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Empty chairs outside a brothel in Singapore's red light district, Geylang. Geylang, a neighbourhood northeast of Central Singapore, has long been associated with sex work. When I was growing up, it was a place of cheap thrills and broken rules.
Illegal sidewalk gambling tables typically sic bo or shells would appear and disappear to the rhythm of police patrols. So-called "freelancers" — sex workers without an affiliation to any of the neighbourhood's licensed brothels — would be doing street work. And enterprising smugglers would sell untaxed Malaysian cigarettes under the cover of darkness. Today, it's still the tiny, buttoned-down city-state's biggest "licensed" red light district.
But something's also changed in the last decade. Geylang's streets are quiet. The freelancers are mostly gone. The pimps — men who used to linger on the sidewalks and pull passersby in with a few choice words — have vanished. Same with the gamblers and thrifty smokers. What happened?
If you're like me, you probably thought it had something to do with an increased police presence or a change in the law. A man who told VICE he has worked in the Geylang sex industry for decades said exactly this — that a police crackdown on the illegal, unlicensed sex workers who used to congregate on the streets had a wider impact on the area, affecting legal sex work establishments as well.
But there's another reason behind the changes in Geylang: smartphones. Prostitution, like nearly everything else, has moved online in Singapore. And the Singaporean government, never one to resist regulation, has responded in kind.