The following interview contains content involving child abuse and some violent content. Discretion is advised.
Too often, the social system tramples on the very people it is meant to protect. The crushing reality of this is all the more apparent for transgender sex workers, who are caught right in the intersection of two marginalised social groups. Today we speak with vivacious Doris on some of the lesser known problems transgender sex workers face at work and at home.
Doris’ story may portray her to be a violent person, but we need to look at her actions and outlook in the context of structural and institutional discrimination against Trans people and the lack of protection for young people in abusive relationships. While Doris does lash out with seemingly strong language, her outrage does not extend to the realm of physical violence – something, unfortunately, untrue about her some of her clients, the police she deals with, and society at large.
How are you treated by the anti-vice police officers (The anti-vice branch of the police force regulates and licenses “vice” activities in Singapore.)?
I don’t know what to say. When you want to apply for yellow card (All licensed sex workers have a yellow-coloured health card and work in licensed brothers), they treat you like one bloody shit. I think even uneducated barbarians wouldn’t talk to us like that.
The anti-vice always blames us first even though it’s not our fault. Let’s say someone hits me, and I hit him back but he is injured worse than me. He started it first but the anti-vice will always blame us. But the thing is we don’t take yellow card to give problem. Everyone wants to work peacefully unless someone hurts you – physically, like pulling hair, biting my back…
I’m very soft-spoken to customers and talk to them nicely. When they treat me badly I will warn them, like when they bite my nipple or private parts bleed, but they don’t listen.
I’m a Christian so I follow Jesus, but I am not Jesus. Slap me here and expect me to give the other side for you to slap? No!
You are just borrowing me for awhile to pleasure yourself. You don’t own me for the whole day! Even my parents don’t own me. So just for this while I let you torture me? That’s not right. So when I feel pain, I let you taste your own medicine.
Did the anti-vice ever physically abuse you?
Yes. It was during a raid and when I was unlicensed. The moment he saw me he said “Nahbei cheebye this one” and kicked my backside so hard until I limped but he said “Don’t action”. He thought I was a Thailand girl, but Thai also cannot kick what!
Anti-vice nowadays don’t bother lah, but last time it’s terrible, run until we fall, aiyoh…
So do you prefer working under the yellow card or without it?
When we work yellow card, we get very tired. We only have one off day a week – if we want to take more we have to pay fine. Each day will be 20 to 30 – rounds – the fine. Every month I think I have to pay thousands of dollars in fine.
Yellow card you can make money. You can have savings; the earning there is fast – but tiring, painful, stressful. Each customer we take is very different. Some people are very soft, hopefully I whole day get customers like that. Some, no. They can pull my hair until one bunch can come out.
Taking yellow card also got age limit – they say after 35 cannot. What about those aunties 80 years old still selling? When we go and apply they ask us “Eh you so old already your cheebye still can sell ah?”
How does the fine work?
That time $5.50 per round. Every Sunday I have to pay $500 in fines! If you call to tell that you are not working, the fine is lesser. But if you continuously take off days, they will say “Just come no matter how painful.” If you don’t come he will increase the number of rounds every day.
I am not doing a normal job, you know. I am a sex worker. You don’t understand because you are not in my shoes, you are not sitting down with me and working. He thinks it’s because I’m lazy, but it’s because I took 70 customers! Imagine 70 men pressing you so hard all over your body, and I have implants, sometimes they press wrong…
Then the brothel boss very racist – he will say “Only Indians like that. Indian bastard. Indian pariah.” You cannot keep on condemning us, it’s not nice, I feel hurt.
I have to beg them to let me sleep half an hour, to let me rest because I’m very tired. Half an hour zhun-zhun (exact) one hor, they will knock on the door. So it’s better that I work outside, without yellow card, then I have no one to control me
When we tell this to the anti-vice, they will tell the bosses it is we the sex workers who complained. Then we kena. So if I really cannot take it, I will just stop like that, without informing. It’s bad lah, but I cannot take it. If I inform you, you threaten me and ask me to pay thousands of dollars in fines. So I just stop. After one or two years, they see me again, they ask us to take yellow card and we trust them again.
When we reapply for the yellow card from the anti-vice – Aiyo, it’s like fighting for an MP’s chair! Actually it’s their duty to license us no matter how many times we go and apply for it! Since the police don’t want us to be in the streets, and want us to be sitting down in the room, they have to give it to us. But the way they make us stand in the room, facing the wall like kindergarten kids…what am I? Giving up the yellow card and then reapplying for it…you are treated worse than a beggar.
Yellow card can earn money, but it’s very torturous. I was terribly abused by my father and I still got all the pain from that time.
You were abused by your father?
Yes. Just now I mentioned my headache, it’s because my father hit me a lot in the head. Bang me here, throw me there. Even my mother ran away because she couldn’t stand the beatings.
Because you’re a transgender?
Aha, it seemed at that point of time it was because I was becoming girly, becoming ahgua, but then he wouldn’t have sexually abused me when I was 11! It makes you a bigger ahgua right?
I was very badly beaten on my 9th birthday. The whole thing started a few nights before when my father beat me and kept asking me “where is your mother?” while I kept saying “I don’t know”, because I was only 9 years old! The security guard caught us, at the shopping centre. The moment he saw me he called for the police, because I already jialat – my whole body did not have an inch of normal skin. Head to toe all bungkuk-bungkuk (bruised).
But after we saw the doctor, my father brought me home and beat me again. Till the next day, around 2.30pm the ambulance came again. Nothing broke but I was very seriously injured. Paramedics came and asked my aunty “How many people beat him?” That’s how badly I was beaten. One and a half months in the hospital. At that age I shouldn’t have taken more than 7 X-rays – I took 38 X-rays. That’s why I’m having so much of problem with my body now. My mother came to visit me – secretly, lah. My hand was double the size, my eyes did not have whites, they were all red, my mouth was clotted with blood…
When my father came to see me, the nurse from behind and asked me (using sign) is this your father? I just did this (nodded). My father knew I was the one who told so before he left he punched me again on the hospital bed.
Where do you live now?
Now I’m staying my sister house. Right now I’m paying $600 for a room. I’m hoping to move out so I don’t disturb her. However, rental flat is so difficult. How come one person can buy BTO, but rental flat cannot? They are scared that when we die alone in the house no one will know. But it is the same for BTO houses what. And the government should understand – for the LGBTQ, it is very difficult for us to stay with someone we don’t know. If he’s a man, he might molest me. Then he can turn around to say “Oh it’s the ah gua who wanted to suck my cock.” They will believe the man – because “transgender like to suck cock”. When we fight, they will attack me and say “Chao ah gua lah, stay with you so difficult.”. That’s the only thing they can use to bring us down. What if we cannot get along and we kill each other? Then Straits Times will come out another murder. No lah, I’m just saying!
I’m a Singaporean I have rights. I’m not asking you to give me a double storey house. It’s how small only! Half your grave. Just give us a chance to live until we die lah! We cannot possibly all stay in shelters and trouble people, and they are not cheap. If the government gives me a house, I will be working a normal job. I can still work and pay. Six years at my sister’s house at $600 a month, almost seven years, is $42000. I already paid for half a house if I bought it, you know? Why are they making me pay outside which I don’t get anything?
The only people who can help us is government. Every transgender needs a home. Without it we are going miserably haywire. Sometimes it makes us steal – the desperate ones – make us suicidal. If I stay in the park, come out New Paper.
Try to be in our shoes and understand. Just because you have everything, you don’t know the feeling. Just because you’re good, you’re an MP or government servant. You’re just gifted, you don’t know about anything. Be one day in our shoes and see – you will cry the whole day.
Do you earn more doing sex work or as a cleaner?
People ask us to work as cleaner instead of sex work. But they don’t understand. Some people want to work as a sex worker for luxury life. Some want to take care of their parents, want to pay the house bill, want to pay rent, want to makan, you know all these have!
Normal jobs have security. Every day I go, I know I will get paid. Doing sex work now is coming to work in fear – will I make enough to pay my sister? Do I have to stay till midnight today?
What would you like to say to the detractors of sex workers?
I have ever posted about sex workers on Facebook. I said you all normal people out there should be very thankful for sex workers or else there’ll be so many rape cases in Singapore. Because of us your ass is safe. There are so many different kinds of men and they come to us to serve a need. If there’s no sex workers, I think your family members won’t be going out at night.
This interview was transcribed by Andrea, a volunteer with Project X, and approved by Doris herself.