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Ladies' nightIt's now a thriving scene, with at least 10 clubs where men play host to women
Midnight strikes and the stage lights suddenly come on.
It is showtime for some 30 sharply dressed young men who strut out in suits, perfectly styled hair in the vein of K-pop stars, and enough foundation on their faces to support Marina Bay Sands' triple towers.
They sashay, strike poses - beauty-pageant-style - and dutifully line up along the stage with their number tags. Then, one by one, the men - mostly Thais in their 20s and 30s - come forward for their three minutes in the spotlight, belting out popular Chinese and Thai love ballads.
As they warble, most slightly off-key, women in the crowd titter, pointing to the men who catch their eye.
Whispers are exchanged between the women and the person who takes charge of the guys - the papa-san, as he is called - who then goes on stage and bestows the lucky chosen ones with plastic flower garlands and satin sashes.
Each garland goes for $50 or $100, while sashes can top $5,000 each.
The papa-san blows a whistle as he is doing this, and the rest of the boys clap in envy.
This is typically what happens in a host bar where, as a nightclub in Cuppage Plaza proudly proclaims on a banner hanging on the stage: The men are hot, and the women are God.
At these bars, the women spare little expense for the company of the men they want. There is no limit to the number of garlands and sashes you can buy for the guy who tickles your fancy.
In return, he will make sure you are well looked after for the duration of the night: He sits with you, pours you drinks, plays drinking games and tries to carry on a conversation with whatever little English he knows.
And if you want to cuddle, he is not averse to it either.
Host bar owners say demand for such bars, already popular in cities like Bangkok and Tokyo, has grown in recent years.
Online forum Lady Bar Bar, where women exchange information on the best bars and where the hottest men are, lists at least 10.
Said one employee who works at the popular Club Giorgio in Lavender Street: 'When we first opened three years ago, we were the first. Now, it's very competitive.'
The employee, who declined to be named, said these bars are highly dependent on regular clients for their survival.
Want to feel like a divine being? Be prepared to splash out because such gallantry does not come cheap. Some women easily spend $3,000 in a single night.
'It's a two-way thing. You spend big, they spend more time with you and pay more attention to you,' said a 35-year-old big spender who declined to be named.
'But I enjoy spending time with the boys because they are good-looking and give me attention,' she said.
Women who frequent these bars are usually well-groomed professionals in their 20s and 30s, but clubs say that they are patronised by women in their 40s and 50s as well.
A 26-year-old credit analyst who visited Club Giorgio recently observed: 'There were women who looked like they were in their 50s and 60s, good-looking and well-dressed.
'They carried Birkin bags and wore a lot of jewellery. They were very generous, and had a lot of the boys surrounding them at their tables.'
She added that these women would easily drop $1,000 for a single garland.
Interestingly, the clubs also attract another group of women: Those who work as hostesses or entertainers in KTV lounges and discos.
Among them is Thai national Nonnie, a hostess at a nightclub in the Somerset area.
The 25-year-old and her friends visit host bar Naked Gun near the Concorde Hotel Singapore at least once a week after they finish work at 2am, where she spends between $300 and $400 each time.
'It's a good way to relax and de-stress. The guys there are also very good-looking,' she said unabashedly.
Sociologist Paulin Straughan attributed the increasing acceptance and normalisation of these bars to the rise in the economic independence of women.
'Women are catching up, and going to these bars is becoming an agender activity. Just for the fact that they can buy the services of a man brings satisfaction to some women,' she said.
'There's nothing wrong with being in the company of young, desirable men. It makes you feel attractive to the opposite sex.'
Even if that means a transaction. For $100 to $200 an hour, you can take the men out on dates which usually involve dinner, shopping or clubbing.
The men insist that sex is not part of the deal.
Alex, a 26-year-old Singaporean, has been working at a host bar for a few months now, and earns between $3,000 and $5,000 every month.
The clean-cut, good-looking diploma-holder left his job in a shipping firm after he was introduced to host bars by a Thai friend.
'I like the flexible hours and the job is not too stressful. You just have to drink and talk to the customers.
'In my previous job, I felt I had to worry about work even on my days off,' he said, adding that he now works from 10pm to 6am every day.
But some regulars can be demanding and Alex has, on a few occasions, had to soothe frayed nerves when he paid more attention to other customers.
He also entertains male customers, although he says he makes it clear to them that he is not gay.
For every garland or sash a host receives, the club takes a 50 per cent cut. But even so, the top host can take home as much as $10,000 a month.
There are few Singaporeans like Alex at these host bars. Most hail from Thailand and China, and occasionally Malaysia and South Korea.
'Thai boys are the most popular with women because they are more gentle,' said a manager from Club Venus, who declined to be named.
She added that the club sometimes scouts for these men from modelling or talent agencies in Bangkok, because good looks are a priority.
The aim is simple: to keep the clients spending.
To do this, the men play drinking games with the women, which encourages them to buy more alcohol. At these bars, booze is sold at premium prices. A bottle of whiskey costs over $200.
But the job is not as easy as it sounds, the men insist.
They have to go through training for singing and dancing, and often have to put in extra hours to practise their strut and pose.
The money may be good, but the lifestyle means they do not stay long at these host bars.
Dao, a 25-year-old Thai from Bangkok, said: 'It's very tiring to drink every night.'
He was working in advertising and plans to go back to his old job after a few months at the host bar.
But while women welcome the role reversal and call it empowering, they still prefer to be discreet about their activities.
All the women The Sunday Times spoke to at the clubs declined to be identified.
Angel, a 33-year-old finance executive, said she felt embarrassed when she visited Naked Gun with her girlfriends recently.
'But this is something I have always wanted to experience at least once,' she said.
WHAT THE LAW REQUIRES
The Manpower Ministry (MOM) said it works closely with the police to ensure that entertainment outlets - including male host bars - abide by the rules when hiring foreigners.
Nightclubs The Sunday Times spoke to insist that their foreign employees are on legitimate work passes, such as a performing artiste work permit. But some of the men said that they were on social visit passes.
Responding to queries from The Sunday Times, an MOM spokesman said it assesses applications for the performing artiste pass - valid for six months - on a case-by-case basis.
Among other requirements, companies applying for such permits will first need to obtain a Public Entertainment Licence from the police. Employers also have to furnish a security bond of $5,000 for each worker before he arrives in Singapore; the worker also has to pass a medical examination.
Each outlet is allowed to hire only a limited number of foreign performing artistes on work permits.
The spokesman explained: 'In deciding the number, MOM takes into consideration various factors, such as the operating hours and seating capacity of the entertainment outlets.'
The MOM may ban the employer from hiring foreigners and revoke their work permits if they flout the rules.
The police can also take action against the licensee of the establishment for breach of licensing conditions.
The MOM could not provide figures for the number of foreigners here on performing artiste work permits.
But the spokesman said the number of social visit pass holders caught working illegally here - including those working in nightclubs - averaged 550 each year between 2008 and last year.
A social visit pass - generally valid for 30 days - allows a person to stay in the country for the purpose of business or leisure.