Prostitution is legal in Hong Kong, what is illegal, however, are the issues associated with it such as soliciting and advertising sex. Specifically, a woman is allowed to sell her body in an apartment so long as she is the sole purveyor of sex services on the premises, a law known as one woman/one brothel. Unsurprisingly it has led to a proliferation of single bedroom apartments with little more than a bed in them. Although that’s not unusual in Hong Kong anyway.
Prostitutes in Hong Kong generally come from neighboring South East Asian countries and most - like the girl we spoke to in a dancing bar on Lockhart Road - come of their own free will. A pretty 24-year-old from the Philippines, she signed up to an agency in Manila who arranged a working visa.
Giving out HKIDs to sex workers came as a surprise but she assured us it was typical. She’ll work for the duration of her 6-month visa, diligently sending money back to her family who think she’s working as a waitress. Once her visa has expired she'll return to the Philippines to re-apply for a new HKID, a process that takes a further 6-8 months. She will continue the pattern for years.
The more we talked with those involved in the sex trade, the more it became apparent the police are public enemy number one. A lady we spoke to who runs a dancing bar in Wan Chai argued she pays her taxes like any other law abiding businesswoman and should be treated as such. What she takes objection to are the illegal foreign sex workers prancing up and down the streets without a visa. She said the police should arrest them rather than worry about how she runs her bar which she says is above board. Like everyone we spoke to involved with the sex industry, if she could change one thing about working in Hong Kong it would be the approach of the police.
Keen to find out more, we spoke to Zi Teng, an organization that promotes the rights of sex workers. The group said despite the legality of one woman/one brothels, police officers frequent these establishments to get a massage and then arrest the sex worker for giving them a massage without a massage license. According to Zi Teng, we’re faced with the ridiculous situation where a sex worker isn’t arrested for intercourse but is arrested for giving a back rub. Professional masseuses must be delighted.
In return, a police officer said these claims were patently false. The officer said prostitution isn’t a major issue for the police unless it’s triad or HKID related. (When a sex worker operates without a visa.) One woman/one brothel establishments are legal so aren’t on the police hit list, and what’s more, the police have more important things to do.
Zi Teng also claimed, however, that sex workers are occasionally on the end of police violence as well as another form of coercion they referred to as ‘cold violence’. A typical situation might pan out as follows: a girl is taken down to the police station (suspected of being an illegal sex worker) where she is stripped and searched for drugs. While naked, the police turn up the air conditioning to make her as cold as possible and deny her food, water and access to a lawyer. Essentially, Zi Teng alleges that sex workers are denied their human rights.
The allegations of police brutality were unsurprisingly vehemently denied by the police officer. The officer reiterated that the police not only have higher priorities than arresting sex workers, but that such behaviour would not be tolerated on the force. The officer added that the police are always ready to listen to any complaints and would unhesitatingly investigate such allegations.
The argument above is typical of the police Vs sex worker debate. We heard one thing on behalf of sex workers only to hear the polar opposite from the police force. In fact, this to and fro is the defining characteristic of the industry. The two sides don’t appear to add up and it’s impossible to know whose telling fibs.
In one of our more extraordinary discoveries, according to the police code of conduct, under certain conditions a police officer is actually allowed to receive masturbatory gratification from a sex worker. Famously, a police officer arrested a sex worker after she had given him no less than 12 handjobs.
The reason is the triads. As mentioned, the police are only interested in sex workers when triads (or illegal immigration) are involved. However to catch a triad a police officer must visit one of their sex workers several times, and to visit a sex worker several times a police officer has to receive several sex acts. It’s just too strange to repeatedly visit a sex worker and not enjoy a service. She will surmise he isn’t a legitimate customer.
Police officers can therefore apply for special permission to get serviced by a sex worker in what is essentially an undercover sting operation against the triads. If you’re one of the ‘lucky’ officers who receives special permission, it’s probably best not to tell your wife about your day.
Sex workers are sadly victims of crime themselves (taking frequent beatings and robberies) but they also occasionally shaft their clients. Every year a number of wealthy tourists report they’ve been drugged and robbed by sex workers, usually with Rohipnol. Between 2005-2007, forty four mostly foreign businessmen filed such reports but the real figure is a lot higher. Many businessmen are simply too embarrassed to report the crimes.
The M.O. in such cases is simple. The sex worker takes the client to an ATM and makes a mental note of his credit card pin. Once in the bedroom, the sex worker drugs the client, takes his card and goes bonkers at various ATMs. She then replaces the card in his wallet and the client only realizes what’s happened when he gets his credit card bill – often once he’s returned to the other side of the world. It’s particularly difficult for the police to solve these crimes when the victim is no longer around.
The sex industry in Hong Kong seems to be a trove of intrigue, injustice, criminality and perhaps even police brutality but for now at least, it seems unlikely to change. The wider public, the government and the police are content with the current situation which means the status quo will be preserved for a while yet. We've just got one word of advice - shield your pin when you're taking out cash.