Saturday, December 15, 2012

Rangoon’s (Yangon's) Central Fish Wholesale Market

During my fourth visit to Rangoon, Burma (Yangon, Myanmar) back in March of 2009, I thought that it would be interesting to get up early and head down to the waterfront to check out Rangoon’s Central Fish Wholesale Market (a.k.a. San Pya Fish Market), which is situated on the banks of the Rangoon River in west Rangoon near the intersection of Kyee Myin Daing Kannar Road and Nat Sin Road. The fishing boats that supply the markets begin pulling up to the dock as early as 2 AM and unload their cargo of fish, which is dumped on to the concrete floor and sorted into 'export' and 'domestic' categories; freshwater fish on ice from the surrounding countryside would also start arriving by truck about the same time. The export quality fish is placed on ice and processed for foreign sale, and the domestic quality fish is moved into a series of warehouses where it is displayed for local sale to restaurants and the vendors that sell in the various open and wet markets in and around Rangoon. I got there about 4:50 AM and found the market to be very busy and quite noisy given the shouts of both sellers and buyers as transactions were negotiated. In addition to witnessing the activities around the loading dock and in the enclosed warehouses, it’s also interesting to stroll amid the aisles between the warehouses and the sidewalks and alleys around the market, where small-time vendors do their business seated upon blankets spread out on the concrete and tarmac, with their small assortment of inventory for the day, sometimes little more than perhaps a dozen fish and a few bowls of shrimp, illuminated by candlelight and small battery-powered florescent lamps in the pre-dawn gloom; also in attendance are a number of food, drink and betel nut vendors set up on the sidewalks and beneath tarpaulin canopies to serve the myriad customers that flock to the market. If you’re planning a visit there, note that things can get a bit grungy, so you'll want to wear some clothes that you don't mind getting a bit soiled (in the haze diffused light of sunrise afterwards, I did noticed some dried muddy splashes of fish run-off on my shorts and sandals from some close calls with quickly-moving wheeled fish carts, and did get bumped a time or two by a passing wet wicker basket of fish), and you will definitely smell like fish by the end of your visit. If you're looking to experience some real local color off the beaten tourist path while in Rangoon, the central fish wholesale market might be just the ticket for you.

For more on Burma/Myanmar, see my post The Upside of Food Poisoning in Bagan, Myanmar (Pagan, Burma), where staying back at the hotel and taking it easy while recovery from a bout of food poisoning in Bagan Myothit  and a chance encounter with a local artisan in an open field across the road that took me under his wing would result in a very memorable day and evening of experiencing the town and its environs like a local.

Update 11-23-17:

I had heard that the Yangon Central Fish Wholesale Market had relocated, and have recently learned that the new location is on Htee Tan Road in Alone Township, not far South from Nat Sin Road (hat tip to Crystal at Travelers' Choice to Burma).

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Outdoor Vendors near Mandalay’s Zeigyo Central Market

When planning a visit to the historic city of Mandalay, Burma (Myanmar), one should definitely allow time in the itinerary to witness the hustle and bustle amid the morning outdoor produce, spice and dried/fermented fish and meat vendors that line the streets near the Zeigyo Central Market building (west of 84th Street between 26th and 28th Road). For me, it was far more interesting, colorful and much more memorable than the stroll through more sedate indoor general household and dry goods portion of the market, which could be skipped without missing much if one’s time is limited. The market was still quite active when I arrived at 7:30 am, with very few other foreign tourists to be seen (due the lack of available time in their tour packages, according to my guide). Given the coolness of the morning air, most of the vendor women improvise turbans out of scarves, shawls, towels and the like for warmth which, together with their colorful longyis, the swirls, streaks and sometimes intricate patterns of dried yellow thanaka paste (a natural combination sunblock, astringent and moisturizer made from the ground wood of the thanaka tree) applied to their cheeks, and non-matching flannel shirts, makes many of them look like hill tribe members, though some in the market actually appear to be from the Shan, Karen and Pa-O minority tribes based on their ethnic clothing. The sights, aromas (a earthy mix of ripe produce, spices, dried shrimp and fermented fish paste), and the echoing of the hawkers’ calls mixed with the din of stall-side negotiations gives the open market it's charm, and makes it an experience not to be missed.

For more on Burma/Myanmar, see my post The Upside of Food Poisoning in Bagan, Myanmar (Pagan, Burma), where staying back at the hotel and taking it easy while recovery from a bout of food poisoning in Bagan Myothit  and a chance encounter with a local artisan in an open field across the road that took me under his wing would result in a very memorable day and evening of experiencing the town and its environs like a local.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Singapore’s Pulau Ubin (Ubin Island)

Rustic Malay-styled Village House on Singapore's Pulau Ubin

Pulau Ubin (Ubin Island) provides the visitor with a glimpse of Singapore’s former ‘kampong’ (village) heritage, and a welcomed break from the high-rise towers, HBD flats, shopping malls and busy streets that characterize much of Singapore. Located in the Strait of Johor between the northeastern tip of Singapore and the Malaysian state of Johor, Pulau Ubin may be just the day trip to take for those who have been in this most modern and developed of Southeast Asian cities long enough that they crave a little breather from all the hustle, bustle, concrete high-rises and fashionable shopping malls. Pulau Ubin is Singapore done ‘old-school’, a throwback to the kampong (village) days before the city-state became an international center for commerce and finance, and one of the ‘Four Asian Tigers’. The quaint, often stilted wooden houses and old plantations, together with the natural splendor and laid-back attitude, will clear the mind, soothe the soul and recharge one’s batteries for another round of shopping and world-class eating back in the ‘Lion City’. According to local folklore, the island came into being as the result of a challenge between a frog, a pig, and an elephant. They decided to see who could be the first to swim across the Strait of Johor from Singapore to Malaysia, with the losing animals turning into stone; all three animals failed to make it across, with the pig and the elephant becoming Pulau Ubin and the frog becoming Pulau Sekudu (Frog Island). The 1880’s saw the arrival of settlers from Johor and the establishment of a thriving Malay community on the island. Pulau Ubin means ‘Granite Island’ in Malay, and with the arrival of the British on the island came the quarrying of granite, though fishing and farming were the primary occupations of the islanders; the quarries have long since closed, and visitors are barred from access due to safety concerns. The island is home to the Outward Bound Singapore centre for outdoor education and leadership development, and the National Police Cadet Corps (NPCC). The island is reached from the Changi Village jetty via bumboat, with a one-way ticket for the 10 minute trip running SNG $2.50, with the boats leaving once 12 passengers are aboard.
The Sensory Trail
Walking off to the right as you step off the jetty, you will soon find a small Pulau Ubin visitors center with photos and diagrams of the flora and fauna to be found on the island. Continuing on and heading left at the island police station, you will see the Sensory Trail, which leads you past specimens of various fruit trees, spices, herbs, traditional medicinal plants and native plants of the mangrove forest. Heading northwest of the jetty along Jalan Ubin past the bike rentals and restaurants, you’ll see the wayang stage used for Chinese operas and some small Buddhist and Confucius shrines. Following Jalan Ubin to the right will take you past a small lagoon flanked by palms, soon to be replaced by more lush jungle-like environs dotted with old ‘kampong’ houses reflecting Malay influences. Continuing north, you can take a right at the junction with Jalan Durian and reach the gravel and dirt roads to Chek Jawa, or you can go straight onto Jalan Sam Heng which soon becomes Jalan Mamam and leads to the Mamam Beach Campgrounds, with the dirt trail to the left at the end of the road leading to some mangroves along a creek that empties into the Strait. There’s also a Thai temple at the north end of Jalan Wat Siam. Pulau Ubin’s wildlife, natural beauty, old kampong houses and its religious shrines & temples are best enjoyed on two wheels, and bikes of varying quality can be rented for a full or half-day from one of several shops located near the jetty (SNG$2 – 20). There are a few paved roads on the island, though most roads are graveled or dirt; there are mountain biking trail of varying degrees of difficulty on the island. Since my visit to the island, the Ketam Mountain Bike Park, located around the fringe of a quarry on Pulau Ubin, has opened. The 45-hectare park contains 10km of mountain bike trails, consisting of tracks with the 3 out of 5 IMBA ratings and both Dirt Skills and Freeride Skills Parks. There are a limited number of vehicles on the island, but vans or taxis can be hired for touring the island’s attractions if one does not intend on doing any biking.

Chek Jawa Wetlands Coastal Loop Boardwalk
Pulau Ubin is home to the Chek Jawa Wetlands, one of Singapore’s richest ecosystems where six major habitats meet and mix. A visit to the Chek Jawa Visitor Center is a ‘must-do’ while on the island. Chek Jawa is an intertidal area, and is best viewed at low tides of 0.5 meters and below, hence tide tables need to be consulted when planning a visit. The visitors center (8.30am - 6.00pm) includes a viewing jetty, over 1 km of boardwalk comprised of Mangrove and Coastal Loops, and the 21-meter Jejawi Tower located along the Mangrove Loop. Chek Jawa can be reached by hired car, bike or a roughly 40-minute walk from the Pulau Ubin jetty; note that vehicles and bikes must park at a lot located some distance away, and then continue to the center on foot along a wooded trail for about 5 minutes. The Mangrove Loop was interesting, with the sounds of insect, frog and bird calls overlaying the crackling of air bubbles beneath the arched roots and aerial tubes of the mangrove trees at low tide. As for places to sit back and simply chill out on the island, Noordin Beach and Mamam Beach would be likely candidates for hangout spots if one’s aim is relaxation and decompression amid relative peace and quiet (save for the occasional whine of high-bypass turbofans heralding the approach of an inbound flight to Changi) after several hectic days of sightseeing around Singapore. For those who place a premium on communing with nature, Chek Jawa Wetlands is the best place for you to hangout while on the island. A good resource for finding more information on Pulau Ubin and on other areas in Singapore where one can enjoy the great outdoors can be found here:

Mangrove Near Mamam Beach

One thing that was quite interesting during my visit to the island was watching some Outward Bound Singapore youth being given jungle survival training near the Mamam Beach campground in the north. The instructor was a retired ‘Straits Indian’ Singaporean who spent 35 years as a commando in the SAF Spec-Ops Group, training other SAF and visiting foreign commandos in jungle survival. The tattooed, powerfully-built gentleman was passionate about passing on skills and shared wisdom to local kids, whom he felt spend too much time with video games and in shopping malls. He first demonstrated, in a loud Drill Instructor manner sometimes sprinkled with a bit of colorful language, how to kill, clean and prepare a live frog to the assembled group of squeamish and groaning Singaporean school kids. His most memorable quote came while he was detailing the locations and sequence of knife cuts required to maximize the amount of useable meat from a frog carcass: “Remember, if you do this right…you get meat! And if you do this wrong…you get bloody sh*t! And…YOU CAN’T EAT BLOODY SH*T!!!” After finishing with his demonstrator frog, he asked for a volunteer from the audience to come to the front and be walked through the killing and cleaning process with a second live frog. When nobody stepped forward, he pointed to a Singaporean girl of about 15 years of age wearing Muslim head-covering in the first row to be part of the demonstration. “NOOO!!!”, she squealed loudly. “TOO BLOOD-DEE, LAH!!!” After the laughter of her fellow classmates died down, the instructor let her off the hook and performed the task on the second frog himself, after which he proceeded to demonstrate two different methods for manually starting a fire without a flame source using items from a fire-starting kit similar to the one that all of the classes students had been issued. I would later meet up with the instructor and his students again as I biked from Mamam Beach to the Chek Jawa Visitor Center, and had a chance to chat briefly with the instructor while his students were given a short break.

Restaurants and Bike Rental Shops Near the Main Jetty at Ubin Village

Pulau Ubin is revered by the local for its fresh and delicious seafood that can be enjoyed in a laid-back setting at prices lower that those found on the ‘big island’. Though I did not get a chance to sample any of the restaurants on the island (my only meal taking the form of some energy bars and an isotonic sports drink while biking the trails), a number of them are located in the island’s main village along Jalan Ubin (Road) among the bicycle rental shops to the left of the jetty. The ones I glanced at were Cheong Lian Yuen, Ubin First Stop and Season Live Seafood. Ubin First Stop (#42 Jalan Ubin, 11AM – 10PM; closed Wednesdays) is said to be popular and quite good, serving up Chinese, seafood classics like black pepper crab and even some local specialties including wild boar. Season Live Seafood (#59E Jalan Ubin) is located near the water’s edge, with a view of Singapore across the Strait and outdoor seating beneath a large protective canopy for those daily Singapore downpours.

I left the island by late-afternoon, so I can’t really talk to what nightlife Pulau Ubin has to offer. I don’t recall seeing any bars or KTV joints on the island, so the evening’s entertainment would likely be limited to enjoying some beers and fresh seafood with some good company at one of the restaurants in the jetty area until they close for the evening (presumably at 10PM, if Ubin First Stop Restaurant is any indication). If restaurants are the full extent of nightlife on the island, I’d say one could probably do much worse than snagging an outdoor table at Season Live Seafood to enjoy a nice sunset, then hanging around until they shut the lights off and kick everyone out. I neglected to see how late the bumboats back to Singapore run, which could put limits the sampling of Pulau Ubin’s nightlife for ‘day-trippers’.

Though I only did a day trip to Pulau Ubin, there are some accommodations available if one wants to spend the night on the island. Celestial Resort (previously called Ubin Lagoon Resort) is located in the southwest of the island. Referred to as ‘rustic’ and not rated highly on the web, perhaps low expectations are in order; the rate for two people is quoted as SNG $98 (weekday)/SNG $118 (weekend). Ubin Lodge is said to now be open to the public. Located behind the island police station (coast guard police post) and about a 5-minute walk from the jetty, the chalets were formerly used by civil servants and said to offer a taste of Singapore circa 1960; no info is available, as their web site is currently down for construction. There are three campsites available on the island (Noordin Beach, Mamam Beach and Jelutong Campsite) with no permit required; campers are advised to drop by the Ubin NParks Info Kiosk (at the Jetty) on arrival. Noordin Beach is also said to be quite nice.

If one’s travel plans will put them in Singapore for a few days, a half-day spent out on Pulau Ubin is well-worth considering, as it allows a visitor to get a sense of Singapore’s humble beginnings and traditional village-like heritage, and perhaps give the credit cards a little rest.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Orchard Towers – Putting the ‘Sin’ in Singapore

Singapore has a reputation of being a very strict ‘nanny state’, where crime is virtually non-existent due to the threat of heavy penalties and punishments, and the assumption is generally made that there would certainly be no tolerance for ‘the world’s oldest profession’ being plied in public eye. In reality, the Singaporean government appears to turn a blind eye to prostitution, and though some of the infamous red light districts have been cleaned up (i.e., the Joo-Chiat area), the flesh trade still thrives in a few places. According to the web site, visiting a prostitute and the act of being a prostitute are not illegal, but managing a house of prostitution and pimping are illegal, and the persistent soliciting by prostitutes is prohibited per Section 19 of the Miscellaneous Offenses (Public Order and Nuisance) Act. Running a close second to the most well-known Geylang red light (which was depicted in the 2007 Singaporean film ‘Pleasure Factory’ – which was actually quickly banned in Singapore for nudity and subject matter!) is the Orchard Towers complex, which is located at the west end of Orchard Road. Orchard Towers, an 18-story office building that combines bars and retail shops on the lower levels with offices and some condominiums above, is locally known as the ‘four floors of whores’.

The Back Tower of the Orchard Towers Complex
Given the tourist appeal of Orchard Road as Singapore’s prime shopping destination, Orchard Towers and its flanking sidewalks are perhaps the most likely glimpse that a visiting tourist will get of the city’s seedy side. Though the complex does not contain any brothels per se (but does contain a number of nominally legitimate massage parlors…at least in the daytime hours), Orchard Towers serves as a venue where one can meet and pickup prostitutes. Many of the prostitutes encountered in the bars are so-called ‘foreign talent’ freelancers that are visiting Singapore on a one to three-month tourist visa, predominantly from the other Southeast Asian countries (the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam), but also from China, India and, to a lesser extent, Russia and some western countries. It has even been suggested in the book ‘No Money, No Honey! A Candid Look at Sex-for-Sale in Singapore’ that some of the women trolling the sidewalks around Orchard Towers are actually Singaporean housewives seeking to make a little extra spending money in their free time; this may have been the case with a rather ordinary-looking Indian woman in her mid to late-30’s dressed in casual clothing that approached me as I walked between the front and back towers and asked me if I wanted company for the night.

In addition to the girls soliciting inside the bars and those walking the corridors of the lower floors of the complex, a number of freelancers can be seen hanging around or making the rounds on the sidewalks outside of the complex. Generally, men walking with women or with a family in tow will not attract the attention of the sidewalk freelancers. A man walking alone, particularly one making the briefest of eye contact in passing, can generally expect to be approached and asked if they would like some company tonight, or if they are looking for a woman, or if they would like a massage; they are generally pleasant in their solicitations, and will politely accept a no for an answer. Some of the girls seen hanging out around Orchard Towers may not be girls after all, as a number of Asian lady-boys frequent the complex; I remember walking along Claymore Road past the front tower one time and passing what looked to be two busty Thai girls in low-cut blouses, short leather skirts and stiletto high-heels…until I heard their very masculine voices. I’ve been told that one of the popular pastimes of the local ex-pats working in Singapore and living in the high-rise apartments in the vicinity of Orchard Towers is to take a seat at Harry’s Bar, located in the front of the back tower along Claymore Road, and enjoy a drink while watching the customers and their ‘dates-for-hire’ line up at the taxi stand across the street near the back of the front tower. Most of the action happens in and around the front tower, though it does spill a bit into the back tower given that some of the freelancers may ply their trade in Harry’s Bar and the upstairs Moonshine Bar. The activities may be a bit awkward for ex-pats parents that live in the apartments behind Orchard Towers to explain to their children as they pass through the towers when taking a short-cut back home from Orchard Road or heading to Jason’s Supermarket in the basement of the back tower to buy groceries.

Having made five prior trips to Singapore and staying near the west end of Orchard Road, I had passed many times through the towers, though it was only during the sixth trip in 2010 that I became curious enough to check out some of the Orchard Towers bars. The first bar was the (now-relocated) Three Monkeys, situated at the back of the front tower. It was mid-afternoon and the bar only had about a dozen customers (including me, the only male in the place), plus two Filipinas employees behind the bar. All the other customers were Filipinas in their mid-twenties, and most of them were out on the floor dancing, giggling and joking with one another. I chatted with one of the Filipinas that pulled up a stool next to me, commenting to her that the bar seemed a bit slow. She told me that I should come back on Sunday, when the bar would be much livelier. I would later get the gist of what she had hinted at the following Sunday at another place called the Blue Banana, a similarly Filipino-owned bar (as nearly all the bars in the complex appeared to be) in the basement below the Three Monkeys.

The majority of the maids (a.k.a. Foreign Domestic Workers) in Singapore seem to be Filipinas aged early 20’s to mid 30’s, with the minority comprised of women often from Malaysia, Indonesia and Burma. As the maids are traditionally given Sundays off, their options for recreation involve attending church and church-related activities, spending the day with Filipino friends at the Filipino-centric Lucky Plaza shopping mall on Orchard Road, or apparently also the option of hitting the dance floors at the bars in Orchard Towers. The mood on that particular Sunday at the Blue Banana was extremely lively, almost bordering on a case of ‘Maids on Their Day-off Gone Wild’. The dance floor was packed exclusively with Filipina maids attired in tight jeans and T-shirts dancing (and sometimes even ‘dirty-dancing’) up a storm with one another to the bass-heavy club mix blaring from the sound system as the house band was setting up on the stage for their performance later that afternoon. From time to time two of the ladies would begin bumping and grinding against each other, which would evoke shrill bursts of laughter, hoots, cat-calls, and shouts of approval and sisterly encouragement. There were a number of men sitting at the bar with a beer who were taking in the action on the dance floor. One gentleman had a pitcher of beer and one extra partially-filled mug sitting on the bar, with one of the Filipinas occasionally coming off the floor to briefly take a sip from the mug before hurrying back out to resume her dancing. There were a handful of guys sitting among the tables that flanked the dance floor and chatting with the ladies that were taking a dance break, and there were also some ladies sitting at some tables near the back and looking a bit bored, which I took to be freelancing bar-girls.

The bars that I checked out all had stages featuring live bands from the Philippines that played copy tunes, generally a mix of classic rock, R&B, light hip-hop, and occasionally Filipino classic rock and folk tunes sung in Tagalog thrown into the mix that would usually bring the Filipina bar-girls to their feet and have them squealing and clapping in approval, if not singing along loudly and perhaps a bit off-key. Another feature that many of the bars had was a few ‘go-go’ stages in the form of a wooden elevated pedestal with a brass pole running from the center of the pedestal to the ceiling, and a few small colored floodlights aimed down on the stage from the ceiling. During the band set breaks, a few of the more sexily-dressed bar-girls would mount the go-go stages and dance in place for perhaps 20 minutes while the musicians hit the restroom or sipped some beer. During my roughly 3 weeks in Singapore, I was able to at least sample (as in, a 30 – 120 minute stay and a beer or two) a number of the Orchard Towers bars: Three Monkeys, Ba-Li-Ba, Crazy Horse, Moonshine, Peyton Place, Ipanema World Bar and Blue Banana. Generally, there were no cover charges per se, though you were expected to buy at least one drink. I was told that solo women (be it Filipina maids on a day off or a freelancer on a tourist visa) had to pay a nominal cover charge to enter unless they were accompanied by a male.

In chatting with an attractive 23-year old freelancing Filipina bar-girl named Jordan at Ba-Li-Ba, I would learn a bit about how the relationship between the freelancer and the bar works. I had just entered the place and, after first buying a bottle of Tiger Beer from the bar, was sitting on a stool in front of one of the small pedestal round tables that could comfortably accommodate two people which flanked the dance floor, and was watching the female vocalist of a Filipino cover band on the stage singing Lauryn Hill’s rendition of ‘Killing Me Softly’. Jordan walked up and politely asked if she could sit with me. I informed her up-front that I’m married and that nothing more than a conversation would be going on between us, and that I wasn’t going to waste her time if she was expecting something more than that. She said that was fine with her and pulled up a stool next to me. As a waitress (also Filipina) approached our table, Jordan asked if she could have a drink, quickly adding that my SNG $10 beer would cost her SNG $20, but that a shot of alcohol would only be SNG $15. As there was the possibility that this could be my last visit to Singapore, I figured that I might as well buy her a drink for the sake of conversation so as to experience yet another aspect of the city’s local culture.

She thanked me and ordered a shot of tequila, and proceeded to explain the arrangement between the bars and the visiting ‘foreign talent’. Of the SNG $10 tacked on to the cost of the working girl’s drink, the bar would keep $5 and the girl would get to pocket $5. After the girl is bought 5 drinks by the same gentleman, the bar has essentially received its ‘bar fine’, and the girl can now negotiate a price with the willing gentleman to go off-site for a massage or whatever else is agreed upon. Jordan had mentioned that she was just one week into her one month tourist visa (which technically made her an illegal worker and deport-able after that first overpriced drink), and as of yet had not enticed anyone into meeting the five-drink minimum purchase required to take her off-site. As is likely a situation with many of the freelancers, Jordan talked of her 2-year old son currently under the care of her parents back in the Philippines (father’s whereabouts unknown) while she’s in Singapore trying to make money to support family at home.

I would hear similar stories in conversations with the freelancing girls at some of the other Orchard Towers bars, and though the tales of the lives temporarily left behind (the majority of which are in the Philippines) were variations of the same sad theme, one particular story was all the more sad and compelling given the nature of the situation and the possibility of impending physical violence. Lien, a rather full-figured 27-year old Vietnamese girl that I chatted with on a subsequent visit to Ba-Li-Ba, was apparently in more dire straights than merely deciding to sell her body in a foreign country to support family back home. Out of the resulting desperation, she was apparently willing to ignore the required 5-drink minimum protocol and, after leaning in close enough in the adjacent bar stool that I could feel the warmth of her moist breath against my ear as she whispered despite the chill of the air conditioning, jumped straight into an offer of SNG $200 for an off-site ‘massage and boom-boom’ session (SNG $100 for massage only). Despite my polite refusal of her offer, she continued undeterred with her proposition (now adding a light stoking of my thigh as she spoke), which began to sound more like a plea as hints of desperation entered into her voice, as she now nervously glanced around the bar while she talked as if to confirm that the staff hadn’t noticed anything suspicious in her behavior. After a few more refusals on my part, she then made a final plea, which included her telling  me of a prior Singapore ‘tourist’ trip that had been facilitated by some individuals did not generate the anticipated cash due to her being heavier and less attractive than the other girls. She went on to say that she was desperate for customers this trip because, if she didn’t make enough money to satisfy said individuals this time around, that she was, “…gonna die!” As I finished my beer and stood in preparation to leave the bar, I told her that I was very sorry to hear of her situation, and that I hoped that her luck with the customers would improve as I tipped her the equivalent of two drinks’ commission. She thanked me for the tip and also for buying her a drink earlier, allowing her to sit and talk with me for as long as I did, and for being so kind to her despite her heavy-handed propositioning (which is technically a violation of Section 19 of the Miscellaneous Offenses Act); she gave me a hug and then left to survey the bar for any tables or bar stools occupied by a solo male customer. The encounter with Lien would prove to be the most sobering and eye-opening of the conversations that I would have with the girls of Orchard Towers during my visit.

In dramatic contrast to Lien’s dire situation was that of Lindi, a petite, fresh-faced and apparently care-free 20-year old beauty from the Indonesian island of Java that worked at the Crazy Horse. Lindi was one of a group of three girls that came up to my table within a couple of minutes of me pulling up a stool at one of the small round pedestal tables that afforded a view of the dance stage and ordering a beer. The three ladies introduced themselves, each putting on the charm in hopes of being the one to be chosen to occupy the second bar stool at the table and, if nothing else, pick up a drink commission or two. I asked the three of them in turn where they were from, and learned that the two somewhat taller and perhaps a bit older of the group were both Filipinas (though one looked like she could be a lady-boy, which is an ever-present possibility in and around the Towers), and that Lindi, the more dainty and attractive of the three, was from Indonesian. As the girls that I had talked to in the Towers at that point had been Filipinas, I opted to offer Lindi a stool and a drink (again, a shot of tequila being her choice) and share a bit of conversation. Lindi, though a bit soft-spoken and quiet at first, was quite friendly and seemed to covey that she was pretty happy and positive with her current circumstances. Where as Lien back over at the Ba-Li-Ba was having to bear the increasingly desperation burden of having to pay back a mounting debt or face potentially severe (perhaps even literally 'life-or-death') consequences, Lindi’s most pressing concern at the moment appeared to be acquiring spare change from me or whoever so that she and her Indonesian girlfriend could play their favorite Tetris derivative-type video arcade game near the corner of the bar. We chatted for a bit as I sipped my beer and she nursed her shot of tequila as a sultry and shapely Asian girl on stage showed off her best dance moves to a hip-hop track. Lindi watched the dancer from the bar stool with apparent admiration, commenting on how sexy she though the girl was and adding that she was also from Indonesia. I finished my beer and fished some spare coins out of my pocket which quickly went from Lindi’s slender hand into the coin slot of the video game, and left the bar with the impression that she viewed her one-month freelance ‘foreign talent’ stint (which seemed to be her first) as just one big fun-filled and exciting adventure.

My visits to Orchard Towers to checkout some of the bars and chat with some of the bar girls (as an observer, and solely in the name of cultural research, mind you) was interesting in that it provided a bit of insight into Singapore’s seedy side, and also revealed the human side of the otherwise anonymous girls seen hanging around the entrances, walking the floors, riding the escalators and working the bars at the Towers. Though perhaps not as culturally-enriching as, say, a trip to the Asian Civilizations Museum in the Colonial District, it is yet another aspect of Singaporean society to witness if you want to really experience the Lion City.

NOTE: If you found my post on Singapore's Orchard Towers interesting, you may also want to check out my post 'One Night in Patpong', in which I recount my visit to what is perhaps Bangkok's most well-know red light district that, surprisingly, also hosts a family-friendly night market. I venture into one of Patpong's 'upstairs' bars and take in one of those infamous shows in which the girls on stage creatively employ a variety of props to perform a number of 'vaginal tricks'. 

Addendum: Having an Orchard Towers Red Light ‘Flashback’ in a California Vietnamese Coffee Shop, and the Asian Day Spa Scene

About a year after returning from my last trip to Singapore, which provided the experiences and inspiration for the above blog post, I was introduced by a friend to a Vietnamese coffee shop in a small East San Jose shopping plaza whose ambiance evoked memories of time spent in one of Orchard Towers’ bars and, to some extent, also the club that I had checked out in Bangkok’s Patpong red light district.

Chair-dancing at San Jose's Cafe Quyen

Located about 50 miles south of San Francisco in the famous high-tech enclave known as ‘Silicon Valley’, city of San Jose is home to a very large Vietnamese community, and in the last couple of years has even established an official ‘Little Saigon’ district. Many in the community had left Vietnam back in the mid 1970’s and early 1980’s and resettled in San Francisco’s South Bay Area, later finding work in the region’s then-evolving microchip and computer industry; the promise of jobs in the tech sector would similarly attract immigrants from China, India, the Philippines and Thailand, in addition to refugees from Laos and Cambodia, which further shaped the diverse demographics of the region. With the array and density of business establishments catering to the various Asian communities, particularly with some of the markets and restaurants featuring live seafood tanks, and some of the other visual trappings of the Far Eastern cultures (older men huddled around a game of checkers at a shopping center bench, a vendor selling durian and jack fruit from the back of a car, people practicing Tai Chi in a public park, elderly women wearing nom la conical straw hats and Buddhist monks in colorful robes on the sidewalks), one can almost feel as if they were back in Asia.

The Vietnamese coffee shops are both popular and infamous, not only in the San Jose area but also in southern California, particular in Westminster’s Little Saigon. They are geared toward a male clientele, though woman will sometimes accompany their significant others in, or come in with one or two of their girl friends out of curiosity in order to see what the guys find so fascinating about these establishments. The coffee shops normally serve ca phe sua da, or strong Vietnamese coffee with sugar and condensed milk, which is most often iced but can also be ordered hot and presently sells for USD $5 a glass. The coffee shops provided the patrons with a complimentary glass of iced green tea that comes with endless refills when they order a coffee or a tropical fruit or avocado smoothie which sells for about the same price as the coffee; if no coffee or smoothie is ordered, the endlessly-refillable iced tea generally costs USD $2. Although smoking is generally prohibited in most California restaurants and bars, a lot of the Vietnamese coffee shops will still allow smoking inside. As the VC’s (‘Viet Cafes’) seek to attract male customers, they usually are equipped with four or more high-definition wide screen televisions mounted up near the ceiling, with generally a least two tuned into one of the cable sports channels, and the others tuned to either a male-oriented network channel (Spike TV, G4, The Military Channel), a music video channel featuring Rap and Hip hop, or perhaps DVD’s of the Popular Vietnamese variety show series ‘Paris By Night’. Most of the places will also have a number of video game terminals or a California Lottery Hot Spot / Bulls-Eye monitor for those who want to fill out a card, wager some money and try their luck (new draws come at 4-minute intervals). The places usually have good house sound systems that play a rotating selection of hip hop, rap and EDM tracks (apparently, alternative or ‘80’s hair band’ rock doesn’t fit the business model or the primary target demographic).

Of course, the best way to capture and hold a guy’s attention is with attractive and scantily-clad Asian waitresses (and sometimes, though rarely, perhaps a Latina or Caucasian waitress included among them), and that is the main draw to the VC’s. The lovely ladies in the majority of the places are generally attired in either very skimpy two-piece bikinis or shear lingerie with thongs and bras underneath, although in many places the particularly well-endowed ladies may opt for pasties and a G-string, thong or bikini bottom. (There was one VC on Story Road in San Jose’s Little Saigon that for a time had their waitresses wearing a mid-length Cheongsam, a body-hugging one-piece Chinese dress with slits up the side that gave the place a sort of retro feel that called to mind the Nancy Kwan film ‘The World of Suzy Wong’.) The waitresses tend to accessorize their revealing ensembles with high-heel shoes or platform sandals of the 4” to 6” variety, with many of the ladies sporting elaborate and colorful tattoos and tasteful body piercings. In the quest for attracting business away from the competition, which in some cases is just a few doors down, some of the VC’s opt to push the level of skin exposure beyond the legal limit, which has resulted in some unwanted television news exposure and police citations for the display of public nudity. As prostitution is illegal in California, one would not see the open signs of solicitation that occurs in and around Orchard Towers, though most of the public tends to assume that such activity must be taking place inside, and that the coffee shop has got to be a front for some type of illegal Asian gang-affiliated activity.

The Famous Cafe Quyen (Right), and Two Nearby Massage Parlors
Perhaps the most well-known, if not the most infamous, of the East San Jose Vietnamese coffee shops is the same one that my friend took me to, which is called Café Quyen (this was the name most commonly used for the establishment, despite the signage appearing to read Quyen Café). It’s located in the small Tully Dragon Plaza shopping center that’s located on Tully Road a short distance east of US Highway 101, along a stretch of road that has a high concentration of Vietnamese business establishments including other VC’s, gift shops, restaurants and a number of day spas/massage parlors (more on that later). My friend suggested that we check the place out, telling me that he had been hearing his friends talk about it for some time. It was on a Sunday afternoon and the place was quite busy when we arrived. As we walked in, a somewhat tall (perhaps owing to the high heels) and slender Asian girl in a red bikini who looked to be a Filipina pointed us in the direction of a small round pedestal table with two chairs set before it. She walked up near the cash register to retrieve two filled glasses of iced green tea, which she brought back to us before taking our drink order (mine being a black iced Vietnamese coffee without sugar). Two the big screen TV’s mounted in the back corners of the somewhat dimly-lit café’s long rectangular interior with the sound turned off were tuned to a soccer match, while the two big screens on the side walls, which also displayed placards saying that the taking of pictures or videos inside was prohibited, played some documentary involving an aircraft carrier. The sound system pumped out songs like Britney Spears’ Till the World Ends, Wiz Khalifa's Black and Yellow and Jennifer Lopez’s On The Floor ft. Pit Bull, which easily washed over the murmur of conversations in English, Vietnamese and perhaps a couple in the Cali-Mexican dialect of Spanish that’s spoken by the local Latino population.

Looking around the place I spotted the two other waitresses that were on duty that afternoon. One of them was rather large-busted and wearing two star-shaped, shiny silken red pasties in lieu of a bikini top, with the thin strap of a skimpy black bikini bottom stretched across the top of her shapely hips; I would later learn that she is Vietnamese and in her late-20’s, and that her name is Truong. She was rather sultry with large brown eyes and full pouting lips, with the lines of her face and profile leading me to wonder if she didn’t perhaps have French bloodlines somewhere back in her family tree; I found in subsequent visits that she was pleasant to talk with and has a nice smile, but when she wasn’t engaged in conversation she tended to affect a somewhat bored, slightly upward gaze that suggests she’d rather be elsewhere at the moment. The other waitress on duty that afternoon was slender and quite tall, even without the high-heeled clogs. She was sexy, though her features were a bit sharper that Truong’s, which may have been accentuated by her heavier makeup. Her small breasts were contained within a dark brown micro-bikini top. She was by no means as curvy as Truong, but what commanded the attention of the guys seated at the tables was the rest of her attire. In lieu of a bikini bottom, she wore a black mini skirt comprised of a waistband and thin hanging vertical strips of black cloth of a thickness a little less than twice the open space between the strips, with no panties worn underneath. Given the swaying and fluttering of the fabric strips induced by the swivel of her hips and the breeze generated as she walked, her lower body was only marginally and sporadically obscured from view, thus allowing the thirsty patrons to see her practically nude from the waist down (except for the high heels). Her other distinctive and eye-catching feature was a colorful and nicely-rendered tattoo of an arched and upward-leaping koi goldfish spitting a stream of water from its mouth on her left lower abdomen, with the tip of the tail starting perhaps three fingers’ width below the waist and aligned with the inside of the left thigh (as if the koi had just propelled itself up through a floating patch of black seaweed) and the head level with her navel, with the jet of water extending around to her left side. After a couple more visits, during which I would learn that she is Chinese and that her name is Li-Lu, it became apparent that she was the designated ‘nearly-nude’ waitress for the shifts that she worked, and I would later be told that the women were free to choose how much bare skin they showed, with the more flesh revealed associated with the higher the hourly pay rateVietnamese and in her late-20’s, and that her name is Truong. She was rather sultry with large brown eyes and full pouting lips, with the lines of her face and profile leading me to wonder if she didn’t perhaps have French bloodlines somewhere back in her family tree; I found in subsequent visits that she was pleasant to talk with and has a nice smile, but when she wasn’t engaged in conversation she tended to affect a somewhat bored, slightly upward gaze that suggests she’d rather be elsewhere at the moment. The other waitress on duty that afternoon was slender and quite tall, even without the high-heeled clogs. She was sexy, though her features were a bit sharper that Truong’s, which may have been accentuated by her heavier makeup. Her small breasts were contained within a dark brown micro-bikini top. She was by no means as curvy as Truong, but what commanded the attention of the guys seated at the tables was the rest of her attire. In lieu of a bikini bottom, she wore a black mini skirt comprised of a waistband and thin hanging vertical strips of black cloth of a thickness a little less than twice the open space between the strips, with no panties worn underneath. Given the swaying and fluttering of the fabric strips induced by the swivel of her hips and the breeze generated as she walked, her lower body was only marginally and sporadically obscured from view, thus allowing the thirsty patrons to see her practically nude from the waist down (except for the high heels). Her other distinctive and eye-catching feature was a colorful and nicely-rendered tattoo of an arched and upward-leaping koi goldfish spitting a stream of water from its mouth on her left lower abdomen, with the tip of the tail starting perhaps three fingers’ width below the waist and aligned with the inside of the left thigh (as if the koi had just propelled itself up through a floating patch of black seaweed) and the head level with her navel, with the jet of water extending around to her left side. After a couple more visits, during which I would learn that she is Chinese and that her name is Li-Lu, it became apparent that she was the designated ‘nearly-nude’ waitress for the shifts that she worked, and I would later be told that the women were free to choose how much bare skin they showed, with the more flesh revealed associated with the higher the hourly pay rate and also the larger the tips left by the patrons (although the collected tips are shared by all at the end of the shift). During a later visit I would see her making the rounds of the tables wearing only her high heels and a dainty silver filigree chain around her waist.

There was one older Vietnamese woman seen hanging around behind the cash register counter located in the far back corner who would often walk over to the nearby tables and chat at length with the seated Asian gentleman, who seemed to be either friends of hers or at least regular customers. She looked to be in her late 30's or more likely early 40's (it's usually hard to judge the age of a Asian woman, though it is often said that one can generally get in the ball park by looking at their hands), with a curvaceous body and her longish black hair permed into small curls. She was by no means as attractive as the younger ladies, but had a certain mature sexiness about her that would lead the majority of the male patrons to categorize her as a MILF, with those on the fence regarding her status likely giving her the benefit of the doubt based on her wearing of a woven loose mesh dress with no bra or panties which left no doubt as to her nipple size and color, and her preferred ‘personal grooming’ style or pattern. Her name was Linh, though some of the online reviewers of the coffee shop have referred to her as Boss Lady Linh, or for those that are not on a first name basis with her, simply “the mama-san”.

The real similarity between Café Quyen’s vibe and that of Orchard Towers would come during my second visit, which was on a weekday afternoon. The place was not as busy as it had been during my first visit, with a fair number of tables vacant. I had ordered my black iced Vietnamese coffee and was alternating between taking sips of it and my glass of complimentary iced green as I glanced back and forth between the TV screens and the occasionally passing waitresses; when not doing their rounds and tending the patrons, the waitresses often sat and checked their smart phones at a table near the back wall that was positioned roughly between the cash register counter and the aisle leading to the ‘single-seater’ unisex restroom next to the corner Lotto ticket machine, and in front of a small box-like Buddhist or Taoist shrine that sat on the floor and normally contained offerings of incense, a small bowl of rice and some pieces of fruit (as part of a recent redecorating effort that would increase the wall-mounted TV screen count from six to nine and provide some chairs for the gentlemen waiting in line to use the restroom to sit on, the shrine was relocated to high on the back wall near the cash register.) Truong, topless save for her familiar star-shaped pasties, was one of the waitresses on duty that day, with the other two (possibly Filipino or darker-skinned Vietnamese, one of which had her long hair dyed a reddish brown and feathered/punked in the style of Tina Turner) wearing string bikinis. At one point the TV's were switched off, which dimmed the interior slightly, and soon thereafter the Hip hop music that had been playing on the sound system abruptly stopped. After a brief quiet pause, during which two of the waitresses who had gone back into the kitchen/storage/changing room area via the doorway behind the cashier counter reemerged and made their way out to a couple of vacant tables, a one-second sample of some song blared from the sound system at a noticeably higher volume; this was followed by a quick pause and another short, loud burst of music, suggesting that someone was skipping through the tracks of a CD in search of a particular song. As this was going on, the three waitresses each walked out among the seated patrons and selected a vacant table for themselves, and then pulled a chair away from the table and after removing their high heels, stepped up onto the chairs. 

At last the desired song, which started with some percussive beat rendered by drum synthesizer, seemed to have been found, as the track selector on the CD deck was tapped back to restart the song and the volume was raised a bit more. As the song (which I would later learn by Googling the lyrics of the chorus was Jeremih's “Down On Me ft. 50 Cent”) played, the lovely 'chair-borne' ladies began to slowly and suggestively move their bodies to the beat, save for the Filipino/Vietnamese girl with the dyed Tina Turner hair, who was chair-dancing in a more energetic, up-tempo and twerk-like manner. I was closest to Truong, hence I spent the most of the one-song performance admiring her dancing abilities and the graceful swaying of her pasties. As I gazed up at her (and she gazed up towards the ceiling at the far end of the room with that somewhat bored expression on her angelic face), a memory from over a year ago resurfaced of similarly looking up to take in the view of a suggestively-dressed Filipina dancing on the mirrored go-go pedestal in between band sets at Orchard Towers' Ba-Li-Ba Bar as I sipped my beer and Jordan, the freelancing Filipina mother of one and holder of a one-month tourist visa, nursed her overpriced tequila shot. It was at that point that Linh began to make the rounds of the tables, with a number of width-wise folded dollar bills tucked between the fingers of her upraised left hand. "Tips...! Tips...!", she called out as she briefly stopped at the table adjacent to each of the dancing ladies and deposited a few dollars as 'seed money' to inspire the generosity of the appreciative gentlemen, most of whom promptly reached into their back pockets while still keeping their eyes on the ladies. By the end of the song, each of the dancers had accumulated a small pile of bills at their table, with the majority likely being of the $1 denomination, which they scooped up and stacked in their hands after putting their high heels back on. The chair dance performances, which were all limited to a single song, loosely ran on a schedule of once every 60 to 90 minutes. Most of the time, the waitresses who would be working their shift completely bottomless, or topless and/or bottomless beneath a sheer piece of lingerie would generally put on panties and pasties before ascending the chair for their performance, though this was a workplace policy that was not always followed, as would later come to light via an edited cell phone video clip presented on the local evening TV news segment. A YouTube search on the term 'cafe khoa than' (from the Vietnamese term 'quán cà phê khỏa thân', or 'cafe nude') may turn up a copy of said video clip.

Café Quyen’s chair-dancing, together with the caliber of the waitresses (Double-D cup in some cases, particularly with one bikinied Korean waitress that used to dye her hair platinum blonde) and the amount of skin shown would distinguish it among the other SJ Viet cafés as the most popular, and later the most infamous in the eyes of the spouses and girlfriends of some of the patrons. Perhaps the best of Cafe Quyen's dancing waitresses who, like Li-Lu, also seemed to enjoy showing off her practically-nude body, was Bich. Like Truong, Bich was also Vietnamese and similarly buxom and curvaceous, with prominent nipples that appeared to be perpetually stiff perhaps owing to the air conditioning. Her style of dancing was particularly sensuous and seductive; the graceful gyrations of her comely and voluptuous body to the music were made to seem all the more enticing by the way she would raise her arms above her head and join her hands together by lightly hooking the fingers together. Starting with a subtle movement of her up-stretched arms, the fluid and almost hula-like sway of her limbs and body progressed downward like a gentle passing wave that in turns put the rest of her deliciously feminine form into responding motion, much the same way that the ripples created by a rock thrown far from the shore into the still waters of a pond on a windless early morning would slowly advance across its mirror-like surface; as her hips would begin to follow the movement, her legs would part and bend to allow the graceful rolling of her hips. During her dancing, if one where sitting nearby and gazing up at her, she would fix you in the downward gaze of her dark and sultry brown eyes which seemed to convey a hint of playful naughtiness, and give you a flirtatious smile that would draw you in and likely have you reaching deep into your wallet, then look upwards with her eyes closed and a satisfied grin across her lips as if basking in the exhausted afterglow of a vigorous climax. In theory, nothing would go on between the waitresses and the patrons, regardless of the amount of the tip given, though one of the waitresses, a reddish brown-haired Vietnamese girl named Lien, on several occasions leaned in while refilling my iced green tea and mentioned to me that she gets off her shift at 3 PM, implying that she might be open to getting together after-hours.

The situation at Café Quyen would change after the assumed disgruntled spouse of one of the gentleman patrons would, against the conspicuously-posted policy of no photos or videos being taken inside the establishment, shot a cell phone video of some nude table dancing being performed on the premises, and promptly to the video to the news bureau of one of the San Francisco Bay Area television stations, which lead to a police raid and the citation of three of the dancers. The police action and bad press resulted in the place, and other Vietnamese coffee shops in the area, really scaling back on the amount of skin that was shown, and also brought the chair dancing to a screeching halt. Some nudity could still be seen on occasion, though with extreme caution as the San Jose Police Department began to make spot inspections of the Vietnamese coffee shops, and a quick cell phone call announcing a police presence in the immediate area would cause the ladies to quickly put on their panties and don a set of pasties. I was present for one such spot check, which occurred within about five minutes after the cell phone alert came in for all hands to immediately go to ‘Panty/Pastie Stations’. After the 30-second spot check was concluded, during which a uniformed and smiling officer of the SJPD poked his head in the door and briefly scanned the interior of the establishment before amiably bidding the ladies a farewell with a wave, Linh allowed a few minutes to elapse before hooking her thumbs into the waistband of her thong panties and sliding them down to just below the knee so that she could step out of them.

On the weekends in the evening hours, Cafe Quyen conveys a bit more of an Orchard Towers red light vibe given the volume of male patrons passing in and out of both it and the similar Vietnamese cafe a few doors down (formerly known as Cleo Leo Cafe, but recently spruced up and re-branded as 408 Café, they used to have one topless waitress per shift with the others in lingerie), and others hanging around out in front of the establishments, smoking cigarettes as they chat with one another or into their smart phones, while the cars of arriving patrons run slow circuits around the plaza's small parking lot in hopes of a spot opening up (parking in the adjacent Carl's Jr. fast food restaurant's lot could get you ticketed, if not towed away.) Further adding to Cafe Quyen’s OT vibe are the two somewhat sketchy Asian day spas (i.e., massage parlors) that are located mere steps away from it; also adding to the ‘counter-culture vibe’ (but most definitely NOT in a Singapore sort of way) is Cafe Quyen’s newest next door neighbor, which happens to be a legal medical marijuana dispensary (of course, only for those who hold a valid California Medical Marijuana Identification Card). 

Happy 8 (or Perhaps 'Ending'...?) Health Center

I had never taken advantage of the relatively inexpensive massages that can be had in Southeast Asia during my travels as I always assumed that, given how ticklish I am (especially when it comes to my feet), that I would not really enjoy a massage. It was some time after my last trip to SE Asia that the same friend that introduced me to Cafe Quyen would later introduce me to Asian full-body massages, which are readily available in the South San Francisco Bay Area, albeit at a price considerably higher than one would pay in Burma, Thailand or Cambodia. That first massage was at East San Jose's Black Tigers Day Spa, which was located only a few traffic lights away from Cafe Quyen on Tully Road near the intersection of Quimby Road. Vietnamese-owned, with the majority of the attractive female masseuses being Vietnamese and hand railing (normally parallel bars, but sometimes a single bar) suspended from the ceiling over the massage table to facilitate the safe (from the provider's occupational standpoint) application of petite oily feet from one's calves to the shoulders, Black Tigers was my favorite Asian day spa in the area. Unfortunately, it had recently closed and had been replaced by Kim Anh Spa.

A Single Back-Walking Hand Railing

Most of the day spas in the east San Jose area are staffed by Vietnamese masseuses, with mainly Chinese masseuses found in the surrounding communities to the north and west. The price of a one-hour full body massage in a private room, which may include the brief use of hot stones, generally runs USD $40 an hour excluding tip, with the two day spas that share the plaza with Cafe Quyen (Relax Health Care Center and Soft Touch Spa) changing $60 for a one-hour full body massage and $40 for a 1/2-hour. If one is looking for a massage on the cheap in a common area with more emphasis on the foot reflexology but still some over-the-clothing body massaging, that can generally be had for USD $20 an hour excluding tip. For those that opt for a private room full body massage, some of the day spas do offer complimentary showers. For the full body massage, the masseuses of some of the day spas may perform the massage in a table-side manner utilizing only hands, forearms and elbows (Relax Health Care Center and Soft Touch Spa near Café Quyen fall into this category).  In other day spa, where the masseuses tend to enter the room attired in shorts, they will employ (if the client so chooses) the technique of sitting on top of, or straddling atop, the client to allow for better positioning in order to more efficiently apply force, and to be able to employ the use of bare knees, shins and forearms in the course of giving the massage. The client is nude and will most often not have a towel or sheet draped over them while they are lying on their stomach, with massage oils or lotions applied to minimize friction. A towel or sheet is generally draped over the groin area when the client is lying on their back, though I did have a particular Chinese masseuse named Gwei-Tung at one local day spa who would leave me lying on my back completely nude and uncovered while she massage my front side; at no time was there anything inappropriate done or suggested by her, and she did not mount me to administer the massage while I was on my back, although I was ever so lightly ‘tea-bagged’ on the forehead a few times by her ample, tightly T-shirt enshrouded breasts when she leaned overhead and reached forward to massage my chest and stomach. When visiting the Asian day spas, there is a good chance that your masseuse will be a fairly recent immigrant from Vietnam or China, with a limited command of the English language, which can make a bit of friendly chit-chat during the massage session a bit challenging at times. 

The vast majority of the masseuses that I’ve had have been quite friendly and pleasant to talk with despite the bit of a language barrier, with the throwing in of a few mangled and often mispronounced words or phrases in Mandarin or Vietnamese (including some ‘sweet talk’ phrases that I was taught by some male Vietnamese coworkers and encouraged to jokingly try out on a particularly attractive, petite and good-natured female coworker while I was working in the electronics industry back in the early 1980’s) helping to break the ice and evoke some hardy and femininely high-pitched giggling on her part, and sometimes even earning myself an affectionate and good-humored light slap across shoulder or a playful little spank across the bare ass in mid-giggle. One particularly humorous encounter was with Nhi, a very cute 22-year-old Vietnamese girl hailing from the suburbs of Saigon who had only been in the USA for 6 months and had a very limited command of English. It was a bit challenging to carry on a conversation with her even when it involved Vietnamese food and produce (she was at a loss when I asked her if she liked durian, and all the more so when I mangled the pronunciation of 'sầu riêng', the the Vietnamese word for the spiky, smelly 'King of All Fruits'), places that I had traveled in the north of Vietnam, and other such small talk. I was a bit pleasantly surprised when, after the massage as I finished dressing and she re-enter the room to hand me a cup of water, she suddenly flashed a devilish smile and cupped the lower half my rather out-of-shape and somewhat saggy left 'man-mary' over my T-shirt and said, "Hmm, big... It's the same size as mine!", after which she giggled and gave me a playful kiss on the cheek. Some of the masseuses can be quite engaging and revealing in conversation during the session, particularly during repeat visits; she may share personal anecdotes about the small village she grew up in back in China, her early high school days in a small outlying suburb of Saigon and how she always loved to dance to Western music, how she got that scar on the upper portion of her breast that distracts from her ample natural cleavage (motor scooter accident back home before moving to America), or about the abusive ex-husband that left her with an infant daughter right before she left to come to America.

I would later learn first-hand during the course of a massage (the worst of my life, I might add) at a day spa in a Vietnamese shopping center at the south end of King Road that the ladies may sometimes extend offers of specially services to ensure that the massage has a 'happy ending', with some basic 'glad-handing' (or 'lam tai', in Vietnamese slang, with 'tai' being the Vietnamese word for hand) requiring USD $40 tip (cash up front prior to the rendering of any services, or so I was told) and other services provided for larger tips (upon inquiry, $100 was the quoted price for 'full service' with condom at one Little Saigon establishment). Surprisingly, the offer was extended at the very beginning of the massage, when she groin-groped me over the sheet and asked me if I wanted her to, “…do something to this?” I politely told her that I’m married and refused her offer, and unfortunately was given a ‘replacement masseuse’ who by her own admission had never had any massage training and had no idea how to give a proper massage, as her normal job is giving manicures/pedicures and cutting hair. In later searching for customer reviews of the day spa in question on the Internet to see if others had encountered the same propositioning, the search engine would direct me to several matches on a website called, which lists reviews the various Asian day spas in the immediate area and beyond that offer a variety of ‘special services’, complete with the names of the masseuses, their physical attributes, what they did and for how much, and how good they were in the assessment of the client writing the review. In subsequent conversation with a masseuse at a different Asian day spa name Phuong (a Vietnamese female name referring to a particular flowering tree), I learned that apparently more than one 'happy ending' can be arranged in session if so desired, as she indicated that a customer in another room had booked a two-hour session involving full service 'boom-boom' to completion followed by a leisurely massage that would end with a 'lam tah' happy ending. It has also been suggested that a 'four hands' session (a massage à trois?) can be arranged at some establishments, with the gentleman reviewer at one particular place indicating that his involved two Vietnamese sisters.

This ‘happy ending’ form of prostitution is illegal in California and has led to periodic police raid, which has recently resulted in the closure of a number of day spas/massage parlors, and the arrest of the owners on charges ranging from running a house of prostitution and tax evasion to possibly even human trafficking. The day spas that one sees in the large shopping malls and Big-Box anchor store shopping centers (especially the upscale ones) can be assumed to be legitimate establishments which have strict rules that are rigidly enforced regarding inappropriate contact between the masseuse and the client, especially the large American franchise chain day spas such as Massage Envy; these places will conspicuously post said rules of conduct at the entrance and perhaps even have you sign an agreement, and stress that either the client or the provider can decide at any time when the rules have been violated and swiftly that the appropriate action. To minimize the chance of something inappropriate occurring within the private massage room, some places will even have a policy of undergarments being worn during the massage session. I had encountered this policy once when trying a massage at a new day spa that had opened at the local Filipino shopping mall (the city of Milpitas' smaller equivalent to Singapore's Lucky Plaza). Although the extent of the body massage was less than I've come to expect for a one-hour session, as my provider Lisa had me lie on my stomach the whole time, her technique coupled with her sweet personality and her exotic beauty (owing to her Vietnamese, Chinese and French bloodlines on her mother's side of the family, and the Cambodian, Laotian and Thai bloodlines on her father's) made the experience worthwhile. Often times one can pick up on visual cues that would suggest that they are entering an establishment that would likely offer such services (an establishment located in a rundown part of town or ethnic enclave, an electronically-locked front door that requires one to 'buzz in', or a couple of Costco jumbo-sized rolls of toilet paper sitting on the bottom rung of the corner shelf unit next to the massage table).

The solicitation for special services seems most often to be delivered more as a hint instead of being clearly and explicitly stated, with inquiry kept vague and open ended as the masseuse appears to gauge how receptive the client would be to an offer of said services, or if the client may even be an undercover police officer taking part in a sting operation. Sometimes, as you roll from lying on your stomach onto your back, they will delay draping the towel or sheet over your groin area (the providers in the 'legitimate ' day spas will tend to drape you as soon as you are on your back, and will do it in such a manner that their view is blocked by the way that the towel or sheet is held), and after a brief pause will lean in close and, usually addressing you endearingly as ‘honey’, asks you in a low voice or whisper what you want her to do, perhaps stroking your ego (if nothing else) in the process by complimenting you on the size of your member in an attempt to seal the deal by charming you. In one case, after I declined the offer extended to me at the end of the massage on the grounds that I’m a married man, my rather portly yet cute Vietnamese masseuse named Jenny told me to wait just a second and left the room; she very shortly sent the ‘boss lady’, a MILF-ish Vietnamese woman named Joy in perhaps her mid-40’s with a bit too much makeup who had been at the front desk when I arrived, come in to see if she could change my mind. “Is anything wrong, honey? Is there a problem?” she asked with a note of concern in her voice as she lightly stroked my stomach just below the belly button with a slow back-and-forth motion, her eyes briefly looking into mine before moving down to my still-exposed crotch and then coming back up to meet mine, “We only want you to leave happy.” When I reiterated that I was not interested in anything beyond a regular massage, and that I would consider anything beyond that an act of cheating, she tried to counter my judgment with her personal line of reasoning delivered massage tableside in a low and sweet, yet emphatic, voice. ”Nooo, honeeey. Hand job not cheat-teeen. Now this…” She squints her eyes and brings her lips tightly together as if she is straining, and with a rhythmic bouncing of her upper body punctuated with grunts at the bottom of each down stroke, she artfully pantomimes giving some guy a spirited Asian cowgirl-styled pounding. “This is cheat-teeen...”, she says with a conveyed sense of satisfaction that she’s made her point abundantly clear to me. I reiterated my position of the definition of cheating, to which she replied with a resigned “Okay; that’s okay, honey. No problem.”

I had more recently learned of the introduction of a couple of Vietnamese clubs in San Jose that operate on a different business model but still use scantily-clad Asian go-go dancers as the main draw, with (as suggested by some online reviews) lap dancing on the menu. These establishments apparently offer high-priced food and alcohol, and a bottle fee if one is inclined to bring their own alcohol, with a USD $50 minimum tab (excluding tax and tips) said to be required of each patron. Given that alcohol is consumed, the establishment is by law not allowed to have nudity on the premises; this is the basis that San Jose’s one totally-nude club, The Pink Poodle, operates on, though the entertainment involves suggestive dancing sans the ping-pong balls, lit cigarettes, capped soda bottles, banana projectiles, and the strings of large needles and expanding plastic flowers that one would find in Bangkok’s Patpong. It seems that not long after my first hearing of these gentleman's establishments operating in the area the local news media began taking an interest in them, with the stories suggesting that said establishments were to be given increased law enforcement scrutiny.

It is interesting to note that some of the Asian day spas are beginning to add Latina masseuses to their staff rosters, perhaps in a move to attract a bit more business. I noticed that a new place had opened up nearby and decided to stop by and check it out. The owner of the place is a Vietnamese woman, and as I inquired about the rate for a one hour body massage ($60), the facilities in the private rooms (unfortunately, no ceiling hand rails provided for Cal/OSHA-approved back-walking) and the masseuse staff, she responded that I could choose from Vietnamese, Chinese or 'Messican' (Latina) girls. Some weeks later I went back to that same establishment and asked the woman behind the counter (who was not the Vietnamese owner, but an older Chinese woman of perhaps mid-60's) if they had any Latinas working that day, and was told that they had one girl that was not full Latina but rather 'half-half'. I was intrigued and decided to try a massage from her, making the assumption that the other 'half' was either Vietnamese or Chinese. I paid my money and was directed down the hall to the first door on the left, and just about the time that I had taken off the last of my clothes and set them on a chair near the corner of the room, I heard footsteps approaching followed be the opening and closing of the door, and turned to meet my masseuse. She was a voluptuous dark-skinned Latina beauty with longish curly-permed hair tinted with reddish hights wearing a short and skin-tight leopard print dress. I could make out the very slightest hints of some Asian bloodlines in her eyes, but when she introduced herself she spoke with a decidedly Vietnamese accent, and in conversation would refer to me as 'baby' instead of the typical 'honey'. I laid face-down on the single bed (as opposed to the standard massage table), and as she began to massage my back I learned that she was born in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) to a Vietnamese mother and a Mexican father who had been working and living in Vietnam, and that she had left Vietnam in her late teens to come to the USA. I would later add to the list of Vietnamese slang terms that I know as over the course of the massage, as she would flash me her female assets to perhaps tempt me into one of her special services to ensure that I left happy. First, she pushed aside the spaghetti straps and pulled down the top her dress so as to offer a glance at her large natural 'vu' (breasts), letting me know later in the massage that one of the pay for play services available was a 'lam vu', whereby the happy ending would be conveyed via said 'vu' and a goodly amount of massage oil. She later lifted her dress (I also learned that she prefers to work commando) to flash me her 'chim' (the Vietnamese word for 'bird' and also apparently one of the common slang terms for vagina), asking me, "How do you like my dark little chim, baby?" During a subsequent massage at an establishment in Little Saigon, I would have another masseuse who was a third Vietnamese, a third Thai and a third Argentinian, with her facial features reflecting the Thai characteristic a bit more prominantly and her shapely body perhaps a hat-tip to her Argetinian bloodlines. Though she was very actractive and quite sexy, the fact that my assigned massage room shared a wall with a Vietnamese coffee shop, and a live San Francisco Forty-Niners football game was being loudly broadcast to the patrons from one or more big screen TV's that likely hung from said wall was a major distraction that took away from the enjoyment of the massage.

Although it will be some years before I get back to Southeast Asia (Laos and the Philippines, in addition to trips to Burma to visit family, will be my next intended future destinations, followed hopefully by getting back to see more of Indonesia someday), I know I can at least experience a bit of that Southeast Asia gentleman's nightlife vibe not far from home.

UPDATE: Apparently, a fire broke out at Orchard Towers on Tuesday, February 6, 2018 that required the evacuation of 60 people according to Singapore's Channel NewsAsia.