As I walked through those wooden doors, I saw a lady waving at me with a smile and hope. Her name is Sherry Sherqueshaa, a sex worker who is now a researcher and writer at Project X, a non-profit organization comprising of a small team of staff dedicated volunteers. They would walk the streets of Geylang to reach out to sex workers and they aim to end the stigma and discrimination that results in physical, verbal, emotional and financial violence against sex workers in Singapore.
Working alongside with Sherry while understanding the struggles she go through as a transgender sex worker opened up my mind. Previously a former sex worker, Sherry had now returned to sex work. As I begin my interview with her, she explained why her relationship with a man changed her life for the better. However, she felt depressed and needed the feeling of comfort and companionship as the relationship ended. She returned to working in Geylang, a place where she feels familiar and gave her the satisfaction and empowerment. She was able to prove to the men who look down on transgender women. This may seem difficult to understand for many people, but sex work gave her the ability to reject men who request other types of services. It made her feel worthy of her gender and the rights as a human being.
As I strolled along the back alleys of the red light district, Geylang becomes familiar. Over these three months, I met a number of Sisters (Lily, Mell and Sheeda) who would walk me through these alleys. These are places where they feel comfortable. I begun to understand the joy and struggles they have while working along these streets. I saw different age groups of men paying for services, a cosmopolite culture of nationality, race, gender and sexuality. It became clearer to me that behind these glamorous, neon-lit streets lies not mere entertainment or pleasure, but a shared culture and ongoing monopoly of services. Just like any other jobs, these Sisters work for a living to pay their bills. On a daily basis, they handle rejections, abuse and pains from their clients, discrimination from strangers and the society, and criticism from the public on their ‘inappropriate’ behaviors. They are shunned from the mainstream into the corners of these dark alleys to keep their lives going on.
As I continued on photographing Sisters, the nightlife of Geylang really taught me on how special the culture, people and values it encompasses. It is overwhelming how these actions, social sanctions and lingos run along these Lorongs. A tiny glimpse into the back of our red light district filled with new adventures. I would not even come close to fully understanding the extent of this strong culture of Geylang and the people within it. The big dreams and hopes they have; the physical, emotional and verbal abuse they receive; the pains and discrimination they are given. They were excited when I approached them to be photographed and after showing them the results.
I hope that someday Sisters will invite a positive, accepting and liberal mindset for our fellow Singaporeans. I hope that Singaporeans will be able to acknowledge these Sisters as an equal individual rather than an object or alien that do not belong here. Working as a transgender sex worker in a conservative society like Singapore is a difficult path to take. One of the many challenges that transgender women in Singapore need to deal with is job discrimination. For this very reason, many transgender women in Singapore become sex workers as it tends to be the only way they can earn a living.
“Sex work is a complex industry but I don’t compete, instead I empower them” says Sherry Sherqueshaa.
Once again, I give thanks to Vanessa and Sherry from Project X for being so welcoming and accommodating. Their perseverance on advocating sex rights and to end stigma empowers me as a young photographer. Sisters is a documentary project that discovers an unseen part of Singapore, particularly the lives of the transgender sex workers.
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