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Two sides of Little Vietnam in Singapore
Little Vietnam in middle-class Joo Chiat Road is the face of Eurasian and Peranakan history during the day, but once the sun sets reveals a world of neon-lit bars, lithe bar girls and drunk locals
Vietnamese signboards have been springing up on Joo Chiat Road. There is a small stretch here that’s fast becoming known as Little Vietnam. A rather red-lit Little Vietnam.
It’s slightly jarring and incongruous in more ways than one. Joo Chiat Road sits in the quiet Peranakan enclave of Katong. It’s a narrow street lined with stately double-story heritage shophouses from the pre-war era. There are old businesses still surviving from the 1960s. Culturally, it’s rich and steeped in Eurasian and Peranakan history.
In the daytime, this is a sleepy road without much vehicular or human traffic.
But as evening draws near, the area sheds its innocent cultural charm, and puts on its painted face.
Neon-lit karaoke bars come to life, many of which are thinly veiled girlie bars where men pay outrageously inflated prices for drinks in the company of hostesses. These girls are commonly from Vietnam. The bars spew inebriated customers with chatty girls on their arms. Other bar girls flit in and out, instantly recognizable from their garish makeup, dramatic hairdos and those skimpy, skintight and sequined outfits. Most of them are young, lithe and petite. Some look bold and haughty, others dejected and sully. The smart ones quickly learn Mandarin or a Chinese dialect or two. It helps in getting customers.
Joo Chiat Road is also a foodie haven, but many restaurants come and go all too quickly. However the Vietnamese ones are flourishing. There are currently five to six Vietnamese eateries offering comfort food to the homesick girls. Bowls of pho (beef noodle soup), goi cuon (fresh spring rolls), cha gio (fried rolls with mince filling) are staples at all these places, as are various “bun” (rice noodle) dishes. Bo luc lac (wok-seared beef), com chien duong chau (fried rice), bo bit tet (steak), com suon cha trung (pork chops with steamed egg) and canh ga chien nuoc mam (crispy chicken wings with fish sauce) make up other selections.
Sentimental Vietnamese pop blares out of cheap speakers in these no-frills eateries. They thrive on the patronage of men who want a quick bite before heading to the short-time hotels with their ladies of choice. Ambience isn’t important. Everyone sits on plastic chairs and enjoys their nosh in harsh florescent lighting. Some of the women sit cross-legged on those chairs, giving away their foreign origin.
There are gangs operating in the area. There are rumors of gambling dens. Foreign workers, mostly manual labourers, also prowl the streets in hope of snaring a good time. Drunken brawls are common, but mostly harmless. A broken bottle or two, a random puddle of vomit but generally no loss of life or limb.
In the midst of all this ribaldry stands a mosque nearly a century old. Masjid Khalid (130 Joo Chiat Road) stands solemnly as a place of worship for Muslims, particularly the Indian Muslims. It must have been a different scene when it was built in 1917.
Something else also sits uncomfortably here. Joo Chiat is a middle-class residential district, and there are several schools in the vicinity. People live right above tackily named karaoke bars.
In 2006, frustrated residents banded together to clean up the area. It got some media attention, and some massage parlors were closed down. The government shortened the bars’ closing time from 3 a.m. to 1 a.m., and the grassroots community put up a small square for family activities. But the sleaze continues.
How and why the Vietnamese women came to work here in the vice industry, we may never know.
Prostitution is legal in Singapore, so some of these women may actually hold work permits. But there are those who subsist by perpetually renewing social visit passes. While many of these work in the sex trade by choice, there are others who have been lured here by promises of dream jobs, and are forced into it.
In fact, the United States added Singapore in June 2010 onto a watch list for human trafficking, accusing the island state of failing to prevent women from being forced into prostitution. Singapore responded with indignance, and maintains that the report is more of “a political ritual than an objective study.”
And unless the government seeks to root out the seedy side of things with the same relentlessness as it does with drugs, it looks like Little Vietnam is here to stay.
Vietnamese eateries worth trying
Phuc Vu Cac Mon An Viet Nam, Vietnamese Favourites; a stall within Eastern Wind Foodhouse at 82 Joo Chiat Road
Quynh Giao Quan An Viet Nam, Vietnamese Delights at 149 Joo Chiat Road
Long Phung Quan An Viet Nam at 159 Joo Chiat Road
Trang Tiem An Vietnam, Vietnamese Favourites at 169 Joo Chiat Road
Quan An Vietnam; Vietnam Eatery at 233 Joo Chiat Road