Meaning of Life, Relationships

When a birthday cake in Geylang turned this Thai prostitute’s life around

By Christine Leow , 28 September 2021

In her 39 years, Thai national Naomi (not her real name) has lived through many heartaches.

A child of divorce, her father was absent from her life from the time she was three years old.

She was desperate for a man to get her out of the trade.

In her quest to ease her pain, she turned to drinking and attempted suicide several times. 

Today, there is little trace of bitterness in Naomi who now lives in northern Thailand. She laughs easily as she tells the story of a woman the world threw away … and how she was rescued.

She had always thought that a human man would give her a way out of the oldest trade in the world.

Beaten and bloodied

When Naomi was 13, her family moved from a small village in Thailand to the capital, Bangkok. Being undocumented, she could not continue her education.

So she made a living doing odd jobs which included selling clothes from a temporary stall on the streets. There, she met a man whom her mother made her marry at the age of 16.

“He would beat me up and there would be a lot of blood.”

“She found out that I had relations with him,” Naomi said in Thai, through an interpreter over Zoom.

He turned out to be abusive.

“He would beat me up and there would be a lot of blood. I had to go to the hospital.”

When she could not endure the violence, Naomi ran away from her husband.

It started with just singing

In trying to make a better life for herself, she got an apprenticeship at a hair salon and became a hairdresser.

She was 17 when a friend invited her to a birthday party at a nightclub. That first taste of the glamorous life seemed like a lifeline out of poverty.

“All the girls were dressed like models at a fashion show. During the party, someone gave me a wad of money.

“When I counted it, it came up to 15,000 Baht (S$600). My pay at the hair salon was only 4,500 Baht (S$180) a month. I thought, ‘How nice to dress up nicely and earn so much in just one night.’”

“I thought, ‘How nice to dress up nicely and earn so much in just one night.’”

That was how Naomi ended up working in a nightclub.

At first, it was just singing and accompanying clients as they drank. 

But soon, Naomi started to drink along with her clients. Then came the relationships. 

“Clients who liked me would ask me not to go onto the stage to sing but to be their girlfriend.

“These relationships would usually not go beyond three months before they would want a new girl. Then, I would go back to singing and then another man would come along.”

Pregnant, cheated on and broke

As she flitted from one client to another, she finally met one who seemed to want a long-term relationship with her.

But when she got pregnant, he started to beat her. When their child was eight months old, she left him after being together for three years.

“These relationships would usually not go beyond three months. Then, another man would come along.”

“But he wouldn’t let me go. I moved from nightclub to nightclub to get away from him. In the end, he found me. I had to give him my son. He was quite aggressive.”

She would later meet the man who would become her second husband. But he was unfaithful and left her pregnant and broke. Naomi had to sell her jewellery to pay for the hospital bills when she delivered her second son. 

Two more relationships would follow. With each, Naomi would leave the nightlife, hoping for a new life but would disappointed and broken – one was abusive, the other unfaithful. After each, she would return to her old line of work.

In her quest to ease her pain, she turned to drinking and attempted suicide several times. 

She even asked God to give her a good man. None came along.

“I moved from nightclub to nightclub to get away from him. In the end, he found me.”

Naomi had learnt to pray when she was a schoolgirl.

“I asked God why these men were always unfaithful to me.

“I blamed myself for not having the endurance to last in the relationships.”

By then, Naomi was 34.

She had two sons to support. The older one lived with her first husband while the younger was raised by her mother. Naomi also had to pay for the construction of a house for her mother. So, she took up her cousin’s suggestion to venture to Singapore. 

Second chance in Singapore

Naomi planned to work in Singapore’s red-light district for two years. By then, she hoped, she would have enough money to settle her mother’s house.

Life in Singapore was not better.

“I was earning a lot more but I was spending a lot more, too. The standard of living was very high. Even a bar of soap was costly.

“I had only a little bit of money left to send to my mother.”

At the brothel in which she worked, Naomi would witness an instance of unconditional love from unlikely visitors. It reminded her of her childhood days.

Faith of a child

When Naomi was three, her parents divorced and her mother relocated the family to southern Thailand to get away from her husband. That was the last Naomi saw of her father until she was 15 when she needed to get her identity card made.

Her mother had to work to support Naomi and Naomi’s two older sisters. So, they were left largely to their own devices.

“I liked that I could tell the priest about anything that didn’t make me feel good.”

Right next to their home was a church that would invite the children in the neighbourhood to visit on Sundays.

“They would give out food and organise activities for the children. I would go there to sing songs,” said Naomi.

She enjoyed the Bible stories, especially the one about the parting of the Red Sea (Exodus 14:1-23). 

“In my heart, I knew that the Bible was true,” she said.

Naomi’s mum (who was of another religion) would later send her to a Catholic school because it was within walking distance of their home.

She was often bullied in school. “I had no father and I was poor. The rich kids at school would make fun of me.”

“I had no father and I was poor. The rich kids at school would make fun of me.”

But she enjoyed school and going to mass. She felt better after going to confession.

“I liked that I could tell the priest about anything that didn’t make me feel good,” she said.

In school, Naomi learnt that God loves everyone. She also learnt to pray, and felt that it worked.

When her family moved to Bangkok, she had no one to invite her to church. So, she resorted to visiting a random one.

She felt the people there gave her “strange stares” because they didn’t know her.

“It didn’t feel good. I went once and never returned.”

The God she had come to know in her youth was soon relegated to the background as the burden of making a living overwhelmed her. 

Why were they giving things for free?

The people who came to the brothel in Geylang were giving out food and snacks. It reminded her of the church of her childhood that also did the same.

“I was thinking: ‘What would these people get in return?’

“I know everything in Singapore is expensive. Why would they give things out for free?”

“Geylang was not a good place. Why would these people come here?”

The people she saw were Debbie Zhang, founder of House of Olive Leaf (HOL), and her team of volunteers.

The non-governmental organisation runs Geylang Ministry (GM), an outreach to the people who work in the red-light district. They provide aid to the women, and also help the men find jobs.

Though outwardly nonchalant, Naomi started reading the tracts about Jesus’ love the team had handed out.

She was excited when Debbie started talking to the girls about God. And when Debbie approached her, Naomi shared her contact number even though the other girls had told her not to. 

A special birthday

Naomi wanted to get to know these people. 

“Geylang was not a good place. Why would these people come here?” she wondered. 

In her life, she had never met people who did things for her without expecting anything in return.

“She had never met people who did things for her without expecting anything in return..”

“These people were like angels sent by God,” she said. 

“On my days off, the team would take me to Sentosa, Universal Studios, Gardens by the Bay. When I was not well, they showed me genuine concern.” 

On Naomi’s birthday, the volunteers surprised her with a cake they had baked specially for her.

“I know everything in Singapore is very expensive. Yet, they still gave me a very big cake. It was a miracle that someone would spend so much and show so much love for me.

“All other people I had met were good to me in the beginning. But then, they would end up taking advantage of me.

“I could see that these people were different. I wanted to be like them.

Geylang Ministry Debbie Zhang

“It was a miracle that someone would spend so much and show so much love for me,” said Naomi of the GM team who surprised her with a cake on her birthday.

“Then, Debbie told me something that really touched me: That I could start anew, I could start afresh.”

That had been Naomi’s desire all along.

“Then, Debbie told me something that really touched me: That I could start anew, I could start afresh.”

Over the years, she had been desperate for a man to get her out of the trade. Debbie showed her only God could help her get out for good.

“She told me that no matter how sinful I am, God would still forgive me. That is the love of God. And that God is with me wherever I am, even if I go back to Thailand.”

On her days off, Naomi sought to return to the faith she found during her childhood, studying the Bible with the volunteers.

“Since God is so good, helping me all along, why can’t I change for the better?” she thought.

But the idea of leaving her job and returning to Thailand with no means of income frightened her.

A Christmas of change

Two days before Christmas of 2018, the volunteers brought Naomi to a Christmas event at a church.

“There, I suddenly lost all interest in working in the red-light district,” said Naomi.

The next day, Christmas Eve, the brothel was packed. Naomi had 21 customers that night.

“A lot of people like me. Many customers were looking for me but I was not happy at all. I was very tired. I didn’t want to do this anymore.”

It was then that she remembered the song she heard at the Christmas event. She did not understand the English words sung. But when she had them translated, she was moved by the lyrics – “If God is with us, who can be against us”.

A strange peace came upon her. That day, she resolved to turn her back on her life in the brothel and return to Thailand. GM raised money to pay for her airfare home.

There were obstacles. The date of her departure was postponed. Clients who fancied her tried to dissuade her from leaving.

But 17 months after Naomi first stepped foot in Singapore, she left to start a new life. 

Struggle to stay true

Back home and away from the love and encouragement of Debbie and the volunteers, Naomi began to flounder.

Her financial woes persisted. Her mother had not used the money she had sent to pay for the land and the construction of her house.  

“She said the money I had sent was for her own upkeep and for her helping to raise my younger son.”

“I wanted to follow God but I had all these practical issues. I had to raise my children and settle my mother’s land issue.”

Bitter quarrels ensued and Naomi turned to drinking once more to dull the pain.

Her hope of becoming a nurse was dashed because she did not have proper documentation to prove that she had studied up to Secondary Two. 

So, she started to take massage lessons instead. She was preparing to go to South Korea to be a masseur even though she knew that it would lead her back to her old life.

“I wanted to follow God but I had all these practical issues. I had to raise my children and settle my mother’s land issue.”

To give her an alternative, GM enrolled Naomi at a Bible school in Thailand. They paid for her school fees and also gave her a monthly allowance. They hoped that the five-month stay-in programme would help deepen Naomi’s faith.

Debbie continued to encourage her via text messages and online. She and the volunteers visited Naomi in Thailand in 2019.  

Naomi (with cap) doing Bible study with the volunteers of GM when they went to visit her in 2019.

After Naomi graduated from Bible school, Debbie helped her get an internship at a local church while continuing to support her financially. They hoped that being in a community of faith would keep Naomi away from her old trade.

Naomi is now settled in the church. She is part of a cell group and has gone on a church retreat.

GM is helping her to work towards paying off the S$10,000 needed for her mother’s house and its land over the next year or so. 

Radical kindness

Naomi sees God’s hand clearly in these tremendous acts of kindness.

“God has been very good. He has provided for all my needs. I know God is with me all the time.”

Naomi no longer goes to places that may tempt her back into her old trade.

When Covid-19 hit Thailand and jobs were hard to come by, GM sponsored Naomi’s baking equipment and taught her via online videos how to make cakes so she could bake and sell them to make a small living.

“My old friends have all left me. It’s another world altogether.

“I know God is charting my path ahead.”

In her daily phone conversations with her mother (who lives in another part of Thailand), Naomi shares with her the goodness of God and the kindness of Debbie and the volunteers who helped turn her life around.

Once concerned with only praying over her own predicaments, Naomi has started praying for her family as well.

“I pray for our relationship to be better. I ask God for more love and concern for them. I can see my relationship with my eldest sister – which used to be very bad – improving.”

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