Johore Road was a street in Singapore that no longer exists today. It was located between and parallel to Queen Street and Victoria Street, bisected by Ophir Road and bounded at either end by Arab Street and Rochor Road. It was distinguished by its notoriety as the less well-known cousin of its glamourous counterpart, Bugis Street, just a stone's throw away. It was the seedy haunt of transwoman sex workers (formerly pejoratively and incorrectly referred to in the press as "male prostitutes" or "homosexual prostitutes") who solicited sex from locals, away from the glare of Western tourists. No photographs or media attention were focussed on this street of ill-repute; only a no-frills approach to an economic exchange.
Queen Street is contemporarily well-known as the gateway to Malaysia's Johor Bahru, thanks to the cross-border bus services that operate from the modest-looking Queen Street Bus Terminal. An express bus would have taken one from Queen Street to Johor in under 45 minutes. However, up to the late 1990s, one could have just walked across the road to "Johore", or rather, Johore Road, to be more exact.
Johore Road was one of the few thoroughfares to be expunged from the map of Singapore in the late 1990s, joining the likes of some memorable places like Bukit Larangan, an early 19th century name for Fort Canning Hill; and Hock Lam Street, a road on the current site of Funan Centre. A policeman stationed in the vicinity in the early 1990s recalls that there were three big fires during the period - one in late 1990 and two in 1991. This, coupled with the fact that minor floods from the overflowing open drains during downpours were a regular occurrence. was the impetus for the houses in the area to be demolished and redeveloped. They were replaced by an unnamed park next to the Bugis MRT station and the Victoria Street Wholesale Centre. The latter was replace by an open field of grass after a few years which is all that remains of Johore Road today.
Venue for transgender sex work
Johore Road saw its heyday in the 1960s and the 1970s, a period in which it came to be known as a notorious red light district with transgender sex workers soliciting for business in the shophouses and alleys nightly from 7pm onwards. It was just a stone’s throw away from the then world-renowned Bugis Street, which was famous for its cabaret performances, transwomen and food stalls.
The first detailed description of Johore Road as a venue for transwoman sex work was made in a groundbreaking 4-part feature on Singapore's LGBT community by the evening newspaper, New Nation, entitled "THEY ARE DIFFERENT..." It was published on 4 consecutive days from Monday, 24 July 1972 to Thursday, 27 July 1972.
Excerpts from the articles:
"While Bugis Street was imprinted on postcards and attracted thousands of Western tourists and sailors, Johore Road was its less glamourous counterpart that only the locals knew.
The seemingly glamorous side of this society is found in the roadside display of transvestites (kedii or drags, men dressed in women's attire in Bugis Street, but they are only one category of gay people.
The more seamy side dwells in the slums of Johore Road where hundreds of men jostle nightly through beehived cubicles looking for sex with transvestites.
Basically there are three main types of homosexual males:
ONE: The transvestites, or drags, who dress as women.
TWO: The effeminate males, who are very feminine in appearance or mannerism.
THREE: The normal male, neither effeminate nor unlike other "straight" (non-homosexual) males in appearance.
The main areas of homosexual prostitution are in Johore Road and Bugis Street.
Here the casual visitor will do well to bear in mind that among the bosomy beauties he sees, the prettier ones are usually boys.
These are the transvestites also known as "sisters" who all want to dress as girls. But not all of them want to be girls.
They form a very close-knit community, one paradoxically filled with an incredible amount of jealousy, back-biting and general bitchiness.
Among these three are the male prostitutes, those men and boys who sell their sexual favours.
The transvestites who have become prostitutes frequent Bugis Street where they usually solicit after midnight and Johore Road, in foul-smelling, oppressive hovels, honeycombed with box-like cubicles big enough only for a double bed and standing space for one or two.
At these places, they ply their trade at prices ranging from $3 to $20 or more for a quick time, often fleecing European tourists or resident expatriates.
Their clients: Male homosexuals as well as men who also enjoy normal heterosexual relationships and do not regard themselves as homosexuals. The Bugis Street homosexuals often cater for Europeans or tourists, and the Johore Road group for the locals.
I, one of the transvestites, said: "Most of the 'sisters' start the same way. In school they realise that they are different. The boys tease them, then they start seeking the companionship of their own kind.
"Paradoxically they discover that they like boys.
"Then they start hanging around places where homosexual contacts are made. They experience sex and like it. Then they get more daring, dressing in women's clothes, the first few times in borrowed dresses and with haphazardly applied make up.
"Later they get bolder, and dress more stylishly, and accompany men on dates to nightclubs and cinemas. The men give them presents, and from there it is only one step towards accepting money.
"By this time the 'sister' will have left school, and will experience difficulty getting a job. He will start loitering around Bugis Street and Johore Road more frequently, becoming semi-professional.
"His family will grow suspicious of his staying out at night. One day he will be caught in the act of soliciting. There will be terrible quarrels at home, and a promise to behave more like a man in future.
"This promise will be almost impossible to keep, because he feels that he is a woman at heart. He will persist in behaving like one. Family disapproval will grow stronger. He will either leave home or be thrown out.
"He has to live, so he will turn to prostitution. Since he does not care about his family any more he will try to become fully a woman.
"He will take hormone pills and undergo plastic surgery and soon will have a female figure. It will now be impossible for him to live the life of a man.
"Then boyfriend trouble, gangster trouble, and with the police will start. Gangsters tend to leave most male prostitutes alone, but those who look like women and who have nowhere to turn to are victims of the gangs.
"Such male prostitutes find it extremely difficult to rent accommodation from decent, normal people, "So they stay in brothels, and pay exorbitant rents ($130 a month for an unfurnished cubicle 10 ft. square) and pay the gangsters $3 to $5 per day in 'protection money' and give the gangsters sexual pleasure too.
"They also run the constant risk of being arrested by the police for soliciting or for picking pockets. I know that some of us sometimes steal from our customers, but can you blame us when we are desperate?
A is a transvestite working as a prostitute in Johore Road. He is a Malaysian, and has devised a way of getting past the immigration officials.
Every two weeks he wraps a bandage round his breasts before putting on his shirt and a thick motorcycling jacket, then goes to the immigration checkpoint at Woodlands and literally sweats it out waiting for his passport to be stamped.
Every year or so he returns to Malacca to visit his parents. About five months before he returns home he stops taking hormone pills, letting his figure return to its boyish slimness.
He then takes the train home. He says that his parents do not have the slightest suspicion about his "profession."
Other transvestites keep their tendencies well hidden. N is a slender boy who is now a sailor but was formerly a male prostitute.
L is a clerk by day and a male prostitute in Johore Road by night.
He was driven to prostitution because all his lovers exploited him by demanding money.
To find the extra money needed to keep their affection, he had to prostitute himself.
He has a boyfriend with whom he is happy. "This boyfriend," L said, "has not asked me for money. But I like buying him presents."
He is afraid, however, that this happiness and relationship will not last. "I am worried. At present he doesn't have a girlfriend, but if he finds one he may leave me." he said.
L is also haunted by the age difference between him and his boyfriend. "I am 35." L said, "and I look my age. My boyfriend is in his early twenties. This embarrasses me."
Though L is an orphan, he is fortunate in having relatives who are understanding and concerned about his welfare.
"I was brought up By my aunt. She knows what I am and accepts me. She often worries that I may get assaulted when I go to Johore Road. My cousins also treat me well." L said.
But this is apparently not enough. In his bouts of depression he contemplates ending his life.
He attempted suicide in 1967, when a man he loved betrayed him, by taking an overdose of sleeping pills. Fortunately his sister found him in time and he was rushed to hospital.
During his week's stay In hospital, doctors tried to convince him to change his way of life.
But he eventually convinced them that the overdose was an accident. Not all homosexuals, however, were happy with the New Nation reports which, some complained brought the glare of publicity."
Occupants of the rows of shophouses at Johore Road were a fascinating mix mostly comprising home temples, small family businesses and illicit brothels. Street hawkers also lined the street on both sides.
Some people may recall the famous Sungei Road Laksa. It cost only 20 cents per bowl when the business first started in the 1950s along street. The push-cart stall sold the laksa along Johore Road by day and then moved to the Sungei Road area by night.
Many hawkers eventually relocated when the government made roadside hawking illegal.
Johore Road was also a popular spot for some religious devotees. There would be a crowd during the 15th day of the Lunar New Year (chap goh mei).
- Johnny Chen, "A certain Johore Road in Singapore", "Ghetto Singapore" blog, 21 April 2014.
- Tanya Ong, "Johore Road was once a well-known road in S’pore until it got erased from our maps in the 1990s", Mothership, 15 August 2017.
This article was written by Roy Tan.