Saik area entertained its fair share of foreign visitors from other countries.
The visiting sailors
One of Keong Saik’s largest sources of business were sailors from foreign ships that had docked in Singapore as a port of call to replenish supplies and other necessities.
The boisterous sailors often travelled in large groups and engaged in loud convivial singing which could be heard from many houses away. Their singing was like a chant of male libido, an anthem celebrating manhood, or the rediscovery of it.
I had on several occasions witnessed noisy Korean sailors in my mother’s brothel from the kitchen of 15A. Business was so busy that all the rooms were filled, and these sailors had to sit in the kitchen to wait for their turn with the dai gu liong (prostitutes in Cantonese).
Much to my annoyance, their loud booming voices and singing completely drowned out all conversations, disturbing my nightly routine of saying goodnight to my mother before I went to bed.
Having been away from their homes and families for months, with little or no access to women to satisfy their sexual urge, these men with a massive build-up of testosterone energy saw their release in Keong Saik. Like vultures, troops of sailors and military men from the navy descended upon the brothels to find their meat to assuage their sexual desires.
While these men brought business to the brothels and dai gu liong, they were often greeted with cautious optimism by the ladies.
A conversation between two prostitutes
One late afternoon on a Sunday, a pair of dai gu liong were walking behind me in the covered walkway of Keong Saik Road on their way to their service call.
“How’s business this weekend?” I heard one ask the other.
“Good, but mad! You know it’s always crazy when the sailors are in town,” the other dai gu liong answered.
“Tell me about it, I worked non-stop for the last two days, I can hardly walk now,” quipped the first lady. Poor lady, it must be very hard work. She worked till she could not walk! I thought to myself.
“I had one sailor who came back three days in a row. I just finished with him. He came back for more each time and wanted different things. Rough too.” The second dai gu liong lowered her voice on the last two words.
“You poor thing! What to do? They’ve been starved for too long! We just have to suffer for that…” teased the first dai gu liong.
“You got that right… Hahaha…” Their laughter trailed off as they walked into separate brothels.
I did not fully comprehend this exchange then, but the conversation stood out.
Encountering inappropriate male figures loitering in the vicinity
The lack of a permanent male figure in my life was contrasted by too many inappropriate male figures on the streets of Keong Saik.
Most men who visited Keong Saik for sexual services came and went after they had patronised the dai gu liong.
It was the ones who loitered on the streets that caused a nuisance.
Engaging in a running commentary about the dai gu liong was how these detestable men passed their time and spent their lives.
These were the free-loaders who did not pay for the dai gu liong, but just stood on the streets to lust after them. They bored their eyes into the Taiwanese Singers in a most salacious manner, and made demeaning comments about them — labelling them as “chickens”, a derogatory term for sex workers, returning to their gai dau (chicken farms).
In between gawking at the ladies, these men also harassed Je Je (“big sister” in Cantonese) and I by blocking our paths on the five-foot way. I cannot help but think of the little daughters these repulsive men on the streets of Keong Saik might have.
They must have wondered on those weekends and public holidays when their fathers were missing — where are their papas? It was the presence of these men on the streets that hugely downgraded the respectability that the Keong Saik area once had.
By the late 1980s, the Keong Saik area became just another brothel district — like the one in Geylang which had always been perceived as inferior.
At 10, I became aware of these men loitering along the covered walkway of the shophouses to watch the dai gu liong.
The freeloaders who stared at them, and us
The three streets of the Keong Saik area was like a catwalk with an uninterrupted flow of models showing off the latest fashion. Except here, the dai gu liong — masked thickly in their sweet perfumes after they had finished their service calls — sashayed onto the streets and showed off their sex appeal.
Our house at 15A, situated at the intersection of Jiak Chuan Road and Keong Saik Road, overlooking Teck Lim Road, was presumably the most well-placed and strategic spot to people-watch and gaze at the human traffic in the brothel district.
Many of these men stood near the entrance of the stairway that led to 15A, stationing themselves at that intersection to ogle at the dai gu liong who walked from one brothel to the next as they went about their day’s work.
These men — complete strangers in their 30s to 60s — gathered themselves in a new-found alliance of camaraderie, and stood from noon till dark, eyeballing the women of Keong Saik.
Like immovable statues at the foot of our house, their unwelcome existence hit home when Je Je and I started receiving unwanted attention from them.
Whenever there was an ebb in the flow of dai gu liong on the streets, and Je Je and I happened to walk past, these men would turn their attention to us.
“a distinct feeling of being stripped naked by their piercing eyes”
Some merely looked at Je Je and I disinterestedly because we did not possess the qualities they lusted after. Others stared and passed lewd remarks about us to their newly acquainted ‘brothers-in-lechery’ while giving us a thorough look from head to toe.
I had a distinct feeling of being stripped naked by their piercing eyes, and would walk as quickly as possible out of their sight.
The third kind — the worst — deliberately positioned themselves in our paths, challenging Je Je and I with a suggestive stance, and dared us to side-step them. Sometimes, they took it a step further, and tried to engage us in meaningless chitchat.
“Foong, did that horrible man in the blue T-shirt downstairs try to talk to you when you came back?” Je Je asked me one Sunday afternoon when she walked into the house.
“Yeah… he did! I came home not long ago and saw him too. He’s gross! He’s been standing there the entire weekend. He was there yesterday too.”
“He’s sick! He stood in front of me and tried to block me when I was getting to the door to come upstairs. Be careful if you see him, make sure you don’t walk anywhere near him.” Je Je always alerted me if she noticed anything that warranted my attention.
“I ran away as fast as I could, but he still managed to pat my head just now! I feel so dirty! He’s disgusting! Yuck! Yuck! Yuck! I need to go wash my hair now.” I felt repulsed just thinking about what he had done.
The situation seemed almost comical as Je Je and I had these conversations, but it was not funny, especially as I started to approach puberty.
Learning about sex from Je Je’s romance novels
The awkwardness I felt as I encountered the changes to my body due to the onset of puberty was further exacerbated by the lecherous stares from these men who lined the streets.
Thankfully, observing Je Je’s earlier experience with puberty had somewhat prepared me for what to expect, and helped to educate me by shedding light on the intricacies of being a woman.
Unknown to Je Je, she was also the one who first introduced the concept of sex and romance to me.
One day, as I was looking for a book on our bookshelf, I found behind the neatly arranged books a stack of Mills & Boon romance paperbacks featuring pictures of couples in a tight embrace on their covers. Je Je had kept them there to put them out of my reach.
That piqued my curiosity.
Each day, when Je Je was still at school, I secretly went into the worlds of her collection, and got lost in the tales of amorous, gallant heroes and their damsels in distress.
That was how I got my first education on the birds and the bees. Until I laid hands on my first Mills & Boon romance novel, I had no notion of what sex was about.
Adults never openly discussed sex
Sex, as a topic, was simply taboo, and not discussed. If it was ever mentioned, it was always presented as something dirty and shameful, and should not be talked about openly.
If it was raised in a conversation among adults and I happened to walk into that conversation, it would be hushed up immediately.
Throughout the years that we lived together, Je Je and I never discussed the sex trade that made Keong Saik Road notorious.
It was as if we had a tacit understanding that what we did not articulate would miraculously go away.
We lived it, breathed it, but never spoke about it. Perhaps we were in denial.
Unwanted attention from strangers forced us to grow up quicker
Je Je and I were intimidated by the unwanted attention from those repulsive men on the streets of Keong Saik, but we made light of the situation under the guise of a game.
“Getting Past Trashy Clutter” became a game we devised, where the objective was to see which of us could dodge the jumbled net of lecherous men first whenever we passed the passageway together.
We did not fully comprehend the implications of our circumstances with the men on the street then, but that was unquestionably harassment — sexual harassment in its primordial form, where two young girls were constantly bullied by lustful older men who made us feel vulnerable and threatened.
The transition from a child to a teenager sees universal challenges across all cultures and geographical boundaries, but add to that an environment featuring one of the most notorious red-light districts in Singapore, and Je Je and I had the ingredients for a tumultuous adolescence.
We paid the price — the loss of innocence at a young age. While most of our peers were enjoying protection as young ladies being brought up in wholesome environments, we were fiercely guarding our right to be respected as females in a red-light district.
Public holidays, the only chances I would get to spend time with mum
Business at the brothels was generally quiet on the evenings of public holidays. This was probably because men with families could not use work entertainment as an excuse to slip out.
On those nights, my mother would wind up her operations earlier so I could have a sleepover at 17A. I tried my best to stay awake and waited for her brothel to close on these rare occasions, but sometimes I was too tired and fell asleep.
I hated the feeling of waking in the middle of the night to realise I had missed an opportunity to sleep with my mother.
On very rare occasions, when the customers were regulars my mother knew well, I was allowed at 17A before the last of them had left.
17A at its closing with its last lingering guests was probably the only way I could find hints to the many questions I had about Keong Saik. Strong air conditioning coming from the rooms; the smell of perfume and cologne tingling in the air; and soft murmurings of male and female voices from behind closed doors.
But I was too young still to piece these vague scenes together and form an understanding of what it all meant.
Ironically, being a daughter of a madame prevented me from learning about sex. The adults were probably more evasive than most adults in ordinary families would be, and I had nowhere to clarify my befuddlement.
I met with walls every time I broached the subject.
The transformation of Keong Saik Road over time
As the last guests left Keong Saik, and the lights of the brothels were turned off, my Gong Sek Gai fell back into the still of the night.
It was time for Keong Saik to restore itself after the abuse of a tireless day, and to prepare for yet another day in the trading of flesh, and possibly one’s soul, when the sun rose again.
From the early days of the pei pa zai who sold their musical talent and social skills before their bodies, to the different groups of dai gu liong who offered exclusive massage services, a mix of massage-cum-sexual services, and oral sex, the evolution of the sex trade in Keong Saik seem to mirror a hierarchy of control these women had over their bodies.
As time passed, they engaged in more and more explicit sexual offerings to satisfy the demands of their male customers as Keong Saik matured into a fully developed sex district.
I wonder how much of their souls the dai gu liong of Keong Saik gave up as they went about their lives peddling their flesh.
Who could really understand what these ladies had to endure as they go about their days with false smiles on their faces, servicing alien men with their seductive bodies?
Top photo composite image, via NAS and Google street view.