As we mentioned in our previous post on Singapore, this Southeast Asian city-state was a bit of a mystery to us. For everything we learned during our treks through the city, there were ten more questions as Singapore unraveled before us. We realized that we needed professional help – it was time for a tour. Recommended #1 on Tripadvisor was The Original Singapore Walks, so we decided to join their Secrets of the Red Lantern Chinatown walk.
Bathroom buckets and sardine packed apartments
Set in Chinatown, we learned the history from the perspective of the Chinese immigrants who flooded to Singapore’s shores in search of opportunity after British businessman Sir Stamford Raffles founded the city-state in 1818 as a trading post for the East India Trading Company. The Chinese who arrived here throughout the 19th century had often endured high seas for months at a time, were penniless, starving and often many friends or family members had died on board the ships. When they arrived to Singapore they were initially given assistance by others who, in their demands for payback, would essentially ensnare them into a form of servitude impossible to escape (similar to the concept of sharecropping in the U.S. South).
Our guide Janet shared the stories of the shophouses, which had factories or shops on the ground floor and 20-30 people living upstairs in one-room apartments. Some had wooden planks as beds, others just the floor, and even these spaces were often shared between those on day and night shifts. Near the start of the tour she took us into a back alley (which in today’s Singapore is surprisingly clean) to show us little doors in the backs of the shophouses. Stinky buckets of number 1 and number 2 were placed behind these doors, and trucks would come, open them and collect the waste each day. From her explanation and our own imagination we could practically smell the stench of these overcrowded houses and their appalling living conditions.
Working conditions were no better, she told us, and the only break the immigrants here could get from the backbreaking labor was in the brothels and opium dens. The opium dens were where the physical pain could actually be lifted for the little while they could smoke. Chinatown was the epicenter for brothels as well, and we learned how to recognize some of the ‘higher class’ establishments, the division among the Chinese and Japanese prostitutes (the latter served only Europeans while the former focused on locals). Much of the area has long since been gentrified and legal prostitution all but phased out, but she did sneak us past one of the last few remaining legal brothels and we had a sneak peak as we passed. It was a small entrance in a back street that just looked clinical, unlike the roaring scene she described along the way. Janet showed us many of the ‘materials’ used (see below).
Sexual liberation in Chinatown eventually led the area to become the unofficial home of Singapore’s gay community – a complicated issue itself. Essentially homosexuality is frowned upon, sex between men is illegal, and yet up until recently Singapore hosted one of the world’s largest gay festivals each year. We really appreciated Janet’s candor about the gay community. She provided the kind of in depth information that we normally only experience on LGBT-focused tours, even stopping under a rainbow flag waving at one of the more popular gay bars in the city. It was great to see the wealth of information included on the tour about the gay community, even though everyone on the tour but us was definitely straight.
What we loved about Janet was that she clearly had great relationships with people in the community. We stopped at a Chinese medicine shop and chatted with the owner who supposedly supplied President Bill Clinton with a natural form of a special elixir (think snakes and bugs floating in an liquid meant to…raise the roof…). She gave us a great advice on where to eat vegetarian Chinese food, which we took and it was delicious! And even though she couldn’t take us in to tour the brothel, it wasn’t for not trying. Singapore Walks actually tried to reach out and create relationships with some of them in order for tours to be able to experience first hand how the brothels work today. Apparently this didn’t go to well…but they tried.
She left us with this little nugget: back in the day people used to joke that Singapore was just one letter off. Replace the ‘p’ with an ‘l’ and you get the true name of Singapore in the late 19th and early 20th centuries: Singalore – Sin Galore.
From our drinks at the top of the Marina Bay Sands hotel looking down over the city in 2012, we would have never known about Singapore’s seedy past, and it was loads of fun finding out all about it.