Blessed to be a witness

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Friday, April 29th

Four Floors of Whores

I finally got to a dentist - who I took to be a Singapore Chinese woman but turned out to be a Korean who'd lived most of her life in New Zealand, had only been in Singapore a couple of months, and was as much a foreigner as I was - at the incredibly posh Raffles Hospital. It was so plush that I decided that I'd like to be sick just so I could stay there. She examined the tooth thoroughly, then x-rayed it, and diagnosed "soft tissue trauma consistent with biting down on a snorkel for too long", but otherwise gave my teeth a clean bill of health. For the thorough consultation and the x-ray, in the poshest hospital I've ever seen, the entire bill came to an amazing S$45 (€22.50). Unfortunately the legacy of the coughing man on the coach caught up with me, and I started to come down with the second damn cold I've had in a fortnight.

Our French Algerian mate Abdul, whom we had met in Mersing and subsequently bumped into on Tioman, had invited us to visit his ship when we got to Singapore. Alas we got in contact with him one day too late, and couldn't get on board due to the necessity for 48 hours' security clearance. The ship is to leave port on Saturday, bound for Thailand. However, we got an email saying he'd be in The Crazy Elephant on Clarke Quay, if we'd like to join him. This we did, and to our delight found - hurrah - a pool table, so we quaffed a couple of beers, chatted, and played pool with him. As the evening wore on, my French improved a little, and he got rather drunker than we did, so when the bar called last orders, he refused to let us leave.

"No no," he said, "come to where my colleagues are." Which was a bar in an infamous building called Orchard Towers, incongruously located on the very posh shopping street of Orchard Road, and known locally as "Four Floors of Whores". Surprisingly for draconian Singapore, prostitution is decriminalised, and there are licensed brothels in the city. The girls working there have to have regular health checks, and carry certificates declaring them free of HIV and other STDs.

In retrospect, I am glad we went, in an anthropological sense, but wasn't particularly glad to be there at the time. Compared to the squeaky-clean image Singapore projects, it was an eye-opener. Seedy characters hung around the doors, and as we ascended the escalators in the dingy building, scantily-clad transvestites lolled around the landings. Eventually we arrived at our destination, a nightclub called Top Ten. "It is OK," said Abdul, "there are many tourists there, it's a tourist destination." No it wasn't. It was a huge converted theatre, and it was absolutely deluged with prostitutes and seedy looking western men. Banging loud music assaulted us, and we stood at the top bar watching very small, delicate young girls - presumably immigrants to the last one - draped over fat sweaty men, who picked them up like dolls and sat them on their laps, and groped at them and were told off, or occasionally left with one on their arm.

I am fairly liberal on the subject of prostitution, but there was something quite revolting at this display. I was thinking "sure, if you feel the need to take a prostitute, by all means do so, but don't delude yourself that she's your girlfriend". Though maybe that's what some of them were there for. In the middle of the groping mayhem were about twenty drunken French sailors, including one woman, who were dancing frenziedly. It was very late, the music was obnoxiously loud, the company less than desirable, my cold was getting worse, and we wanted to leave. Poor Abdul, quite plastered by now, was desperate that we stay, and though he kissed M on the cheeks à la mode française, kept grabbing me and hugging me, and wouldn't let go. It was all rather odd.

We finally made our escape, picked our way through the transvestites and ladies of the night, and got a taxi back to the hotel, relieved. When I woke up the cold was in full flow, so I spent most of the day in bed, only coming out to go for a bite of lunch and to buy medicines. I'm feeling a trifle better now, at 5.30 in the evening, and so tonight we shall go to Singapore's excellent zoo, for the Night Safari.

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