Feature pix

Debbie Zhang with the goodie bags that will be given out this Chinese New Year's Eve to workers in the sex trade as part of Geylang Ministry's outreach efforts. All photos courtesy of Debbie Zhang.

Chinese New Year is always a busy period for Debbie Zhang.

Last week, she bought nearly 50kg of bak kwa (barbecued pork). She also rushed to her neighbourhood fishmonger to snap up 10kg of fresh prawns in case he ran out of stock. A few days ago, she carted home 16kg of pig’s trotters.

Her refrigerator is so full she pleaded with her neighbours to help her store some of the frozen food in their refrigerators. In her living room are carton upon carton of Mandarin oranges she intends to give away. To say that she will be ushering in the Year of the Rabbit in a big way would be an understatement.

Debbie with her refrigerator stocked up for the Chinese New Year’s Eve meals she will be cooking for the sex workers of Geylang.

None of this is for her own family, though.

“In China, Chinese New Year’s Eve is a very important occasion. To spend Chinese New Year alone is very sad for them.”

Part of it was given away last weekend to the workers in the red-light district of Geylang. The rest will go to the 100 bento box meals as well as 400 goodie bags Debbie will be handing out on Chinese New Year’s Eve.

This is a tradition started by Geylang Ministry (GM) which Debbie helms.

GM reaches out to the workers in the sex trade in the red-light district of Geylang to share God’s Word and His love.

“Chinese New Year’s Eve is very important to them. It’s a time for family reunions. But most of them are away from home or can’t go home for reunion dinner for one reason or another. So when we show up, it really means a lot to them.”

What motivated this act of generosity is a story of God’s great love for a sector of society many look down upon and ostracise.

“Go down to Geylang”

A year after starting GM in 2008, Debbie was at a church service on the eve of Chinese New Year when her heart became “very heavy”.

“I felt the Holy Spirit say to go down to Geylang to visit the girls.”

Earlier in the week, GM had already done their rounds and distributed goodie bags to the workers in the sex trade there. Debbie had thought that their Chinese New Year outreach efforts were done. When the call came, she struggled with God.

“When we arrived, the girls were crying. They were very touched.”

“This was Chinese New Year’s Eve. I had my own family.”

But the burden was too great for Debbie to ignore. She and a fellow GM volunteer from her church rushed down to Geylang to meet some six or seven girls whom they had gotten to know through their outreach efforts in the area.

“When we arrived, the girls were crying. They were very touched. Chinese New Year is normally spent with family. But they were away from home in a foreign country. They were also in this line of work where there was no future. It was a double whammy for them.”

Debbie and her teammate from GM brought everyone out for a hotpot meal. After the meal, they went to a church nearby to collect Mandarin oranges, another Chinese New Year practice that held a lot of meaning for the girls.

“When I came out of the church with the oranges for the girls, one of the ladies from China who was not part of the group and who had always been hostile to us in the past happened to bump into us.

GM volunteers packing goodie bags for Chinese New Year’s Eve outreach at Geylang.

“She was the first to run to me to get the oranges. When she received the oranges, she broke down and cried. In China, Chinese New Year’s Eve is a very important occasion. To spend Chinese New Year alone is very sad for them.”

From that Chinese New Year onwards, GM added an additional visit to Geylang on the eve of Chinese New Year. They would give out red packets with two chocolate gold coins in them. The gift was small and the gesture simple. But it meant a lot to the workers in the sex trade in Geylang, many of whom were either away from home or estranged from their families.

Even the normally reticent “uncles” of the trade were so touched that they came forward to shake hands with the GM volunteers.

Love in a bento box 

What moved Debbie to eventually provide a nice meal for the Geylang workers during Chinese New Year was what happened a few years later.

A brothel owner approached her with a request. He was a Singaporean and had a family to go home to for reunion dinner on the eve of Chinese New Year. The “uncle” he left to work at the brothel did not. 

“Pig’s trotters is a traditional Hokkien dish for special occasions. The ‘uncles’ love it so much.”

Said Debbie: “The man would only have Indian food to eat on that night. All the Chinese stalls in Geylang would be closed. The boss asked if we could give the man some Chinese food. I was very burdened when I heard it. That was how we ended up cooking for them.”

Every year since then, GM has given out bento box meals and special food eaten during the Chinese New Year such as roast duck to red-light workers in Geylang on the eve of Chinese New Year.

This year, Debbie and her domestic helper will be preparing 100 bento boxes with rice, vegetables, prawns, roast pork and barbecue pork, as well as bak kwa and muah chee (sweet glutinous rice balls) for dessert. These will be distributed to workers in the brothels.

Debbie will also be whipping up her signature pig’s trotters, a dish the “uncles” of Geylang love. A tub of that and a roast duck will also be delivered to a few brothels.

“Pig’s trotters is a traditional Hokkien dish for special occasions. The recipe is from my mother-in-law, which my helper then adapted with a recipe she found on the Internet.

“The ‘uncles’ love it so much, one of them even asked us to set up a stall in Geylang selling pig’s trotters so he could buy it from us any time he wanted,” said Debbie.

Debbie’s specialty – pig’s trotters – is now a Geylang Ministry signature.

In fact, when one of the “uncles” wanted to turn away from the sex trade and set up a hawker stall, he approached Debbie for her recipe. She taught him all that she knew and he now runs a bak kut teh (herbal pork bone soup) that also sells pig’s trotters.

The rest of the workers in the sex industry in Geylang will be getting goodie bags with Mandarin oranges and a cup noodle for Chinese New Year.

Birthdays and bak kwa

God has shown His love and provision to the girls and “uncles” of Geylang in other ways.

This year, thanks to sponsorship, GM managed to give out bak kwa (barbecued pork), a coveted and pricey gift this time of the year.

Street-LIGHT under City Harvest Church, whom GM had wanted to partner for their Christmas event but could not because of a clash of schedules, paid for the bak kwa so GM could afford to buy 47kg of  the meat. This was then re-packed into some 500 gift packs.

The bak kwa that was given out. Each pack contains four coin bak kwa and a Gospel tract with Chinese New Year designs on them.

There was more to come.

When GM sent out a thanksgiving newsletter to their supporters and prayer partners sharing about their Chinese New Year outreach, someone came forward to sponsor this year’s Mandarin oranges for the Geylang community. Another donated the cup noodles needed for the Chinese New Year’s Eve goodie bags. Yet another donated enough to cover the cost of the roast pork and barbecued pork for the bento meals.

Cartons of cup noodles waiting to be packed and given away to the community of sex workers in Geylang.

Boxes of Mandarin oranges that will be packed with the cup noodles.

Then when Debbie went to buy the roast pork and barbecued pork, the stall owner found out that the meat was for charity. She gave Debbie a discount.

“I also had the opportunity to tell her that Jesus loves her and that her birthday was special to Him, too.”

“She said, ‘You do charity, I also do charity,'” recounted Debbie. “God provided.” 

Last weekend, GM, along with Street-LIGHT, took to the streets of Geylang to hand out the bak kwa and Gospel tracts. There was also cake sponsored by Street-LIGHT and Debbie’s signature pig’s trotters to celebrate the birthdays of about a dozen girls and “uncles”.

Celebrating birthdays is another GM tradition, a way to show the workers that God remembers them on their special day.

“All the ‘uncles’ were not keen on birthday cakes. They only wanted the pig’s trotters. So my husband drilled holes on the lid of the pig’s trotters container and put a decorative birthday greeting with their names as well as a candle through the holes. This way, we could celebrate their birthdays,” said Debbie with a smile.

The pig trotters that were given to the “uncles” to celebrate their birthdays.

When they got to Geylang, Debbie realised that she had double counted one of the girls. She had one extra birthday cake.

“While we were celebrating, one of the girls signalled to us that there was a new girl and it was her birthday that day. Just nice, we gave her the cake. Though she didn’t have a chance for us to light her a candle and sing her a song because she was working that day, she was touched. 

“I also had the opportunity to tell her that Jesus loves her and that her birthday was special to Him. It was super divine that we had that extra cake.,” said Debbie.

Come Chinese New Year’s eve, when all the work for GM is done, Debbie and her family – her husband and three sons – will sit down to a simple meal of Korean barbecue, warmed by the knowledge that their extended family in Geylang has had a chance to experience the love of God. 


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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.