The largest illegal sex market in Singapore has for several years been nicknamed ‘Sørlandssenteret’ by the Norwegian community. Why so, and what exactly is it? Fædrelandsvennen went to Singapore to find out.
Orchard Road is a shopping-street in Singapore. Here are 28 different shopping malls situaled alongside the same road. The world’s brand-stores gathered in one small area, where you can buy everything. Absolutely everything.
At the end of the impressive line of malls, there is one which is more shabby looking than the others. A neon-sign announces that a club inside recently got a shipment of Rumenian girls. Above the entrance: advertisement for the vodka ‘Naughty’.
This is Orchard Towers, known to many locally as ‘The Four floors of whores’. In the Norwegian colony in Singapore it has another name: ‘Sørlandssenteret’ (a region in southern Norway). It is frequented by, among others, a lot of men from southern Norway working in the offshore industry, commuters and tourists.
Of course, not all of them, and not all the time.
During daytime, the centre poses as a shopping mall, where you can buyglasses and electronic equipment, amongst the posters of naked women from allover Asia.
At night, the placed is transformed into something else, dominated by alcohol, rhythmic music and sex. When Fædrelandsvennen visits for the first time, it is fairly early in the evening. Yet, there is no doubt what sort of place we have come to. In one of the 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 are offering us newcomers their services.
Disregarding the law
Norwegian Law prohibits Norwegian citizens buying sex, regardless of where in the world they travel. The Law in Singapore is different. In this country, buying sex is not a crime, but selling sex can be, sometimes. In Singapore, you cannot sell sex in 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. Music of bands from back home fills the room: Vassendgutane and Åsmund Åmli Band. The bar is packed with western looking men, and we identify several Norwegians from the oil— and shipping industry. A Norwegian local politician has also found his way here tonight.
«Most of the men in here are Norwegian. We play Norwegian music for them to have a good time, » says the waitress.
By one of the tables, a man from back home recognizes Fædrelandsvennen’s journalist. He offers vodka.
«All my time here is with hookers, » he says.
He admits openly that he prefers fairly young girls. And the girl with him 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 taking off 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 dei fraaaaam,
«Just ask them, and they will play Plumbo right at once.»
The man tells us about his negative feelings for women back home, who are used to gender equality. He says he prefer the women 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’s sources says the sex market was nicknamed «Sørlandssenteret» when the offshore and oil-service industry from southern Norway grew to become a large player in the sector in Singapore about fifteen years ago.
But we can’t dwell on this for a long time. Something happens! The man at our table is spilling a whole jug of red wine over the very young woman at his side. The rock artist Plumbo roars 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 kommer sigende 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 leave through the main entrance, go pass two massage parlours and cross the hallway into a club called Ipanema.
«That is where the real ladies 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 across the young woman’s dress. She looks uncomfortable.
On our way to Ipanema, we notice Plumbo has gotten to the refrain:
[un-translateable fraction of one of the songs, which is about crossing the border, to find a meat market]
Vi skal til Svinesund på kjøttrally. For vi er Råkk N Roll Harry...
Late in the evening, it is impossible to move 30 meters between two bars at «Sørlandssenteret» without being offered sex.
A Russian bar advertises ‘two for the price of one’. Vietnamese girls in the hallway are wearing bunny costumes. This is where everything is accepted, well, with an exception for photography and journalism.
There are CCTV cameras and guards that watch everyone’s moves. For instance a female Norwegian reporter. An attempt to use the iPhone camera is stopped within seconds. ‘No pictures here’ they say.
Orchard Towers is a place where Western money and Asian organised crime melt together. 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 are some ‘freelancers’ too in the bars. These women sell sex, but as they do not belong to any of the club owners, they are the first to get in trouble whenever the police decide to raid the place. However, even the ‘freelancers’ aren’t all free. We observe men from a criminal motorcycle club controlling the street outside. They are wearing club colours.
The women, both inside and outside, are of all ages and from a range of different Asian countries. Some certainly seem to be underage. Most of them are young adults. Some are probably grandmothers.
Ipanema is a big club, crowded with people hanging by the bars or sitting and standing around small tables. Through the music we hear many languages, and some very local dialects from southern Norway.
The bars and clubs at ‘Sørlandssenteret’ aren’t brothels in the classic sense. They have their own groups of girls, who are paid to entertain the guests. It costs from 500 NOK and more to bring one of them to the hotel. Prices and pricing systems differ a lot. Some charge for time, some for each explosion the man has. A few charge extra from European customers.
«From Kristiansand, you say? Not Mandal?»
«Kim» from Myanmar is 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 the hotel.
Shortly after, we have conversed with girls from Myanmar, Indonesia, Thailand and Zanzibar. Every one of them says they have ‘just arrived’. And yet, they claim they know Norwegian men pretty well. They have even picked up a few words.
Having ‘just arrived’ is important. Sex-workers need a health card, and the government does not want them to bring sexually transmitted 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 diseases before they leave. Vanessa Ho is the director of a small NGO called Project X. She works on the streets to strengthen the rights of the sex workers, and she says many of the sex workers are pressured and threatened by the 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 the idea 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 past years, along with a more open economy and a stronger presence of foreign labourers. Badly paid Asian labourers seek the massage parlours of Geylang, Singapore’s official red light district, and the Indian Village. They do not go to Orchard Towers, where prices are higher.
«Orchard Towers is ‘upmarket’. Indoors you will find foreign girls and foreign customers, so called expats. The organization behind it seems unclear, and some seem to be ad hoc organized. Also, the place is unregistered. Singapore’sofficial red light district is Geylang. Whatever happens in Orchard Towers, it is 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 from all over South-East Asia. »
Before we leave, Vannesa gives us a warning:
«Don’t take any pictures inside. It is not safe.»
‘Sørlandssenteret’ is not a popular topic when Fædrelandsvennen tries to discuss it with people in the Norwegian offshore-related industry in Singapore.
Some say they never go there. They live in Singapore with their families and would never by sex. Others say they have been there just to have a beer and listen to the music. But the ones we ask all know about the place and what goes on inside.
One of the veterans in the Norwegian community in Singapore says:
«I met a director in a large Norwegian oil company there. It’s a couple of years ago now. He was on his way with a girl to a waiting taxi outside. I tried to give him a chance to escape with 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.»
The man, who tells us the story, is among those who strongly oppose the activities at ‘Sørlandssenteret’.
Other sources claim ‘Sørlandssenteret’ is mostly frequented by young commuters working month-long shifts in Singapore, who does not have a family on their own. But this claim is not supported by Fædrelandsvennen’s own observations the four nights we spent there.
Most of the Norwegian men we observe are more than grown up. We count several wedding rings.
«Don’t you write about this. It’s only trash» declares a man from back home, who we meet just outside the establishment. He is together with a colleague, also a local from back home.»
«It doesn’t give a very serious impression. People back home could believe that we just hang out here at ‘Sørlandssenteret’, while visiting Singapore. We do a lot of serious work as well, and we are dealing with important contracts, » he says.
On the inside, we meet the Norwegian employees of the very same company that our guy on the outside had a contract going with.
A married 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
Many of the prostitutes in and around Orchard Towers are not there by their own free will. There are stories about victims of human trafficking. So says ‘Angel’, one of the prostitutes who have worked at the centre for the past fifteen years. She was originally a man, and has sold her body for twenty years. Now she is forty.
«Someone has to take care of the young ones. I am big and strong. Perhaps they find some comfort in my being here.»
When she is not selling sex, she volunteers to work at a health centre at the top of Orchard Towers. This is a fascility only for women, where the prostitutes from the first four floors of Orchard Towers can come for a chat, to get free condoms or to do a test for sexually transmittable diseases.
‘Angel’ hears many stories of rough 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.»
One of these is about a girl from The Philippines. A few weeks ago a man from Singapore came to her bar, and she told him about her situation. She was not there out of her own will.
The man contacted the police. They raided the bar, and got the woman out.
‘Angel’ confirms there are organised gangs controlling the sex market here. But suddenly she has to leave.
«I can’t 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 guys aren’t paying me at all. Sorry!»
Prince in a fairy tale
There are more people who know the story of the girl from the Philippines. She is, for the moment, the last victim of human trafficking ‘Sørlandssenteret’ has been exposed for. It happened few weeks ago.
«The man who helped her came like the prince in a fairy tale, » says Bridget Tan, the director of HOME.
Her NGO helps migrant workers in all sectors of society. The UN used HOME in the research behind their report on the sex industry in Singapore. Tan is awaiting a court case against the network that trafficked the girl from The Philippines. But she is afraid it may be cancelled.
The girl is so mentally weak after her time at ‘Sørlandssenteret’ that a psychiatrist advised that she should 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
Trafficking of women to the sex industry in Singapore is a problem. But no one dears to estimate the extent of sex slavery. The woman from The Philippines was tempted by a promise of a job to work as a waitress.
Some take such jobs, and plan to sell sex to increase their income. This girl had no such plans. 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.
Other girls are under age.
If that is exposed, the consequences can be severe for the customers. One case that has got a lot of attention in Singapore the past year is about a child that was sold to have sex with a great number of men.
51 of them were charged for the 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
At one of the most popular bars at ‘Sørlandssenteret’, a live band plays six times a week. Inside this bar, offers for sex are fewer and less intrusive.
But we observe a girl with heavy make-up who appears to be a child. She moves between the tables and tries to get attention. We can’t know how old she is.
Western looking 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 for a beer. The men from Rogaland did not. When they leave, they each hold a tiny girl’s hand.
Not everyone has the energy to rise up and move their bodies all the way down to the hotel to have sex. At a bar in fourth floor, the place is so crowded it is difficult to move around. Not far from the entrance door we observe a European man 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 examined if she attempted to buy alcohol on her own. She lifts up her skirt and bends forward. 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 twist around 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’ claims she has been here a week, and already she has had several Norwegian customers. She has heard of Kristiansand. And she wants to come with me to the hotel. Right away.
She expresses disappointment when rejected. But she doesn’t look disappointed.
«You are looking for something special, » she asks.
«Yeah, right. I am not here to have sex with you. I am in deed looking for something special.»
«I understand, » ‘Chrystal’ says.
The conversation could have ended there. But she misunderstands the reply as an interest in a different part of the sex market. ‘Chrystal’ summons a colleague.
Approaching is a transvestite, about 1.90 meters tall, without the high heels. Someone must have worked those lips. Her voice is deep.
And the handshake is crushing.
«Just for fun»
There is no way of telling how many men from southern Norway who visits ‘Sørlandssenteret’. But to illustrate how well established the place is, let’s ad a small story:
On the plane home to Kristiansand, the flight from Amsterdam, Fædrelandsvennen’s reporters by co-incidence share a seat row with employees of a large, local oil-related company.
One of them listens and understand we have been on a mission in Singapore, and he immediately mentions the place we have been to.
«You know there is a place there they call ’Sørlandssenteret’. Everyone who works there knows about it.»
We do not ask him. But he tells us about his own visits there. He says he did not go 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 go there to do something stupid. Oh no, most people just to have fun.»