|From sleeves to sleaze
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WHEN dusk descends on what is beginning to be labelled the "golden triangle" of Orchard Road, a transformation takes place.
Down come the shutters of the tailoring shops and beauty parlours. The tuition centre and pre-school close.
Shoppers thin out. You don't see children any more. In their place: Women in body-hugging outfits.
The women position themselves inside and around the two shopping malls - Orchard Plaza and Cuppage Plaza. A smaller group gather at the Concorde Hotel and Shopping Mall.
Don't call them streetwalkers, they insist. "We're mall walkers" chimed three Filipinas in unison.
"That's what all of us here are known as - it doesn't matter where we come from, whether it's the Philippines, Thailand or Vietnam," said Miss Cecile, 22, who is in Singapore on a social visit pass.
It is her fifth visit here.
Women like Miss Cecile are "free lancers" who prowl the area and approach tourists or expatriates to lure them into the karaoke lounges or pubs in Orchard Plaza and Cuppage Plaza.
The Concorde Hotel and Shopping Mall across the street sees similar action, but on a smaller scale.
The positioning of the three malls explains the triangle moniker.
The girls consider themselves more "high class" than those in the red light districts but charge less for sex than those at the KTV lounges and nightclubs.
They are here on social visit passes, which means it is illegal for them to work. But unlike their counterparts elsewhere, these "freelancers" have no agents or employers to pay.
The freelancers also make a killing from the sale of liquor and sex toys.
Their clients are often Japanese and the area is also known as Little Ginza, or little Japan, because of the many Japanese restaurants and karaoke lounges there.
The New Paper on Sunday team was there from 7pm to 2am on four nights last week.
Garish, mostly-pink neon fluorescent lights in the adult sex shops call out for attention. There are three in the area.
It was strange, almost surreal, to see a group of 10 men - all wearing similar caps - carrying a life-sized inflatable doll into Orchard Plaza. It was not known who they were or what they were up to.
Another common sight: Men in black who work as bouncers in the various KTV lounges standing around and smoking on the pathway outside the building.
When The New Paper on Sunday team approached three of them, they stubbed out their cigarettes and walked off without uttering a word.
During one of our stakeouts, we saw two Filipinas carry a bottle of whisky from one pub on the second level to another on the fifth storey.
Inside Orchard Plaza, Thai and Filipino women huddled outside the KTV lounges. Loud music - a mix of Cantonese,Mandarin and Japanese songs - accompanied by robust male voices and the occasional off-key singing filled the air.
Miss Tata, 24, who is from Thailand, said: "It's not really about the singing... It's the extra services that we offer that keep our customers coming back."
She declined to elaborate on the type of services, adding: "As if you don't know." Inside a Thai club on the fifth storey, the women appeared shortly after a live band and singers performed at 11pm.
The clients there seemed to be mainly Singaporean.
At Cuppage Plaza - which has a wider selection of Japanese KTV lounges and restaurants - the girls do not strut around as much.
Instead, they watch out for potential customers and make a beeline for the middle- aged Japanese men as soon as they walk in.
The men are mostly well-dressed, in long-sleeved shirts and ties. Some are in suits.
Ms Sugar, a Thai, 19, said: "There are so many of us here. It's better to wait just outside the restaurant so we can corner them the minute they're done with dinner." There were at least seven girls there when we observed them.
Ms Wing, also a Thai, 25, added: "We can also gauge who's the big spender, who drinks more, just by watching them."
The two women managed to snare a group of five Japanese men as they left the restaurant on the third level. Together, they headed to a KTV lounge one floor down.
What sets the mall walkers apart from the regular lounge hostesses is the "business model". KTV lounge owners and managers who were willing to respond to our queries all sang the same tune: The girls are our customers.
One owner of a Japanese pub, who wanted to be known only as Leonard, said: "Of course, some faces are more familiar but that's because they are our regular customers.
"Most of them have paid and opened the (bottles of) liquor, so they return."
Mr Zhuang, 63, who runs two nightclubs in Orchard Plaza, said the women give the shopping mall "a bad image" which has affected his business adversely.
Said the general manager: "My singers, who are from China, all carry valid work permits.
"Those girls loitering downstairs are mostly from Thailand, Vietnam and the Philippines, and many of them are hereon social visit passes.
Mr Zhuang added: "They're here to pick up Japanese tourists but they cannot wait outside the hotels, so they hang out at Orchard Plaza."
Mr Zhuang claimed that the pub operators had nothing to do with any sexual transactions.
"The operators wouldn't want to get involved directly with vice activities," he said. Sources say any extra activity outside of drinking and singing takes place elsewhere, usually at budget hotels away from Orchard Road.
While not all drink-and-sing sessions end in sex romps, about seven in 10 do, said the mall walkers we spoke to. In all, we spoke to about 50 of them.
Filipina Bebi, 23, said: "That's where the money really is. And because we're more 'high-class' than the Geylang girls, we charge more. Yet, it costs the man less than what he'd have to pay the China girls, who are usually managed by a mama san."
Bebi did not say how much, but prostitutes in Geylang usually charge $50 for 40 minutes, the prettier ones going up to $120. China hostesses, who are managed by mama sans, charge $150 to $200 for a short session of sex and up to $500 for an overnight booking.
Bebi's Japanese client, who is in his mid-30s, said: "Not too cheap, not too expensive. She (is) happy, I (am) happy."
This article was first published in The New Paper.