May 2002

Any boy bars in Singapore?


    

 

 

From the SiGNeL mailing list:

Tourist emailing from abroad:

I will only have two nights in Singapore... What should I see? Any boy bars? Dancers?

American in HK:

I … have been to Singapore many times. It is NOT a city for boy bars and wild Bangkok-style entertainment.

Me:

… I happened to mention [the tourist's] question to two friends… I was given two diametrically opposed reactions:

1. A slightly defensive one, a bit outraged at the suggestion that Singaporean "boys" are available for sale, (to foreigners no less!) ... though I'd note that Singaporeans are major purchasers of "boys" in other countries, and quite oblivious to the fact that middle-class inhabitants of those countries are equally outraged that their compatriots are up for sale...

2. A ruefully resigned one, that - what a shame - we don't have any boy bars... how nice if we did!

Eaststar:

I think part of the outrage (at least for me) would be the fact that there is an assumption that "Asian-country-gay-scene" equals "boy bar" in the minds of a Westerner. Given the prevalance of sex tourist from the west who descend upon Thailand and Vietnam to rent 16 year olds for the night, the assumptions have some real-life results. Just last week in my gym, I over heard this conversation between an American and Brit:

"So Vietnam's a pretty good place now actually, for cheap boys"

"Yeah? I heard that, gotta visit soon. I hear Cambodia's good too and even cheaper. They're even less strict over there..."

"Philippines used to be good, but (racist remarks) are too fuXXXing greedy..."

"and Thailand's new sex gestapo are gonna drive all the tourist away."

"Fxxxx them, let them starve"

Caliban:

As Yawning Bread pointed out, many Singaporeans go to BKK for their boys too. So perhaps this is not necessarily an Asian versus Western thing, but wealthy versus poor.

Kem:

.... but not just Singaporeans ... you meet all the "wealthier" Asians there - Japanese, Korean, Hongkongers, Malaysians ... so really have to see all this in perspective....

Me:

As globalisation proceeds, and its corollary effect shows up here - a widening income gap - I wonder, seriously, when boy bars will appear here too.

Vern:

Interesting thought.

The assumption thus far in this thread is that a country shares a uniform standard of living. This is far from the truth. In developed countries where there is a huge disparity of income, boy bars have sprouted. Think Netherlands and the US.

Even in Bangkok, there is a huge middle class. But that has not stopped poor Thais from the rural areas congregating there and plying their trade.

The odds are probably against Singapore having a boy bar culture in the near future. Our sexually conservative culture, high standards of living and still smallish (though growing) disparity of income, still dictates against it.

* * * * *

 

The word "boy" in this context does not refer to under-aged males. Its common meaning here is that of a guy who is prepared to offer sex for money.

 

So, what likelihood of boy bars in Singapore?

The first thing we need to be clear about is that there is a distinction between boy bars and commercial sex. Boy bars are just one way by which commercial sex is marketed in some countries, though as is evident from the above discussion, it's not a scene you can find here (not yet, at least).

However, it should be borne in mind that commercial (homo)sex is quite widely available in Singapore, though it doesn't come cheap.

There are loads of Singaporeans providing "massages", working as freelancers, in massage establishments or as loose networks, reaching out to the market through the internet [1]. Many of these networks include Malaysians and mainland Chinese as well. Some of them are here on Work Permits doing construction or other jobs. Providing sex (oops, massage) is just an easy way to top up their income.

There are other networks, often phone-based, that will connect you to Malaysians and Thais who come in on 2-week or 1-month tourist visas. Since the guys aren't supposed to work while here, these networks tend to be more careful and restrict themselves to regular or recommended clients only.

In alleys or a few shopping malls, there are yet more foreigners for hire. Indians and Nepalis are often found in the district we very colourfully call Little India. Thais and Burmese in Little Bangkok. And I won't be surprised if unknown to me, there are Filipinos, Vietnamese and Russians somewhere.

But we don't have a bar scene with commercial sex. What are the factors that promote or inhibit this method of marketing commercial sex?

 

Two types of boy bars

Generally, there are two types of boy bars. They are host bars and go-go bars.

Host bars are those where the service providers sit around and can be called upon for company or take-out. The degree of control the bar-owners have over the boys may vary. Some bars have such tight control over the boys that they're essentially employees and answerable to their bosses for discipline and service standards. Other bars are little more than customary gathering places for freelancers, though bar-owners will want to take a fee where they can.

Go-go bars are more organised affairs. The boys usually have to strip down to very little clothing and gyrate around a pole on stage. Other kinds of performances are also possible. But the primary purpose of go-go is to show skin and thus lower the customers' resistance to a sale.

 

1. The regulatory environment has to be permissive. 

Since bars are rooted to physical addresses, they cannot play hide-and-seek with the authorities the way phone and internet marketing can.

While not actively clamping down, there are no indications that Singapore policy will permit boy bars should they appear. Nor is Singapore corrupt enough to circumvent policy.

2. The social environment has also to be permissive

The population has to be able to tolerate such bars. Some societies tolerate sex establishments better than others, for reasons of history, religious laxity or moral hypocrisy. Japan and Thailand stand out as such places. Post-Mao China resembles its pre-communist period in this respect too.

Singapore is westernized enough to be sex-phobic, but not westernized enough to liberal-minded. In addition, some of our Christians and Muslims are vocally self-righteous. Their idea of peace on earth is to inflict their psychoses on others.

3. Hinterland needed

Since bars are fairly public places, the general rule is this: the boys working there tend not to come from the city itself, but from its hinterland. Their families in the provinces are typically poor, with little chance of them coming to the city. For city-natives, the risk of social shame is too high for them to work in their own city's bars.

Singapore doesn't have a hinterland. While there are potentially huge numbers from the overpopulated and undeveloped countries around, and while what Singaporeans can afford for sex may seem a fortune to them, Singapore is a separate state with immigration controls. It is highly unlikely that we'll be issuing Work Permits to go-go dancers and sex workers anytime soon.

4. Economic factors

Of course, there needs to be a large income gap and a high unemployment rate in the supply hinterland, for there to be enough lads wanting to be bar boys. That is certainly true in terms of the difference between Singapore and most of our neighbouring countries, but this is the very reason why we maintain such strict immigration controls, lest we be flooded by people looking for work here!

On the whole, I can't see any chance of boy bars on the horizon.

* * * * *

Cloud Nine

Yet, it should be recorded, that about 6 or 7 years ago, a bar, called Cloud Nine, opened at Duxton. it was a karaoke bar with male hosts, mostly Malaysians. The bar didn't last long. Exactly why, I don't know, but after that one, I don't think the concept has been experimented with again.

While our immediate suspicion is that the government closed it down, we must temper that instinctive reaction with the fact that there are plenty of hostess bars in Singapore. The government does turn a blind eye, at least to the girlie version.

It is possible that Cloud Nine closed down for business reasons. I can imagine that Singaporean clients might have found it too open to take a boy from a bar. It's one thing to do it in Bangkok, quite another to be seen doing it right here.

I made just one visit to Cloud Nine out of curiosity. As we entered, my friend and I noticed about 4 boys sitting at the bar counter. I could tell from the body language that they were available. But our investigative visit was derailed almost as soon as it began. My friend saw his younger brother in the bar. They had never acknowledged each other as gay, and in a boy bar reeking of commercial sex, now was hardly the time to do so!

© Yawning Bread 


 

The SiGNeL discussion above mentioned income gap as a predictor of commercial sex and boy bars. As Singapore's example shows, a society doesn't need deep poverty to see the emergence of commercial sex.

Of course, the dynamic of the business depends on having people well-off enough to pay, and younger ones, hooked to a certain standard of living, to want easy money. In that sense, a certain income gap, and a degree of envious materialism fuels the sex business.

Two years ago, a young man asked me if I could introduce him to a massage place. He needed the work, or rather the money. He had been caught, I think for shoplifting, and his lawyer had advised him how much he might be fined, in default of which, he might have to spend some time in jail. No one fancies going to jail, and the young man needed to raise the estimated amount, plus lawyer's fees, fast, before the court date. 

Is this poverty? Does it matter how we define it?

Not everyone has a high threshold, for religious or moral reasons, against providing sexual services. As for social shame, this can be managed by choosing the appropriate means for marketing oneself.

However, when it comes to working in bars, social shame makes the threshold for selling oneself much higher. Working in a bar is a lot more public than being part of an e-network that offers, euphemistically, therapeutic massages. It takes a higher degree of economic desperation to work in a bar.

Oh, one more thing - the young man who needed quick cash to pay his expected fine? - he was straight.

 

 

 

Footnotes

  1. Not every male therapist offers sex. There are qualified professionals in this business, not to be confused with the "boys" discussed here. Nor does sexual orientation have anything to do with it. Some certified professionals are gay. Some of the masseurs offering extras are straight.
    Return to where you left off

 

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