While working on a long-term project called “Singapore,” a photographic love letter to his native country, photographer Nguan stumbled upon the neighborhood of Geylang, home to a busy red light district. The area’s hundreds of unassuming brothels, with their telltale giant red building numbers, became the focus of Nguan’s second photo series, “Singaporean Brothels.”
The brothels operate in somewhat of a legal gray area: prostitution is not explicitly illegal in Singapore, but some prostitution-related activities, like soliciting sex work on the street, or maintaining a brothel, are criminalized. Still, in practice, police unofficially let a few brothels slip under the legal radar.
In most cases, the brothels’ facades are homey and cheery in their designs–your first guess might be that cute little grandmas lived inside. They’re painted in pastel colors, with terracotta tiled roofs and welcome mats. There’s very little of the flashing neon or in-your-face sexuality of, say, Amsterdam’s red light district. Some brothels use decidedly wholesome decorations–rainbow stickers, laughing Buddha statues, potted flowers, a Singaporean flag. “My favorites are the ones that look more like places of worship,” Nguan says. In these cases, the only giveaways are the large red numbers in front that signify their offered services to those in the know. In a few cases, though, the brothels have doors decorated with silhouettes of scantily clad women.
“My photographs are meant to be evocative and not investigative,” Nguan says. “Part of the point of the work is for the viewer to look at the pictures and wonder what happens within the houses, and just letting that mystery be.” The pictures were all made in the late afternoon, when business was in full swing. “Although each scene appears uninhabited, I was usually being scrutinized or harassed by owners of neighboring brothels who were suspicious of my intentions,” Nguan says. To fend off harassers, he’d either pretend to be a naive tourist, or just assert his right to take a photograph.
Nguan’s series captures what could be the twilight of Geylang’s red light district. Condos have sprung up in the area in the past three years, and real estate values are skyrocketing, so it’s only a matter of time before the brothels have to leave.