The largest illegal sex marketin Singapore has for several years been nicknamed ‘Sørlandssenteret’. Why is itcalled ‘Sørlandssenteret’ and what is it? Fædrelandsvennen went to Singapore tofind out.
Orchard Road is a shopping-street in Singapore. Herelie 28 different shopping malls along one road. The world’s brand-storesgathered in one small area, where you can buy everything. Absolutelyeverything.
At the end of the impressive line of malls, there is that is more shabbylooking than the others. A neon-sign announces that a club inside recently gota shipment of Rumenian girls. Above the entrance: advertisement for the vodka ‘Naughty’.
This is Orchard Towers, known to many locally as ‘The Four floors ofwhores’. In the Norwegian colony in singapore it has another name: ‘Sørlandssenteret’. It is frequented by, among others, a lotof men from Southern Norway working in the offshore industry, commuters andtourists.
Of course not all of them, and not all the time.
In daytime, the centre poses as a shopping mall, where you can buyglasses and electronic equipment, amongst the posters of naked women from allover Asia. In the night, the placed is transformed into something else,dominated by alcohol, rhythmic music and sex.When Fædrelandsvennen visits the first time, it is fairly early in theevening. Yet, there is no doubt what sort of place we have come to. At one ofthe bars, Crazy Horse, a customer is getting his treatment openly in the bar.He then buckles his belt and pays the girl. More than thirty other girls areoffering us newcomers their services.
Disregarding the law
NorwegianLaw prohibits Norwegian citizens buying sex, regardless of where in the worldthey are. The Law in Singapore is different. In this country, buying sex is nota crime, but selling sex can be, sometimes. In Singapore, you cannot sell sexin the streets. If the police catch a street prostitute with a male customer,often he may go free while she is punished.
Among the Norwegians at ‘Sørlandssenteret’ in Singapore,there is no visible fear of the consequences of violating Norwegian Law.
Inside, there is a country bar called Jamboree. The music of bands fromback home fills the room: Vassendgutane and Åsmund Åmli Band. The bar is packedwith western looking men, and we identify several Norwegians from the oil— andshipping industry. A Norwegian local politician has also found his way heretonight.
- Most of the men in here are Norwegian. We play Norwegian music for them tohave a good time, says the waitress.
By one of the tables, a man from back home recognizes Fædrelandsvennen’sjournalist. He offers vodka.
- All my time here is with hookers, he says.
He admits openly that he prefers fairly young girls. And the girl withhim at the table, in deed looks very young.
- They are playing Vassendgutane!
- Yeah. Sometimes, they play Norwegian music all night long.
[Un-translatable fraction of one of the songs, which is about girls takingoff their clothes after having had some drinks]
Når helga kjøme ja dåkosa dei sej då te dei på sej tronge toppi å tenke sjå på mej. Når det lide utpå natta, å dei he fått sej en dram, so letta dei på toppi å so vise dei deifraaaaam,
- Just ask them, and they will play Plumbo right at once.
The man tells us about his negative feelingsfor women back home who are used to gender equality. He says he prefer thewomen he can pay for, in Singapore.
- Here, I can do what I want, he says.
He also says he has been here «far too long».He works for the offshore-industry.
So does many of the other customers in the bar as well. Many of Fædrelandsvennen’ssources says the sex market was nicknamed «Sørlandssenteret»when the offshore and oil-service industry from Southern Norway grew to alargest player in the sector in Singapore about fifteen years ago.
We do not dwell for a longtime on the matter of profession. Something happens! The man spills a whole jugof red wine over the very young woman at his side, as the rock artist Plumboroars from the speakers next to us.
[Un-translatable fraction of one of the songs, which is about the point of itall: getting paid and getting laid]
Når hælja kommersigende og alle har fått trygd, da er det om å gjøre å få damene på rygg.
The man from back home says we are at the wrong bar. He suggests that we leavethrough the main entrance, go pass two massage parlours and cross the hallwayinto a club called Ipanema.
— That is where the realladies are. Start there. At Ipanema
- You must find someone thatlikes you. If you do, you get a better fuck. Remember.
The stains of red wine spread slowly acrossthe young woman’s dress. She looks uncomfortable.
On out way to Ipanema, we notice Plumbo hasgotten to the refrain:
[un-translateable fraction of one of the songs, which is about crossing theborder, to find a meat market]
Vi skal til Svinesundpå kjøttrally. For vi er Råkk N Roll Harry...
Late in the evening, it is impossible to move 30meters between two bars at «Sørlandssenteret» without beingoffered sex.
A Russian bar advertises ‘two for the priceof one’. Vietnamese girls in the hallway wear bunny costumes. This is whereeverything is accepted, well, with an exception for photography and journalism.There are CCTV cameras and guards that watch everyone’s moves. For instance afemale Norwegian reporter. An attempt to use the iPhone camera is stoppedwithin seconds. ‘No pictures here’ they say.
Orchard Towers is a place where Western money and Asian organised crime meltstogether. The girls in the many clubs and bars must stay ‘where they belong’,and must always return after a session with a customer at his hotel. There aresome ‘freelancers’ too in the bars. These women sell sex, but as they do notbelong to any of the club owners, they are the first to get in trouble wheneverthe police decide to raid the place. However, even the ‘freelancers’ aren’t allfree. We observe men from a criminal motorcycle club controlling the streetoutside. They are wearing club colours.
The women, both inside and outside, are of all ages and from a range ofdifferent Asian countries. Some certainly seem to be underage. Most of them areyoung adults. Some are probably grandmothers.
Ipanema is a big club, crowded with people hangingby the bars or sitting and standing around small tables. Through the music wehear many languages, and some very local dialects from Southern Norway.
The bars and clubs at ‘Sørlandssenteret’aren’t classic brothels. They have their own groups of girls, who are paid toentertain the guests. It costs from 500 NOK and more to bring one of them tothe hotel. Prices and prising systems differ a lot. Some charge fortime, some for each explosion the man has. A few charge extra from Europeancustomers.
- From Kristiansand, you say? Not Mandal? Itis «Kim» from Myanmar asking.
- So you are from Myanmar and know Norwegian geography?
- No. I know Norwegian men.
She asks us to buy her overpriced drinks. And she wants to come with us to thehotel.
Shortly after, we have conversed with girls from Myanmar, Indonesia, Thailand andZanzibar. Every one of them says they have ‘just arrived’. And yet, they claimthey know Norwegian men pretty well. They have even picked up a few words.
Having ‘just arrived’ is important. Sex-workersneed a health card, and the government does not want them to bring sexuallytransmitted diseases into the country.
They can work for a few months beforethey have to leave Singapore again.
Pressure and force
Still, many stay long enough to pick up diseasesbefore they leave.Vanessa Ho is the director of a small NGOcalled Project X. She works on the streets to strengthen the rights of the sexworkers, and she says many of the sex workers are pressured and threatened bythe customers.
- It is a big problem that customers heredon’t want to use a condom. Many pay extra to do it without, and they threatento go to other prostitutes if the girl does not accept. Some go even further.They just hold the girls by force and do what they want without a condom, evenif she says no, Ho says.
— That is rape?
- Yes. But in Singapore there are many who reject theidea that a sex worker can be raped, she says.
- Is there a lot of such violence? - Unfortunately, yes. There are reports onthe use of fists, threats or just pure bodyweight to force the girls. I try tohelp them go to the police. But there is not much help to find.
She is tired of the attitudes she meets frommany in her country.
- There are people here in Singaporewho thinks that foreign sex workers are a good thing. They believe this preventlocal women from being raped, she says.
Ho says the sex industry has boomed the pastyears, along with a more open economy and a stronger presence of foreignlabourers. Badly paid Asian labourers seek the massage parlours of Geylang,Singapore’s official red light district, and the Indian Village. They do not goto Orchard Towers, where prices are higher.
— Orchard Towers is ‘upmarket’. Indoors you will find foreign girls andforeign customers, so called expats. The organization behind it seems unclear,and some looks ad hoc organized. Also, the place is unregistered. Singapore’sofficial red light district is Geylang. Whatever happens in Orchard Towers, itis not by licens of the government. - Why can they continue, then?
— I don’t know. But sometimes, the policeraid the street outside. Then they arrest all the girls outside, who come fromall over South-East Asia
Before we leave, Vannesa gives us a warning:
— Don’t take any picturesinside. It is not safe.
‘Sørlandssenteret’ is not apopular topic when Fædrelandsvennen tries to discuss it with people inthe Norwegian offshore-related industry in Singapore.
Some says they never go there. They live in Singapore withtheir families and would never by sex. Others say they have been there just tohave a beer and listen to the music. But the ones we ask all know about theplace and what goes on inside.
One of the veterans in the Norwegiancommunity in Singapore says:
— I met a director in a largeNorwegian oil company there. It’s a couple of years ago now. He was on his waywith a girl to a waiting taxi outside. I tried to give him a chance to escapewith words, so I asked him if he had been inside to listen to the live band.But he only looked confused. What band, he replied, and left with the taxi.
Theman, who tells us the story, is among those who strongly oppose the activitiesat ‘Sørlandssenteret’.
Other sources claim ‘Sørlandssenteret’ is mostly frequentedby young commuters working month-long shifts in Singapore, who does not have afamily on their own. But this claim is not supported by Fædrelandsvennen’s’own observations the four nights we spent there.
Mostof the Norwegian men we observe are more than grown up. We count severalwedding rings.
— Don’t you write about this. It’s only trash, declares on of them men fromback home that we meet outside. He is together with a colleague, also a localfrom back home.
- Itdoesn’t give a very serious impression. People back home could believe that wejust hang out here at ‘Sørlandssenteret’, whilevisiting Singapore. We do a lot of serious work as well, and we are dealingwith important contracts, he says.
On the inside, we meet the Norwegian employees of the company our guy on theoutside had a contract going with.
Amarried man from back home suddenly recognizes one of Fædrelandsvennen’s’reporters. He hurries out, together with his female companion.
A veteran in the rest area
Manyof the prostitutes in and around Orchard Towers are not there by their own freewill. There are stories about victims of human trafficking. So says ‘Angel’,one of the prostitutes who have worked at the centre for the past fifteenyears. She was originally a man, and has sold her body for twenty years. Nowshe is forty.
- Someone has to take care of the young ones. I am big and strong. Perhaps theyfind some comfort in my being here.
Whenshe is not selling sex, she volunteers to work at a health centre at the top ofOrchard Towers. **This is a clinic only for women, where the prostitutes from thefirst four floors of Orchard Towers can come for a chat, to get free condoms orto do a test for sexually transmittable diseases. ‘Angel’ hears many stories ofrough treatment by customers.
- Is there a lot of violence?**
- Unfortunately, yes. This is a problem. Luckily most of the customers actwell. But I do hear too many stories.
Oneof them is about a girl from The Philippines. A few weeks ago a man fromSingapore came to her bar, and she told him about her situation. She was notthere of her own will.
Theman contacted the police. They raided the bar, and got the woman out.
‘Angel’confirms there are organised gangs controlling the sex market here. Butsuddenly she has to leave.
— Icannot just sit here, talking with journalists. One of my regulars is calling.His is nagging. He offers me triple price if I come right away. And you guysaren’t paying me at all. Sorry!
Prince in a fairy tale
Thereare more people who know the story of the girl from the Philippines. She is,for the moment, the last victim of human trafficking ‘Sørlandssenteret’ hasbeen exposed for. It happened few weeks ago.- Theman who helped her came like the prince in a fairy tale, says Bridget Tan, thedirector of HOME.
Her NGO helps migrant workers in all sectors of society. The UN used HOME inthe research behind their report on the sex industry in Singapore. Tan isawaiting a court case against the network that trafficked the girl from ThePhilippines. But she is afraid it may be cancelled. The girl is so mentallyweak after her time at ‘Sørlandssenteret’ that a psychiatrist advised that sheshould go back to her family in the Philippines as soon as possible.
— It was the best in her situation. But it will be more difficult to have theresponsible people convicted now. Let us hope she will be strong enough to givea testimony, says Bridget Tan.
No way of knowing
Traffickingof women to the sex industry in Singapore is a problem.But no one dears to estimate the extent of sex slavery. The woman from ThePhilippines was tempted by a promise of a job to work as a waitress. Some takesuch jobs, and plan to sell sex to increase their income. This girl had no suchplans. But she was in debt to the people who helped her with money for theticket. They threatened her family and pressured her to sell sex.
Othergirls are under age.
Ifthat is exposed, the consequences can be severe for the customers. One casethat has got a lot of attention in Singapore the past year is about a child thatwas sold to have sex with a great number of men. 51 of them were charged forthe criminal offense. This week, a married Swiss banker was convicted.
— We see examples of girls who come here with ID from elder sisters back home.It is impossible to tell their exact age. Many get their passports and other IDconfiscated when upon arrival. They may be in debt to traffickers, who alsoknow their families, Tan says.
Right in the middle of the bar
Atone of the most popular bars at ‘Sørlandssenteret’, a liveband plays six times a week. In here, offers for sex are fewer and lessintrusive. But we observe a girl with heavy make-up who appears to be achild. She moves between the tables and tries to get attention. We cannot knowhow old she is.
Westernlooking men keep pouring in the door. They come alone and in groups. There,those two are from Rogaland. They leave shortly after. Some come here just fora beer. The men from Rogaland did not. When they leave, they each hold a tinygirl’s hand.
Not everyone has the energy to rise up and move their bodies all the way downto the hotel to have sex. At a bar in fourth floor, the place is so crowded itis difficult to move around. Not far from the entrance door we observe a Europeanman of around 120 kilos, with a beer in his hand.
Sitting on his lap, there is a girl who should have had her ID closely examinedif she attempted to buy alcohol on her own. She lifts up her skirt and bendsforward. They are having a sexual intercourse in the middle of the bar.
At a small scene, four strippers have gotten rid of all textiles. They twistaround metal poles. The disco bulb sends blinks of light over everyone.
Someone drags the arm of Fædrelandsvennen’sreporter.
She calls herself ‘Chrystal’, the girl from Laos who drags the reporter aside.She asks were we are from, and knows some Norwegian. ‘Chrystal’ says she hasbeen here a week, and already she has had several Norwegian customers. She hasheard of Kristiansand. And she wants to go with out to the hotel. Right away.
Sheexpresses disappointment when rejected. But she doesn’t look disappointed.- Youare looking for something special, she asks.
- Yeah, right. I am not here to have sex with you. I am in deed looking forsomething special.
- I understand, ‘Chrystal’ says.
The conversation could have ended there. But she misunderstands the reply as aninterest in a different part of the sex market. ‘Chrystal’ summons a colleague.
Approachingis a transvestite, about 1.90 meters tall, without the high heels. Someone musthave worked those lips. The voice is deep.
Andthe handshake is crushing.
— Just for fun
Thereis no way of telling how many men from Southern Norway who visits ‘Sørlandssenteret’. But to illustrate how well establishedthe place is, let’s ad a small story:
Onthe plane home to Kristiansand, the flight from Amsterdam, Fædrelandsvennen’sreporters by co-incidence share a seat row with employees of a large, localoil-related company. One of them hear we have been on a mission in Singapore,and he immediately mentions the place we have been to.
— You know there is a placethere they call ’Sørlandssenteret’. Everyone who worksthere knows about it.
Wedo not ask him. But he tells us about his own visits there. He says he did notgo there to buy sex.
- How come they call it ‘Sørlandssenteret’?
— Well, it has been known assuch for a long time. At least fifteen years or something. But we don’t gothere to do something stupid. Oh no, most people just to have fun.