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21 Jun 2004

boys in the hood

Read an excerpt from Gerrie Lim's new book, Invisible Trade: High-class sex for sale in Singapore about gay male escort services in the lion city.

The following is an excerpt from the book, Invisible Trade: High-class sex for sale in Singapore by Singaporean author Gerrie Lim who is an international correspondent for porn network AVN Online. The excerpt is taken from chapter six of the book, titled "Boys in the Hood" which explores the world of gay male escort services candidly described by former escort Cyril Wong, who is now an accomplished poet and others in the know. Lim who splits his time between Singapore and Los Angeles has also written for Billboard, Playboy, the South China Morning Post and The Wall Street Journal.

INVISIBLE TRADE: High-class sex for sale in Singapore
By Gerrie Lim
Monsoon Books (2004)
Paperback (208 pages)

How I long for a lean man
Who is to say I do not deserve one?
- Cyril Wong, Ann Siang Hill

Like most writers, Cyril Wong, at age twenty-six, feels he has lived several lifetimes. For one thing, he's actually proud of the fact that he once worked as a gay social escort. It was a freelance, part-time avocation that began while he was an undergraduate at the National University of Singapore, where he completed his degree in English Literature with a dissertation on Singapore poet Arthur Yap. Today, he is an acclaimed poet himself, the winner of several awards who has brought fame to his home country, his work having been read in Australia (at the Queensland Poetry Festival), Hong Kong (at the Hong Kong International Literary Festival), the United States (at the Austin International Poetry Festival) and, most prestigiously, Scotland (at the Edinburgh International Book Festival).

Invisible Trade is now available at bookshops in Singapore and also via online shopping at Monsoon Books.
His work, Cyril says, "deals with self-humiliation and identity, the problematic nature of such emotions and the conventions of how we look at each other." His most recent books, below: absence and Unmarked Treasure are clearly entitled as ironic nods to the offbeat place of gay men in Singapore society.

Yet, unconventionally perhaps, he is no gay rights activist. None of the gay clubs that have sprung up all over town, with names like Backstage, Taboo, Club 95, and Water Bar, hold much fascination for him. He basically eschews the clichs of the gay lifestyle. "It is terrible but I feel bad not feeling really activist about it," Cyril sighs. "I guess I am just so tired because you spend your whole life dealing with it. I'm just doing it my own way, by promoting gay poetry. That's what I do and that's how I fulfill that side of me."

By day, Cyril works as a programmer at The Substation, the local arts center on Armenian Street that has become a noteworthy literary, performance, and visual arts collective, a coruscating prism for a small and somewhat disenfranchised minority, slogging away with underfunded, undervalued arts projects. He lives in a modest apartment in the Serangoon Road area, participates in local theater productions and sings with two vocal ensembles (the Singapore Youth Choir and the Baroque music group, Musica Obscura). Any spare time is spent assembling material for an anthology of gay poems, plays, and short stories-the planned sequel to the 2003 Singapore gay omnibus People Like Us-which he plans to edit at the end of 2004.

"I did escorting for four years, on and off," Cyril recalls over lunch at a restaurant in Raffles City. "Sometimes there would be nothing happening at all for two months, and then I would get calls from friends who knew guys who needed guys. A lot of the information will be exchanged on the Internet, so you know what he looks like or he knows what you look like, so you can just approach each other. I'd get paid upfront. We'd go to my place or go off for coffee or something."

But how exactly did it all begin? "There was a friend who was an escort, who was making S$500 an hour, and he said he could help me get contacts if I wanted to do my own thing," Cyril explains. "He was from Shanghai and he came here to study, I met him on the Internet. Aside from his regular escorting, he would meet up to have one-nighters on his own too, from meeting guys on the Internet. So that's how we met. We had a one-night stand and we got along really well. We got to learn a lot about each other. At the time, the reviews of my first book, Squatting Quietly, came out. And he went, 'You're not Chris, are you?' I went, "Um, yes." I don't use my real name-I'm 'Chris Tan'-on the Internet."
Thus began his pseudonymous escorting career, a ride that he would use to explore his own identity issues, particularly since most of his clients were foreigners. "My clients were usually businessmen stopping by Singapore, just looking for a good time, a lot of Japanese, one or two Swedes, three Americans, the rest mostly Malaysians," he remembers. "The ang moh I can count on the fingers of my hands, there weren't many." That's a surprising revelation, since a number of gay bars in Singapore are infamous hunting grounds for expatriate men desiring local boys. "No, I don't think it's the 'Asian boy' fantasy thing that they wanted from me. I always felt that I looked like an average teenager, and I remember feeling surprised that people would actually want to pay me for it. I think a lot of the clients were paying for sex because they couldn't get it elsewhere."

Therein lies one of the unwritten secrets of gay escorting: gay men are by nature extremely promiscuous, so the ones who pay for sex fall into one of two camps: they're either in high-level positions of corporate or political clout where, clearly, public outing would be disastrous or, more conventionally, they're too old to be out hustling for one-nighters on the gay club circuit. "And it's a bit sad that way," Cyril says. "Especially for the really older ones, the guys in their 50s. By older, I mean they're from thirty-six years old upwards. The oldest I had was fifty-seven. As a gay male escort, your clients will tend to be a lot older. A lot of times, the reason why they pay for it is because they're older and they don't have the appeal anymore or they know they're not going to get men by cruising and it's not like they can't afford to buy one. And they look it. You can sort of tell it's not really an exciting thing for them, doing it."

There's another difference between gay and straight escorting. "Gay people are different because we know what we're in it for-it's just sex," Cyril adds. "Gay men can draw that clean line between sex and emotion. For women, having sex for money can be a big deal but for us, it's not a problem. There is no angst about it. I even know of men who work as masseurs and are actually trained in massage. They get the clients to come to their houses and after the massage they will offer extra services for a fee. If you want an extra hand job, it's S$50 more. Anal will be S$100 more. That's another kind of 'escorting.' There's no 'money upfront' deal like the straight agencies do with their 'booking fees.' We just meet and discuss it as we go along, just bearing in mind that it's an hourly rate and money is time."

He laughs at this, shrugs a bit, the sensitive poet suddenly made self-aware, that he's maybe being too clinical about a taboo topic. He doesn't miss a beat when asked about his own rates. "For me personally, what I would charge by the hour depends. Sometimes it's S$300, inclusive of sex and anything else, including being tied up or whatever he wants. Just as long as he doesn't want to screw me with a garden tool or something like that, you know."

"I had a guy who wanted to be hit in the stomach," Cyril continues. "He wanted me to hit him, punch him in the stomach, and he would jerk off after that. I don't know why, and I don't get it. I've also done some SM jobs that involved tying them up and applying candle wax. But the funniest one was a guy who asked me to tape him up with Scotch tape.

I would tape up his whole body and leave certain parts exposed so he gets more sensitive down there. And then, I can play with him sexually, and he would ask me to control his orgasm. Where he cannot come unless I say so. It took an hour or two, very tiring. And lot of Scotch tape! I had to buy a bunch at the 7-Eleven!"

And, like most escorts, it's all fun and games if you don't let love get in the way. It's a maxim about sex work that the sex worker has to draw his or her emotional boundaries or trouble will ensue. Cyril was careful with his dalliances until a particularly attractive client finally came along. "My most memorable one," is how he puts it now. "Somebody I kind of fancied. You tend to have one that you kind of fancy. The guy just didn't want it that way. He just wanted sex. I kind of liked him and wanted to go out with him a bit more.

I almost declined being paid but I think he kind of suspected I liked him a bit more, so he ended the session a bit early." Cyril left the room devastated, an object lesson delivered in the ways and wherefores of compartmentalizing sex.

Invisible Trade is now available at bookshops in Singapore and also via online shopping at Monsoon Books.

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