People in Singapore had been eagerly anticipating a relaxation of Covid-19 restrictions when the city was visited last month by a major cluster of new coronavirus infections involving KTV hostesses, and the men they hosted. The viral spread was expedited by freelance hostesses, who distributed their largesse as they shimmied from room to room, across several different lounges, on any given night. After a night of singing and assorted revelry, the men went back to their families and a public health nightmare ensued . While I never understood its allure, nor the motivation of the men and women who seek it, paid companionship at entertainment establishments used not to be as predictably sordid as it is now. Before the world was corseted by a new puritanism in the 20th century, courtesans and professional mistresses were an acceptable, albeit shadowy, part of elite society, whose existence straddled the respectable and risqué in what the French call le demi-monde (“the half world”) and the Japanese ukiyo (“the floating world”). Compared to the wokeful and judgmental present, there was less shame attached to paid female companionship among the Chinese elite in the past. Men with means openly frequented the entertainment quarters in the cities. The seriously wealthy maintained a bevy of female singers or dancers in their households. Sex was not necessarily part of the arrangement. Apart from their looks, the more sought-after courtesans were sufficiently learned to engage in highbrow conversations and witty repartee with their erudite clients. An artistic ability such as singing or playing a musical instrument was the minimum job requirement at the more exclusive establishments. Courtesans were one of the major drivers in the creation and proliferation of the literary form known as ci poetry. Originally, ci poems were written as lyrics set to well-known tunes, and were not meant to be recited but sung, which was where courtesans and singing girls came in. Some poets in the Song period (960-1279) wrote ci for their favourite courtesans to perform, and the women thus favoured brandished these literary tributes as badges of honour, and the license to charge premium fees. One such poet was Liu Yong (987-1053). Although he was born into a prominent family and was a minor government official, Liu preferred the company of the denizens of the pleasure quarters in the capital Bianliang (modern-day Kaifeng). Many of his ci poems were written for and about the courtesans, and his lyrics became so popular that the ladies began paying him for his compositions. Given his low rank in the bureaucracy, this became his main source of income. Liu’s ci poems were noted for their originality, as well as their vernacular language and demotic themes, such as romantic love and the tribulations of a courtesan’s life. His literary homages to the common man and woman had a profound influence on writers who came after him. It is said that Liu Yong died a pauper in Hangzhou, and a famous courtesan in the city rallied her sisters in trade to arrange and pay for his funeral. For years afterwards, the ladies of the pleasure quarters would pay their respects at Liu’s grave on the day of the Qingming Festival, in gratitude for immortalising their lives in poetry. Of course, one must not romanticise the lives of courtesans and their clients in China’s past. For every celebrity entertainer and her refined inamoratos, there were dozens, even hundreds, who plied their trade in rude hovels and dark alleys. Rich or poor, feted or despised, they were all considered to be the lowest of the low.