No commitments, no sex – unless a customer wants it – just an ideal boyfriend for a night of fun in a host bar. Her World looks at a rising trend and wonders: Should we worry?
Friday, 4pm. The Her World team is at Vogue Palace for a photoshoot. For those in the know, the nightclub at Concorde Hotel & Shopping Mall is a “host bar” – a type of club where male hosts entertain and socialise with women customers.
Our models today are five of Vogue Palace’s hosts, all of whom are from mainland China. They are part of a growing pool of professional companions in Singapore who pamper female customers for a living.
Andy, Ronald, Johnny, Rain and Yuzhe (above from left) hail from China and work as male hosts in the nightclub, Vogue Palace. Photography: Alecia Neo, Art Direction: Alice Chua, Hair: Katherine Tan for Mode Hair Gallery, using Joico Design Collection
“I heard there would be a greater demand for such entertainment joints with the opening of the Marina Bay Sands integrated resort,” says Johnny, 24, on why he came to Singapore. The soft-spoken Beijing native, who recently graduated from an arts school in Shanghai, was a freelance singer back home. “I think women will come if the singing performances are good,” he says, when asked what the allure of the club was.
The men are bleary-eyed, having spent the entire night working. “We’re at the club until 6am every day,” says Andy, yawning. But they turn on their charm for the camera. All five worked as models, singers or actors back home, and it shows when they pose with not a trace of awkwardness.
It’s almost a miracle that the photoshoot is happening. Until recently, you were lucky if you could coax host bar operators to speak about their trade, much less get their okay to photograph their hosts.
Host bars are catching on here. Cara Van Miriah, former nightlife correspondent with The Straits Times, recalls that they were a novelty when they first appeared in late 2008. “There were no more than 10 joints then,” she says. Today, the number has almost doubled, with close to 20 known host bars scattered across the island.
“These clubs are definitely a growing trend among local women,” says Catherine Chia, one of Vogue Palace’s managers. Before this, she also ran a popular nail salon chain. She sensed host bars were the next big thing after hearing her manicurists talk about these establishments among themselves last year. So she set up Vogue Palace for her female staff and customers to unwind and make new friends.
The spending power of women has also risen. Pamela*, 27, a customer service executive and host bar junkie of three years, says: “It used to be a big deal to buy a $100 garland (sashes that patrons purchase for hosts). These days, it’s an entry-level sum, with more women splurging up to $1,000 on one.”
The new breed of male hosts is also changing the widely held perception that such men are high-class social escorts pandering to bored tai-tais who want bang for their buck. This image is fuelled by some clubs that let customers “book” hosts and take them wherever they fancy – for supper, to another bar or even a hotel for sex, if the host consents (booking hosts is not allowed at Vogue Palace).
When Her World visited four such nightspots, we were greeted by suited men from China, Taiwan, Thailand and even Singapore, all in their 20s. Most had gracious manners, pretty-boy good looks (“Like Korean boyband hopefuls,” one of us noted) and lean, statuesque frames, with an average height of 1.8m.
In one club, a porcelain-skinned Sichuanese gallantly offered his arm to escort us to the ladies’, and even waited patiently outside with paper towels that he used to dry our hands. At another, a Thai host with handsome Pan-Asian features wrapped serviettes around our drink glasses so they wouldn’t be too cold for us to hold.
Most female customers of host bars pay these men simply to be pampered with attention – sex not included. “In a host bar, a woman can experience most of the things she would in a serious relationship, minus the baggage,” says Vanessa Von Auer, psychologist and clinical director at VA Psychology Center. This includes having a patient Adonis who will listen to her woes and even show affection in the form of casual flirting. “The hosts appeal to a woman’s need to feel taken care of, loved and respected,” Vanessa says.
“There’s something comforting about sharing your problems with a stranger,” adds Iris Teo, also a manager at Vogue Palace. “You can pour out your woes freely and walk out at the end of the night, assured that you’re just another faceless customer to him.” And it doesn’t hurt if he looks a treat.
DENIZENS OF THE NIGHT
Host club operators say it’s hard to characterise a “typical” customer, as the clubs normally attract a broad spectrum of women ranging from 18 to 60 years old, including foreign nationals like off-duty Chinese KTV hostesses.
Singaporean customers include students, ladies of leisure, entrepreneurs and professionals from industries like banking, retail, sales and marketing. Some have no qualms dropping thousands of dollars on garlands, say the club operators.
“In these nightspots, the power relations between men and women are reversed,” says Daniel Koh, a psychologist with Insights Mind Centre. “Women call the shots and can get the men to cater to their needs. They also feel validated because other women in the club are doing the same.”
James*, 23, a Chinese host for three months, has seen one colleague net a total of $126,000 in garlands in one night, thanks to a generous customer in her 40s who is from a wealthy family.
Hosts are not paid a salary. Their earnings come from garlands that customers buy for them at anything from $50 to $10,000 each. A host can earn one, two or more garlands a night from the same customer, and usually gets 50 to 70 per cent of the money, while the club takes the rest. “It’s fast cash,” James says. “I can’t think of any other job that pays as well so quickly.”
Most hosts are foreigners on work permits or social visit passes. The bulk are from China, which is why hosts are especially hot with Mandarin speakers. However, several clubs have Thai hosts who speak some English, attracting curious English-speaking yuppies.
Ming*, 27, a Singaporean host who reckons there are no more than 10 local men in this line of work, says: “It’s hard to find local guys who are good-looking, at least 1.8m tall and can sing well.”
The hosts usually start work between 9pm and 10pm, knocking off just before sunrise. It’s an almost daily grind – they get only about four days off a month. Some hardworking ones might meet customers during the day for meals or shopping trips at no extra charge to cultivate the relationships.
However, hosts are not obliged to sleep with customers. Ming says he makes excuses to fend off requests for sex, but adds that he does not mind doing it with customers who are his “type” – young, pretty women with a sweet disposition. He declined to say if he has been paid for sex.
James, a business undergraduate on a student’s pass, claims he has never slept with a customer and will never have sex for money, even though he works to pay for his university tuition fees of $21,000 a year. “You gotta have some dignity, man,” he says.
At host bar Naked Gun, at Concorde Hotel & Shopping Mall, a “catwalk” is under way. Common to most host bars, this is the part of the evening when all the male hosts strut across a stage in suits and customers can buy garlands for their favourite hosts. At Naked Gun, the catwalk’s top earner wears a plastic crown – a symbol of his popularity.
With us is Diana*, 38, an accounts executive, who is a regular there. “That guy is from Taiwan. The other two over there are from Thailand,” she says, pointing at the men onstage. “The Thais are more fun and spontaneous, and they usually speak some English.”
Diana has been married for 10 years. Her husband, a human resources director, has been working in the Middle East for five, and their only contact is weekly e-mails. He comes home once a year.
He doesn’t know that she started visiting host bars in 2009, sometimes spending up to $1,500 a week on garlands and drinks. At her peak, she visited thrice a week, arriving at 11pm and leaving at 6am. She enjoys checking out new host bars around Singapore, but usually sticks to Naked Gun because she thinks it has the best singers.
“I don’t think it’s necessary to tell my husband that I visit host bars,” Diana says. “I’m paying for this with my own money.” She admits he may be upset if he found out, but insists she’s not betraying his trust. “I know where to draw the line,” she says. “I only go to host clubs to drink and enjoy the singing, and I always head straight home after that.” She adds that she’s never had sex with a host.
She did, however, go on a date last year with a 26-year-old Thai who made her laugh with his jokes. When he asked her out for a movie one evening before going in to work, she accepted. They also had dinner and chatted about work, though Diana was careful not to say she was married (“I don’t see why he had to know.”). They had three dates before he left for Hong Kong to be a host there.
Diana doesn’t see anything wrong with what she did. “My female friends are often busy or have family commitments, so it’s hard to find people to hang out with,” she says. “Going out with him was no different from meeting a friend for drinks.”
The manager of another club, who declined to be named, says that as many as half of her customers are married women. She says some visit host bars because they have been neglected or even cheated on by their husbands. Others with spouses who travel constantly just crave companionship.
While Diana refuses to say that loneliness drove her to host clubs, she drops hints about how her marriage is less than stellar. “Being a wife feels like an obligation,” she says. “I’ve run out of things to say to my husband and I’m so used to doing my own thing that it feels weird when he’s back. He’ll want to tag along, which means I can’t do anything I want.” When asked if she hopes her husband will return to Singapore soon, Diana replies: “I don’t really care.”
THE “BOYFRIEND” EFFECT
If host bars are like parties where women can socialise with different hosts, hiring an escort is akin to a clandestine rendezvous. It’s individual attention – sans club distractions like alcohol, thumping music and friends – and often includes sex.
There’s a thin line between hosts and escorts. Men can start off as hosts and switch to being escorts – and vice versa. The reason both exist is that they are in demand with local women.
Alex, the manager of male social escort agency JM Elite, says young professional Singaporean women used to account for just 20 per cent of his calls before 2008. These days, it’s closer to 40 per cent. The number rose after Singapore emerged from the 2008 recession.
Contrary to popular belief, Alex says women rarely mention sex when booking their escorts. Instead, he usually gets requests for movie and clubbing companions. “Unlike men who focus on how a female escort looks, women are looking more for an emotional connection,” he says.
But would a woman engage an escort without expecting sex? Gary*, 30, a Singaporean engineer who has been a freelance escort for eight years, admits that most of his engagements end up with sex. He’s one of JM Elite’s 20 escorts who are in their 20s and 30s, but he also advertises independently online.
Gary was once hired by a professional woman in her early 20s, whom he reckons was simply bored or curious. They met for a shopping and dinner date at Bugis Junction, and he later gave her a lift home in his car.
She developed a soft spot for him. “She sent me a lot of SMSes hinting at her affections, and even asked if I could be her boyfriend,” Gary says. Wishing to keep a professional distance, he gently told her they should remain friends.
He says it is common for his customers to develop feelings for him, regardless of whether sex is involved, and a significant number have confessed that they “love” him. Rich clients have even showered him with expensive gifts, such as a $3,000 watch and $2,000 gold chain, on top of his hourly $300 fee.
Being a good escort involves more than just sex, Gary says. “Giving your customers the ‘boyfriend effect’ – showing them love, care and concern – is an escort’s greatest talent. I make them feel like they’re the best in the world by doing sweet things like putting my arm around their shoulder.”
He adds that cultivating the “boyfriend effect” also helps secure regular customers, which explains why he’s been in the business for so long.
Aden, 29, a Singaporean, decided to become a freelance escort in July while on a one-year career sabbatical. Curious to see if a demand for such services existed, he advertised himself online, charging $10 an hour to test the market and build his client base. The ex-marketing executive declined to reveal his finances, only saying he has enough savings and investments for now.
Aden calls himself a “freelance host”, rather than an “escort”, because it sounds more respectable. That’s important for him because he advertises a no-sex policy and refuses to meet clients at hotels.
“If I offered sex, I would have to do it with everyone – no exceptions,” he explains. “Some hosts screen their clients, choosing to sleep with the pretty ones, while others do it only if the fee is high enough. I’m not that kind of guy.”
In his first month as a freelance host, he had 10 engagements – mainly coffee, dinner, shopping and movie dates. The question of sex has never come up, he says. Most of his clients are single female executives whom he describes as “workaholics”. They rarely have time to socialise and look to Aden for companionship. He doesn’t consider himself their friend or lover, but a “silent supporter” who will lend a listening ear.
One client was between jobs and had plenty of time to kill. Her friends were working or had other commitments, and the lonely singleton was splurging almost $500 a night on host clubs.
Aden says he helped wean her off this “addiction”. He accommodated her schedule, once meeting her for a 12-hour appointment that included dinner, two movies and clubbing. She gradually reduced her spending on host clubs to $100 a night. She’s been meeting Aden less frequently ever since she started her new job, but they remain friends.
“In Singapore, people think there’s something wrong with women who engage escorts and hosts,” he says, adding that he is inspired by Japanese culture, where being a host is more socially accepted. Since October, Aden has been working full-time at the host bar, Club D’ Obsession, at Cuppage Plaza. He sees it as an extension of his escorting services.
“If I continue as a host, I hope to make the job more socially acceptable,” he says. “Hosts don’t need to accede to sexual requests. I want to be professional enough for society – and my future girlfriend – to accept what I do.”
* Not their real names
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