The Other Side of Singapore


“I’m a made-man, man, and when you come outside I’ll get you. Don’t you worry, we’ll be waiting.”

He had unwashed, thick brown hair that was tipped with blond streaks. His face was pushed into mine and he was screaming at me. Pushing and shoving in the tiny lobby of the hotel were about five of his gang members, yelling and telling me what they were going to do with me when I came outside.

Black Star had sent me on a corporate assignment to Singapore to shoot portraits of several businessmen for a New York design company. My travel agent in Hong Kong, where I am based, was having trouble finding a hotel for two nights. “They’re booked out,” she said.

In Singapore!

It seemed impossible, but she was right. There was nothing available. The night before I left, the agent called to tell me she had found two hotel rooms; one was $600 a night and the other $100 a night. Of course, I took the $100 option. I didn’t think I could explain $600 on my expense account.

The next morning I flew into Singapore, grabbed a taxi at the airport and showed the driver the address of the hotel. He looked at the address, looked at me, shrugged, pushed his foot on the accelerator and headed into town.

Singapore is a clean city with tall new buildings and neatly laid-out streets. There are signs all over the city telling you what to do — or more particularly, what not to do. No smoking, no spitting, no litter, no drugs, no urinating in the elevators, no standing on the toilet seats. This is the Singapore that most tourists know.

In fact, many of them complain that the place is so bland they want to move on to Malaysia or Thailand. Without delay!

So when the taxi driver turned off the highway into a district halfway between the airport and city, I was surprised to see a different side of Singapore. Rundown buildings, corrugated iron hanging off the roofs, rubbish all over the street and people sitting in the open doorways of buildings providing cheap accommodation. The street we had turned into was busy with men walking up and down and scantily dressed girls leaning on fences and up against the walls.

I vaguely registered the presence of some men wearing phones with flashing lights attached to their ears. They were talking into their phones, hustling the passers by and keeping an eye on the women. On the front of buildings were large numbers — 14, 16, 18 — and signs advertising the fact that they were open. Even though by now I’d guessed the nature of the neighborhood to which I’d been sent, to confirm my suspicions I glimpsed through the open doors, where I found girls sitting in their underwear waiting for customers.

My taxi pulled up near a sign saying:

2 HOURS $15

I braced myself for what might await me within, narrowly avoiding being trampled by the small posse of young females hurriedly exiting as I was hovering in the doorway. I went inside the hotel and checked myself in.

“Could I have a non-smoking room?”

“We don’t know if people smoke in their room,” the receptionist said.

“Could I have a cup of coffee?

“There’s a coffee shop down the road.”

“What about breakfast?”

“We don’t serve food here,” she replied.

Well, so much for Black Star’s expense account!

And then to work photographing businessmen at a building in the center of the city — a tall, impressive place with a marble lobby, painted murals of deer on the ceiling, wrought iron balconies, bottles of wine in a giant glass cupboard that stretched from the floor to the ceiling, and wrought iron stairs leading to a platform where musicians played. As I entered the building a guard came up to me and said, “Don’t take photographs. You are not allowed to take photographs in here.”

Oh no, not again … another what-not-to-do to add to the list. I said, “I’m carrying my camera; I’m not using it.”

At the other end of the lobby I walked past another guard who said to me, “Photography is banned here. Don’t take pictures.” While I was sitting in the restaurant having a coffee, he kept peeking around the marble pillar in case I disobeyed. Well, at least I was finally having a coffee!

Later I met the client in her tastefully designed office — a place with glass partitions, white walls and open offices. She asked where I was staying. She was most surprised with my answer and suggested she could help find me a quieter place to stay that was closer to their office. We could only find a room for the next night, so later that day I headed back to Geylang and the Red Light district.

When I arrived back at my hotel there was a lot more activity. Girls were on every street corner and groups of street workers were leaning against the wall waiting for customers. Outside the hotel I was offered dazzling sights and unforgettable nights by men, women and by what are known locally as “Lady-Boys.”

I dragged my equipment up to the fifth floor; nobody else seemed to have any luggage, so there was apparently no need for a bellboy! I shared the lift with a middle-aged businessman and a young woman. None of us looked at each other and nobody said a word. As soon as I got into the room, I locked the door with a chain and bolt and double-checked them. They worked.

The room had the barest necessities. There was nothing on the bare floor and no decorations on the walls except two hooks from which hung white towels. I looked into the bathroom, which was a small cubicle with a toilet, sink and hose dangling from the wall. I turned off the light and lay on the bed.

A girl and a man yelling and screaming outside my door jolted me awake. As I lay awake I could hear the noises of the other occupants through the paper-thin walls.

In the morning, I decided to venture outside the hotel and photograph the activity on the street. Never let an opportunity for a good picture pass you by, after all!

Soon, men ran from different directions and followed me into the hotel yelling abuse. In the lobby they kept asking me to show them the pictures and take them out of the camera. Some of the men started to threaten me, so I asked the hotel staff to call the police. They just stood there watching. I then threatened to call the police on my mobile phone. The hotel staff asked me not to make the phone call and — after some persuading — got the men to go outside.

It seemed to me that they knew these men quite well. As they were leaving, the gang’s leader screamed at me, telling me that they would get me when I came back into the street. The taxi picked me up a little later; I told him to drive as fast as he could to get out of there.

All in a day’s work shooting corporate assignments for Black Star.