“The pay was so high, I couldn’t bear to leave”: Geylang brothel owner’s struggle to walk away from her old life

This Christmas, Salt&Light brings you a series of stories on new beginnings. Your life can begin again too.

by Christine Leow // December 21, 2021, 4:24 pm

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For 20-odd years, Auntie May made a living in a brothel in Geylang, Singapore's red-light district, until Geylang Ministry challenged her to walk away from the sex trade. All photos courtesy of Debbie Zhang.

Auntie May* looks like a well-groomed grandmother. She is well coiffed and age has done little to erase the fact that she must have been a beauty in her day.  

Nothing about her suggests that she had spent some 20 years as a brothel owner in Geylang, Singapore’s red-light district.

That was not the life she had wanted and that was not how she had started out either.

Nothing about her suggests that she had spent some 20 years as a brothel owner.

She once made drinks at a canteen stall for a living.

Married to a factory worker, she had children young. Two daughters arrived in succession when she was 20 and 21. A son followed well before she turned 30.

Then, her husband died suddenly from a brain aneurysm when he was 48 and Auntie May became a widow at age 44.

“He was a Malaysian and he had applied for Singapore citizenship. It had been approved.

“But he passed away even before he managed to get his IC (identity card),” she told Salt&Light in Hokkien, wiping away her tears.

For the love of her son

With her husband gone, Auntie May was one income short. Even with her older daughter working to supplement the family income, it was not enough to support her teenage son.

He had dropped out of school at 12 – “he didn’t have the heart to study and his teachers kept complaining about him” – and he was hanging out with the wrong crowd, sniffing glue.

“When we locked him in the house, his friends would come to our house to give him the glue.”

“We lived in Geylang. There were all sorts of wrong people there and he fell in with them.

“He was sent to a boys’ home when he was 14 for glue sniffing. My husband visited him three times at the boys’ home before he died.”

Her son’s stay at the boys’ home lasted two years and would mark the beginning of many more years of incarceration because of drug abuse, which had escalated from glue to heroin.

“He was in and out of prison. Each time, it would be for a few years. He was even caned. When I see him like that, my heart breaks.”

Every effort to help him failed.

His family hoped that serving National Service would help him break his habit. Instead, he would often run away from the army camp to sniff glue at his friend’s house.

“When we locked him in the house, his friends would come to our house to give him the glue.”

Auntie May even called the police to have her son arrested, hoping that prison would keep him away from his habit. It never did.

As a last resort, Auntie May even called the police to have her son arrested, hoping that prison would keep him away from his habit. It never did.

Her son’s drug habit was expensive. So, when a friend decided to take over the ownership of a brothel in Geylang and offered Auntie May a job, she took it. The money was just too good to pass up for someone who was illiterate and had no education.

The brothel ended up being registered in her name, and so began a 20-year career as a brothel owner and pimp.

“I did feel sorry for the women …” she trailed off when asked if she ever felt remorse for her part in the trade.

“Jesus will save Ah Boy”

Her husband’s passing changed life for Auntie May in other ways.

“She told me to believe in Jesus. ‘Jesus will save Ah Boy’,” she said.

“I had followed my husband’s religion when he was around but I was never comfortable with it. When I prayed, I felt very frustrated. I had no faith in it.”

With him gone, Auntie May asked to have any vestige of the religion he had believed in to be removed from her home.

The years would pass with the widowed Auntie May struggling to manage her son as he went deeper into his drug addiction.

He had a girlfriend then whom he had been with since his early teens and she was a Christian. After several years of watching Auntie May despair over her son, the young girl shared the Gospel with Auntie May.

“She told me to believe in Jesus. ‘Jesus will save Ah Boy’,” she said.

The promise that Jesus could save him brought comfort to Auntie May, who had only known hardship for much of her life.

“When my daughter came along, we had no money for milk power. My brother had to buy some for me.”

“When my husband and I got married, we didn’t even have money for bridal clothes. We borrowed clothes from a friend.

“The jewellery our guests gave us as gifts, we pawned to buy furniture for our home. When my daughter came along, we had no money for milk powder. My brother had to buy some for me.”

Poorly paid, her husband banked on gambling to change their fortunes but ended up in debt to loan sharks instead.

“When my son’s girlfriend told me about Jesus, I believed. Within three months, I was baptised.”

She sought to live the Christian life, going to church faithfully every Sunday. But she could not walk away from the sex trade.

Even when a relative who became a pastor encouraged her to give up her job at the brothel, she could not.

“The pay was so high, I couldn’t bear to leave.”

Too lucrative to leave

That was how Debbie Zhang, founder of the House of Olive Leaf (HOL), met Auntie May in 2014, nine years later when Debbie was sharing the Gospel among the brothels of Geylang. By then, Auntie May had been running the brothel for 18 years.

Debbie is part of Geylang Ministry (GM) which is run by HOL. The ministry reaches out to people working in the red-light district and often engage with brothel owners and sex workers.

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“When we first met Auntie May, she was wearing a large cross. I got a shock and thought, ‘How come you are here?’” said Debbie.

“I never had an education. What job would enable me to earn so much?” 

Though Auntie May was still regularly going to church and willing to attend an extra service on Saturday with a GM volunteer, she did not see her career in the sex industry as wrong.

“That’s why she was wearing the big cross while working in Geylang. After we told her that what she did grieved Jesus, she stopped wearing the cross,” said Debbie.

Auntie May could not escape the influence of life in Geylang.

She had a gambling habit and had to sell her three-room flat to pay off her debt to loan sharks.

As Debbie continued to visit the area, a friendship between the two women developed. Auntie May would often pour out her heart to Debbie, so worried was she about her wayward son.

Said Auntie May of Debbie: “She would visit us, ask us to come out of the brothel and pray for us. She is very good, lots of love for us.”

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

Out of love, Debbie also regularly persuaded Auntie May to leave the brothel life.

Debbie recalled: “Auntie May would be very irritated. She would say, ‘I never had an education. What job would enable me to earn so much to support my family?’

“I told her that sin blocks God’s blessings. If she wants to see a breakthrough in her son’s situation, she had to get out of the trade.”

Aside from a listening ear, wise counsel and prayers, Debbie and the volunteers from GM, including Debbie’s husband Kelvin, often helped Auntie May out with her son.

“When I asked him to come out, he got so angry that he kicked the bathroom door down.”

The church Auntie May attended on Saturday also sent volunteers who worked with ex-drug addicts to reach out to her son.

“Auntie May was very grateful for this,” said Debbie.

A grown man by then, her son had not worked a day in his life. Instead, he insisted that Auntie May finance his drug habit. When she refused, he would become violent.

“Under the influence of drugs, he would be so strong that he could break the window grilles of our house.

“He often bathes for hours, racking up S$300 utility bills a month for my one-room flat.

“Once, when I asked him to come out because he had been bathing for an hour, he got so angry that he kicked the bathroom door down.”

A friend in need

As the people of GM stood by her, showing her Christian love and support, Auntie May’s faith grew and her ability to trust God to turn her son around increased.

Some four years after meeting Debbie, Auntie May gave up the brothel business.

Walking away from life in the red-light district came at no small price. Not only did she lose her only source of livelihood, she incurred the wrath of Uncle Chong* (name changed for confidentiality), the man who had first introduced her to the business.

She could not stay away from her son, even when his slaps turned into threats with a knife.

Because the brothel was in Auntie May’s name, when she left the brothel, the brothel had to close. Uncle Chong lost a lucrative business. 

“He was so angry with me, he scolded and cursed me in front of everyone,” said Auntie May.

He never recovered from the loss nor did he get over his bitterness.

For Auntie May, life after Geylang was not easy but she saw God’s help at every turn.

When her son turned violent, GM was there for her. Debbie encouraged her to move out to live with one of her daughters. When they could not take her in, the ministry paid for Auntie May to rent a room.

In the beginning, when Auntie May first moved out, she would worry that her son would be defenceless without her. To allay her fears, Debbie and her GM volunteers visited him with food.

“My son hasn’t changed but when no man can save, God can.”

Said Debbie: “But we did it only once because we wanted him to take responsibility for himself. He is an adult.”

Instead, they left their contact and that of a halfway house but the ministry team would often walk around his flat, praying for him to desire a change in his life.

Although the GM team advised Auntie May to let her son come to his senses on his own, she could not stay away from him, not even when her son’s slaps turned into threats with a knife. She kept returning to him only to move out again when she feared for her life.

Eventually, after she had left him on his own for nine months, her son relented and went to a halfway house.

It was his third halfway house. The first two were recommended to him by Auntie May’s pastor. Each time, he was kicked out – the first, after three months, and the second, after just two weeks because he refused to follow their regimen.

Said Auntie May: “He just wanted to eat, sleep and shower.”

Debbie’s husband Kelvin Loh visiting Auntie May’s son at the halfway house. It was her son’s third attempt at rehabilitation.

At first, all seemed well at the third halfway house. Her son went to work there and followed the rules. But within four months, he was asked to leave again. He had become violent towards one of its staff.

Not willing to give up just yet, GM has lined up a fourth halfway house, hoping that he will give rehabilitation another try.

A life transformed

Meanwhile, Auntie May tried going back to work as a coffee stall assistant and even a cleaner. But her legs, which swelled often, caused too much pain for her to hold down those jobs.

For six months, she was without a job, but not without hope.

“Jesus heard my cry and God made a way where man had no way,” she said with confidence, despite her financial situation and her heartache over her son.

“My friends say I am strong. I always tell them, ‘It is Jesus.’ I always praise God.”

In time, she accepted help from GM volunteers and her pastor but not before stating that she would not work on a Sunday. That was reserved for church.

They found her a less strenuous cleaning job. “My colleagues there are good and I even got a promotion.”

God also healed her miraculously of a thyroid problem. After taking medication for eight years, the doctor told her one day that she no longer needed the medicine anymore.

“My friends say I am strong. I always tell them, ‘It is Jesus.’ I always praise God.”

So excited is she about her new relationship with God that she tells all her old friends in Geylang about Christianity. Two of her friends became Christians as a result.

“One was a fellow brothel owner who was always in debt and suicidal. She became a Christian and her sons who before had refused to acknowledge her eventually reconciled with her.

“Another approached me to teach her to pray for her legs because she could not walk properly. I brought her to church and within a week, she could walk. She is still in church.”

During the 2019 Celebration of Hope, Auntie May brought eight of her family and friends. Her eldest daughter became a Christian as a result.

Even Auntie May’s mother became a Christian at 89. “She saw the change in me because of God.”

During the 2019 Celebration of Hope, an inter-church mega outreach event, Auntie May brought eight of her family and friends to attend. Her eldest daughter became a Christian as a result.

Said Auntie May’s daughter of the change she has experienced: “God has been so good to our family. He sent Debbie and her husband to help us.

“No matter what happens, we can just call Debbie and she never turns us down. We are so grateful to have met her.”

Though Auntie May has yet to see her son break free of drugs, her anxiety has given way to faith. Her prayers for healing have been replaced by prayers asking for peace in her heart and knowledge of God’s sovereign control.

“It has been a miracle that my son has not gone back to prison since his release in 2016.

“My son hasn’t changed (completely) but when no man can save, God can.”


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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.