Happy birthday, Orchard Towers! 40 years of sex and violence

Anyone who newly arrives in our city state is very likely to be fascinated by the unusual aesthetic that is Orchard Towers. Sporting 1970s architectural trends, the 40-year-old institution stands on prime land space, smearing the shopping belt of Orchard Road with its sepia tinge and dingy appearance. As daylight dies, unabashed and easily identifiable streetwalkers, female and otherwise, congregate before its shady façade, chatting up male tourists who get into the occasional fist fight at the foot of its steps.

Photo: A common sight: women chatting up tourists and luring them into bars located in the building

The magnetic establishment is home to several renowned eateries, including three lauded Thai restaurants on its third floor. However, any male entrant into the “Four Floors of Whores” has to brave an onslaught of cat calls from bar hostesses and masseurs, even if his business were an innocent afternoon visit for authentic Pad Thai.

Two employees of rival massage parlours ended up in hospital and subsequently on front page news recently, when they assailed each other with sharp high-heeled shoes and claws a flying, in a bid to win the heart of a potential customer passing by.

No sound of mind and morally upright lawmaker would move for a prostitution den to be built in the heart of a tourist hub. When Orchard Towers was built in 1975, it was meant as a retail and office hub. In its primordial years, early versions of Ipanema and Naughty Girl that rented spaces alongside tailors and electronics stores started carrying out seedy business, which opened the flood gates. Before the government could act, a litany of neon-lit nightclubs had taken up residence in the degenerating towers. By the 1980s, Orchard Towers’ entertainment establishments had multiplied, each  purveying perfectly legal avenues of release that could not be prosecuted, or so they seemed on the surface.

Photo: Ipanema, one of Orchard Towers’ earliest tenants

In 2013, two managers of the now-defunct Famous Hot Models pub were found guilty of pimping – selling oral sex by their Filipina hostesses – on the premises of their establishment. Despite the public outcry for a clean-up that the case sparked, it is difficult to believe that in-house sex is a thing of the past in the watering holes of Orchard Towers.

Besides good food and no-frills coitus, Orchard Towers has also been the dumping ground of two bodies of a highly publicised double murder as well as the scene of countless raids of illegal immigrant employees whose work permits or visas have either expired or were lacking, which involved dramatic wailing and gnashing of teeth. Its owners have been embroiled in high-profile court cases, including a peculiarly comical one where one of its partners was summoned to court for the number of dogs she kept in her house. A fortune-teller had advised her to keep her huge litter of dogs, as he claimed that they were the source of her luck, against the regulation of the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority of Singapore.

2015 is Orchard Towers’ 40th birthday. Over its four decades of existence, and over two decades of soliciting, the grand old dame persists as a very lucrative business – despite its carnal image and depraved symbolism –  which has declined innumerable buy-over offers. In the fourth quarter of 2014 alone, Orchard Towers was in the news several times for all the wrong reasons, from the unprovoked physical assault of a French national in Naughty Girl pub, to the roughing up of a young 27-year-old woman because she had turned down the advances of a 45-year-old suitor, who had had a few too many in the Towers.

Begs the question: Despite these obstacles, what is the secret behind the longevity of this tower of power? Evolution with the times, or a simple business model capitalising on a perennial demand?

“Men need an outlet,” reasons Rizal (not his real name), 24, who only started frequenting the Towers last year. An outgoing personality, he only agreed to comment on his intimate relationship with the Towers after a few rounds of coaxing. Raised in an average income family who are unaware of his pastimes, Rizal earns slightly under $2,000 a month. He divulges that he fancies the ethnicities that Orchard Towers peddles, and admits that he often takes a hostess home after a bit of courting in her bar.

Why do you think Orchard Towers remains very much commercially viable?
Tourists. The place draws a lot of tourists looking for a good f*ck.

So is it more locals or tourists that keep the Towers running?
Tourists make up the bulk of the profits.

How often do you visit Orchard Towers nowadays?
It really depends. I go when I’m sian (bored).

What are the more popular establishments in Orchard Towers, and what kinds of girls does each ply?
Ion is mainly a Russian club with not only Russian girls but also hostesses who come from states of the former Soviet Union like Ukraine and Uzbekistan. Just like Ion, girls dance on bar tops and on poles at Romeo, which is a similar style of nightclub, except that it also has Filipinas and the occasional trannie (transxeual). Cabin has mostly Filipino hostesses, while Naughty Girl has both Russians and Filipinas. The clubs downstairs like Ipanema and Baliba are mainly waited on by Filipino and Thai girls.

Speaking of Ipanema and Baliba, are they considered ‘clean’ establishments?
Yes, because they are bars and not strip clubs or brothels. The girls have specific working hours. What they do after hours is their own onus.

So the different levels of Orchard Towers operate with different nightclub and bar systems?
Yes, but they are all essentially the same system. Top 5, for example, requires patrons to pay a $10 entry fee that entitles them to a beer or a soft drink. Ion, in comparison, has no cover charge but guests have to buy a drink if they wish to stay and sit. The girls earn extra cash by persuading customers to buy “ladies drinks”, which are a tad more expensive, but entitle the successful sales woman to a $10 thereabouts commission.

Are most of the girls sex slaves?
No, in fact, they are all here by their own free will. They choose this profession for the income it draws in comparison to average salaries back home in the former USSR, China, the Philippines or Thailand. At least most of them are, to my knowledge.

What is allowed to go on between customer and hostess?
When you visit, you are likely to witness light petting and caressing around you.

Will you get beaten up if you molest an employee?
No, but the bouncers are watchful and will throw you out immediately.

What about making out? Are you allowed to kiss the hostesses?
Only if the girl initiates. If you force yourself upon her and she is uneasy, and unable to restrain you, then will the bouncer step in.

29-year-old Krishnan (not his real name) is fiercely private about his adventures to Orchard Towers. A clean-cut chap who is popular among his colleagues and friends, he admits that he gets nervous and awkward around girls he fancies. Following some coercion, the cheeky young man agreed to reveal under anonymity the comical side of his escapades to this citadel of lust, where patrons are welcome to partake in private acts, in public.

When was your first time?
I’m guessing five years ago.

Have the Towers changed?
For me, it still looks the same, besides some recent upgrades to the escalators.

You’ve seen a lot of colourful run-ins in and outside Orchard Towers. Are fights still frequent? What usually happens?
I’ve witnessed maybe two or three melees? I don’t see fights break out as often nowadays. They involve drunks most of the time, and are quickly broken up by police on patrol or bouncers. Otherwise, passers-by enjoy the entertainment until someone gets knocked out.

What other fun have you partaken in in the bars within Orchard Towers?
I drank a shot off a girl’s nipple at the corner of one particular pub. She also drank a shot off my testicles, all in a pub open to the public. I guess it was helpful that it was dark.

Which establishments in there do you like?
Girl Next Door and Downunder Bar.

What keeps you coming back to them?
They aren’t too crowded. The lesser the crowd, the more chance some fondling can happen in there. Cheap thrills, like she touches your c*ck, you touch her breast.

Male visitors to the building are often welcomed by being hugged or even groped. Would you consider that molest, or extra-sales services?
It’s part of the service! If not, these bars would be no different from any other regular joint.

Probably the most reluctant of Coconuts’ interviewees, Goh is a former pimp. A well-educated 30-year-old from an affluent family, he provides a side of the story that sheds light on how pimps are managers who take care of working girls and help boost their business. In his former line of work, he would arrange appointments for lascivious clients and the girls he managed, though some of these ladies would hang around the perimeter of Orchard Towers on slow days, fishing for “walk-ins”.

What do you find distinctive or unique about the Towers?
My biased view is the Towers are full of Caucasians who think “Asian” is short for “cheap Pinoy f*ck”.

What were you working as when you got into the trade?
I was an undergrad student.

How did you get into the trade?
I had a friend who was working as an escort. When she told me, I introduced a couple of clients to her, and started my own agency when she and a few of her friends left their old manager and told me to help them out.

What was your job scope as a pimp?
Advertising, arranging appointments, and collecting cash in advance for longer appointments.

Which years were you working as a pimp?
Around 2009 to 2011 or 2010 to 2012. It’s hazy, but it was for around two and a half years.

What are the pull factors of going into sex trading?
Money. Money to go back to school, money for shopping, travelling, luxury goods, money for one’s kids. It all boils down to money.

Have you had any funny encounters to relay?
One guy requested to put fruits into the girl who would then feed those fruits straight to him, then pee on him.
Another wanted someone who was lactating. I tried my best to make sure these clients got what they wanted.

What is the typical profit sharing agreement between pimp and girl, and what are the norms for payment of airfare and lodging?
The usual percentage is 20/80 to 50/50. Most tend to 35/65-ish. I only worked with local girls. I preferred to manage girls who never worked out of home.

So where would they do the deed?
Rooms are paid for by clients. For foreign girls, I understand that airfare and lodging is paid for and arranged by the pimp, but a certain number of appointments go straight to the pimp to make up for those costs. Only after that quota is met does the girl start earning money. If the girl decides to stay on after her initial sign up period, she pays for lodging out of her own pocket to the pimp.

How often are health check-ups?
I told them to head to DSC (Department of Sexually Transmitted Infections Control) at least once every three months. There’s nothing stopping them if they don’t want to spend the money on checks.

What’s your take on Singapore’s licencing and sort of legalisation of prostitution?
Sex for sale is legal, pimps and agents are not. If the purpose is to protect women from exploitation, it would be better to legalise agencies which would be subject to licensing and health checks. This trade is not going to disappear. Singapore should make it safe for the women who work in this line. When agencies aren’t wholly legal, they tend to side with clients and hush up girls whenever things go sideways, in order to protect themselves.

So are there any policy changes that you hope for?
Legalisation will do much more than sting and entrapment operations or public shaming. Legalisation so that girls are protected and do not need to shut up when they get hit or are robbed by clients, and health checks become mandatory.

Read Also:

In Transit: The invisible lives of Singapore’s transgenders

#TrendSing: A cat’s tale in the Lion City

Correction: In an earlier version of this story, we miscalculated how long Orchard Towers has been in existence. We apologize for the error. 

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