Former Hong Kong prostitute says dangers have increased in industry

Mei has no regrets about her former life, but says drugs and crime make it riskier today

Lana Lam lana.lam@scmp.com

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Mei Mei has long ago stopped working in the sex industry, but she looks back fondly on her time as a prostitute.

From “compensated dating" in the early 1970s to massage parlours and saunas, and working in a “one-woman brothel", Mei Mei has traversed the full gamut of the world’s “oldest profession".

Now 58, she long ago stopped working in the sex industry, but she looks back fondly on her time as a prostitute.

“It’s a good job, so long as you don’t do drugs, gamble or owe people money," she said.

Born in Causeway Bay, Mei – not her real name – never knew her birth parents and was adopted by another family. She stopped going to school in Primary Three, at the age of 11, and started working as a kitchen hand on sampans; she also had a factory job.

Her first foray into sex work was through friends who were engaged in what is known today as “compensated dating" – where she would go on dates in exchange for money or other goods. She was just 17.

Later, Mei started working in dance halls in Jordan and North Point, where she would talk to clients and dance with them. Often, it would not go beyond that.

“I only went with them somewhere else if I wanted to," she said, during an interview at the Prince Edward offices of Zi Teng, a local concern group for prostitutes set up in 1996.

Zi Teng staff provide support to prostitutes, targeting areas such as Yuen Long, Sheung Shui, Wan Chai, Mong Kok and Tsim Sha Tsui.

At 24, Mei quit the profession, got married and had a baby boy. Her husband, a fisherman, stopped working on the seas and took a job at a mahjong parlour. But about six years later, the couple divorced and Mei took up prostitution again, this time working in saunas and massage parlours in Jordan.

Again, the line between being a masseuse and prostitute was blurred and only if Mei felt comfortable with a particular client would she take things further.

In 1993, she stopped working in the saunas because the owners, uncertain about how a post-handover Hong Kong would treat the prostitution industry, demanded more control over its employees.

So Mei decided to become a sole operator in a one-woman brothel in Sham Shui Po, servicing mainly Chinese clients.

Between 1993 and 2003, business was good and she could charge HK$300 for a 90-minute massage. Oral sex was an additional HK$500 to HK$600 and the price increased for other services.

“This work is a job, like any other. I liked it because I was independent, my own boss and not relying on others."

She earned about HK$10,000 a month and, with the help of regular clients, she was able to save a deposit to buy a unit.

“But after the handover, crime went up and it was not as safe as before," she said. “Being a sex worker, you must be alert to possible danger and assess the men."

Mei was saddened by the case of two young Indonesian women, thought to be prostitutes, found murdered in the apartment of a British banker in Wan Chai last weekend.

“Going to a private home is always more dangerous," Mei said. “Also, today, there are more drugs and they are more potent, which can make things more dangerous."

Mei has never told her son, now 30 and working in construction, about her past life, nor will she.

She left that life about a decade ago and now works part-time in a women’s-only beauty centre that offers massage and facial treatments.

“I have no regrets about what I did and I was happy doing sex work," she said.

Mei said the existence of prostitutes also meant there were fewer cases of rape, as it was a means for men to obtain sex.

“We contribute to society in many ways, such as reducing cases of rape. Also, some men have sexual desires that cannot be satisfied at home so we can help relieve pressure on the wives.

“Sex workers are everywhere and prostitution has such a long history," she added. “It’s impossible that one place would not have this industry."

(Source: http://www.scmp.com/news/hong-kong/article/1635365/former-hong-kong-prostitute-says-dangers-have-increased-industry)

Risky business: sex workers walk a blurred line in the streets of Wan Chai

The shocking killing of two Indonesian women in an upscale flat a week ago has thrust Wan Chai – and its reputation as a hub for the city’s sex trade – into the spotlight. It is unclear if the victims were part of that trade, which sees hundreds of sex workers from Southeast Asia, Africa, Europe and South America descend on the neon-lit streets

Lana Lam lana.lam@scmp.com

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A prostitute in Prince Edward, where the sex industry is thriving and where the local support group Zi Teng has its offices. Photo: K.Y.Cheng

Armed with a bubbly demeanour and an equally apparent street-wise air, Dao arrived in Hong Kong from Thailand about a month ago, and each night since she has been on or near Lockhart Road, Wan Chai as the strip of bars and nightclubs thrum in the late night and early morning hours.

Dressed in skin-tight jeans and a light-coloured bodice, her black high heels lift her petite frame a few inches higher.

The curls in her light brown hair fall softly around her face, the fake eyelashes and make-up framing her brown eyes.

It’s well past midnight when we first talk in a cavernous basement nightclub on Jaffe Road. Dao scans the crowd, sitting with her friends, sipping a drink as loud dance music fills her ears and garish strobe lights colour the dance floor.

Dao (not her real name) is one of the thousands of sex workers in Hong Kong who work in what is euphemistically called “the world’s oldest profession" – a business that in Hong Kong manages the neat trick of being hidden in plain view – the elephant in the room that you can talk about, but only if you want to.

Like many foreigners who flock to the city, Dao has come to earn a living. And if you thought the bankers and derivatives traders took risks, one night in Dao’s not inconsiderable shoes would put paid to that notion.

Despite her situation, Dao, 29, remains optimistic: “I can make double what I can in Thailand," she says, stealing a few moments outside the Hong Kong Café on Jaffe Road before heading back inside, where she can charge around HK$1,000 to “take a customer out".

The club, better known by its previous name, Neptunes, and nearby nightclubs Boracay and New Makati sit on the same mantle, attracting a particular mix of clientele.

On Sundays, the clubs fill with domestic helpers – mostly from Indonesia and the Philippines – who enjoy going out to dance on their one day off. Moneyed expatriates also come, some looking for intimate companionship.

For some of the city’s 300,000-strong army of live-in maids, that time for rest and relaxation offers a chance to make a little extra money to top up their meagre wages. This blurred line – combined with the transient and informal nature of this industry and the many types of sex worker – means that there are few official statistics on how big the industry is and how much it is worth.

Recent comprehensive studies of the city’s sex trade are scant but in 1996, police estimated that triads in Mong Kok – who run a much more locally focused and tightly organised ship – were pocketing up to HK$14 million a month from the sex trade.

The city’s sex trade is complex. A woman like Dao could be a sole operator, full-time, part-time or on an “as needed" basis. She could be in full control of her takings or in debt bondage.

The myriad issues for sex workers include physical safety, sexual health and psychological impact of the job.

Prostitution is legal in Hong Kong but soliciting clients, running a brothel of two or more people or living off the earnings of sex work are all banned.

Local support groups for sex workers include Zi Teng, which started in 1996. The group estimates there are about 2,000 so-called one-woman brothels – the only legal form of prostitution.

About a decade ago, such establishments numbered in the hundreds, said a spokeswoman surnamed Lee.

“The number of both local sex workers [those who have a Hong Kong identity card] and migrant sex workers [those in the city on a travel visa] has definitely increased," Lee said.

Foot massage parlours, many of which offer more than their name suggests, have also increased in number, with more than 2,000 across the city but clustered in hotspots in Causeway Bay and Wan Chai.

In Kowloon, these parlours are spread across Mong Kok, Yau Ma Tei and Sham Shui Po with many in the New Territories as well.

In addition, Lee said, there are more than 100 clubs, karaoke bars, guest houses and saunas where sex workers can find potential clients and vice versa.

Male sex workers also operate in Hong Kong but are more hidden given the existing taboos around homosexuality.

Police figures show that as of June, there were 135 licensed massage parlours in Hong Kong. Immigration figures reveal that 1,500 sex workers, most of them from the mainland, were arrested in anti-vice operations in the first four months of this year. About 3,800 sex workers were arrested in similar operations in the whole of last year.

The earning power of domestic helpers who “secretly" take up sex work to boost their salaries can vary greatly.

“Even two street sex workers working on the same street, one may just charge the customer HK$200 for sexual intercourse, the other may charge HK$380," said Lee.

The circumstances of sex workers also differs.

“Some pay rent and share profits with the so-called land owner or parlour owner, some work independently, some have a legitimate job and only work for several hours a week or a day."

Estimates of as many as 200,000 sex workers in the city are just that, estimates.

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Jesse Lorena

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Sumarti Ningsih

Kendy Yim Kit-sum, executive director of sex worker concern group Action for Reach Out, puts the total at closer to 100,000.

She said the group had tried to provide support for Southeast Asian women who may be full- or part-time sex workers but language barriers and cultural differences made it difficult.

“Many are offended if we try to approach them on the street," she said. But Chinese-speaking sex workers are more receptive.

The recent killing in Wan Chai of two young Indonesian women, who may have been sex workers, increased the level of fear in Wan Chai but not elsewhere, apparently.

“The Chinese-speaking sex workers were quite shocked yet they are not too scared because for them, they are attached to the dance bar," Yim said.

“They have to tell the bar manager where they are going so someone knows which hotel or where they are going."

Yim said those who work on the street or in a bar such as New Makati, where one of the women killed was last seen, were often “sole operators"so they were not attached to an employer or a particular location.

“Usually, the situation is the worst for them," Yim said, “because you may end up anywhere".

In 2006, Yim’s group conducted a survey that found of 113 respondents, 15 had experienced violence by clients, but only two had called the police. Most were reluctant to complain because they did not want to be identified as a sex worker or did not believe the police would help.

(Source: http://www.scmp.com/news/hong-kong/article/1635364/risky-business-sex-workers-walk-blurred-line-streets-wan-chai)