When you think about spreading the joy this Christmas, I doubt going to the streets of Geylang is what you would have in mind. Neither will you find jolly Santas or sparkly tinsel lining its lorongs, but heavily tattooed pimps and neon-lit signs instead.

The red-light district is like forbidden fruit. Although well-visited by many for just its food fare, especially durians, secrecy enshrouds the brothel areas, with multiple “no photo-taking” signs plastered along walls and judgemental stares from pimps guarding their front doors. 

But all these things don’t faze Debbie Zhang, 49, founder of Geylang Ministry (GM), which operates under a non-profit called House of Olive Leaf. As I follow her around for just a day, she moves from lorong to lorong with familiarity, brightly greeting the women who work at the brothels, who in turn welcome her like an old friend.


Debbie, along with the other volunteers of GM, first hit the streets of Geylang on the Christmas eve of 2011 to sing carols. Their mission was simple: to bring God’s love to the people there through song.

Of course, they believed that God could move in greater, unseen ways among the people there. Eight years on since that first Christmas, she can attest that God has indeed moved.

With a carolling team comprising of over 90 volunteers this year, Debbie aims to distribute 1,500 gifts to the various workers in Geylang while singing songs like Silent Night – both in English and Mandarin.

Last year drew an equally large number of volunteers, where they successfully handed out 1,100 sets of gifts and Christmas tracts. 15 people also gave their lives to Jesus that night. But while she is thankful, Debbie believes that this outreach is more than just seeing salvations.

“The fruits we see is not so much visible salvations,” she shared. “I believe the significance of us carolling is the seeds of hope and love planted into the workers’ hearts.”

Singing carols have helped open many doors – literally – into an area reputed to be hard ground. Driven by a fear of getting shut down, workers would firmly turn non-customers away, making it difficult for “outsiders” to be welcomed.

Their fear is heightened by the possibility of losing such a high-paying job and its repercussions. Yet, thanks to years of relationship building, Debbie and her carolling team are warmly received by many. 

The unique ministry has become a ray of hope to the Geylang community. It may have taken hours of dedication and hard work, but the genuine trust and bonds formed between Debbie and the workers of Geylang have paved a way for many others to reach out and love this group of people.

The path forged also creates hope for the girls who want to leave the industry. Debbie recalled an encounter with one of the women last year: “She couldn’t come to the doorstep during our carolling because she needed to serve a lot of customers, but from overhearing us singing, she made up her mind to leave the brothel.”

A testimony of one of the women who left the red-light district through Debbie’s ministry.

It’s a labour of love undertaken throughout the year, one that flows from a deep care for the people there. “What people need is not pity but empathy,” Debbie said, referring to the women she ministers to.

“We should try to put ourselves in their shoes and think as they do. I see her as a woman, just like me. She’s not a commodity, not a transaction and she’s not what she wears.

“She’s first and foremost made in God’s image.”

“She’s not a commodity, not a transaction and she’s not what she wears.”

You can see it in the little things Debbie does, like getting the tracts she hands out translated into seven languages including Vietnamese, Thai, Tamil and Mandarin. She even rewrites them where possible so that it’s easier to read, as most of the workers in Geylang are uneducated.

Beyond her weekly visits, she even celebrates the birthdays of those in the brothels, giving them personalised gifts and homemade cakes (with the person’s name written on top in icing). For the pimps, Debbie prepares homemade pickled pig trotters instead.

“We should be the first group of people in their lives who they feel really loves them unconditionally, with no motives,” she mused. “They really appreciate it and we can see how they are also hungry for love.

“We visit them every week to give them a devotional and a small gift, like a packet of prawn crackers. But for them, they don’t bother about the value of the gifts. They only value our presence.

“If we miss visiting them for a week, they will ask me, ‘How come you didn’t visit us last week?’ Or if it’s been more than a week, they would keep count and jokingly complain about it when we see them next.

“They will also say things like, ‘I hear you visited this lorong, why you never come this lorong?’ It shows they do look forward to seeing us.”


Heavily tinted glass doors swing open and intimidating pimps break into welcoming smiles when they see Debbie enter.

After handing out several pre-packed snacks and translated tracts, a friendly conversation ensues in dialect and a few beautiful faces shyly peep out the door, curious to see what’s going on. Once the conversation is done, Debbie moves on to the next house.

This has been her weekly routine since 2011. But even three years before that, in 2008, Debbie had already started making friends in Geylang. It all began when she first encountered some female workers leaning on the walls outside the YWAM lecture building, which at that time was located at Faith Mission Home. She was then attending YWAM’s Discipleship Training School (DTS).

She would see these ladies every day before entering the building for her DTS lectures. Eventually, she learnt that these women were from China, her birth country. Hearing what they were doing there took her by surprise because this was her first time finding out that an area like Geylang even existed in the country. For 13 years until that moment, she had no idea.

God eventually placed it in Debbie’s heart to reach out to the ladies. She recalled: “It was very challenging at the beginning because there wasn’t much support. I approached YWAM first and other Geylang churches for help, but at that time they didn’t feel ready to step into this ministry. So I just started doing prayer walks around Geylang on my own.” 

Soon, the simple prayer walks evolved into giving apples to ladies on the streets, which then led Debbie to start free English classes.

“It was very easy; we just gave them the apples, told them Jesus loves them and invited them to the English class,” she said.

These were people with names, histories, destinies – not just the faceless workers of Geylang.

But from my few hours with Debbie, one can clearly see that this ministry is nowhere near easy.

Not only is the work physically tiring – just imagine carrying several birthday cakes, over 200 snack packets and stacks of tracts around Geylang for several hours – it also demands a level of socialising only made possible through genuine care.

There have been other sacrifices: going out to carol in the streets of Geylang every year has meant being unable to give her own three children a proper Christmas celebration at home. But it all appears to be worth the cost.

As she made her rounds, Debbie explained to me in detail the life story of every individual we met. She could easily recall their relationships with their families or partners, their troubles, their hobbies… These were people with names, histories, destinies – not just the faceless workers of Geylang.

Over the 11 years of reaching out, Debbie has seen 255 workers in Geylang say the Sinner’s Prayer to receive Jesus into their hearts. Yet only six have left the trade.

To some, these numbers may seem low, but Debbie’s heart lies in the greater fruit of obedience: “It is God’s calling for me, so it is better for me to obey. I know that it is God’s heart to make Him known to this special group of people whose lives are so broken so that they can know real hope. Hence, we too can find hope that they will be able to make the right choices for their future.

“Despite all the challenges, it is eye-opening to witness His unconditional love to the Geylang people. My team and I always marvel at the miracles where God turns the impossible into the possible.”

A testimony from Debbie’s team of one of the pimps who received Christ through their house visits.



If there’s anything I learnt from experiencing a day as a volunteer at GM, it’s the importance of commitment. With a highly relational ministry such as this, volunteers* must be consistent and preferably not one-off.

Age also plays a big factor. While youthfulness is great when it comes to the physical labour required to walk and carry heavy items around, being a young woman has some clear disadvantages in such a ministry.

Debbie was already in her late 30s and married when she started befriending these workers. As an older woman now, it is easy for the ladies to relate to as a motherly figure and the pimps to trust her as a peer.

Knowing and observing all this, the question remains: What can I, a 20-something woman, do? When I asked her this, Debbie affectionately answered: “I would say the aim of this ministry is to gather the churches to reach out together to the girls in Geylang.”

It will always take the whole body of Christ. A choir is never made up of one person anyway.

If you wish to know more about Geylang Ministry, do drop them an email. You can also contact Debbie directly to sign up for their annual carolling sessions or as a long-term volunteer.

*Volunteers must be at least 25 years old and single/widowed men are not advised to join.