Little India’s 50-dollar men: A new look

Published by Element Magazine, Feb. 18, 2014

By Tom Benner

Prostitution is legal in Singapore. Men looking to pay for sex with women can go to the red-light district in Geylang, or the shopping centre Orchard Towers, nicknamed the “Four Floors Of Whores”.

But male prostitution is a trickier proposition. For starters, it’s illegal for two men to have sex in Singapore – a homosexual act is punishable by up to two years in jail. There is no regulated industry, no legal sanction, for male prostitution.

It is an open secret that gay men go to Little India in the hopes of meeting other willing men, particularly young South Asian foreign workers looking for extra cash. A noted 2006 documentary by Channel NewsAsia exposed the popularity of Little India as a place to meet and pick up South Asian men.

The potential headlines made for a juicy, if sensationalised, story: “Homosexual prostitution in Singapore’s Little India” … “Migrant workers by day, male prostitutes by night” … “Going undercover with commercial boys.”

The investigative report was prompted by a tip to the station that male foreign workers from the Indian subcontinent were toiling in Singapore’s construction industry by day and selling their sexual services to local men by night. It was titled “Fifty-dollar men,” after the going price for such a transaction. (The three-part documentary report can still be seen on YouTube http://youtu.be/E4QfuV88Etg).

As the documentary made clear, foreign workers are not supposed to be moonlighting under the terms of their time-limited work permits.

Presenter Diana Ser and her news crew did night filming in Little India, with a hidden camera monitoring the area in front of the Mustafa shopping center along Serangoon Road over seven nights. They noticed nothing on the first night. One the second night, they send a wired up decoy named Sam among the thousands of men socializing in the area.

In one segment, Sam is filmed negotiating down a twentysomething Punjabi man from $50 to $45. But to the viewer it remained unclear what services were being offered for the price. The two repaired to a hotel room, where a waiting TV crew scared the man off. He ran back to his friends and acquaintances to tell them what happened, and Sam’s cover was blown.

“Are these workers who are selling their sexual services just doing whatever it takes to provide for their families,” the presenter asked, “or are they looking for easy money for their own personal reasons?”

To its credit, the documentary took care to pixelate the faces of all non-crew individuals and interviewees. Sam, the undercover client, noted that while solicitation was going on out in the open among the passersby and shops of Little India, concluded: “Nobody noticed it. Only if you stand there and watch.”

But the results were inconclusive. The documentary had a hard time pinning down the scene, which blends into the hustle and bustle of Little India, and is far more nuanced than television viewers could know.

Last December’s riot involving migrant workers in Little India – and the subsequent crackdown on public gatherings and alcohol consumption and the increased security presence there – got us wondering about the 50-dollar men. Was the story still true? Were the 50-dollar men driven away?

Meet John (not his real name). He is a Singaporean by birth whose family came from South India, and a longtime patron of the so-called 50-dollar men. John agreed to show us around Little India and explain the gay male pickup scene on a recent Sunday, the day of the week when South Asians typically crowd into Little India by the tens of thousands on their one day off from work, to relax and socialize among friends.

John paints a far more subtle picture than what television viewers saw.

Standing in front of the Mustafa Center on Serangoon Road, John surveys the countless conversations going on among South Asian men. He can pick out the regulars, not all of whom are South Asian, who come on a regular basis to meet other men.

But you don’t walk up to a supposed 50-dollar man and make an offer, John says. It’s not a direct transaction like that.

First, you make friends. You go out for a drink or a bite to eat, you talk and get to know each other. If someone is interested in selling himself, that isn’t immediately apparent, he said.

“The local gays will approach these boys here, they will make friends with them, they’ll buy them some juice or something for them, or go for food,” John says. “They’re not always coming for male prostitution. Many of them are coming to meet men. If something is mentioned, they might go for it.”

John elaborates: “Over here, they take care of you, they give you food, they give you drink, they do shopping for you. They don’t come to you and say I want 50 dollars, you want to go with me? They don’t do that. They start talking, and this person proposes to them, ‘I want to go and enjoy with you,’ and they’ll ask how much can you give me?”

There are, however, exceptions, John says: “Some of them are very direct, they are interested and they will ask for the price and then they will go to the hotel or their room, or have a fast one on the dark side.”

Male prostitutes, he says, cannot afford to be out in the open or direct.

“It’s male prostitution, they don’t ask directly for money. It’s not what you see in Geylang, for a girl when you walk by they say ‘Come, come, come, 50 dollars, 100 dollars. You want to come, I’ll work with you.’ No, they don’t do that, this is different. After talking a while, then, they’ll propose something.”

Some of the men are migrant workers in their 20s, while others may be students who need extra cash, John says. “They don’t have income, they need the income for the room rent, so they come here.”

And the name 50-dollar can be a misnomer.

“It’s not always $50. Some of them will go for more, some of them will settle for $20 or $30.”

The 50-dollar men, John said, operate in a world of vagueness and secrecy by necessity.

“You have to make up something,” he said about the use of his name and the conditions for his talking to us.

Now meet Naren (also not his real name). A polite, shy 22-year-old South Asian in Singapore as a migrant worker, Naren said he paid S$12,000 to an agent back home to help him land a shipyard job in Singapore, his father mortgaging the family home to raise the money from a bank.

But the money wasn’t as good as he expected. Naren said he was led to believe by his agent who facilitated his passage and employment he would be getting $30 per day for his work in Singapore. It turns out he was only getting $16 in real wages instead, the rest going to pay back the agent and bank.

Then he was injured, and the injury prevents him from working.

While he awaits an insurance settlement, which he hopes will be enough to travel back home for good, Naren still needs makan money, as he calls it, and he has to pay rent for the one-room flat he shares with two other people. And so he lingers on Serangoon Road in Little India, looking for opportunities to meet men who can help him out with spending money.

Naren says he needs S$600 to S$800-plus a month to get buy, which covers his $250 rent, money for makan, his phone card, cigarettes, and shopping. He sends money home to his family when he has extra.

Naren says he can meet older men in Little India who will buy him food or drinks, sometimes gifts, and pay him from less than $50 to up to $100 have their way with him. He says he has friends who resort to the same thing to make money.

Asked if he uses condoms, he says it is up to the customer – “If you wish,” he says he tells them. Young people do not talk about the risks of HIV or AIDS, he said.

Naren says he doesn’t regret the excitement of coming to a new country and meeting new people, but he wishes he were still working in his old job and making better money.

“I no gay,” he says of his time spent meeting older men in Little India. “I doing for survival.”

Back when the Channel News Asia documentary aired, Alex Au of the blog Yawning Bread criticized the lack of discussion about the financial straits of the so-called 50-dollar men – young men such as Naren today.

“The discussion was shallow and left many issues untouched,” he wrote. “ The mention of low pay and delayed wages almost begged for a more in-depth analysis of how such a situation -– evidently with a lot of misrepresentation between employers and agents on the one side and workers on the other -– is allowed to persist.”

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