Beneath the veneer of glitzy malls on the Lion City’s favourite shopping belt lies a thriving covert sex trade
It is evening on a sultry Sunday and a meandering crowd of families, tourists and food delivery riders jostle for space on the footpath outside Concorde Hotel. Yet all is still and silent inside the building’s shopping wing, except for two units offering massage and facial services.
In one of them, located beside the security desk, a middle-aged lady wearing a lime green halter top and beige miniskirt performs a series of jumping jacks in full view of passers-by.
A bar hostess outside a bar on the third floor of Lucky Plaza in Singapore. Photo: C Lee
Her eyes dart occasionally at male tourists, cajoling them to join her. For those who do stop by to chat, she gesticulates towards a partitioned room behind her and indicates that “it’s safer to talk inside” while pointing to the CCTV cameras near the unit.
On the floor above, a group of toddlers run amok at the lobby of Concorde Hotel while other hotel guests read, dine and natter.
Orchard Road, the barber’s pole of capitalism in Singapore, is a conglomeration of contemporary urban lifestyle clichés that is home to world-renowned hotels, Michelin-star restaurants and global brands such as Hermès, Cartier and Apple.
Yet, beneath this well-curated veneer of glitzy malls and high-end living lies a thriving sex trade catering to tourists and locals alike. In a country with strict anti-vice laws and legalised brothel areas, the existence of a covert sex trade in a high-end shopping district touted as the “Milan of Asia” is something of a social anomaly.
“I’ve worked at Orchard Road for more than 30 years and till today I get tourists who get so surprised when they see the seedy side of Orchard Road,” says a 63-year-old tailor at Orchard Plaza who asks to be known only as Richard. “As long as there are desperate me around, there will always be sex even in the cleanest of places – you can be 100 per cent assured of that.”
The vice central of the shopping belt is Orchard Towers, only a short walk from the Shangri-La Hotel and St. Regis where US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un stayed, respectively, for their recent summit.
Bar hostesses look on from a corridor in Cuppage Plaza. Photo: C Lee
Built in 1975, the 18-storey office building is notorious for its assortment of girlie bars, massage parlours and seedy nightlife that occupy four storeys, earning it the nickname “Four Floors of Whores”.
A visit to the building after midnight on a Friday is illuminating. Four law enforcement officers attend a report of disorderly conduct outside a hostess bar on the second floor, while less than 20 metres away, three massage parlours continue to operate with scantily clad women on high stools calling out to male passers-by.
Outside the building, taxi drivers roll down their windows and offer to take male tourists to places where they can have “extra fun” depending on their budget.
But if Orchard Towers is an open secret, there are many other lesser-known spots of sleaze along Orchard Road, most of which coexist quietly, if somewhat bizarrely, with family-friendly services.
At Far East Plaza on Scotts Road, throngs of families tuck into hotpots and sizzling hotplates at a Muslim food place named Puncak while three massage parlours located just behind the eatery carry on with their business having Vietnamese and Thai women proposition men.
University undergraduate Nasruddin Islam Ramli, 26, frequents the eatery with his grand-aunt and brothers and he says that there is a mutual respect for the space that allows everyone to coexist.
“It’s a well-known secret that there are spas here that offer sexual services, so I know which routes to take and what corners to avoid when coming here,” he says.
A bar hostess on the third level of Lucky Plaza. Photo: C Lee
“The women from the spas don’t approach couples or families. So as long as that level of respect is there, I think most people don’t mind that the sex trade is a few metres away.”
The tilt to sleaze is partly due to the low rental rates in this mall, according to a report in The Straits Times newspaper last month, part of an overall slump in visitors experienced by malls along Orchard boulevard.
A study this year by real estate service provider Savills Singapore revealed retail vacancy rates of 8.4 per cent at Orchard Road, which is higher than the island-wide rate of 7.4 per cent.
The Orchard Road Business Association declined to comment.
The exodus of retail and F&B shops are making shop owners desperate enough to rent out their units to just about anyone willing to take them.
But it is not just the low rental rates that fuel the surge in vice. It is also the promise of big money in the human-trafficking trade.
Earlier this year in nearby Lucky Plaza, a cashier was brought to court for pimping out bar hostesses at his pub. By paying a S$300 (HK$1,700) “bar fine”, customers were allowed to engage in sexual services with the hostesses from the Philippines.
For now, most of the Orchard Road sleaze occurs in the older malls, such as Ming Arcade, which is across the road from Orchard Towers.
Rows of women line the shops located in the upper levels of the building after dark, approaching men for “happy massages”. A 42-year-old shop owner from the same building who asks to be known as Mr Cheng says that vice is unavoidable given the reputation of hostess bars in the building.
A lady at a massage parlour in Orchard Towers. Photo: C Lee
“You have army boys to older men coming to Ming Arcade for cheap beer and good fun so it’s a place that everyone knows about. If you want to clean up the place, you need to start with the bars, but the reputation of the building is already gone so who will want to take up the unit even if you do away with the bars?”
With expat enclave Forum The Shopping Mall, known for its child- and family-friendly outlets, located just across the street, Cheng predicts the days of old Orchard malls as places of vice are numbered.