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'At most get Covid and fined': Reckless patrons, sleazy KTVs and bar-hopping hostesses ignore rules, health risks

SINGAPORE — When the authorities clamped down on nightlife activities in order to curb the spread of Covid-19 last year, “James”, a regular customer of KTV clubs, had to suppress the urge to visit his favourite drinking holes with friends “to look at girls”.

'At most get Covid and fined': Reckless patrons, sleazy KTVs and bar-hopping hostesses ignore rules, health risks

Singapore

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  • KTV lounges that offer hostessing services are in the spotlight due to a new Covid-19 cluster
  • Regular patrons said some of these joints have continued to operate illegally, finding loopholes in the regulations
  • Hostesses are either hired by the KTV club or by “mamasans” who act as agents for the women
  • Patrons also said hostesses hop around from club to club trying to make money
  • Other nightclubs that are genuinely trying to pivot into F&B business worry over negative attention

 

SINGAPORE — When the authorities clamped down on nightlife activities in order to curb the spread of Covid-19 last year, “James”, a regular customer of KTV clubs, had to suppress the urge to visit his favourite drinking holes with friends “to look at girls”.

Then, when the Covid-19 situation improved greatly earlier this year, the urge to scratch that itch returned for James, who declined to give his real name.

So, just once and out of curiosity, he ventured out to look for a KTV lounge and was not surprised to find that several joints had continued to provide the services he remembered.

These nightclubs serve a male clientele by employing female hostesses to provide entertainment during karaoke sessions, which are quite distinct from the family karaoke chains with which the general public is more familiar.

These KTV lounges are now in the spotlight following a large number of coronavirus infections originating from Vietnamese hostesses, who had visited several establishments. As of Thursday (July 15), there are 88 cases linked to the KTV cluster.

Before the latest spate of infections occurred, the wider community was largely unaware that these establishments had continued to operate illegally.

Due to border controls restricting the number of hostesses from other countries, and with safety regulations prohibiting singing, intermingling and late-night alcohol consumption, nightlife in KTV lounges appeared to have fizzled out.

Back then, regulars such as James had chosen to stay home.

“No people ‘jio’ (Hokkien for asking someone out), go for what? You just see the same old girl every time, so I prefer to drink at home,” he said.

KTV CLUBS CONVERTED TO F&B OUTLETS

With the encouragement of the Government, many lounges reportedly converted their businesses into food-and-beverage (F&B) outlets temporarily, and their new licences prohibit dice games and hostess services.

Flouting these rules can lead to business closure. Three nightlife operators that had pivoted to running an F&B business had their licences revoked for several breaches, the Ministry of Sustainability and the Environment said on Thursday.

The authorities are looking into possible offences by the errant KTVs and individuals and warned that they would take stern action if offences are committed.

In a joint statement early on Friday, the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority and the Ministry of Manpower said that the police are investigating the outlets that have converted to F&B business, which the Covid-19 positive cases had visited, to determine if there were any criminal offences. 

"The police and relevant authorities will also be stepping up enforcement against breaches of safe management measures, as well as vice and other illegal activities, in the other pivoted KTV outlets," they added.

Four KTV club patrons who are familiar with how these places operate said that hostesses were available if customers spent lavishly on food and drinks. The hostesses typically come from China, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam, among others.

Some hostesses were hired by the nightclub directly to act as waitresses. For smaller ones that do not have the manpower quota to hire foreigners, hostesses were brought in by “mamasans” — agents who are connected to several girls.

“They hop around (the various clubs). If they can’t make money in one place, then they will hop to another place,” James said.

Patrons are willing to risk Covid-19 or penalties in the pursuit of some fun or because they were bored or unhappy at home, the regulars said when asked if these factors deterred them.

“It’s okay, at most get Covid and fined,” another regular club-goer who declined to be named said. As for the KTV lounges that deal in such activities, it is a case of “high risk, high reward”, he said.

James agreed: “The bosses (of these clubs) probably imagine people stuck at home (for) so long and need to have company… So they just continue their operations. (You think) they don’t need to eat, ah? Wait for the Government to feed (them), ah?”

OFFER 'PRETTY GIRLS TO LOOK AT'

On Wednesday night, following a press conference by Health Minister Ong Ye Kung on the KTV Covid-19 situation, TODAY visited several KTV lounges along Joo Chiat Road and others in the Bugis area — Selegie Road, Aliwal Street and Beach Road.

There had been several police raids of such nightclubs that night, which resulted in the arrests of 20 women suspected to be linked to vice-related activities in three of these venues, and so the scene was quieter than usual as word got around of these raids.

However, some establishments continued to offer “pretty girls to look at” when approached by TODAY reporters posing as customers, though with a caveat to come back in a week’s time after the heat from the latest string of Covid-19 clusters has abated.

One staff member of a KTV club in Parklane Shopping Mall said that by then, there will be hostesses from China to entertain customers, though those from Vietnam were unlikely to return any time soon.

A number of establishments that had advertised similar services in the past were also in business when TODAY visited, though there were no hostesses in sight.

One of them, Club Royal located along Beach Road, had posted job listings on Facebook in January for waitresses who can “carry on a conversation or (are) good at drinking games”. They denied offering hostess services to customers when approached.

Club Royal, a former KTV club located along Beach Road, said it has fully pivoted to being a food-and-beverage business, adding that earnings have been bad since it is not known for its food. Photo: Ooi Boon Keong/TODAY

Club Royal claimed to have pivoted to an F&B business, adding that earnings have been bad since it is not known for its food.

Its managers said that the club will insist that its patrons buy food instead of only drinks, and stated that they also do not allow customers to sing, play games or darts within their private lounges.

The safety regulations forbid establishments from selling alcohol after 10.30pm. No singing, dancing, musical performance or entertainment screenings are permitted.

“While we operate like this (under an F&B licence), we also know there are places that continue to allow singing, call hostesses and sell beer after 10.30pm for S$200 per tower (of beer),” one of the managers who did not want to be identified said.

The club added that the reality is that some KTV lounges will try to skirt the rules.

Operators try to avoid responsibility by saying that these hostesses are customers and guests, too, so there is no reason for the clubs to refuse entry to them just because they are women from Vietnam or elsewhere.

It is also difficult to differentiate between legitimate waitresses and hostesses, the Club Royal managers said.

Several KTV lounges known to offer hostess services in the past declined comment when approached.

OTHER KTV OPERATORS TRYING TO PIVOT

The controversy surrounding these KTV businesses is causing anxiety among those who are trying to pivot to F&B while abiding by the ever-changing safety regulations.

On Joo Chiat Road, the 56-year-old owner of S Box Karaoke, who wanted to be known only as Mr Chew, said that the negative media coverage of this expanding cluster will likely cause customers to stay away from his place.

“The black sheep makes things worse for us all,” he said in Mandarin, adding that his F&B business is earning around 70 per cent less than before and is struggling to pay the S$8,500 monthly rent.

Another Joo Chiat establishment, SCFC KTV, decided to shed its image as a KTV lounge and convert itself into a cafe, replacing its beer posters with pictures of kaya toast and coffee.

Ms Chen Meng Yuan, manager of 309 Coffee.Bar on Joo Chiat Road. The cafe was formerly a KTV lounge. Photo: Nuria Ling/TODAY Madam Chen Meng Yuan, 34, who manages the newly renamed 309 Coffee.Bar, said that the idea came to her because the rules that had kept nightlife operators in check made it unsustainable for them to continue as a nightclub.

The cafe, which becomes a bar in the evening, still resembles a karaoke lounge. The gold-themed wall decorations were not removed in order to save on renovation costs, and lion-head motifs still dot the place.

Mdm Chen said that the profit margins of selling coffee and toast will never match those of past KTV business.

“Perhaps, others have different ways of doing business,” she said in Mandarin, referring to the KTV clubs that continue to flout the rules.

“For us, we rather do less business than to work around loopholes in the Government’s regulations, and because this is a pandemic, we don’t want our customers to fall sick with Covid-19, too.”

Related topics

Covid-19 coronavirus KTV cluster nightlife

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