An acrid mix of stale beer, puke and cigarette smoke assaults my nose, as I ascend the small flight of steps into Orchard Towers.
Again. For the third time this week.
Familiar faces greet me on my left and right, many belonging to people I have come to call friends in the years I have visited Orchard Towers. Amidst the sinister-looking individuals sporting tattoos, dyed hair and menacing looks, I feel right at home in this tower of sleaze.
Orchard Towers has always been an image of debauchery. In the eyes of the average Singaporean, it’s the place where expats go to spend a ton of money on scantily clad girls they barely know, in the hopes of getting laid.
As a regular patron of Orchard Towers, I find no fault with the stereotype. But as my tenure here as a ‘regular’ extends in mileage, I cannot help but find myself starting to disagree with the branding.
People ask me why I frequent Orchard Towers, citing the dangers of the place; the sleaze, scams, and slew of shady activities. I always tell them the same thing: Never judge a tower by its looks.
Coming from an F&B background, it’s common for us to end work anywhere between 1- 4am, depending on the density of the nightly crowd at our establishments. 80-90% of the drinking spots close around 3am, while the clubs at Orchard Towers stay open throughout the early morning, and until as late as 9am on weekends and the eves of public holidays. What better place for us F&B veterans to unwind after a long shift?
Where people see hookers, gangsters and losers, I see friends, guardians and music lovers. I have called Orchard Towers home. I have been a patron, a sucker, and a friend to many of the regular visitors and residents here.
In my early days, I came to Orchard Towers as a patron, using alcohol and sleaze to get over the failure of my second marriage. I had met a nice girl here, with whom I opened a small pub with in her home town in Laguna, Philippines a few months later. But that’s another tale for another time.
At the end of my six-month long business venture in Philippines, I returned to Singapore, and started again at the bottom. I found a nice job in a rock club that paid peanuts, but allowed me to drink on the job as long as I stayed sober till the end of my shift (which wasn’t difficult, given my drinking history). Here, I met fellow rock enthusiasts, alcoholics and night owls alike.
Within my first week there, I met ‘D’, a DJ in his thirties who spun at the club occasionally. A younger version of D used to get into a ton of fist fights, and he had a glaring scar at the back of his shiny bald head to show for it. Aptly, that scar resembled the general shape of a fist with a raised middle finger, literally sticking it to anyone who spoke ill of him behind his back.
As age mellowed his temper, D turned into a loud mouth with a thirst for Guinness, and fought his battles with his tongue rather than his fists.
We got along really well, due to our common interests of Irish dry stouts and debating, and my drink hustling skills always got him high before the end of his shift.
Naturally, he started inviting me to Orchard Towers post shift, to knock back a few more drinks before calling it a night.
I still remember the first time I walked into Orchard Towers with him. I was part of a celebrity’s chaperone group. There wasn’t a person in Orchard Towers who didn’t know ‘D’: shoulder slap to the right; fist bump to the left; full contact ‘bro-hugs’ all around. All I could do was smile sheepishly while he basked in his glory. We never paid for a single drink that night.
“I could get used to this”, I thought to myself, at that moment at least.
Many drinks later, D was properly smashed for the night. We teetered on jelly feet to throw him in a cab at 7 in the morning, with a taxi queue as long as the Hello Kitty queues outside MacDonalds back in the late 90’s.
In the 3 months I spent working at the club, this went on two to three times a week.
My 7th visit to Orchard Towers: D wasn’t as smashed as usual (a rare occurrence), and could hold a decent conversation. That was the morning the sugar coating around D’s celebrity persona melted away to reveal a bitter core.
D had beaten his stepfather half to death once, after witnessing his stepfather abusing D’s biological mother. His mother begged him not to do it again.
It broke his heart to see his mother submit to a violent man like that, and at the same time, he felt shame for having almost become a mirror image of his step father.
He resolved to never resort to violence, and his only answer was to be only at home when his step father left the house for work at 7am in the morning. I often advised D that it wasn’t the best solution. But a friend can only do so much. We are all the consequences of our own decisions.
Many people call Orchard Towers home. They feel at ease, and unjudged here, because pretty much everyone else has a sketchy background. As much as you wouldn’t be surprised to find a streetwalker in Geylang, you would expect 3 in 5 people here to have some sort of criminal background.
The bigger clubs – such as Naughty Girls or Ipanema -have the rowdiest crowds, and the toughest bouncers in the Tower: Burly looking men with menacing faces, covered in tattoos, who never shy from a fist fight or dragging troublemakers out of the club by their hair.
I have come to know many of them as family men who are ex- cons. With few choices career wise, they do what they did best in their heyday as gangsters or criminals: Being muscle.
Now these men, they’re a different bunch altogether. Many of them have an old school gangster mentality and a certain code of honour: you give them respect, and they will return it.
Many a time, they’ve gracelessly dispensed of a drunk patron who came by my table to create trouble, or even who had simply partook of drinks from my table without asking for permission. They would be ungraciously dispensed with by these men without question, simply because they knew me as a regular patron who did not cause trouble, even if I didn’t spend thousands of dollars there.
I felt safe with these guys around. Despite their intimidating looks, many of them are simple men, making a living from what they can, to provide for their families. They don’t complain about the work, but they don’t take bullshit as well.
In my eyes, these men are honourable, but misunderstood.
It’s only human to fear and judge. The Yellow Ribbon Project may have alleviated general societal perceptions of the ex-convict, but it also puts many of these men in blue-collar jobs such as cleaners, general workers or drivers – jobs commonly looked down upon in affluent Singapore.
Working in a club as a bouncer gives these men some dignity back. It’s a job that calls for both discipline and restraint. They do what they do well; people do not dare look down upon them in general. And I would hazard that the pay is better.
I have witnessed many incidents where these men were antagonised repeatedly by rowdy patrons, and yet they would never lift a hand unless the patron struck first. I have seen a bouncer take out a patron a full head taller than him in one punch.
In the months that I spent at Orchard Towers, I came across a band that played nothing but nonstop classic rock and heavy metal hits from the ’70s to ’90s: Heavy stuff such as Judas Priest, Iron Maiden and Rainbow.
The band was amazing, they kept perfect time, and the music was heartfelt, even tear-inducing at times.
The irony? This amazing band played in one of the sleaziest joints in Orchard Towers. I’m talking under-the-table blowjobs, straight up boob flashes and the works.
Being a huge classic rock fan, I got really close to the band. I spent three to five nights a week patronising the pub, and eventually I was part of their inner circle.They often invited me into the backstage dressing room, where we would share a joint and talk about music.
I couldn’t help but feel a huge surge of sympathy for them. These guys were famous musicians in Singapore: The lead guitarist was one of Singapore’s most sought after sessionist, when music idols such as Kit Chan held concerts; the vocalist was immensely popular in Malaysia as a rock singer. And yet, there they were on stage, playing to a crowd that was there for the sleaze rather than the music.
Almost depressing, really.
Old school, classic rock music never took a solid hold in the music industry here, not even at Hard Rock Cafe. We can only blame the generally low reception of rock music in Singapore; most of it is underground, and under-appreciated.
But the reason these guys played in Orchard towers was simple. The bosses allowed them to play whatever they wanted, not just whatever the crowd demanded. These guys played with the passion, self-respect and ego – bordering on arrogance – that drives any true rock band.
They refused to bend to the social norms of doing what was mainstream or popular just for the dollar note. I have nothing but respect for them:. How many of us can honestly declare that we’ve chosen to pursue our passions in life?
In another club, I observed the opposite in terms of management. The band played really heavy metal, such as Megadeth, Dream Theater, mixing it up with a sprinkling of mainstream music to appease the boss.
The lead singer was a Filipina who had a female, Bon Jovi-esque rock voice that was powerful enough to shake your soul. Sadly. that band (and the club itself) did not last long, due to conflicts between the management and the band’s musical tastes… and the fact that a Vietnamese flower joint would never gain traction in Orchard towers with a heavy metal band playing in it.
The image of a skimpily clad girl gyrating to a heavy metal song is jarring, to say the least.
I stayed in contact with the vocalist after she left Singapore, and she is doing well overseas in another rock band, where their music is truly appreciated.
Sure, everyone can say that the girls of Orchard Towers are only out for a buck, and they are only hookers in the guise of dancers, singers and shot girls.
It’s easy to judge, because it’s the easy way to feel integrated into polite society. What nobody really sees – or wants to see – is the hardships these girls have experienced: Drawing little to no regular salary on a purely commission based job, in a harsh environment that dehumanises them.
Many of these girls come to Singapore with dreams of making money to feed their family back home: Single mothers, only children with sick parents, the list goes on.
While many of us seasoned patrons have heard these stories a hundred and one times, 20 out of the one hundred and one stories are, in all likelihood, true. And these girls really do suffer, coming to Singapore thousands of dollars in debt to the agent who brought them here (illegally, in some cases). They work in constant fear of being caught and deported, doing what they can to make a living.
Orchard Towers has a generally bad reputation. But from my viewpoint, many people have their own reasons to be here; Some choose to fall into the pit of sleaze and close the trapdoor behind them, some are not even here for the sleaze, and others simply have nowhere else to go to unload their stress.
I come to Orchard Towers because it’s where things are real if you look close enough.
People who choose to take the blue pill see a hurricane of trouble & the debris it spews: Raunchy girls looking for a cash cow, criminally-inclined bouncers with itchy knuckles, the stench of sleaze that breathes life into Orchard Towers.
Those who take the red pill see the dead calm of the storm: An unseen ecosystem where the denizens and regulars work together to bring some semblance of decency, to what would otherwise be forever known as the Four Floors of Whores.
At Orchard Tower, every broken bottle, tattoo, and cigarette butt has a story behind it. Whether you get to hear the tale, is another story altogether.