When the clock strikes nine at night, the drop-off point at a hotel in the town area starts receiving a steady stream of women, dressed in the sort of clothes that would make your parents shake their heads.
Tottering in their spiky heels, they make their way inside, while curious tourists stare agog at their blatantly exposed legs and wiggling behinds and wonder if there is more to Singapore than the clinical skyscrapers and shopping malls they see in guidebooks and television shows.
If they had followed those women down to the bowels of the building, they would have discovered that other world. It’s quite the curious sight. At a corner of this dingy mall that’s occupied by tiny travel agencies and quiet provision stores sits a flashy nightlife joint.
Thumping beats emanate through open doors, by which two muscular bouncers stand like forbidding stone lion sentinels. They automatically admit the lubriciously clad women into an entertainment establishment that’s known in the local lexicon as a siam diu, or Thai disco.
Welcome to Another World
Ask almost anyone about Thai discos and many will only have negative things to say. Due to a combination of factors – unpleasant locales, females in tight clothing, the occasional drunk fights, etc – Thai discos have accrued an unsavoury reputation.
And yet, it is within the confines of this supposed dark place that you can find the unsinkably cheerful Pimchanok and Thanasalittree (pictured right).
The two are fast friends, and if you couldn’t already tell by their names, hail from Thailand. Pimchanok is a singer while Thanasalittree is the disco’s resident DJ. As is the practice for anyone working in a Thai disco, the two of them have adopted trade monikers to make it easier for their customers to pronounce their names. Pimchanok, 23 (left, in picture) adopted the stage name of Yoyo, while Thanasalittree, 27 (right) is known as Maysaa.
They work six days a week from nine at night until the club closes, entertaining customers on stage or at the tables, sorting out drink orders, and generally making sure that everyone has a good time.
Their goal is simple: make the customers, the majority of whom are male, happy so that they will spend money on “lady drinks” or hang garlands on the women. The latter practice has become synonymous with Thai discos. When the drinks start flowing and the alcohol has loosened those purse strings, it’s not uncommon to see dozens of sashes, each with digits on them to denominate how much they cost, on the more popular or prettier ladies.
Yoyo and Maysaa are arguably two of the most popular entertainers in the club and it’s not hard to see why. Even I was enamoured by them on the two nights that I inhabited their world.
With their good looks, fluency in English, Mandarin and Thai, and excellent singing ability, they earn an average of $5,000 a month. “I earn money from flowers, tequila, Waterfall, lady drinks…,” Yoyo prattles on, listing down all the different alcoholic drinks that promise to bring you to a better world, even if just for one night. Then she looks at Maysaa and laughs, and the lilt in their giggles momentarily transport you away from the dark club we’re in. I was beginning to understand why many Singaporean men enjoy going to Thai discos.
To your credit, men, if you’re reading this, Yoyo and Maysaa find the average Singaporean male to be “very handsome, handsome” (repeated twice for good measure) and respectful to women.
“Thai men don’t take care of their girlfriends but Singaporean men are very caring,” says Maysaa.
“If I tell them that they cannot hold hands with me, they won’t. And they don’t anyhow touch,” shares Yoyo, speaking in the familiar Singlish twang that she’s clearly learnt in the past four months that she’s been working.
The two of them admit that they have dated Singaporean men whom they’d met in the club. Alcohol has a way of lubricating the gears of social interaction, speeding up in hours what would normally take days or even weeks to transpire. You can see this social tango at play in the bar, the nightclubs, the Thai discos, etc. The intoxicating combination of loud music, alcoholic drinks and stolen touches under the cover of darkness can ignite affairs and even relationships.
Unsurprisingly, Yoyo and Maysaa have fallen in love with Singaporean men. In Yoyo’s case, the heady love affair didn’t end well. She found out that he was married with two children after stumbling on a picture of his family that he’d kept in his mobile phone. On the other hand, Maysaa has been happily attached to a local dude for a year and harbours hopes of marrying him.
There are a lot of attractive women working in the Thai disco, mainly because of the large commissions that the management gives to its staff. Yoyo and Maysaa tell me that they earn at least 80 per cent on everything they manage to sell.
It probably explains why there were attractive Chinese and Korean women exchanging flirtatious glances with me when I was at the Thai disco on one of its themed evenings. Just like your typical nightlife establishments, the Thai discos in Singapore are extremely competitive since there are so many of them, vying for your hard-earned money. The only way that a siam diu can differentiate itself from the rest is the quality of entertainment, and by consequence, the attractiveness of the male and female entertainers.
And lest you think that men are the only customers in a siam diu, you would be very wrong. On that particular night, there were many female customers sitting on the tables within the premises, many of whom were drinking, dancing and enjoying the performances with their male friends.
They told me a siam diu was a place to escape their worries, even if just for a night.
And the entertainment helped. There were well-choreographed dance numbers. There was a lot of singing, in English, Mandarin and Thai. There were multiple DJ sets by Maysaa. The entertainers took pride in their performances. Many of them had put in the hours to perfect their routines for the themed night and it showed.
In between each set, the male and female entertainers would nip backstage to touch up their make-up, change into new costumes, or take a quick gulp of water.
The Tolls of the Job
Unsurprisingly, there are aspects of the job that Yoyo and Maysaa dislike. One of it is the solicitation. Due to the unfortunate reputation of Thai discos, there have been men who come in with the sole purpose of looking for sex.
“The first time I worked here, someone asked me, ‘How much?’ I was so shocked,” says Yoyo, her fingers tugging at her gold dress. “We don’t sell our bodies here,” she continues, emphasising that everything in the Thai disco I was in is on the up and up.
The both of them tell me that it’s not only Singaporeans who think in this manner. Back in Thailand, many people look down on women who move to Singapore.
“If you say you come to Singapore for work, the people will look down on you. They think you come here to sell your body, that we are very cheap or easy,” Yoyo shares.
“I see a few people posting on Facebook about how people who work at night are up to no good. Or just in it for the money. But I always tell them that in every job, there are the good and bad people,” Maysaa continues Yoyo’s train of thought.
How do their parents feel about their choice of jobs? “They trust us,” the both of them reply in unison.
At the start, the two of them cried almost every night. The toll of being away from their families coupled with the lack of their support from their own friends made them feel very lost and alone.
They would feel even worse at work, when they put in the hours to entertain customers but not receive a garland to show for it.
“I am sad,” Yoyo replies when I ask how she feels about the lack of flowers. “I work so hard already, playing games and drinking with them. Why don’t they support me?”
Yet, they acknowledged that it was these same experiences that made them learn about the tribulations of life. “I grew up a lot when I started working here,” says Maysaa. “When I was working in Bangkok, I was a young girl who knew nothing. Now, I learn so much about life and about people.” They also no longer cry at night. Now, they are the ones comforting the female newcomers who slink off into the bathroom, upset that the customers who have been forcing them to drink all night refuse to buy even the cheapest garland for them.
Very Human Aspirations
Towards the tail end of the night, when the lights began coming on, I ask Yoyo and Maysaa about their dreams and hopes. The two of them save a majority of their monthly earnings, knowing that they would only be in Singapore for a limited time.
For Yoyo, her contract spans six months while Maysaa’s is longer – two years. At the end of their respective contracts, Yoyo and Maysaa hope to return to their families.
“I want to open a shop, maybe in Bangkok or back in my hometown Chiang Mai,” says Maysaa, perking up. She’s thinking about opening a small beauty salon.
As for Yoyo, she wants to set up a barbeque restaurant. “I like to eat,” she explains, breaking into peals of laughter.
And in those fleeting few seconds, the three of us share a moment. While they might be creatures of the night, they too have dreams and aspirations. And the world they inhabit is not very much different from ours, despite what you may think.