The bar is slowly filling up, the band is about to start playing and the lights are slightly dimmed. It is around 10:30pm and the night is still young. There are several small groups of middle-aged men chatting among themselves. Scattered around the bar, there are women sitting on their own, sipping drinks and tapping their smartphones. Maria is one of these women. She is a sex worker looking for clients in a bar in Wan Chai.
Maria, 27 – not her real name – is from Colombia. She left behind her son, her father and five siblings. She wasn’t a sex worker until she emigrated and she said she had been in Guangzhou for roughly eight months. Coming to Asia to work cost her US$20,000. She borrowed the money and had to work in the mainland to pay her boss back.
Now that her debt is paid off, she goes back and forth between Hong Kong and Guangzhou, and – lately – she sees more women working in bars in Hong Kong. “Bars are filling with women but they aren’t a safe place; police do raids here looking for women’s papers,” she said.
Wan Chai is known as an informal red-light district. Sex work in Hong Kong is legal, if it is practised in one room with one person only and nobody else but the sex worker profits from the exchange. This means that sex workers cannot have managers or security personnel. The places where they work are called one-woman brothels.
Foreign sex workers cannot work with a tourist visa – they are often detained as they breach a condition of their stay by working without the appropriate permit. Waiting for clients on the street or soliciting money for sex services is also illegal, and that may include anything from a verbal offer to gestural insinuation, or even just eye contact.
In one of their biggest operations in recent years, the police arrested 62 alleged prostitutes from mainland China and Taiwan on 17 September for breaches of their condition of stay.
Pang Wing-chau, 23, is a volunteer working with Zi Teng, a sex workers’ support association. “Although police operations happen on a regular basis, there were more raids than usual in the last three months because of the proximity of the District Council elections,” she said.
According to Pang, the association’s historical data shows that past polls have produced a similar situation. “Politicians ask the police to do more arrests just to get votes,” she said.
Some sex-workers told Zi Teng that, a month ago, the police were even preventing clients from going upstairs to the brothels, thus disrupting their business. They were also checking ID cards of some sex workers.
Some District Council candidates admit encouraging the crackdown. A Wan Chai candidate, Kenny Lee Kwun-yee, said she was worried about Taiwanese sex workers becoming a new trend in the area and that they were going to increase raids on illegal sex working sites, according to an article published on 19 September in Apple Daily.
Louise Lo, 23, works for Jei Jei Jai – or JJJ – which means “Sex Worker Woman” in Cantonese slang. JJJ is a one-woman brothel workers association. They provide help to workers of all nationalities, but they mainly support workers who have a Hong Kong identity card. If the woman works in a one-woman brothel and her paperwork is in order, everything is legal.
Louise estimates that 80-90 percent of the women are from the mainland. “Most of them married a man from Hong Kong and they have the right to work here; they are their own bosses, entrepreneurs,” Louise said. She reckons that there are approximately 2,700 rooms dedicated to one-woman brothels. They haven’t seen any rise in police raids in the last few months, maybe due to the legal status of the businesses they support.
JJJ has seen an increase in the number of girls coming to work in Hong Kong from the mainland. They usually come from rural areas, with no skills, or with skills unsuitable for the big city. In the mainland, workers often move to Shenzhen or Guangzhou to work in factories, but their income is modest. Many make the move to Hong Kong, as they hear that they can earn much more.
Most of them are mothers and sex work gives them flexibility to take care of their children and enough income to provide for their family. Some of them can make up to HK$100,000 a month. Sherry Hui, 48, the executive officer of JJJ, said that “nobody is physically forced to do this job. It’s society that forces people to be a sex worker.”
Sex workers who come from the mainland tend to hide the job from their family and friends, Hui said. “Will they tell their Hong Kong husbands? Of course not! But do they need the money? Yes.”
Jessica is a Filipino sex worker. She has three children and a father to support back in the Philippines. Her mum passed away and she found herself having to pay off old debts, thus she had to come to Hong Kong to work.
“I live with 14 other girls in Kennedy Town, in an apartment of four bunk-bed bedrooms,” she said, insisting that she arrived just yesterday. She feels moderately safe in Hong Kong, although she said that she cannot be on the street. “The police go mad if they see us on the street, I’m always inside the bar,” she said.
Female sex workers are not the only ones trying to be discreet to avoid trouble. Minnie Li, 30, works with a local NGO that supports sex workers rights. She prefers not to disclose the name of the organisation in order to avoid endangering the people she works with. She works on a transgender project.
“There [were] more transgender sex workers from October until Christmas in Hong Kong, because for them it is a way to earn money for the festivities and then go back home,” she said. They are mainly from Philippines and Thailand and most of them will come on tourist visas and stay from two weeks to one month – depending on the visa length – and then leave to other countries to work, usually the mainland, Singapore or Dubai.
“There has been an increase in the number of operations with undercover agents on the west of the island for the past three months,” Li said. Usually policemen in plain clothes are the ones that try to detain sex workers, she added.
Police tend not to raid dwellings occupied by transgender sex workers, as they are more scattered and difficult to get to. “They think the reason for this rise [of] undercover operations is that the district council election was approaching,” says Li.
With the district elections over, many sex workers and NGOs remain concerned as to whether the crackdown will settle down or be stepped by the authorities.
Additional reporting by Vivienne Zeng