Review: Pleasure Factory – Horrors of the Singapore Flesh Trade by Kaiwen Leong with Elaine Leong

Reviewer: Yeo Han Hwee

Pleasure Factory is not Pretty Woman. Be warned, parts of the book are very disturbing.

Dr Leong Kaiwen lifts the lid off the prostitution subculture for all to see. It was interesting to see the pecking order involved. For example, a “working girl” in Orchard Towers can command 5 times as much as another in Geylang. Youth, as you can imagine, commands a premium. The more “exotic” you are (Russian, Columbian etc), the more money you can charge.

What was the impetus for the book? In an interview with asiaone (he mentions  it in the book as well), he found out that his friend’s mother had been working in the sex trade to raise him. She was like any other polite, caring, down-to-earth mother.

His friend was never ashamed of this or his mother. “Instead, he worked tirelessly to ensure he could get her out as soon as possible,” Dr Leong says. Thereafter, I believe that he wanted to change and correct the perception that only people with poor morals and no self respect enter this trade.

What sets this book apart from others in the genre (like Gerrie Lim’s Invisible Trade I & II and David Brazil’s No Money No Honey) is his academic approach to this issue. Dr Leong  (an assistant Professor at NTU) spent 10 years researching and interviewing prostitutes all over Singapore. Earning their trust was the big obstacle. He would buy them a meal and “pay” for their time. They were mistrustful and wary of him at first (quite understandably), but eventually, they started to open up to him.

Eventually, he compiled 460 interviews (his interviewees worked everywhere from the legal brothels of Geylang to the “freelancers” who worked illegally and hoped not to get caught). He says “there are simply too many sad stories to list”. A mere 7 tales were finally selected.

So, why do they do it? The main reasons are money and desperation. One was “sold” by her family to pay for her father’s debt. Another was ostracized because he was a homosexual and “a sissy” in his home village. But the one that stood out was Aby’s story. A Mongolian woman, she had misfortune to have a child out of wedlock. So she came to Singapore to work as a prostitute (she had no pimp and wasn’t trafficked). Despite her business degree, she couldn’t find a job that paid enough.

Do not expect happy endings. What you get are gut wrenching tales of survival, fortitude and endurance. I hope someone out there reads this book, figures out a way to help these women and bring the human traffickers to justice.

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