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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.
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.