Yawning Bread. July 2006

The troubles of Joo Chiat




I see that Joo Chiat is in the news again. On 2 July 2006, the Sunday Times did a feature article about how the Member of Parliament for the area, Chan Soo Sen, is leading a campaign to "clean up" the precinct.

The particular grouse of the residents is the mushrooming of bars along Joo Chiat Road, bringing with them prostitution, fighting and noise late into the night.

It so happened that Yawning Bread made a visit to a few bars recently. A report forms the second part of this essay, which may be of interest those who have never stepped into the area and may be wondering what the fuss is about.

* * * * *


Joo Chiat is a mid-distance suburb, and its main road, Joo Chiat Road, is lined by pre-World War II shophouses. Many of them have been served with conservation orders by the Urban Redevelopment Authority, and thus, may not be demolished or substantially altered.

As a way to preserve the architectural heritage of Singapore, this is quite laudable, but this also means that it can hard to find new uses for these buildings as old trades fade away. The interior configuration of the narrow shops (and offices above them) do not lend themselves easily to most modern uses, e.g. large surface area stores, clinics or banks.

Furthermore, Joo Chiat is a low density area with few high-rise apartments, and poorly served by public transport. As a result, foot traffic even on the main street is sparse. In addition, there are limited car parks around. Few retail or restaurant businesses can survive in the district.

What is a property owner to do if his tenants keep going out of business?

However, the last few years has shown that one trade can thrive: the girlie bars. In fact, Joo Chiat had a number of natural attractions for such a business:

  • It is fairly close to the city centre, and not at an extreme end of Singapore;
  • The sparseness of pedestrian traffic works to the bars' advantage, as some of their clients may not want to be seen by others going in to a bar;
  • The lack of mass public transport is not critical; customers who are anyway prepared to pay over a $100 for sex aren't going to quibble about getting a cab;
  • The size and layout of the old shophouses are just fine for a small bar.

Bars at the junction of Koon Seng Road and Joo Chiat Road.

Whether by coincidence or design, the Joo Chiat bars created one alluring brand together. They specialised in Vietnamese hookers. With this unique selling proposition, they overcame the disadvantage of location and relative inaccessibility. People would make the effort to go all the way to Joo Chiat should they want their services. They created a "pull" factor to overcome their locational disadvantage.

The bars' traffic created demand for 3 other businesses: cheap eating places for their workers and patrons needing supper, short-time hotels and late-night convenience stores. Together, these are probably the healthiest businesses in the district, otherwise known for its genteel decay.


Above: Hotel 81 on Joo Chiat Road.

Convert old shophouses into hotels?

It is suggested that one good use for the old shophouses of Joo Chiat is to convert them into mid-price hotels. perhaps Joo Chiat can become a tourist area.

Not if there is no public transport.

In any case, the old shophouses, in my opinion, aren't particularly suitable for conversion into hotels. At first sight, there is the advantage of character, but there are serious structural drawbacks too. 

Take the hotel pictured above. It's only 2 stories high. How many rooms can it hold? If there are too few rooms, there's no economy of scale.

So what owners do is to try to squeeze as many rooms as possible into the already narrow buildings. The result, as I have seen for myself, is an extremely cramped and claustrophobic place.

As short-time hotels, they are fine, but they will be at a disadvantage trying to market themselves for longer stays.


Fragrance Hotel on Joo Chiat Road

As a business case study, it's quite interesting, really.

The only problem is that the neighbours absolutely detest the idea of bars in the area. And that's hardly any wonder, for Joo Chiat is ordinarily a respectable, middle-class district. Nobody likes to have to walk or drive home past young women with little more than underwear standing at street corners, or hear drunken brawls a mere 150 metres from one's front gate.

As reported by the Sunday Times, the residents have banded together to report even the slightest transgression to the police, in order to give the police reason to close the bars down one by one. I learnt from a friend too that the licensing authorities insist on a 1 a.m. closing time for the area, unlike in other parts of Singapore, where bars can typically operate to 3 a.m., or even around the clock.


Coffee shop at the corner of Joo chiat and Dunman Roads. Still busy close to midnight.
It is more than possible that the residents, with the aid of the police, will eventually be able to squeeze the life out of the business. And the bars will move on somewhere else.

But what will remain will be the question, posed not just by Joo Chiat, but by so many conservation areas as well, such as Sultan Gate and Duxton Hill: how many viable businesses are there to populate these old houses and bring life back to these districts?

* * * * * 

Close-up of signboard of the bar pictured below. Note "Showdance".

The bar is across the road from a coffee shop, and this guy was watching football. 

I popped into 3 bars along Joo Chiat Road one Sunday night recently with a friend who was familiar with the area. The first bar was packed to the rafters and we couldn't get a table. Strangely, the patrons were mostly watching football on a couple of TV screens.

While looking (unsuccessfully) for a table, I noticed a small stage, with plate glass on 3 sides out of 4. The glass enclosure was just the size of lavatory. I knew what that was for - erotic dancing - and my friend confirmed that that was so. It would start as soon as the match was over, he said.

At another corner of the bar was an alcove. It was the darkest part of the bar, but I thought it strange that although the bar was packed, the alcove was empty. Nobody moved there to take advantage of the extra space.

"Is there some significance to that?" I asked.

"Ah, you're very observant," he said. Apparently I had noticed something that most would miss. According to him, it's a special area for when things get "hot". A customer might take a girl [1] into the alcove and do "it" right there, thus giving other customers a free show!

But for now, the men were more interested in 22 other men chasing a ball on the telly. So we left.

The second bar was less than half full and there were girls to spare. Soon after we arrived, 2 of them, both Vietnamese, sidled up to us and basically stayed with us for the next 20 minutes or so. The one next to me was 22, but I would have guessed 19. She was barely 1.6 metres tall and so slim that her waist couldn't have been more than 23 inches. She had fair skin, long hair and tried to speak to me in Cantonese, which apparently was the only Chinese dialect she knew.

It struck me that if a Vietnamese girl, albeit one of 22, knew Cantonese, she must have been "around", and not just for the 2 weeks of her tourist visa in Singapore.

We wouldn't have stayed as long as we did if not for the fact that a third girl was on the tiny stage, pole-dancing. My friend knew her and it seemed rude not to stay a while to watch her perform. After her act, she dropped by our table and I realised that going by her Mandarin, she was probably Singaporean or Malaysian, not Vietnamese.

With a tip of $10 to each to the 2 girls who basically did nothing except sit real close to us for the last half hour, we took our leave and moved on to the third bar.

This one too was busy, but we managed to get a table. There were easily 50 60 men in the bar and about 10 - 15 girls. The girls, I am told, are of two kinds: those who work for the house, and the freelancers. The house girls sit with customers, maybe letting the men have a little grope, and for that they earn tips. They cannot leave the premises without the boss' permission until closing time.

In the 3rd bar, the guy sitting next to me kept trying to finger the Vietnamese girl he was with.

The freelancers were constantly coming and going. They were unlikely to waste time sitting with patrons, but came into the bars to strike up quick conversations, and with luck, nip off to short-time hotels with them.

While the house girls, from my observation, were always Vietnamese, the freelancers were just as likely to be Chinese as Vietnamese. But all of them were tiny and skinny ("petite", I believe, is the right word).

"You think they're pretty?" my friend asked me.

"You're asking the wrong person," I said.

"I know, but from an aesthetic point of view?"

I had to stop the absurdity of that line of questioning. "Emaciated scarecrows," I told him.

The Vietnamese girls generally ask for $120 a time, and for the house girls, they have to be satisfied with just one customer a night at most, since they can't go with men until after closing.

The freelancers, particularly the Chinese, may have as many as 3 customers a night. Let me correct that: they aim to have 3 customers on average, in order to make the expected $500 a night. Two short-time customers would get them about $150 each (though they generally open with a quote of $250) and the third, overnight, customer would get them $250 more (though they may ask for $500).

In this connection, I was rather amused to see the Sunday Times quoting the owner of Bunker Karaoke and Pub, Chia Lee Huat, saying "I've read reports about the Vietnamese women who try to solicit sex with customers in and outside bars, and I think those reports are vastly exaggerated. That simply doesn't happen in Joo Chiat."

If even a gay man on his first visit to the area can spot the goings-on, it must be pretty obvious. Having said that, this gay man has spent many years exploring sleaze ghettos around the world, straight and gay, so perhaps I do have special X-ray vision.

Outside the bars, waiting for a taxi, I made more observations. There was an uncharacteristic untidiness about the area. Across the road, 3 men were talking loudly. Near us on the same side of the road, as more and more men spilled out of the bars near closing time, girls clung onto them making last-ditch sales pitches.

A freelancer stood not more than 2 metres from us, speaking into her phone. In accented English, she told the other party that she would "be there at 3 o'clock". Since it was not even 1 a.m., I figured she had someone else to service before Mr. 3 o'clock.

We decided to walk up the street a bit before any girl came on to us, and also to avoid competition for taxis coming by. That was when I noticed spilled beer on the sidewalk (from the smell), and further along, a single high-heeled sandal. There must have been a catfight among the women earlier.

* * * * *

So yes, there is a problem in Joo Chiat. The area has a seedy air, if not yet truly sleazy. One could feel unsafe walking alone. Hence, I can understand the residents wanting to clean up their neighbourhood.

However,, Singapore hasn't shown itself good at managing such problems holistically. Even if the bars are chased out of Joo Chiat, they won't disappear. If on a Sunday night, business is so brisk, what more of Friday and Saturday nights? The demand is certainly there, and so the bars will simply move to another locality and the problem will start all over again.

What I am suggesting is that we need to give more room to sex industries and be more liberal about licensing them, given the burgeoning demand. We may need to demarcate additional zones for them, since the business is far too huge to be squeezed into Geylang.

Some years ago, the government said the Bugis area was zoned for entertainment. The area around Seah Street and Purvis Street now, lined with restaurants, has a new bustle, but further inland, in the Rochor and Albert Street areas, it's still quite dead.

Our problem may be that our planners think of entertainment as the "wholesome" family kind. They have put one arts venue after another in the Waterloo Street area hoping to generate critical mass, but the simple fact is that the market for the high brow arts is simply too small.

The best way to make the Rochor, Albert, Short and Bencoolen Streets lively entertainment areas is to allow sex. At once, there'll be bright neon signs, late-night dining, and maybe even 24-hour shopping.

All we need to do is to unburden ourselves of puritanism.

Yawning Bread 


Would the Joo Chiat residents prefer the area to be home to more foreign workers, instead of bars?

The other thing I noticed about the area at night was the number of foreign workers - Indian and Bangladeshi - in the area. They were mostly sitting around on the sidewalks and chatting. It looked as if many of them lived in the upper floors of the shophouses.

Providing cheap accommodation to foreign labourers does appear to be the other viable alternative use for these old shophouses, but I'm not sure the middle-class residents would be happy to see this grow to fill up the space vacated by the bars that they're chasing out.



  1. Although I use the word "girl" in the essay to mean the working women, I do not mean to imply that they are underaged. I'm just following linguistic convention.
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