Sunday, April 18, 2010

Budget hotels move in… then sex workers follow

When businessman Ng Choon Beng moved into his terrace house in Upper Serangoon Road three years ago, the neighbourhood was a quiet, leafy residential area with great food.

Then, Hotel 81 and Fragrance Hotel came up just a few doors away and started offering hourly rates.

‘There wasn’t much activity at first, but we see a lot more illicit activities going on these days,’ said Mr Ng, 38, of his estate, which is next to Upper Serangoon Shopping Centre, about 1km from Kovan MRT station.

‘Sometimes cars drive up right outside our house and park there, and then we see these girls and their clients walking towards the hotels; we’ve even witnessed money transactions taking place.’

When his wife walks to a nearby provision shop to buy groceries, men waiting around the hotels and KTV lounges would stare at her or even proposition her. Mr Ng’s neighbours are equally upset by the new people on the block. They are unwelcome in a residential area and they have caused parking woes, said residents.

Since budget hotels began springing up in residential areas like Kovan, Tiong Bahru and Balestier in the past two years, sex workers have also started appearing.

These budget hotels, many of which offer hourly rates and mostly operated by Hotel 81 and Fragrance Hotel, seem popular with the girls. Businesses and residents say the women can often be seen hanging around outside or near the hotels, sometimes alone, sometimes with men.

One reason could be the presence of KTV lounges and bars in the area; some businesses and residents also attribute the problem to the clean-up in red-light district Geylang.

Regular raids there have forced the illegal prostitutes to go elsewhere, they said.

The police said they arrested a total of 7,614 female foreigners islandwide for vice-related activities last year, up from 5,047 arrests in 2008.

Anti-vice raids were conducted over the past few weeks in Geylang, Kovan and, most recently, at two budget hotels in Balestier Road last Thursday where 12 foreigners were arrested.

Shops in Geylang say business has dropped between 30 per cent and 50 per cent since the police began ramping up raids in the past year, and the women have moved out of the area.

Presumably, they have moved on to Balestier and Lavender, where there is a concentration of budget hotels offering hourly rates.

Seven of the 13 hotels in Balestier charge hourly rates.

‘I see these girls all the time. Sometimes I get home around 8pm or 9pm and they’re just waiting around, skimpily dressed, out in full force,’ said Ms Kim Navro, a 30-year-old accountant who is a resident there. ‘Then, all these old uncles leer at them and try to pick me up as well, thinking I’m one of them. It really makes me uncomfortable and, quite frankly, disgusts me.’

At Lavender Street, where four of the five budget hotels charge transit rates ranging from $20 to $30 for the first two hours, provocatively dressed girls start appearing around early evening.

It is a recent development, said businesses there. The KTV bars have always been around, but girls started loitering along the streets only after the budget hotels came up.

‘In the past two years, these men and their girls have become quite a common sight, at all times of the day. We might have had more walk-in clients if these hotels weren’t here and the reputation of our area was better,’ said Mr Seetoh Yew Chuen, 42, a sales staff member at Raffles Photography.

The Hotels Licensing Board (HLB), which oversees hotel regulation here, has no statistics on the number of hotels that offer hourly or transit rates.

But it was reported in Parliament last September that almost half of the 250 hotels here are transit hotels and they are not given a special licence.

Since then, new hotels that want to offer hourly rates have to explain why in their applications to the HLB, which handles their registration and licence renewal process.

Mr Justin Chew, a member of the board, said it has left pricing up to the hotels as it wants to take a pro-business approach, much like other major cities such as Hong Kong, London, New York and Sydney.

Under the tighter rules, new transit hotels will also have to come up with security and preventive measures, like installing surveillance cameras in common areas or deploying security guards. For new hotels setting up in residential areas, the hotel will also be required to ‘engage the community and respond to concerns from residents’, said Mr Chew.

In January last year, the HLB banned all hotels in heritage-rich Joo Chiat from offering hourly rates, to curb vice activities.

If a hotel is found to be involved in such activities, the board can revoke its licence.

This is still scant comfort to residents in Tiong Bahru, who raised a stinker last June when construction for a Hotel 81 in Eng Hoon Street began.

That hotel – Hotel 81 Osaka – charges $50 for three hours, and another budget hotel in Seng Poh Road, New Cape Inn, charges $30 for two hours.

Residents and businesses say since Hotel 81 Osaka opened its doors, they have noticed girls standing by the road, as early as in the afternoon.

‘I don’t approve of them, but I’m resigned to them being here. There’ll be an increase in vice for sure; it’s just a matter of time,’ said self-employed businessman John Tan, 50.

Residents say they are afraid that the situation will worsen over time and the two transit hotels will mar the reputation of an area rich with heritage and history. Some are even contemplating moving.

When contacted, Hotel 81′s general manager Chu Poh Yong declined to comment. Fragrance Hotel’s management could not be reached, although when approached, a spokesman for its Kovan hotel said: ‘We’re running a normal, credible business here, and we have received no complaints from residents or businesses.’

Madam Cynthia Phua, an MP for Aljunied GRC which covers Kovan, said the women who ply the area do not openly solicit but operate through the Internet. That resulted in a police operation on April 1 that nabbed 12 female Chinese nationals for vice-related offences in the rooms of both Fragrance Hotel Kovan and Hotel 81 Kovan.

The hotels have since employed round-the-clock security guards to patrol the vicinity and will alert the police if they notice women out for business.

The efforts seem to be working, for now. When The Sunday Times was there last Friday night, a security guard was sitting at the back entrance of Fragrance Hotel and no women were spotted loitering along the sidewalk.

Madam Phua said the Land Transport Authority has also put in central dividers and zigzag lines to deter cars from parking in the residential areas.

She said the hotels say they cater to companies whose regional staff visit their factories nearby for training purposes.

Even so, residents are still insistent that budget hotels have no business in a largely residential area.

‘There aren’t many foreigners or attractions in this area, so why put a hotel here? It’s indirectly encouraging hanky-panky. If they want a budget hotel for visitors, it should be located somewhere with a direct link to the airport,’ said interior designer David Wong, 39, who has lived in the Kovan area for 29 years.

An Urban Redevelopment Authority spokesman said both the Hotel 81 and Fragrance Hotel sites in Upper Serangoon Road are zoned as commercial and residential land, which also allows for hotel development.

The land planning and regulatory authority had approved the two hotel developments as they were within a mixed-use area with shops, eateries and places of worship.

Still, Madam Phua intends to bring up the issue at the next Parliament sitting.

‘I’ve also asked the hotels if they can do away with the hourly rates. That’s my appeal to them as an MP,’ she said.

Source: Sunday Times, 18 Apr 2010

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