Like many women who come to Singapore from developing nations to work in the sex industry, Chaem (not her real name) came in the hope of getting out of the cycle of poverty. Photo by name_gravity on Unsplash.

The night before Chaem (not her real name) came to Singapore to work, she cradled her year-old baby in her arms and wept. She was not just leaving him behind, she was also leaving behind her oldest son who, at 12, was on the cusp of teenhood, as well as her middle son, who was just 8.

“I was torn,” said Chaem, 33, who spoke in Thai through an interpreter from her village in northern Thailand. She had agreed to a Zoom interview with Salt&Light on condition of anonymity.

“I told myself that I would work for two years and make enough money, and then that would be it.”

“I felt really so sad because I would miss them a lot, especially my youngest who was so cute. But I knew I had to make money to support my family.”

A year earlier, while pregnant with her youngest son, Chaem had discovered that her husband, who had gone to Myanmar to work, had another woman. By then, he had also stopped sending money home.

With three children to care for, Chaem could not work in the family fields. What little money she had disappeared within a year.

“A distant cousin from another village asked me if I wanted to go with her to work in Singapore.”

Chaem knew the work was in the sex industry. “I told myself that I would work for two years and make enough money, and then that would be it.”

Events did not unfold as planned. Four months after Chaem arrived in Singapore, Covid swept through the world and all the brothels in Singapore were forced to close.

A life of sorrows

Life had always been tough for Chaem. When she was nine, her parents divorced. Broken-hearted, her mother resorted to drinking. Her older brother was in school in another town.

Young Chaem had to stop schooling to support the family, which she did by cleaning houses for her neighbours.  

“I had no joy in my life. As far as I remember, my childhood had been tough.”

When she was 15, her mother passed away from complications related to her alcoholism.

Chaem moved in with her father, who had returned to Thailand by then. She ended up caring for him for two years when he became paralysed on one side. Then, he passed away as well.

“I was really discouraged. I had no joy in my life, no happiness. As far as I remember, my childhood had been tough.

“I have ever slept in padi fields. I had to do farming and carry heavy buckets of water uphill and downhill.”


In the midst of a life marred by tragedy, Chaem found a tiny spark of hope when she met her husband at age 16. He had come to her village to visit relatives. Within three months, they were married. The next year, they welcomed their first child and “life improved a bit”.

Before her baby turned one, she discovered her husband’s infidelity.

Husband and wife worked the land they owned. In their free time, they helped out at other farms for extra income.

After their second child came along, Chaem’s husband decided to work in Myanmar to earn more money. At first, she visited him regularly. But when she was three months pregnant with her youngest child, she stopped. Before her baby turned one, she discovered her husband’s infidelity.

Chaem had no one to turn to. Her older brother was suffering from a mental illness, the nature of which she never understood. He passed away when her youngest child was about three months old. Distant relatives were struggling to make ends meet as well.

Covid-hit and cashless

So, Chaem travelled to Singapore to work in a brothel in Geylang. However, the big money she had expected to bring in never quite materialised.

“The first month’s pay went to paying the 80,000 baht (about SGD3,020) commission to the man who brought me to Singapore.

“I had to use up what little savings I had. The brothel owner kept saying, ‘Wait two to three months.’ ”

“The second month’s pay went to paying off the 100,000 baht (about SGD3,775) bill for the cosmetic procedures I had before I came.

“I managed to send money back for my children’s expenses in my third and fourth month.”

But in late March 2020, all the brothels had to close because of the Covid pandemic. Chaem could no longer work.

“I had to use up what little savings I had. I felt so discouraged, and I missed my children. The brothel owner kept saying, ‘Wait two to three months.’ 

“I waited two to three months and then he said to wait some more. So, I pressed on.”

At the time, no one really expected the Covid-19 outbreak to last very long. Even so, the lack of an income meant Chaem had nothing to send home. She had to borrow from the brothel owner to support her children.

She would remain in Singapore for another year or more, stuck in the brothel that never reopened. In that time, she chalked up a SGD3,000 debt.

A chance meeting

The lorongs (Malay for “alleys” or “lanes”) of Geylang were emptied of their usual activity, save one: Geylang Ministry (GM), an outreach that began in 2008 to help those working in the area’s red-light industry, was busier than ever.

Covid had closed the sex trade in Geylang but opened doors for GM to deliver food and groceries to the out-of-work brothel employees and help the pimps or “uncles” find gainful employment.

It was during one of GM’s regular lunch deliveries that Chaem met Debbie Zhang, founder of House of Olive Leaf (HOL), which runs GM.

Said Debbie, who was also present at the Salt&Light Zoom interview: “We don’t usually get to meet all the girls. I only had a contact among them.”

“She kept contacting me. She never forced me but she kept on sharing the Good News with me.”

That fateful day, the back door was left ajar and Chaem happened to pass by. Debbie seized the opportunity to get her contact information. With that, she began texting Chaem and sharing the Gospel with her. 

“When I first heard about Jesus, I didn’t understand it at all,” said Chaem.

The fact that she was illiterate may have complicated matters. But what Chaem lacked in education, she more than made up for in resolve.

Every time she received a message from Debbie, she would run it through “Google translate”. She would record her own voice replies and translate that into text, which she would then send to Debbie.

Said Chaem: “She kept contacting me and sharing the Good News. She would say, ‘God is good. God can look after you and your family.’

“She never forced me but she kept on sharing with me.”

At a Christmas outreach, the GM team had the opportunity to present the Gospel to Chaem in person. “But she said, ‘No’,” recalled Debbie.

Chaem interjected: “I slowly absorbed the information.”

Trusting God

In May 2021, when the last of the foreign sex workers were asked to leave Singapore, Chaem also went home.

GM helped to pay for her way back and even gave her a parting gift of SGD1,000. In addition, they agreed to provide her a monthly support of SGD300. The hope was that with such help, she would not return to the sex trade.

“I didn’t want to go back to such a job. I decided to try trusting God.”

“When she left, we didn’t know if she had accepted Christ or not. We didn’t hold out much hope,” said Debbie.

But God was at work. Back in her village, Chaem kept mulling over the Gospel truths that Debbie had shared with her.

“I was slowly learning more about God and connecting with Debbie. Then, a friend who had become a Christian shared the Gospel with me and told me, ‘God is good.’

“I didn’t want to go back to such a job. I decided to try trusting God and believing in Him instead,” said Chaem.

Her village had no church, but a pastor from a neighbouring town would visit on occasion. When he next came, Chaem asked him to baptise her. Three months after she returned home, Chaem was baptised in the river of her village.

“I wanted to be a child of God officially,” said Chaem.

“I’m not alone anymore.”

“After I was baptised, I felt a warmth in my heart. I just wanted to know more and more about God.

“I am now God’s child. Any time I feel discouraged, I think of God who is with me and I have peace of mind.

“I’m not alone anymore.”

The God who saves

In the over two years since her homecoming, Chaem has seen more of God’s providence. GM increased their support to SGD535 every month, to supplement her meagre income from farming. This just about covers her two younger sons’ education. 

Now 12 and 5, they are in a Christian school and have accepted Christ; one did so while Chaem was in Singapore and the other, around the same time she did.

“Without Him, I don’t know what my life would be like.”  

Her oldest child, who had been sent to a temple because Chaem could not afford to care for him, is now 16 and in a vocational school. 

“Last year, we had a mother and son talk and I told him, ‘Right now, your siblings and I follow Christ. If you look around you, you can see that God is such a Provider. He has taken care of everything for us. Would you like to be a Christian?’

“He told me, ‘Let me think about it.’ Not long after that, he came back and said he wanted to invite Christ into his life.

“I asked my friend who is a more mature Christian to pray with him.”  

Though she is illiterate, Chaem attends a weekly Zoom Bible study session that Debbie leads. A GM volunteer translator who partners Debbie in this ministry sends Chaem audio Bible passages and devotions, which she listens to diligently.

Debbie Zhang (top, middle) conducting a Bible study session via Zoom for Chaem and her friends in Thailand. Photo courtesy of GM.

“I have experienced God’s goodness. I can be home with the children and don’t have to go back to work in such a trade.

“He chose me to be His child and has taken care of me and my family. Without Him, I don’t know what my life would be like.”  


In the now-quiet Geylang lorongs, a ministry to prostitutes and pimps continues

When a birthday cake in Geylang turned this red-light worker’s life around

Alone but not abandoned: Geylang ministry gives red-light workers a taste of home this Chinese New Year

About the author

Christine Leow

Christine believes there is always a story waiting to be told, which led to a career in MediaCorp News. Her idea of a perfect day involves a big mug of tea, a bigger muffin and a good book.