Monday, 9 April 2018

Singapore's last Chinese hostess bar: Sin Po Po Bar

Sin Po Po, which was in the news recently over a crime committed in 1980, is the last true Chinese hostess bar in Singapore
By John Lui, Film Correspondent, The Sunday Times, 8 Apr 2018

Where do lounge hostesses go when the bloom of youth is gone? Where can they turn when cheeks become a little hollow and laugh lines appear, and customers drift away in search of younger companions?

They might come to where I am now: Sin Po Po Bar (新宝宝高级半夜酒廊).

Here, in this windowless space, it is dark, darker than any cinema. That makes it harder to see the skin that sags, the bodies grown less firm. Sin Po Po is a forgiving place.

Four or five women, painted and primped, are scattered around the booths, their faces lit by mobile phones, reading glasses perched on heavily powdered noses.

They wait for customers that might never come. Because their clients, like them, are ageing out of the game.

A few times a year, a newcomer will walk in, mistakenly expecting this place to be like other girly bars. He thinks a young cutie will sit at his arm, pouring his drinks.

That is when everyone holds his breath. The best the management can hope for is that he will leave quietly, without mocking laughter, a shout of disgust or, worse, a cruel jibe about being served by hags.

The women on its employment roll - 19 in all, though not all work at the same time - put up with insults quietly. Where else can they go? What else can they do? The older they got, the narrower their options became, until they found themselves in this dim, threadbare room, half-hidden behind a tree in Tanjong Katong Road.

Sin Po Po is perhaps Singapore's last true Chinese hostess bar. A nightclub consultant I will call Peter explains why it is the last of its kind.

Today, you will find women prowling the pubs and karaoke lounges of Orchard Towers, Joo Chiat, Katong and Geylang. They encourage guests to buy high-priced drinks.

But they are not hostess lounges, Peter explains. In a booth at Sin Po Po, while sipping mugs of hot chrysanthemum tea, he rattles off the differences.

There is the licensing. Pubs and KTV lounges operate under an entertainment licence that allows them to house singing rooms, pool tables and dart boards.

According to Peter, true "midnight lounges" - the literal meaning of the Chinese sign "ban ye jiu lang" in front - are issued a different kind of licence. It allows them to legally employ foreign hostesses. Most of the women employed at Sin Po Po are Malaysians.

So the women here have all the protections afforded by an employer, he says. They are paid a basic salary and the rest come from tips - $20 or more, usually - and commissions from drink sales.

But the most important distinction is that this place is a torchbearer for the old ways, before KTV lounges, Thai discos and girly bars arrived in the 1980s.

Like others of its kind that sprang up in the 1960s and 1970s, Sin Po Po was very dialect-based and working class. Towkays and blue-collar workers could come to feel at home in Teochew, Hokkien and Cantonese.

The durian seller across the road from it tells me - with a wistful look on his face - about how, four decades ago when he used to visit, the place was so packed, it needed six bouncers to keep the peace.

It is not just that a pool table, television set and dart board are absent in an old-school Chinese hostess lounge. There is no drinks bar to speak of. Customers head directly to booths.

One previous owner, years ago, put up a sign with the name Tricycle Nite Lounge on the front, to honour his old job pedalling a trishaw. The English words are to the right of the Chinese characters for Sin Po Po.

Those words, glowing in red and green, are still there, a remnant of a time when Singapore's nightclub districts set the night ablaze with neon lights.

In the last decade, as its fortunes declined, Sin Po Po has seen a revolving door of owners, each one coming in with hopes of reviving it, but giving up. Peter has consulted on operations with several of them.

In the old days, clubs like it gained a reputation for sleaze, not only because of the action in the booths, but also because of the crime that came to be associated with them. One has to admit that there was a class snobbery attached to the disdain because of the mainly bluecollar, dialect-speaking crowd they attracted.

In this newspaper, there would often be reports of assaults occurring in or around the lounges, often involving owners, managers and bouncers.

On March 22, Malaysian Seow Lam Seng was arrested in Penang on a firearms charge for a crime that took place outside Sin Po Po in 1980. He had been on the run for 38 years after allegedly carrying a pistol in his back pocket and behaving suspiciously near the lounge. The resulting confrontation left another man dead.

Nearly 38 years later, he returned to the scene of the incident, escorted by the police.

For many reading that story, a common first response might have been: "Sin Po Po is still around?"

Yes it is, for now at least. The lounge had nothing to do with the crime, but the crime stigma is why the people whose livelihoods depend on the place are paranoid about speaking to reporters and are touchy about photographs. They do not want Singapore's last hostess bar to lose its licence.

In a bitter twist, that sleaze factor has become retro-chic. An eatery and online food retailer in Joo Chiat has adopted the name Sinpopo Brand, for example.

I tell Peter about this and he shrugs. What can you do?, his body language seems to say.

A woman I call Mary is the owner. She used to be a hostess here, but a few months ago, she bought it over. She and Peter talk about why they want to keep this place going, here in the gentrifying Tanjong Katong area, its car workshops and coffee shops being taken over by wine bars and pizza parlours.

"It is because of them," says the woman in her late 40s with dark hair that falls to her waist. She looks at the hostesses and the small number of men that have come in, most of them in their 50s or older.

Making the monthly rent is a struggle. But as long as the hostesses need a place to work, she will keep the place going.

Some of them tried to make it as KTV hostesses elsewhere, but came back because they found the singing and the din exhausting. But what tended to happen was that once these women walked into a karaoke room, the men would scowl, give them a small tip and tell them to leave.

Some women saved enough to return to Malaysia to open a small business or buy a house and retire, before the years took their looks away. But not the ones here. The women here have to work, or choose to work.

But work these days, serving men old enough to be grandfathers, is more about being there to listen. Sin Po Po is a refuge in a Singapore that has little time for seniors, say Mary and Peter.

Like its patrons and staff, the place might be showing its age - foam peeks from rips in the booth cushions, the floors still feature 1970s-style small mosaic tiles - but Mary keeps the place spic and span and smelling good.

Hanging above the booths are Chinese New Year decorations, an odd sight in April. But these are Mary's indulgences - she cut the paper pineapples and styrofoam "福" (Chinese for fortune) characters by hand. In one corner, she has drawn glitter-dusted murals illustrating a happy spaceman's trip to the stars.

She looks proudly at her work.

"Much nicer than anything you can buy from a shop," she says.

I agree.

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