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Behind the velvet curtain

By in News

The Link (Concordia University)

HONG KONG (CUP) — It’s a humid Thursday night in Hong Kong’s Wan Chai district. Middle-aged women sit on bar stools along Lockhart Road, soliciting passers-by to take a look inside. Pushing back the maroon-coloured velvet curtain of one such bar, individuals are greeted by a dozen mainly Filipino and Thai dancers, some of whom look no older than 18.

“I’ll never get used to (sex work),” said Mary, a native of Manila, who is in Hong Kong for the first time on a six-month “entertainer” visa.
Wearing a matching red bra and panties and knee-high black boots, she looked at the floor as she explained that she works here so she can support her son. He is almost two years old and lives back in the Philippines with her parents.

“I’ll never like it,” she said again, as if talking to herself.

Hong Kong’s transitory role
Mary says she is 21 but looks much younger. She is one of countless sex workers who have come to Hong Kong from neighbouring Asian countries, one of many who were promised jobs as waitresses or bartenders before they arrived.

According to a 2009 Trafficking in Persons report issued by the U.S. Department of State, “Hong Kong is primarily a transit point for illegal migrants, some of whom are subject to conditions of debt bondage, forced commercial sexual exploitation and forced labour.”

The 2009 report downgraded Hong Kong from Tier 1 to Tier 2, meaning the Special Administrative Region’s government had not made significant efforts since 2005 to abolish human trafficking. By comparison, the report states that, while Canada is a destination country for men, women and children trafficked for sexual purposes, the Canadian government “fully complies with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking.”

Perhaps most alarming about Hong Kong, however, is how many migrant sex workers — regardless of their age — stay in the city despite isolation, discrimination and increasing violence. Latest estimates put the number close to 50,000.

“The general impression is that sex workers (in Hong Kong) are looked down upon regardless of the reason why they get into the profession,” said Maria Tam, a gender studies professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. “Most people would think that they are good-for-nothing people and are too lazy to work hard.”

Tam explained that residents use the Cantonese term Bug Gu (meaning “woman from the North”) to designate women coming to Hong Kong from mainland China who end up working in the sex industry. says the majority of migrant sex workers in Hong Kong are from mainland China.

Although many sex workers also arrive from Thailand and the Philippines, Hong Kong has become the second biggest market for Nepalese women and children who are trafficked for sexual purposes; it’s one of the most popular destinations for sex tourism in the Asia Pacific region.

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Ambiguous laws
Prostitution isn’t illegal in Hong Kong. But the actions surrounding sex work, including solicitation, operating “vice establishments” and trafficking women and underage girls (among others), are.

“I think the laws are very outdated,” said Moyreen Tilbrook, the director of Action for Reach Out, a Hong Kong-based sex worker rights organization. “This problem of the definition in the law of ”˜vice establishment’ means that you cannot have two women working together, so they’re forced to work alone and can’t employ anybody to help with security,” she said.

One-woman apartments are most common in Hong Kong, Tilbrook said, adding that they endanger the security of sex workers. Over the past year, eight female sex workers were killed in one-woman apartments.

“I know that the legislation was intended to limit Triad activity as much as anything,” Tilbrook said, “but is a two-woman apartment criminal? No.”

Underage focus
Shelton Ng Sai-kuen, the chief superintendent of the Hong Kong Police Force, hesitates when asked whether underage sex workers operating in Hong Kong constitute a big problem.

“What is a ”˜big’ problem?” he asked, explaining that concrete figures related to the amount of underage sex workers in Hong Kong are nearly impossible to come by.

“We want to protect the females from being exploited. We don’t want underage girls to be exploited,” Sai-kuen said. “We are also looking at people who are illegal immigrants, who are underage and who are visitors to Hong Kong. If they take part in this kind of sexual service, automatically they violate the laws of Hong Kong,” he added.

While the city’s police force vows to protect girls and women in the sex industry from abuse and exploitation, little concrete action has been taken to date in prosecuting traffickers. In fact, Hong Kong has no specific human trafficking laws. Furthermore, language barriers make it extremely difficult for victims to communicate with police officers or stand up for their rights.

Zi Teng, another Hong Kong-based sex worker rights organization, has regularly reported on the abuse and mistreatment of migrant sex workers by police when taken into custody. In 2005, for instance, police designated an iron cage no bigger than 200 square metres to detain over 80 migrant sex workers. Most of them were from mainland China.

“Sometimes (sex workers) will feel afraid and not know how to find help,” said Bowie Lam, a Zi Teng representative. “The government and police position (of complacency) has to be changed.”

Fulfilling the demand
The largest number of human trafficking victims comes from Asia, with over 225,000 from southeast Asia trafficked yearly. In fact, the women and children trafficked into Canada for sexual purposes are primarily from Asia. Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver are becoming major destinations for victims of the sex trade.

Jo, a sex worker now living in Hong Kong, claims the decision to leave her home in Papaya, Philippines, in search of sex work was her own.

“They would kill me,” she said, running her index finger across her throat, illustrating what her family would do if they found out she was making her living as a sex worker. “I do it for the money,” she explained. “I have no choice.”

While the Hong Kong police force and various local organizations struggle to find the perfect formula to address prostitution in the city, the bright lights of Wan Chai continue to shine. And the young women and girls from throughout Asia ”“ Jo, Mary and many others just like them ”“ continue to meet Hong Kong’s demand for sex. All behind the velvet curtains, of course.

photo Jonathon Van Smit


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