To family and friends, David Wong is just regular Hongkonger who has settled comfortably into retirement. Only clients share his big secret: he has operated as a sex worker in Hong Kong for the past 20 years.
“I love massage”, says Wong, now 67-years-old, who provides both sex and massage services to his male clients. As a young man, he often visited massage parlours in mainland China.
“When I retired, I had a few months feeling [restless] without anything to do. So I was thinking to myself, why not learn about massage techniques and become a freelance massage technician and a sex worker?”
As a “massage technician” – a euphemism for male prostitutes who provide same-sex services – Wong normally looks for clients via gay dating apps. He provides various services priced between HK$500-800.
Unlike female sex workers in Hong Kong who often work in the same building as a community, Wong operates on his own.
“I consider myself, and often other male sex workers as very independent beings, we don’t connect with or support each other as much as female sex workers do,” Wong says. But this self-reliance also means they “have to be extra careful about taking care of ourselves under police raids.”
Wong’s story gives a glimpse of a community that is so well hidden there’s not even an estimate of its size. According to Ziteng, a non-profit organization advocating for sex workers’ rights, there are currently 20,000 female sex workers in Hong Kong. The number of male prostitutes has not been officially recorded.
Even though prostitution is legal in Hong Kong, it is subject to various restrictions aimed at combating soliciting, pimping and multi-worker brothels. The laws, however, apply only to heterosexual services. Gay sex services are regulated by different provisions.
“Prostitution law in Hong Kong targets sexuality instead of gender,” said Azan Marwah, a barrister and accredited mediator in Gilt Chambers who has brought a constitutional challenge to prostitution law in Hong Kong. In a recent interview he gave an example of how such law operates differently based on sexual orientation.
A massage parlour is illegal when it functions as a brothel that provides heterosexual sex work, but male sex workers who provide sex services to men in that parlour are not liable and unlikely to be arrested.
However, this apparent legal grey area doesn’t mean male sex workers face fewer legal hazards than female counterparts. Male prostitutes in public can be charged with “soliciting with immoral purposes”, according to Tak Kin Ngai, the manager of Midnight Blue — a Hong Kong-based advocacy group for male sex workers.
Foreign male prostitutes who lack Hong Kong permanent residence rights can be accused by the Immigration Department of breaching the conditions of their stay in the city. If they lack visas or misuse visitor visas they could be liable to three months in prison, said Ngai in a recent interview.
“Immigrant sex workers are actually the majority of male sex workers in Hong Kong,” said Ngai. “Some are from the mainland, some are from the Philippines and some are from Thailand.”
Hong Kong law recognizes sex work only under strict conditions. Sex workers must have Hong Kong residency and only one person in one unit can ply the trade.
To stay legal, female prostitutes in Hong Kong usually work in a pattern known as “yat lau yat fung” (one floor, one woman); they often share an entire building in which each of them has one unit to serve clients. Most male prostitutes operate on their own, like Wong.
Compared to their female colleagues who have received considerable attention from social support groups, male prostitutes operate under the radar.
The lack of understanding and knowledge of male sex work is not exclusive to Hong Kong. According to the Scelles Foundation, a France-based organization that opposes sexual exploitation, the number of sex workers in the world is about 42 million, of whom 8 million are men.
Ngai said that even though many networks, organizations and societies support sex workers worldwide, few were specifically established for men in the trade.
“We have partnerships with lots of sex worker NGOs and they support female, male and transgender sex workers, but if you are talking about an NGO that exclusively works for male sex workers, I can count on one hand.” Ngai said.
Considerable police concern
Even though they lack social support, male sex workers in Hong Kong appear to be of considerable concern to the police. Officers would operate undercover to catch male prostitutes, and sometimes even plant evidence, according to Marwah and Ngai.
For example, police would plant evidence during a sting operation in brothels or other vice establishments, bringing lubricants, condoms and other paraphernalia with them to serve as “evidence” of illegal prostitution, according to Marwah.
“I have had one case where police framed my clients who are male sex workers. My clients did possess lubricants and condoms,” Marwah said. “But they already threw them away outside because they were suspecting that police were going to raid them.
“So, when the police came and couldn’t find any lubricants and condoms, they just planted those they brought along the way. That was our defence in the trial later, because the brands of those sexual products police found at the scene are not the brand that male sex workers use.”
“In my experiences, it is very normal for police to frame sex workers in vice establishments and sex worker cases,” Marwah said.
According to Ngai, the provision of “Soliciting for an immoral purpose” has been heavily abused by Hong Kong police, who often use entrapment to arrest male sex workers.
Ngai said police would pretend to be clients and talk to male sex workers in public, asking about the price of services. If the man responds, police would be entitled to arrest him.
Marwah warns his clients – both female and male sex workers – that in order to avoid committing the crime of soliciting, they should always discuss prices in private or online.
“And if they don’t know the person that they are speaking with they should record the interaction to avoid the ‘He said, she said’ situation with police later in court.”
Lai Tung-kwok, former security secretary, defended police “intelligence-led enforcement actions” in the Legislative Council in 2015, arguing they are a deterrent to illicit prostitution.
Johannes Chan, a barrister and former Dean of the Law Faculty at the University of Hong Kong, said in an interview courts are aware of police frame-ups and abuses of power against sex workers.
The law against soliciting makes male sex workers including Wong ever-vigilant about discussing prices with clients in public.
Wong started in business 20 years ago by posting a newspaper advertisement. Legal concerns aside, he says, the social stigma of his trade has lessened over the years.
Back then, he would describe himself as a “massage technician”.
“Because of the publishing of the anti-discrimination law in 1995, I was not allowed to specify in my advertisement that I only serve male clients. So, I used the title of ‘comrade massage technician’ to hint that I provide sexual service for, and only for, males.”
Back in the 1990s, the profession was controversial and Wong’s advertisement prompted many threatening phone calls. Some were prank calls, others were from homophobes who cursed him as shameless.
“Some of them even threatened me that they were triad members and they were going to come up to me to charge protection money,” Wong says, laughing, “So I was like, ‘OK, whatever, come up then’.”
Attitudes towards the LGBT community and sexuality are more relaxed nowadays. Wong now uses gay dating apps to reach clients and is no longer harassed or threatened.
Approaching 70, Wong still loves his job and hasn’t given a thought to retiring. Over the past two decades, he says, he has become more professional in his attitude.
“When I first started this job, I was actually struggling a bit, because most of the clients are not the type I like. But I just had to adjust my mindset. I have been telling myself, this is my profession and I am not supposed to be picky about my clients.”
The cardinal rule, he says, is never say no to first-time clients – even for those with skin problems such as psoriasis.
“I will never turn down my clients for the first time, that’s the work ethic I stick to,” Wong says.
Wong’s income from sex work is more than enough to support him in retirement. He spent more than eight months last year travelling.
Some of his long-term clients have asked him to go on trips to the mainland together for a few months, which is considered an escort service. Intimate as that might sound, Wong would still set clear boundaries for himself between clients and romantic partners.
Wong has stayed single since he started sex work, figuring his partner would mind a lot if knowing he is a sex worker. But he thinks this is quite acceptable: “I consider it as a trade-off,” Wong says with a smile “God has already given me so many guys and bodies to enjoy, how can I ask for more?”