“What if she were your sister?”: Pioneers of Geylang skills centre were moved by plight of former streetwalkers
Ng Jing Yng // February 27, 2021, 5:10 pm
“I was shocked to see this other side of Singapore and my heart broke as I have daughters myself," said Shih Shu Hui, who set up Tamar Village in the red light district of Geylang with Lois Loh.
Tamar Village’s co-founder, Lois Loh, 66, loves her cup of coffee. Little did she expect that God would use a humble cup of coffee to connect her with numerous women whose lives would go on to be delicately interwoven with hers.
Loh, genial and sprightly, easily recalls the first time she set foot in the notorious red light district of Geylang more than 10 years ago in 2009.
She was having a steaming cup of coffee and, under typical circumstances, would have relished it. Instead, what she saw of the dingy back alleys of Geylang had her thinking: “I wonder where my coffee cup came from!”
“It dawned on me that, if I cannot first accept them, how would I expect them to accept me, and Christ?”
Things couldn’t be more different for her today – she is one of the pioneers who started the Tamar Village in Geylang, which helps women and their families who have decided they no longer want to be involved in or influenced by the trades of the red light district.
The women are of different ages, profiles and nationalities.
And soon enough, the cup of coffee became the conversation starter whenever she navigated the hidden streets of Geylang to reach out to the ladies eking out a living there.
Having bleached her hair a bright copper colour during that period, Loh became known to the Geylang residents as the orange-haired woman who squatted in the back alleys to chat with them over coffee during their breaks.
She was not alone in her befriending of the women. Taiwanese Shih Shu Hui, now 58, was also called to embark on this Geylang ministry after an outreach activity to give out mooncakes in the Geylang area.
Currently living in South Africa with her family, Shih said: “I was shocked to see this other side of Singapore and my heart broke as I have daughters myself.”
The two are as different as chalk and cheese.
Said Shih: “Lois and I are totally opposite! She is very soft-hearted and can spend a lot of time talking to the girls. I am more of a strategist.”
It was precisely their dissimilarities that gave them complementary strengths. With their common heart for the Geylang residents, they made a good team.
After about two years of walking the ground and befriending the women of Geylang and their families every week, God tapped onto Shih’s analytical faculties to conjure up a plan that would give the ladies a new lease on life.
Together with other volunteers, the two went to Pattaya in Thailand to visit a learning centre that provides former sex workers there the opportunity to pick up skills for a new vocation.
Armed with this inspiring encounter, they returned to Singapore to start a skills centre, which they called Tamar Village, that aimed to teach the women skills such as making bookmarks or jewellery for sale. The ladies are also given a small allowance for coming to the centre for lessons every day.
“It was such a crazy idea. People cannot believe that we are paying the girls to come and learn something,” said Loh. “And we had no idea how we are ever going to get the money to pay the girls as the centre had no financial resources too.”
“I learnt that God will provide because it is God’s ministry. We are only the workers.”
Besides financial constraints, the work was wearisome and discouraging in the beginning. On some occasions, not a single person would turn up at the centre. The pair also sometimes heard disheartening news of the women returning to their old trade or ending up in jail for other offences.
Nonetheless, the Tamar Village pioneers refused to give up, and maintained a prayer walk every Wednesday in the persistent hope that things would eventually turn a corner.
And along the way, God sent small mercies regularly to keep their spirits up.
On one occasion, the Tamar Village team was at their wit’s end because they did not have enough funds to even order food for dinner. Loh had made a quiet decision to withdraw her own money by 3pm if all else failed. But just as the clock approached three, an American tourist on her way home came by to buy souvenirs. She selected a few pieces that accounted for the shortfall of the day.
“I learnt that God will provide because it is God’s ministry. We are only the workers,” she said. “It encouraged me and kept me going.”
Sometimes on her prayer walk, she would miraculously bump into the exact woman she was thinking about and praying for.
God of both mountains and valleys
Loh and Shih have since handed over the baton to a new generation leaders to helm Tamar Village and are excited to see what lies ahead for the learning centre.
Both pioneers also have some words of advice for the next generation venturing into uncharted territories.
They reminded that God’s timing is always right – young people might be eager to see results, but there is always a need a remember that God is still the one in charge and the eventual outcome depends on Him.
“It was a simple desire to share this hope, and to let them know that, with God, there is always a second chance.”
“You have to let God do the miracle and see the results in His time,” said Loh. “Even if it’s just one fruit, we remember that He is a God who will give up his 99 sheep just to save the one.”
Waving away the idea that she is a pioneer, the 66-year-old who had quit her job to start Tamar Village, said that she was just answering a call to serve. The initial phase of working and serving simultaneously eventually convinced her that she could not do this ministry half-heartedly, she said.
Her biggest takeaway from the winding, sometimes arduous, journey, was that “people may fail you, but God is a God of both the mountains and the valleys”.
She added: “He really stretches your faith and you start to see Him more when He delivers during the most difficult and impossible situations.”
Both Loh and Shih also took Micah 6:8 to heart: “What has God asked you to do? To do justice, love mercy and walk humbly.”
“As Christians, when we are discouraged, we know that there is always hope in God,” said Shih.
“It was this simple desire to share this hope with the ladies, and to let them know that, with God, there is always a second chance.”
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