Prostitutes and Needle Pushers

A few years ago I made an appointment with a Singaporean man whose business was in the heart of Chinatown.  He was giving me directions to his workplace when he asked, “Do you know Chinatown very well?”

“Sure,” I said.  This one word, “sure” somehow indicated in code that I used the special services of Chinese pleasure maidens.  He smiled devilishly, raised his eyebrows and said, “Ahh, I know, I know.”  I had no idea what he was referring to, until a few years later.

In 2005, a friend of mine stayed with me for a couple of weeks.  I’d come home from work and ask, “What did you do today?”  He’d say, “I went to Chinatown.”  It took a week of this before he confessed to finding an array of Eastern pleasure-domes.

With that in mind, five years later, I sat in a waiting room at a shopping area called Beauty World, here in Singapore.  Most of Singapore is completely “English”.  As one of four official languages, English is easily dominant—definitely at most professional establishments.

But this one was different.  The waiting room papers were all in Chinese.  The posters on the wall were in Chinese, and as I soon found, the “therapists” in attendance hardly spoke English.  The space was partitioned by a series of hanging curtains, compartmentalizing a small room into tiny, separate sections with a single bed or table in each.  And while I waited for my treatment time, one of the hanging, partitioned sheets was moving rhythmically as somebody’s butt and lower back pushed up against it, protruding oddly into the tiny waiting area that I sat in.

I knew where I was.  It wasn’t a brothel–or a “massage” parlour.  But still, I wondered.  Giving acupuncture a try for the very first time, I was already a bit edgy.  And considering that I was once asked if I wanted a “special service” at a local health spa, I was a bit frightened when seeing the thrusting curtain.

Perhaps I should clarify a phobia to put this in perspective:

I’m afraid of prostitutes.

In 2004, while finding my way back to my hotel in Hanoi, Vietnam, I was asked by a beautiful woman on a scooter if I wanted a ride.  I didn’t.

“Massage?” she asked.

OK, so she was a masseuse drumming up business.

“No thanks,” I replied.

“Special massage?” she implored.

Then she smiled, revealing that her employer obviously didn’t offer dental benefits.

Hmmmm…..Now it was time to leave.  And I was scared.

I knew what “special massage” meant.  And as awful as this sounds, I had just finished reading Bram Stoker’s original Dracula the night before, and she probably reminded me, subconsciously, of those creepy vampire women who lived with The Count and threatened to eat people.

“No thank you,” I stammered.

And then I started to jog, wearing Chaco sandals. I lengthened my stride into a moderate run, until I heard her calling to me from her trailing scooter.  She was definitely closing the gap.  And fast.

Although far from possessing speed that could put food on my table through a Nike contract, I had run a 4:30 mile a few months previous.  And on that night, I did it again.   Petrified, I ran as fast as I could, flying past old guys on bicycles, scorching past scooters and weaving between traffic clogged taxis that were taking tourists out for dinner.  I was a bald, white rocket, streaking through the streets like I’d just stolen the ring off Ho Chi Minh’s embalmed pinky.

Totally irrational, I know.  What was I expecting this prostitute to do?  Tie me down and give me syphilis with a slap of her hand-bag?

Needless to say, I made it back to the hotel alive.

But the acupuncturist, in November 2010, was still a question mark.  What was going on behind that sheet?

I was soon to find out.

Moving me into the next partitioned quarter, I lay face-down on a massage table, roughly an arm’s length from the man behind the neighbouring compartment.  He was now getting slapped by something sounding like a paddle.  This place could definitely be kinky, I thought.  He made sounds like the principal, in Forrest Gump.  Do you remember that guy?  He was the one generously agreeing to put Forrest in the regular public school –which he negotiated in Forrest’s mother’s bedroom.

But the guy behind the acupuncturist’s sheet was quieter.

Then fear turned to relaxation as the therapist did what she’s supposed to do:  she started jabbing needles into my bare back.   Yeah, I know.  A normal person wouldn’t necessarily be happy about that.  But I was.

It didn’t hurt—it just pinched a bit.  Then they moved some kind of heat lamp over me, warming the needles, while I lay still for 20 minutes.  I moved my arm once, but I guess that shifted my back muscles a bit, and it felt like someone had just stuck, yeah, a bunch of needles in my back.

After the needles were removed, the therapist brought out a toilet plunger and started to suction areas of my back.   I didn’t actually see the plunger—so I can’t tell you where it came from.  But it felt and sounded like a classic instrument better served for freeing a porcelain log and paper jam.

“What are you doing?” I wanted to know.

“Sucking moisture from inside back,” responded the therapist in broken English.

And that’s when she brought out the stick.  The poor guy in sheet room 101 wasn’t ever experiencing pleasure.  I’d figured that out by now.  He was getting battered and bruised by a paddle—and now it was my turn.

I can’t really take credit for enduring a torturous Chinese paddling because the therapist was a lot easier on me than she was on my wife—who suffered from massive bruising the day after she was treated at the same place.

What does this have to do with finance?


Andrew Hallam

I’m a financial columnist for Canada’s national paper, The Globe and Mail, as well as for AssetBuilder, a financial service firm based in Texas. I’m also the author of Millionaire Teacher: The Nine Rules of Wealth You Should Have Learned in School and Millionaire Expat: How To Build Wealth Living Overseas. My mission is to educate, motivate and inspire people on basic retirement planning and best practices for investing, using evidence-based strategies. I'm happy to comment on your questions.

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12 Responses

  1. 101 Centavos says:

    I once had a Chinese foot massage in Shanghai. While your feet are soaking in near-boiling hot salted water, the amazingly strong massage girl pounded the snot out of my shoulders and back. Presumably this was to make the subsequent foot torture, I mean massage, feel better by comparison. At the end, I was just glad it was over.

  2. @101 Centavos

    I've had a similar experience. And the funniest thing is that the person in the chair next to you (a local) can sleep through an identical procedure. What's up with that?????

  3. 101 Centavos says:

    Beats me (no pun intended). They were drinking tea and having a high old time.

  4. @101 Centavos

    You had a wild bunch in there! Whenever I go, I'm crying in pain while the locals sleep. After watching locals sleep on the shortest of bus rides, and on the MRT, I've concluded that Asians can sleep anywhere….and through anything!

  5. I am experience-poor when it comes to Chinese related stuff unless green tea counts for anything? I've tasted it before….

    It's good to have those non-finance related posts from time to time!

  6. @BeatingTheIndex

    Thanks Mich,

    I wondered what people would think,considering that it had nothing to do with finance, but the story itself made me laugh while I wrote it, so I hoped someone would enjoy it. Thanks!

  7. 101 Centavos says:

    I got my usual buzz cut today (2 on the side, 3 on top), and reflected on how throroughly unremarkable an experience it was. I mean, I like the barber shop, been going there for years, but it couldn't even begin to compare to a Chinese head wash, or a Turkish haircut. Living overseas has its benefits, no doubt.

  8. Funny story, Andrew. I stayed in Hanoi for a few days visiting my girlfriend's cousin who was working there as a diplomat, and we went to this massage parlor in a new section of the city and the power was out. The place seemed pretty shady given everything around was pitch black and the girls were all dressed in miniskirts.

    We got a "normal" message (I think his wife would kill him if he were receiving any "special" massages), but those little girls were damn strong. There is one part of the massage where they roll you onto their knees to crack your back, and my girlfriend's cousin is a big guy, probably over 200 pounds, while these girls don't look like they're even 100 pounds. It was impressive.

    Since I was with my girlfriend 99% of the time, nobody called to me for a "special massage" or "good time" (though there were plenty that wanted to exchange money for us and other various things), but I did walk outside by myself at night in Ho Chi Minh one time, and some guy came by, put his arm around me, called me friend, and pointed at some girls and was wondering if I was interested. I told him that I wasn't and kept on going. Something similar almost happened in Bangkok when I walked by myself by some "girls" standing on the sidewalk, with my girlfriend looking on to see if they would behave differently if I was by myself. 😉

  9. @Kevin@Invest It Wisely

    Hey Kevin,

    Do you prostitution is so prolific because of the huge wealth disparity? Are there areas of the developing world where prostitution is shunned by the masses? In Thailand, from what I have read, a prostitute coming back to her home village to eventually buy a house after a career as a prostitute is very much respected.

  10. I haven't traveled enough of the world to say, but I don't know if there are places where it is as prolific as in southeast Asia (namely, Vietnam and Thailand)! Wealth disparities probably play a part (small money to Westerners is big money to them), but then what about Hong Kong? It's pretty big there, too.

    Maybe it also depends on how many people pass through the area. What happens in (some overseas place) stays over there, and many businessmen know this.

    What you say about them being well-respected after returning to their home village is quite shocking, though! I never would have imagined that…

  11. The Dividend Ninja says:

    This is the funniest thing I have ever read on a finance blog 🙂

  12. Hey Ninja,

    Thanks! It definitely made me laugh while writing it. I knew that it didn't fit thematically with my blog, but it was the most enjoyable post I ever wrote. I'm glad you liked it too!

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