We call them karaoke bars, or KTV's, but they're not karaoke and they're not bars. What they are is Asian-style girlie clubs, known as gentlemen's clubs in the US, where customers get to pick a girl - euphemistically called a GRO for Guest Relations Officer - sit with her while drinking, and spend a huge amount of money without ever taking her out. Every half hour or every hour - I'm not quite sure - the management will send a waiter and make you sign for a mandatory and exhorbitantly priced "ladies' drink." (At most establishments the "ladies' drink" will purportedly be Tequila, but will actually be heavily diluted Tequila, so that the management saves and the girl doesn't start vomiting on her customers.)

If the customer does decide to take her out, he'll have to pay a "barfine." Originally this was invented as compensation for the bar which will lose the girl's services during the time she's out. These days it's payment for the girl for tolerating the company of some smelly foreign shmuck, with a sizeable cut for the bar. What the customer does after leaving the bar with the girl is up to the customer and the girl.

Basically, what it boils down to is that these places are brothels mascarading as respectable establishments. The pretense is necessary, otherwise the local government's anti-indecency board would be forced to come down hard on the establishments. The authorities actually have a schizophrenic attitude towards the KTV's; all GRO's at karaoke bars are required to have "hygiene" tests (for venereal disease) at the local City Health office. If the girl fails the test or even merely fails to show up to take the test (every Wednesday, if I'm not mistaken), she can't work. This rule is strictly enforced by the establishments. Now, why would these "hygiene" checks be necessary if the KTV's are strictly for karaoke, hmmmm?

Of course, that customers can have a grand time at a KTV without ever paying the barfine and going anywhere with the girl. Indeed, one seasoned traveller claims the key to having a great time at a KTV is to follow three strict rules, no matter how drunk you get: (1) Never take a girl out from the establishment. (2) Never ask for her phone number. (3) Never let her call you, either.

As is the case with most businesses in Cebu, KTV's come in two versions; sosyal, i.e. expensive and intended for flush tourists and the upper classes, and the more economical Bisdak version for everyone else. The latter are found along Pelaez and Sanciangko streets in downtown as well as numerous neighborhoods throughout the city. For instance, in Barangay Guizo in Mandaue, there are a couple of joints called Magic and Rash [sic] on a side street across the Jollibee on the Highway. I've heard that Magic have a little show whereby a girl will smoke a cigarette using an orifice other than her mouth, but I haven't verified this in person and don't intend to, either.

A night's worth of entertainment can be had for as little as $20 at the Bisdak places, which will barely get you in the door at the more expensive joints. The decor, the refreshments, the sound system, and the waiters are all far better at the more expensive places, needless to say, but the primary difference, of course, is that the GRO' tend to be more, shall we say, refined.

Some of the KTV's have catwalks and stages, and double as strip clubs, though these are called "bikini bars" here. It's usually up to the individual dancer to decide whether to take her top off while dancing. The cheapo places will have signs advertising the fact that they are bikini bars. The more expensive places don't; if you can afford top quality and still would like to ogle some flesh, the places to go to are Club Harem, Arena, Volvo, Thunderdome, and Love City. In terms of variety, volume, quality, and price, Club Harem is hard to beat - or so I'm told. If your budget is less, you'd probably be happy at More and More II, two affordable bikini bars in Mactan favored by locals and foreigners alike.

The most well-known high-end places are Infinity, Jaguar, Club Harem, Arena, Volvo, and Papillon. Infinity is used by high-powered local businessmen. So is, to a lesser extent, Jaguar. Both establishments lack a catwalk, so the customer will be stuck in a VIP room or private room, in the company of a girl of his choosing. It'll be hard to spend less than US $100. (By the way, Infinity, Volvo, the Thunderdome next door to Volvo, and Love City are all owned by Wellington and Peter Lim.)

Papillon, for some reason, is wildly popular with elderly Caucasian customers and no-one else. There are a few KTV's which are designed pretty much exclusively for Japanese customers, such as Club Miki and Shinjuku, both on Gorordo Avenue. Club Nyx in the Waterfront Lahug is owned by and aimed primarily at Koreans but also welcomes Westerners.

Goldfinger, along A S Fortuna in Mandaue, used to be a pure play revue venue, featuring wholesome dance shows and no monkey business whatsoever; the owner couldn't take the losses and now it's just another KTV.

The weird thing is that in Cebu you can meet prettier girls without every going to any of these places, but they're still full of tourists. But here's how to work them, if you want to try them out anyway. First, ask for the "mamasan." This is a Japanese term adopted here, and will get you one of the madames - female, gay, or male - who help run the place. In fact, the mamasan will usually come up to you and ask you if you want to "table" a girl, i.e. have a girl sit at your table - in which case you'll have to pay for a ladies' drink every hour of half hour.

It is perfectly within your rights to refuse with a tart remark: "Hell, no, I don't want to table no girl here, they're all uglier than my dog!" In any case, the thing is to be frank and discuss your concerns and requirements with the mamasan, and to give her a nice tip right there and then so that she'll be on your side. If you're there just to ogle the dancing girls, tell her that; if you're there to take a girl home for the night, she'll point out which girls are "game". The bottom line is that the mamasan knows all the girls, their tendencies, and their histories, so unless you want to judge by looks alone, have her help you out.

Now, you may think such establishments are available for male clients only, and while almost all foreign clients are men, we do have establishments identical in all respects to a usual KTV bar, except that it caters to female customers, usually local. However, since Cebu is a good Roman Catholic place they'd never allow something that even implies that women would pay for the company of men, so they call it a gay bar. Currently there's only one that I know of, Club Navigator in Mandaue.

Some gay men do go to these establishments, but most customers are actually gaggles of professional girls out for a kick. The men employed to entertain the girls are called macho dancers, not GRO's, and customers pay for a "macho drink," not a ladies drink. But, personally, I have to say that most dancers do not quite live up to their title, so get there early before the good ones get barfined. KTV's and gay bars all open around 8:00 PM and close at around 2:00 AM, except on Fridays and Saturdays, when they stay open just a bit longer.
How do I know all this? Research, my friend, tedious and tiring research.


Apart from KTV's, there are institutions known as casas. A casa is basically a brothel set in an ordinary-looking house in a residential neighborhood (the term "casa" means "house" in Spanish). Customers select a girl with a number tag attached to her attire and take her to a motel. Taxi drivers know where to find these. Some are quite famous; Gate 7 is located right next to the entrance to Cebu Memorial Park, and is thus called because that is all it says on the gate. It's fairly obvious this place is a casa; taxis are constantly coming and going, and so are young girls in skimpy attire. Taking a whore out from a casa will set you back between 2000 and 4000 pesos.

Street girls, meanwhile, can be found at the corner of Junquera Street and P Del Rosario Street; or, more accurately, the pimps representing the hookers hang out there. Cebu's pimps differ wildly from American pimps; our pimps tend to be under-dressed, wearing a loose top, shorts and flip-flops. This outfit is good for running, which they do a lot of. They don't just run after cars that slow down a little; as long as you don't accelerate wildly, they are guaranteed to accost your car. A good proportion are bayut (transvestite). If you as much as make eye contact, they'll then run ahead of your car to guide you to the alley where the hookers are standing around. The hookers in this area are cheap, and 500 pesos will get you laid (unless of course you count the cost of treating your VD).
I used to date someone who lived near Junquera Street. We were both annoyed by the pimps who'd gather around every time I dropped her off or picked her up, and who gave the neighborhood a bad rep. Consequently it became a favorite pasttime of this writer to try to run down the pimps, by gunning the engine hard and accelerating straight at them. It's great fun to watch them scatter about like chickens and leap for the sidewalk; try it!

The sex workers along Juana Osmena street are more expensive, fetching about double. Here, the pimps stay out of sight. I'm told there are a lot of hookers on this street because of the large number of pension houses found there, which makes things convenient.

Transvestite hookers - as opposed to pimps - meanwhile, hang out between the Maguikay flyover in Mandaue and the A S Fortuna / Highway crossing. I've heard some ghastly stories about these drug addicts and would stay well away from them if I were you.


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