Singapore Geylang red light district was famous for its prostitution scene. But today sex workers in Geylang are dwindling.
Today, Singapore's Geylang is known for its migrant worker population and local food, but its once-thriving sex industry remains the elephant in the room for those who venture into the district. Photo: Zac Tan
Life

Inside Singapore’s Languishing Red Light District

Even before the pandemic hit, Singapore’s most notorious vice hub was already in its twilight years.

While most of Singapore is famed for being squeaky clean, with lush greenery and manicured urbanscapes, the streets—or lorongs—of Geylang are a different breed. It’s the city-state’s most famous red light district, and one that has cemented its place in local culture as a rare picture of hot chaos, a stark contrast with the robotic orderliness governing the rest of the country.

“I would say Singapore, in tourists’ eyes, is a very green, almost dystopian kind of city,” Zac Tan, a Singapore-based photographer, told VICE. “But I do know that Geylang in Singapore is quite notorious, even to foreigners and tourists coming here.”

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In late 2019 and early 2020, right before the pandemic saw the suspension of businesses and social activities in Singapore, Tan ventured into Geylang as part of a school project, hoping to capture the salacious scenes the area is known for. Instead, he found it languishing.

“To be honest, I expected a lot more. I thought I would see more activity on the street—people standing by the side trying to pull customers into the brothels, that kind of stuff,” said Tan of his visit. “But I was kind of surprised that things were quite mellow there. It’s really quiet.”

Geylang fish tank brothels in Singapore's red light district.

Beaming with neon lights, brothels in Geylang are also commonly known as “fish tanks,” often featuring sex workers sitting in a reception area. Photo: Zac Tan

For decades, Geylang thrived as a hive of vices, but the once-bustling red light district seems to be entering its sunset era. With many sex workers taking their businesses online or moving into the heartlands, Geylang’s streets no longer teem with risqué sights like they once did.

While traffic seemed to have dwindled since its heyday, Tan found that many of the people in Geylang were still pretty hush-hush about its happenings. Sex work is not explicitly illegal in Singapore, but activities related to the trade—including soliciting, pimping, and running a brothel—are criminalized. As a result, the scene operates in a gray area that’s frowned upon but often tolerated. 

Singapore's Geylang red light district brothel.

A man enters a shop in Geylang. Photo: Zac Tan

Today, Geylang is more known for its migrant worker population and swoon-worthy local food. People now flock there to feast on famed dim sums and chili crab, but sex work remains the elephant in the room among most who venture into the district. 

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“I think [among] Singaporeans, we all know this part of Singapore. But we just don't care about it enough to take a second look or to even associate ourselves with it,” said Tan.

Geylang is not the only red light district, although it’s certainly the most well-known. Embedded within the city-state are pockets playing host to pretty much the same things found in Geylang. One of them is found a mere 15-minute drive away, housing a cluster of karaoke lounges where patrons are entertained by hostesses.

Toilet in Singapore's Parklane mall

A public toilet in a nearby red light district that’s commonly known as a hook-up spot. Photo: Zac Tan

If Geylang was already in its twilight years, the pandemic dealt it a serious blow. In the last two years, tight restrictions have mushroomed around social life—including Geylang’s many brothels. Even as COVID-19 restrictions loosen, it remains to be seen how much bustle will return to the scene.

But despite witnessing the decline of Geylang, Tan doesn’t see it completely disappearing anytime soon. After all, as Tan learned from his project photographing the neighborhood and conversing with the people who frequent it, red light districts are part of a delicate balancing act—one of the things keeping Singapore tethering between its prim-and-proper facade and its raunchy underbelly. 

Geylang red light district is home to sex workers in Singapore.

A woman walks at night in Geylang. Photo: Zac Tan

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