Last Wednesday was a relieving conclusion to two months of prowling around the dingy streets of Tanjong Pagar, working as a student interviewer of a research project.
I applied for the job in response to an email advertisement about interviewing men who frequent entertainment establishments (EEs) about their sexual behaviors. After returning from the U.S., a cookie cutter tutor job with little kids deprived of their childhoods just won’t sate my appetite for unconventionality. Hence, during my search for alternative ways to earn an income, I stumbled upon this and signed up without hesitation.
The first month was exciting. I was bright-eyed and enthusiastic, feeling a strange sense of power as I bounded through the district lined with bars, pubs and tipsy men. It felt forbidden, a feverish sense of being at the wrongest place at the wrongest time. But at the same time, arming myself with a clipboard holding the survey questionnaires emboldened me with a sense of mission, almost like a talisman warding of the potential dangers I could have been in, if I was there with nothing but a skintight dress (not that I own any).
I’ve never been to the Tanjong Pagar area at night, prior to this stint. All I’ve known about the district was gleaned off from the square frames of Instagram documenting the cafe adventures of my friends. But that will be TP in the day, characterized by hipster cafes that close at 6pm, to flee and make way for the whole new personality which late night TP takes on. The “night prowl” (aka work) usually begins at 7pm, as we stroll through a street where neon signboards blinked sleepily awake, a circadian response to the dimming dusk.
Us female student interviewer were usually paired up with a male student interviewer, for “safety” purposes. I don’t know but throughout the duration of my stint, not once have I felt like my life was in jeopardy. Even so, I am confident of my ability to take down men, foolish and unstable from the copious amount of beer they had ingested.
Despite my slight dissatisfaction about having male bodyguards, I was surprised by how many cool people I have met and had the pleasure to work with. Talking to new people was something I did not do very often when I’m back here in Singapore so this felt pretty refreshing to me. My working partners were mainly talkative and liberal, which made the four-hour prowl bearable.
Of course, given the nature of the work we had signed up for, one was to expect many novel and interesting events to transpire. I had two smoking males give me great life advice – “Your first job, don’t have high expectations, stay humble. All the best.”- before inviting me into the bar for “soft drinks” because I looked like I’ve been diligent with my job. And then on the other side of the entrance, my partner was been asked by his survey participant to use the $15 remuneration intended for him to purchase a box of condom. So that was probably an extreme positive scenario but I’ve also encountered numerous men who’ve offered me words of concern, imploring me to stay safe in this district. How ironic to be given such advice from the sources of threat the school had sent “bodyguards” to protect me against. Nonetheless, it was very touching.
Gay nights were occasions I looked forward to, just because I don’t have any gay friends and I was immensely curious about them. I truly admire their fashion sense and expressiveness. And also, meeting the first bisexual male ever in my life, who proclaimed, “I am bisexual” with such confidence, amidst the cheers of his male buddies. I think males who identify themselves as homosexuals tend to get a lot of flak from society, especially other males. Seeing this guy being so at ease because of the support of his friends made me happy.
Of course there were less positive events which occurred, like being told off by men who didn’t like it that we thought that had “that kind of lifestyle”, or being chastised by people who felt like we were disrupting their fun. I don’t recall much of them and there is no need to hold them in memory.
During the second month, I took on fewer working shifts and was no longer as energetic when I commenced the stint due to school commitments.
There was also a mounting sense of disillusion in myself. By then, I have met countless men with wives sitting at home, maybe spoon feeding their children at the dining table, who were out in TP at night, seeking for transient coitus mates. I felt a deep sense of dismay every time I approach a man who looked decent, sometimes fatherly, to find out that they were eligible to fill up our questionnaire (you have to have had casual sex with prostitutes/bar workers/casual partners to be eligible). It made me question what the point of marriage is anyway, when passion had fizzled out and all that is left with are the debris of that so called “Love” that both parties have to stay together to pick up. Witnessing the quantity of men straying from the promises of eternity they had made to their wives at marriage, my stance against marriage was strengthened even further.
This made me recall a humorous incident I had with a friend. One of our seniors in Capoeira had gotten married and upon discovery of that news, I said, “BUT THEY WERE SO HAPPY, why did they have to go get married???” My friend went, “It’s because they are happy THAT’S WHY they got married.” That was when I realize the perspective I held towards marriage, towards what I considered to be the most utilitarian to oneself was in fact NOT the norm held by society.
Anyway, back to my work in TP. The last month in the job was exhausting for me, physically and emotionally. I was grappling with the real death of hope for a “happily ever after” beyond marriage, as well as my body’s inability to withstand late nights. I had some working partners whom I could not click with as hard as I tried. So, I was actually looking forward to the end of the stint.
Now, reflecting upon this short chapter of my life, I was glad I went forth and did it. It wasn’t easy; it wasn’t hard either. But the things I’ve learnt about the world and subsequently, myself were valuable and serve as validation for diving headlong into the waters beyond my comfort zone.
And nope, I don’t think I ever want to return to TP past curfew again.