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Debbie Zhang (pink mask) praying for the ladies of Geylang with the volunteers of Geylang Ministry at an outreach. The work of reaching the prostitutes and brothel caretakers began with a burden that led to months of prayer and then outreach programmes. All photos courtesy of Debbie Zhang.

The back alleys of Geylang are quiet. The even-numbered lorongs (streets) that were Singapore’s red-light district are emptied of pimps and prostitutes. The brothels have shuttered.

Even before the Circuit Breaker brought activities in the country to a grinding halt last April, the sex trade in Geylang had been shut down with the closure of all brothels in late March.

The even-numbered lorongs are where the brothels of Geylang were found. Since Covid-19 measures kicked in, business has ground to a stop.

Debbie Zhang, 52, knows more than a little about the exodus. She was there to help when the pandemic pulled the plug on business in Geylang and social distancing made sex work impossible.

“I looked quite successful on the outside but my heart felt empty.”

“From April 2020 to May 2021, we sent food to the brothel girls every week and also helped some of them return home,” said the director of House of Olive Leaf (HOL).

The non-governmental organisation runs Geylang Ministry (GM), an outreach to the people who work in the red-light district. Apart from providing aid to the women, they also help the men in the area find jobs.

Debbie, a mother of three – sons aged 10 to 16 – shared with Salt&light that she has been ministering to this hidden sector of society for well over a decade and it all started because she wanted to return to her homeland, China, to be a missionary.

Disillusioned by infidelity

A native of Fujian, China, Debbie came to Singapore in 1993 to work because graduates in the country were having difficulty finding employment. 

She became a purchasing officer at a Singapore trading company before starting her own business selling hardware. She was 24.

Debbie came to Singapore in her 20s in search of a job but found Christ instead.

“When I came to Singapore, I was having relationship issues with my then boyfriend. I looked quite successful on the outside, but my heart felt empty.”

Because she bought her supplies from China, Debbie would often return to her home country, bringing her customers with her to visit the factories there.

“Some of the customers would openly visit prostitutes when they are in China. They didn’t bother to hide it from me.

“But once they land in Singapore, they would become family men again. Their wives and children would come to pick them up and they would hug them as if nothing had happened.

“It made me feel very insecure about relationships.”

Out of brokenness, a new life  

One customer stood out though. Unlike the others, he always paid on time, never made excuses to get discounts and never complained.

“I respected him a lot. I knew he was a Christian.”

It was this same customer who gave Debbie a Bible when she became embroiled in a legal tussle with another customer who had refused to pay for the goods he had received.

It was not her first Bible. Since she had come to Singapore, many people had given her Bibles. She had simply not been interested enough to give them more than a cursory glance. 

Marriage depicted as a relationship of love, sacrifice and commitment, exemplified by Christ’s love, was exactly what she longed for.

But that night, she decided to read the Bible her customer had given her. 

“I was very lonely. I had broken up with my boyfriend who had cheated on me. My friends had told me, ‘This is how the world is. Don’t be so old-fashioned.’

“I still wanted to be married but I felt that my hopes had been dashed. I thought: A life like this is quite hopeless.

“No matter how successful I am, this life is not worth much. What do I have to live for? I wanted to kill myself.”

Flipping through the Bible, Debbie came upon Ephesians 5:25-30. The picture of marriage depicted as a relationship of love, sacrifice and commitment, exemplified by Christ’s love, was exactly what she longed for.

So, when her Christian customer invited her to his cell group, she accepted. Soon, she was going for church services. In 2001, after a year of attending church, Debbie got baptised.

She would later meet her husband Kelvin Loh, who attended the same church, and get married in 2003.

Money woes   

Life as a young Christian was not easy for Debbie. Her hardware business failed. So, she pivoted to selling costume jewellery from a pushcart. But sales were poor even when she skipped church to run her stall on Sundays.

“At one point, I only earned S$2 after a whole day. I was very bitter. But my husband’s faith was very strong. He encouraged me and kept telling me God is real.”

The couple was so financially strapped that when Debbie was pregnant with their first child, they did not have enough for the S$4,000 delivery fee.

Debbie and her husband Kelvin Loh met in church through the Alpha programme. She was a participant in the course while he was a helper.

“When I go to church, I am very happy. I have friends. But my business doesn’t do well. Why can’t God give me perfection? Why make me worry about money?”

As Debbie sought answers, God sent encouragements.

“A sister in church gave me a prophecy. She told me, ‘God will use you mightily one day.’

“He told us that God would bless us, don’t give up.” 

“At that time, I didn’t want the trials. How was I going to go through this period?”

Another person told the couple of a vision he saw concerning them.

“He said he saw Kelvin and me standing in a house in front of a window and there was a fountain outside with water flowing into the house.

“He told us that God would bless us, don’t give up.” 

Little by little, things improved. The Government handed out the first Baby Bonus. Her old hardware business was revived when customers started calling her out of the blue. Even her husband’s commercial diving business took a turn for the better.

Her heartbreak and money problems gave Debbie greater empathy for the plight of the workers in Geylang.

But God had more in store for her.

Moved by the heart of God

As her young family settled down, she felt a desire to go into the mission field.

“I wanted to go back to China for missions. But my husband said he didn’t feel the call.”

By then, their son was two, and old enough to be placed in a childcare centre. So, the couple decided to attend Bible school with Youth for A Mission (YWAM) Singapore while they mulled over their future.

“The Holy Spirit touched me. I started to cry … My heart ached for these women.”

On the second day of class, Kelvin needed to go to work. Debbie took the MRT to the Bible school in Geylang which required her to walk past its red-light district.

It was as she made her way from Sims Avenue to Lorong 23 that Debbie heard someone speaking with a Chinese accent along one of the alleys.

“I recognised it as a northern accent. I hadn’t realised till then that there were Chinese nationals working as prostitutes in Geylang.

“At that moment, the Holy Spirit touched me. I couldn’t take it. I started to cry. These were my own people. My heart ached for these women. It wasn’t that I was so great; it was God’s heart.”

Debbie wept so hard that, even when she arrived at the Bible school, the tears would not stop.

Prayers that began the ministry

Debbie’s burden for the street walkers increased in the months that she attended Bible school because every day she would see the women as she walked through Geylang.

She started asking God to send someone to minister to the women. And God chose to send her.

Nor did anyone want to partner her to start a ministry. Many, in fact, warned her of the difficulties ahead.  

Just as Debbie was about to graduate from Bible school, she felt God telling her to start a ministry for the people in Geylang.

She was conflicted because she had hoped to go into a new business venture.

The ministry was also a frightening prospect because she did not know how to begin. She approached churches in the area but no one had any outreach programmes for the prostitutes and pimps in Geylang at the time.

Nor did anyone want to partner her to start a ministry. Many, in fact, warned her of the difficulties ahead.  

Alone and desperate, Debbie sought God in prayer for three months.

“In the end, God brought the China mission to me.”

One morning, she awoke early to pray and saw her husband’s football jersey flung across a chair. On it was the Liverpool motto: You’ll never walk alone.

“When I saw the words, I cried till my eyes were swollen. It was as if God was reassuring me that I would not have to do this alone. He would be with me.”

Debbie would see the same words on a bumper sticker of a car that swerved in front of hers some time later.

“I knew then that God was calling me.”

Eventually, YWAM agreed to let her park the ministry under them.

She had asked to go to China to do missions. But “in the end, God brought the China mission to me”.

The uphill task of entering alleys

Thus began Geylang Ministry with a volunteer staff strength of just one.

Twice a week, Debbie would pray for an hour at YWAM before working up the courage to walk the streets of Geylang to pray for the women and men who worked in the sex industry there.

“My husband got worried for me even though I did this in the day. So, he started to accompany me.

“The ‘uncles’ in the street would try and touch you. We didn’t even dare to sit in the coffee shop to rest.”

“But on one of the walks, one of the women approached him and propositioned him. After that, I told him I would go alone.”

On the days Debbie was not at Geylang, she would pray at home.

Then, God brought a partner to the ministry, a foreign student from Holland who had gone to YWAM to be trained before starting work in China.

With someone else beside her, Debbie “got braver”. The two women started walking the streets of Geylang, hoping to make contact with the women working there. Those “street walks” became their first form of outreach.

Debbie and a volunteer sharing the Gospel as part of Geylang Ministry’s outreach in the red-light district.

“You have no idea what it was like then. The ‘uncles’ in the street would try and touch you. We didn’t even dare to sit in the coffee shop to rest.”

They invited the women to attend English classes, breaking the ice by mentioning that Debbie, too, was from China.

On their first attempt to talk to the women, they had quite a scare.

“I was doing a survey with one of the girls to find out more about them. I took out a notebook to record her details when, suddenly, quite a few men appeared. We were surrounded.”

At that moment, the girl’s handphone rang. She left after the call and so did the men. Debbie knew something was wrong.

“I told my friend, ‘Let’s go.’”

As they walked away, they saw the girl being questioned by a group of men. Among them was a street pimp Debbie recognised from her prayer walks. 

“How do these women go for cell group when we had to keep their backgrounds secret?

“Somehow, I plucked up the courage to tell him to let the girl go for English classes. I told him, ‘It’s free.’”

The pimp told them to leave and got someone to follow them all the way to the main road to make sure they did not return to the alley.

On another occasion, they managed to invite one of the women to a Chinese service. She eventually became a Christian, but integrating into the church proved difficult.

“How do these women go for cell group when we had to keep their backgrounds secret? People worried that if the women attended a cell group, they might seduce the men in the cell.”

Reaching the women in the streets with the Gospel message was slow work. But tougher work was to come.

When the authorities cracked down on women loitering in the streets, Debbie had to move her ministry to the brothels.

Breakthrough in brothels

By then, Debbie was pregnant with her third child and had a small team of volunteers.

Still, it was tough work breaking into the gated community that was the brothels. The caretakers and owners of the brothels mistrusted Debbie and her team. Often, they could not even get past the front gates.

“When the pimp saw it, he said, ‘Jesus? I thought you were from MOH?’”

“I thought to myself, ‘How could we get in?’ Then, God gave me an idea to go to MOH (Ministry of Health) to get brochures on how to prevent sexually transmitted diseases to distribute to the brothels.”

The health booklets were well received, and the brothel owners and caretakers appreciated the concern the team showed for the welfare of the women. Debbie even managed to give out an evangelistic card that read “Jesus loves you”.

“When the pimp saw it, he said, ‘Jesus? I thought you were from MOH?’ But he appreciated the health booklets.”

It would take two years of weekly outreach efforts before the brothels warmed up to the ministry.

Debbie and volunteers on the way to sharing the Gospel with the workers in the sex trade in Geylang during the Christmas 2020 outreach.

In time, they were able to give out 100, then 250, and eventually 500 gift packs, copies of Our Daily Bread and Gospel tracts. 

“They all have sad stories. Some were sold by their boyfriends. Some came to earn money.” 

Each encounter presented an opportunity for Debbie and her volunteers to begin conversations about God’s love and redemption.

Debbie would come to be on such cordial terms with the workers in the brothels that she and her volunteers would celebrate the birthdays of the residents, often taking the opportunity to pray for them.

Much of the ministry was devoted to journeying with the women and doing Bible study.

“They all have sad stories. Some were sold by their boyfriends. Some came to earn money. Most had financial problems.”

Christmas of 2014, when the women from Geylang were prayed for at a festive party.

Debbie was finally seeing how God could use her earlier struggles for His glory.

“We don’t have much, but it is always enough. It is a miracle.”

“Having been in a similar situation of financial struggle, I could use my testimony to minister to them.”

In the 13 years of the ministry, Debbie found the work to be a constant challenge. Girls rescued from prostitution would return to the sex trade, many unwilling to walk away from the promise of the money they could make. Conversions were slow to come by as well.

But there were also encouragements.

Churches, including her own, have come alongside to offer help or the use of their facilities. Geylang Ministry would come under Church of Our Saviour (COOS) for eight years.

Volunteers with Geylang Ministry praying for one of the women who worked in the streets in Geylang in 2018. Apart from outreach programmes, GM also journeys with the women through their various life challenges and does follow-up Bible study with them.

Geylang Ministry even started a centre to house the women who wanted to leave the sex trade. The women were given a modest monthly sum of S$500 to support their families back home while they got back on their feet.

Financial support started streaming in. God sent donors, starting with the S$500 seed funding given by a couple in 2008, and continuing with ad hoc donations for various outreach programmes.

“We don’t raise funds publicly. Every month, we send out prayer updates about the ministry to our prayer supporters. They donate as they are led by God.

“Sometimes, people not even on our mailing list will give to us. We don’t have much, but it is always enough. It is a miracle.”

Covid, the gamechanger

Unbeknownst to Debbie, God had an even bigger miracle in store.

“We are the few people in their lives to show them such unconditional love.”

When Covid-19 swept into Singapore, forcing the nation to close its shores and falter in economy, everyone was hard-hit. The Geylang brothels were not spared. Business stopped for them and has not since been revived.

GM started a food blessing programme that lasted 14 months. Every week, Debbie and her team that included 21 volunteers from six churches and HOL delivered meals and groceries to the women and men in the brothels.

“We are the few people in their lives to show them such unconditional love.”

When the Government revoked the work passes of the women, GM helped them return home. In fact, in the months leading to Debbie’s interview with Salt&Light, this was how the team was caring for 64 of the sex workers.

When Covid-19 measures dried up business in the red-light district, GM delivered food to the workers there to help them tide over tough times.

In less than three days, they managed to get people to donate luggage for the girls as well as raise S$650 for each girl to cover the cost of the trip home with a little left over for them to restart their lives.

“We can truly attest to the goodness of Singaporeans’ hearts when we made a final appeal for luggage and the home return expenses for the last batch of women to return home.

GM also delivered bento boxes of ready-to-eat meals to the women in Geylang.

“Help poured in from everywhere and all of us witnessed the best in humanity in the midst of this pandemic. To the women and even the pimps, this glimpse of hope has refuelled and encouraged, giving them the impetus to restart their lives for the better.”

Even as the girls return to the home countries, GM’s work continues. Debbie tries to keep in touch with them, helping them attend centres where they can learn skills that allows them to have proper employment.

GM also works with former pimps, doing Bible study with them and ensuring that they adjust to their new jobs.

An epilogue of hope

Debbie’s labour in Geylang has been long and hard, and one that has brought her to her knees on several occasions. 

“Many times I wanted to step down, but God held me back every time,” she told Salt&Light.

“He had seen a video of one the girls we rescued and starting crying. He told me, ‘Don’t stop me from joining the ministry.’”

God would show her anew the plight of the women trapped in the trade and her heart would be moved.

“On one very serious occasion, I really wanted to step down. I called a donor who had placed seed money earlier on for one of our initiatives and asked him to take the money back.

“But within a few minutes of that, I received an email from an Indonesian pastor. I had asked the pastor for details about an Indonesian girl working in Geylang because we were reaching out to her. 

“When I read her background that he provided, I cried. She had three children and when she was still pregnant with her last child, her husband left her. They had nothing to eat but chilli padi.

“She had no choice but to become a prostitute.”

Sometimes, the women go home and continue in their Christian faith. Here, one of them is getting baptised in Thailand.

There were days when Debbie worried that her three sons would suffer because of the amount of time she spent in the ministry. Each time, God assured her that He would watch over them.

And true to God’s promise to her that she would “never walk alone”, He has added another partner to her ministry. Her husband Kelvin has joined GM as a full-time staff.

“There are so many ‘uncles’ to minister to, we have been praying for a brother to come along. Kelvin offered,” she said.

“He had seen a video of one the girls we rescued and starting crying. He told me, ‘Don’t stop me from joining the ministry.’

“God is faithful.”


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God At Geylang

Geylang Minsitry published a book this year God At Geylang which put together real life stories of people whose lives have been touched by God.

Each of these heart-wrenching stories provide a glimpse into the hard realities of the prostitution trade and also, in the darkest of these places, the grace and hope that shine brightly through.

Each is a testimony of how God can turn the impossible to the possible.

Place your order for the book at You may contact Maggie Yeo @ 96918566 for more details if your church is keen to distribute or sell the book to its members.

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.