Wan Chai Sex Workers

A report on the Wan Chai unregistered sex industry. Reproduced with the kind permission of the Sing Tao Newspaper Group.

It is midday Sunday and business is already booming in the bars of Wan Chai.

In poorly written English, signboards outside Lockhart Road hostess bars welcome crewmen off the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz - just arrived in port to offload a few thousand sailors and marines. The streets are full of frisky young men looking hip and civilian, aiming more for Snoop Doggie Dogg than spit and polish warrior. They are thirsty for beer and sexual adventure.

Trailing them are scores of attractive young women. In miniskirts and toting fake Gucci bags, they're stepping out in a dance that's been performed on this street since the 1950s.

The old style gogo bars of Wan Chai, where lithe young women still gyrate - legally - against shiny firepoles and entice customers to buy them overpriced drinks, are the places most commonly associated with the sex trade.

But the action in Wan Chai has shifted considerably in recent years. Now it's likely to be found inside a handful of bars blaring canned dance music or the raucous sounds of a Filipino cover band.

Entering one of these bars, one soon understands the dimensions of Hong Kong's unregistered sex trade.

Dozens of girls, most of them Filipinas in tight jeans or mini skirts, dance or mill about, waiting for an eager male.

Many of the women are simply customers out for a good time with their friends but an increasing number are here to ply the sex trade, brought into Hong Kong by shadowy recruiters with the promise of big money.

Wan Chai Bar

They're put up in cramped flats and often end up hoping they can at least break even before an immigration officer puts an end to their sojourn and sends them packing.

The male punters are businessmen, expatriates, tourists and, on this Sunday, exuberant soldiers and sailors off the Nimitz.

A man on a bar stool needs to wait only a few moments before a smiling woman's face appears at his side, angling for a drink, a chat and maybe more.

According to officers in the Philippine consulate the girls are charged about US$1,000 as a recruitment fee by representatives of triad syndicates to come to Hong Kong and work the bars. The money covers their airfare and has to be paid back in daily installments.

"We call these girls victims of human trafficking," one officer says. The consulate says there is little it can do. The girls come to Hong Kong of their own free will with scant knowledge of what they are likely to encounter, according to one officer.

A spokesman for the Wan Chai police station took exception to the idea that the trade is organized, insisting triads are not involved. "There are no known syndicates," he says. "The foreign girls usually operate alone."

That is not the picture painted by the women themselves, who are lured to Hong Kong thinking they will make lots of money. The reality, though, is that they become virtual debt slaves, forced to hustle deep into the night to pay "managers" for their air tickets, lodging and food. Many times, the girls say, the syndicates keep their passports and travel documents until the debt is paid.

None of this is a secret. Buy a girl a drink and you'll hear the stories. They live in tiny flats, up to eight in a room, cooking meals on a hot plate and paying HK$80 to HK$100 a night for the privilege, according to one woman, who, like others interviewed for this story, was afraid to be named.

Encountered in one of the bars, she discusses the business as I buy her a steady supply of drinks. The girls get HK$40 from the bar for each drink they get a customer to buy for them.

She keeps her voice low, afraid of being overheard, and while she talks she looks frequently over her shoulder, keeping an eye on the manager as she rests a hand on my knee and pours out a tale.

"Sometimes I even have problems paying my rent," she says. "I was sick the first week I was here and still my manager wanted money from me." She has just come back from a visa run to Macau to extend her stay in Hong Kong.

On this Sunday the bars are packed with many more women than men. It is impossible to know exactly who are the working girls and who are domestic helpers enjoying a day off in the disco.

But it soon becomes apparent.

"Supply always exceeds demand," says a Hong Kong resident familiar with the area. "Prices (for sex) have gone down lately from HK$1,500 to HK$500."

Most of the girls are Filipinas but this is a multinational stew. There are Indonesians, Thais, Vietnamese, Laotians, Mongolians, mainlanders. There are even girls from Columbia, Venezuela, Latvia and Estonia in one bar.

"We're in Hong Kong on a working holiday. Can you buy me a drink?" a blonde woman says with a generic European accent.

The conventional wisdom, says a long-time Hong Kong expat, is that some of the domestic helpers hanging out in the Wan Chai bars "are looking for a boyfriend or a husband and are not necessarily prostitutes."

Others, says an officer at the Philippine consulate, are moonlighting in the sex trade to make extra money to send home to their families.

One Sunday afternoon Wan Chai regular, who identified himself as a teacher, explains it this way - "I was dating an Indonesian who was a part of the scene. I want to have her here as my maid. I would give her a working permit but my wife is not too keen on the idea."

In the beginning, the man says, he thought his mistress really was a maid, but one of her friends told him she was actually working in the bar. It ended a common fantasy - that these overly friendly women are domestic helpers just out for a good time.

An Indonesian woman in a bar insists she goes to Wan Chai on her day off just to dance. She is obviously having a good time and repeats a familiar bar-girl refrain that she does not like handsome men because they cannot be trusted. She prefers the old and the unattractive.

Her 59 year old boyfriend doesn't like her to go to Wan Chai, even though this is where they met, she continues, as she taps out an SMS text message to him on her cell phone.

"My boyfriend said I look like Miss Thailand," she says. "His Thai girl-friend died in a car accident. I hope he will marry me." She declines an offer of a second drink.

Dolores Balladares, chairwoman of support group United Filipinos in Hong Kong says she has been told that some of the girls working in Wan Chai come to Hong Kong with the promise of jobs as domestic helpers and are forced into prostitution. She has no proof, though.

Regardless, few women will ask for help. "They will not come to us for help, they are too afraid," she says. "Our culture treats such work as degrading."

In constant need of money and wondering how long they will be able to renew their short-term visas before they are given the one-day stamp and told to go home, the itinerant Filipinas of Wan Chai roam far and wide in search of custom.

They are happy to give out their phone numbers and provide home "services." They will never make enough money to pay their debts just hustling drinks.

"Hong Kong is so expensive," intones one sad-eyed lady on a bar stool. She needs money for rent, food, the debt on her recruitment fee, and maybe, if she is lucky, to send to her family.

More than half a million men and women leave the Philippines every year to work overseas and the billions of dollars they remit home every year is a vital factor in keeping the struggling Philippines economy afloat.

The Philippine government calls them heroes.

For women, the work consists primarily of unskilled and poorly paid jobs like domestic service. Those are the lucky ones. Some end up in prostitution or become mail-order brides or 'Japayukis', the Philippine slang for women who work in the bars and nightclubs of Japan.

In the past, many Filipinas working in Wan Chai secured entertainment visas to dance legally in go-go bars but the consulate says these are rarely offered now.

Today's visiting prostitutes come on a 14-day tourist visa, a consulate officer explains. They are shuttled in and out of Macau and Shenzen to extend their visas, which they can do for about three months.

"How can immigration prove they are prostitutes?" he asks.

Wan Chai Gogo

When they go off to Macau or Shenzhen, the official says, the girls will gather as much money as they can to prove they are tourists. Only after several entries does immigration start asking questions.

The girls are schooled to use the money as an argument, claiming they will contribute to Hong Kong's economy. A woman I met in a bar even asked if I would go with her to China. Traveling with a foreigner, she reasoned, would make it easier to get back into Hong Kong.

"Hong Kong immigration is powerless," the consular officer explains. "They can only limit the days the women can stay in Hong Kong." After a while, they limit the entry visa to one day.

"This is typically the only time we hear from any of the girls," the officer explains. "They come to us in desperation when they haven't got enough money for the flight back home. We supply temporary housing until they depart."

It's a sad and desperate system, a way for bars to ensure a cheap supply of women to draw customers. The Filipino girls operating in Wan Chai are usually unsophisticated girls from rural areas.

"It is from the poorest provinces that the girls are recruited," Balladares says. With the economy in the Phillippines getting worse, she adds, even those with an education can't find work. "This forces women into prostitution."

The consulate regards the trafficking of women as a serious problem and the Philippine government is screening women at the Manila airport to try to stop them. There are anti-trafficking campaigns in local newspapers, providing information about the dangers of getting involved in prostitution in Hong Kong and other Chinese cities.

It is doubtful anything will stop the trade and traffic, of course.

Hong Kong's massage parlors and their free-flowing staffs of local and mainland girls are well known and documented, as are the legal 'one-woman' brothels found throughout the territory, many of which advertise their services openly on Web sites and street signs. Meanwhile, police have been criticized for an anti-vice operation in West Kowloon that netted 295 women on Tuesday, 40 of whom were main-landers who were detained in an open-air steel cage.

But little research has been done on the informal trafficking of women to work as casual bar girls, even though their presence is obvious to almost anyone who has had a beer in a certain kind of downmarket Wan Chai disco.

These women have no legal rights or medical services. They are not employees so they have no protection at work. In winter many of them shiver in the cold, not knowing that Hong Kong is chilly compared to their tropical homeland.

Whatever their troubles, they dare not go to the police if they are hurt or abused for fear of being charged with soliciting. They are at the mercy of their managers and their customers.

The police spokesman says the Wan Chai situation is "well contained." "Regular covert operations are mounted to apprehend, charge and deport the bar girls for soliciting prostitution and breach of condition of stay," he says.

Immortalized as the seedy but romantic World Of Suzie Wong in the novel by Richard Mason, 1950s Wan Chai became famous for its drunken sailors and prostitutes.

The reality was never so pretty. In Suzie Wong's day, Wan Chai's neon-lit streets housed hundreds of dingy brothels, dance halls and massage parlors. It was the center of a local sex industry that has now largely moved to Mong Kok and Sham Shui Po.

With prosperity Wan Chai became a trendy spot with sky-high rents and its own bit of flash.

But prostitution never really left. Today's Suzie Wong is most often a Filipina or a Thai living in the shadows and dreaming of getting rich in Asia's "world city."

What do you want? a girl is asked in a Wan Chai bar. "A foreigner boyfriend or husband," is the predictable reply. "I want money, a better life."

Go home, you want to say. It won't happen here.

Reader Submissions

The following are written by readers and forum members.

A report on Wan Chai nightlife to prepare first time visitors for the pitfalls and overall feel of the place. Thanks to Paul for this submission, a veteran of many trips to Hong Kong on his travels between Europe and Australasia.

Wan Chai Disco

This article contains references to the sex industry in Wan Chai but is not intended to be a sex trip report. It is simply to make first time visitors to Hong Kong aware of how things work in the entertainment districts so you will be armed and ready to avoid the dangers and pitfalls that the naive first time visitor can fall into. What you do with that knowledge is up to you.

Like many destinations in Asia, Hong Kong has its fair share of seedy nightlife. However, it's not just restricted to red light areas and spills over into more mainstream entertainment venues. Hong Kong is a very safe city, be in no doubt about that and while you should take all the usual precautions to protect yourself and your belongings, you should not worry too much and relax.

By far, the most well known entertainment areas for foreigners and expats are two areas on Hong Kong Island called Lan Kwai Fong and Wan Chai. While there are many entertainment areas in Hong Kong, they deserve their own page, so for the purposes of this article, we will concentrate on Wan Chai. Situated just a short distance from Hong Kong's Central district (the main business and finance hub), Wan Chai covers a fairly large area and comprises different zones with the bar and entertainment part of it concentrated on a few streets adjacent to the immigration tower, the Hong Kong Exhibition Centre and Central Plaza (unmistakable triangular building, once the tallest in Hong Kong) Several embassies can be found here, including those of New Zealand and Australia.

There are some drinking holes in Wan Chai that are very well known to expatriates as meeting places, such as The Old China Hand, a small pub style bar on Lockhart Road, nestled amongst a strip of gogo bars. The intersection of Lockhart Road, Jaffe Road and Luard Road mark the hub of Wan Chai's nightlife activity with an array of clean cut theme bars, invariably with Filipino live acts, to more seedy establishments, where scantily clad girls will stand outside and try to coerce passers by inside for a very expensive drink and pole dancing show.

You may think to yourself that the girls outside these gogo bars don't look very Chinese. Well, you'd probably be right as women from other Southeast Asian countries are trafficked into Hong Kong to work in the sex industry, usually from Thailand and The Philippines but also form other places like Vietnam and Indonesia. Not only that, many migrant workers in the domestic helper industry on very low wages will often find themselves tempted into prostitution to supplement their income.

Wan Chai can get very busy and you may struggle to find a place at the bar during weekends. It didn't take long for Hong Kong to recover from the economic hardships caused by the SARS incident. In contrast, the seedier bars on Lockhart Road are nearly always low on custom. There is a very good reason for this and that is the cost of enjoying a drink in such a bar. No sooner have you chosen a place to sit down, you will be swarmed by a nearly naked and very tactile girl asking you for a drink. This will likely set you back two of three hundred Hong Kong Dollars, or more. If you are tempted to pay the early release fee to take the girl out of the bar with you, you better have a substantial budget as you will likely be relieved of two thousand Hong Kong Dollars upwards. The red light bars of Hong Kong are only for the wealthy and are probably not worth the money.

There are a handful of discotheques around this part of Wan Chai, such as The New Makati (above the Old China Hand), Neptune 2 (Jaffe Road) and a handful on Luard Road near a 7-11 store. The official cover charge is not usually enforced and you can enter for free. These are ordinary discos and not intended to be places to meet prostitutes. However, the reality is that there are always plenty of single girls to be found in these nightclubs because they are supplied with free drinks by the bar staff while they are waiting for a client to come along. If a customer decides to buy one of these freelancing girls a drink, you can be almost certain that they are secretly being paid a commission for that drink from the bar. Drinks in discos cost around forty to seventy Hong Kong Dollars, including draft and bottled beer. If you are drinking alone and a woman approaches you with a suggestion you leave together, expected to be one to two thousand Hong Kong Dollars lighter by the end of the evening. However, don't assume all the girls you will meet in discos are working. You may inadvertently insult someone who's just out for fun with her friends.
Again, the mix of nationalities is mainland Chinese, Thai, Filipino domestic workers on a night out, Vietnamese and Indonesian.

You shouldn't think that Wan Chai is only a place to go if you're looking for naughty nightlife because it's not. There are some great fun bars to spend the night and enjoy a few beers with both expats and locals. You may want to avoid the area if there are any American soldiers on shore leave though. It is also a major shopping and business district, almost and extension of the shopper's paradise that is Causeway Bay, just a few blocks further on.

If you are on a short visit to Hong Kong, Wan Chai is a good choice as a base due to it's concentration of hotels, restaurants and nightlife that will keep you entertained during your stay, whether you're looking for a night out with friends or traveling solo. It is also very well served by public transport, making other parts of Hong Kong easy to reach and making Wan Chai easy to find if you're staying in another area. Not only that, the Wan Chai Star Ferry pier is a short walk, making it a breeze to get to the Kowloon side of the harbor and affording you stunning views of the city. Hong Kong can be a very expensive city but with a little caution and moderation, you won't break the bank.

This following was submitted anonymously by a forum member.

Wan Chai Neon Sign

A question often asked on the Hong Kong forums, or by visitors in general, is about the working girls, or 'freelancers' in the bars, particularly in Wan Chai. There is information out there which either provides a couple of sentences, or hints at the reality. In this page we'll write about the facts in a no-nonsense manner...

Wan Chai is filled to overflowing with prostitutes from various regional nations (Philippines, Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia etc). There are often visiting Hong Kong on a 30 day tourist visa, and will try to make as much money as possible during that time. Others are brought into Hong Kong by organised gangs or pimps, who will provide them with the tickets and accommodation. Obviously, this investment has to be repaid in multiples. There are also maids, that are working legally in the territory, but recognise the opportunity to substantially boost their meagre incomes by becoming commercial sex workers.

In order to make money, the girls will prop up the various bars of Wan Chai, fluttering their eyes at tourists or expats. Everyone knows the deal, the girls are tolerated by the bars because they attract paying customers. If you buy a girl a drink, the bar staff secretly hand the girl a slip of paper, which she will later use to claim her commission from the bar. Simply buying a girl a drink is helping her to earn money, whether you know it or not. If she's ordering expensive drinks, she could be making 50 - 80 $HK commission each time.

Should a punter decide he wants to spend the night with the fair maiden he's been buying drinks all evening, the reality (even though it sounds prejudiced) is that if a girl is in one of these bars, the chances are she's available for sex in exchange for cash. Even though prostitution is legal in Hong Kong, this is all illegal of course, as the girls are generally working in the territory illegally. The going rates are anything from HK$1000 to HK$2000. She will probably take him to one of the nearby 'love hotels', where of course, she will again get a commission from the hotelier for taking him there... So she has the commission from the drinks, the hotel, and of course the cash in hand she will be paid by her customer.

This summarises the commercial sex worker scene in the discos of Wan Chai. There are of course the gogo bars and saunas, which are a different and covered in other articles on this website.