When Hu Fengkai first arrived in Singapore’s Geylang district from China in 2013, it was everything he had imagined it to be.
“In spoken Chinese, Geylang sounds like ya long or ‘dragon’s tooth’. A place with a name like that is bound to stir the imagination,” says the 31-year-old land surveyor.
“So when I finally reached Geylang six years ago, let’s just say I wasn’t disappointed,” he adds, with a sardonic grin.
It helped that he was joining a well-knit community of mainland Chinese migrant workers who had made Singapore’s famous red-light district their new home – drawn by cheap rent, cheap food and proximity to the city centre.
But after a run of almost two decades, this enclave is slowly disintegrating.
Singapore’s tightening foreign labour policies, heightened security after an unprecedented riot in 2013, and the sex trade going online have all chipped away at the country’s “Little Chinatown”.
“The whole place has changed in the past two years because everyone is leaving,” Hu says. “Soon enough, I will have no one else here and I will have to leave too.”
START OF THE INFLUX
Immigrants from China began to flock to the area at the start of the new millennium when Singapore had a construction boom, soon after the region shook off the 1997 Asian financial crisis.
The demand drew Chinese workers who were lured to the Lion City by higher wages and the relative ease with which they were allowed to travel home.
Desperate for cheap accommodation in expensive Singapore and with worker dormitories few and far between, they found the perfect home in Geylang.
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In particular, these workers unearthed cheap housing in two Geylang condominiums – Wing Fong Court and Sunny Spring.
“No Singaporean in their right mind wanted to stay there. Those two condos were surrounded by brothels and streetwaltkers,” says a long-time Geylang resident, a taxi driver in his 60s, who asked not to be named.
“If you had a wife or daughter, you can be assured that they would receive heckles and cat calls every time they went out. The flats were struggling for tenants. So when [mainland Chinese] workers came knocking, the condominium owners welcomed them with open arms.”
While workers from India and Bangladesh found affordable accommodation in ethnic enclaves, Chinese workers shunned the exorbitant rents in Singapore’s official Chinatown, which lies on the outskirts of the central business district.
For as low as S$150 (US$111) a month, these workers received bed space in Geylang rooms that they shared with others – about half what they would pay in Chinatown.
For coffee shop owner Ong Kee Leong, 74, who observed the influx from China, it was a “perfect supply-meets-demand situation that mutually benefited both parties”.
Every cent is important to the Chinese workers, says Luke Tan, who works to protect the welfare of migrant workers at the Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics.
“When you are migrant worker in a foreign land, even the smallest cost can impact you greatly. In a place like Geylang, workers are able to save more because of the low costs of things,” he says.
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THE NEXT WAVE
While Geylang had been reliant on foreign sex workers – largely from other Southeast Asian countries – the 2000s saw an unprecedented rise in those from mainland China.
They avoided the licensed brothels approved by the government, which carried strict periodic medical checks.
“In its heyday, you would see up to a hundred [Chinese] women standing along the footpaths at Lorong 14,18 and 20,” said the long-time resident, referring to the three roads in Geylang most notorious for the sex trade.
In Chinese-majority Singapore, the demand was strong for mainland Chinese sex workers.
“There aren’t any official numbers but I think it boils down to proportion and familiarity. Most of the sex workers are young women in a foreign land so they would definitely prefer coming to a country like Singapore where things like food, language and culture might be similar, so that might explain the numbers,” says Vanessa Ho, a director at sex worker advocacy group Project X.
Geylang’s transformation into “Little Chinatown” was under way. Its hodgepodge of brightly-lit eateries and services began to display more Chinese signs. Food catering to the new migrants – Sichuan hotpot, Shanghainese dishes and Shandong cuisine – began to displace Singaporean outlets.
Provision shops stocked products preferred by the Chinese. Internet cafes, which were wildly popular with workers from mainland China, mushroomed.
The developments drew the ire of locals. In 2009, Singaporeans wrote letters to the press complaining about the Sinicisation of Geylang, and how the red-light district was losing its multiracial character.
Long-time Geylang residents like Cai Yinzhou, on the other hand, welcomed the vibrancy that has become a quintessential part of the area.
“Having an organic enclave like this is a breath of fresh air in a country where public spaces and towns are heavily engineered. There are not many places where migrant workers can feel at home so a place like Geylang is important for their well-being and state of mind,” says the founder of Geylang Adventures, a group that conducts walking trails in the area.
The Chinese quickly rose to play a prominent part in the area’s illicit trade, dominating Geylang’s contraband cigarettes and liquor scene.
Local triads turned to the Chinese to front these operations. In 2016, the Singapore Customs seized more than 5,600 cartons of contraband cigarettes from a consignment from China.
In arrests that same year and in 2018, a total of eight Chinese nationals were jailed for peddling contraband cigarettes on instant messaging app WeChat.
“It was easy for the local triads to communicate with them in Mandarin or the dialects,” says a private investigator of illicit goods, who agreed to speak on condition of anonymity.
“Most of the Chinese nationals tend to be overstayers who have no qualms being deported. The relatively short jail sentences they face aren’t deterrent enough to keep them away.”
They also run most of the area’s gambling dens, with some brazenly operating in the open in Geylang’s many back alleys.
“Even after repeated police raids, the gamblers would reorganise themselves and set up shop again within a matter of minutes,” Cai says.
After Singapore set up two casinos in 2010, Geylang also became the go-to place for Chinese gambling tourists eager for cheap lodging in the area’s many love motels.
Busloads were often seen ferrying Chinese tourists from the red-light district to the two integrated resorts downtown and on the tourist island of Sentosa.
A bus driver with a local travel agency that deals mainly with tour groups from mainland China and Hong Kong adds that families do not mind being put up in the red-light district.
“Most of the rooms are small and can barely fit a family but the Chinese tourists don’t mind because of its proximity to the casinos. Plus, food around the area is cheap so it is definitely a hotspot,” he says.
THE LITTLE INDIA RIOT
The presence of all things Chinese began to wane after 2013, because of an event in nearby Little India.
That year, a riot took place after intoxicated migrant workers reacted violently when an Indian worker was killed in a traffic accident.
The incident shocked a country unused to such overt displays of violence. In its aftermath, Singapore’s police chief pointed out that Geylang, too, had “a hint of lawlessness” and hostility against the police that made the area “a potential powder keg”.
The government responded with a weekend alcohol ban in both Little India and Geylang, in addition to a nightly drinks curfew.
Police patrols were stepped up in Geylang, with increased raids on illicit trade. Surveillance cameras were installed, further limiting the space of illegal Chinese sex workers and the open-air gambling dens.
These measures, coupled with Singapore’s move away from depending on a foreign labour force due to local dissatisfaction, led to a decrease in the number of Chinese workers in Geylang.
Residents in Geylang told This Week in Asia that shops selling Chinese food and wares have been gradually closing down in the last two years.
It did not help that tech-savvy Chinese sex workers have increasingly been going online.
According to Ho from Project X, online sex workers in Singapore, most whom are Chinese nationals, are reaching out to customers directly through websites and apps – using social media and smartphones as middlemen.
By going online, these sex workers can easily hide in the public-housing heartlands of Singapore, undetected for as long as their tourist visas last.
Previously a hotspot for licensed brothels, a row of empty houses now line Lorong 18 and 20 in Geylang.
“Geylang is increasingly quiet and businesses are suffering,” said the long-time resident. “No alcohol and no girls. There’s no reason to come to Geylang any more.
“The Chinese are slowly leaving. In a few years, Geylang won’t be ‘Little Chinatown’ any more.”