Inside the secret workings of the cross-border sex trade

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 11 December, 2002, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 11 December, 2002, 12:00am

Prostitution industry insiders have given the South China Morning Post an unprecedented insight into the way women and girls are trafficked into Hong Kong.

A member of a vice syndicate boasted of the ruses used to get the prostitutes across the border. He told how a 15-year-old mainland girl was forced to go without sleep for several nights because her bosses feared she looked too young. The girl successfully got into Hong Kong on the visa of a 19-year-old girl after the sleep deprivation.

Such prostitutes are brought in on two-way permits bought from corrupt officials in remote western provinces, the syndicate members say. The visas are issued officially and stamped by local authorities but carry the personal data of other people.

The vice syndicate member said once they got the visas from their middleman who carried out the deal with the officials, the gang would train the girls for several days on how to answer questions from the mainland Customs and Hong Kong immigration officers correctly.

'The girls must memorise their new names, new birthdays and new addresses. They must know what their horoscope is, what their 'home town' looks like and what the area codes for long-distance phone calls there are,' the man said.

A 30-year-old middleman from Guangxi said girls who failed the border checks would be severely punished after being sent back. He said such failure not only meant a monetary loss for the gang, but sometimes could result in the corrupt officials being exposed.

The girls are sometimes forced to pay thousands of dollars in compensation to the gang.

'If the visa issued by the same officer gets rejected too many times, the officer will attract attention. That will put him in danger and we may lose the contact forever,' the man said.

He said 'meticulous planning' was required to get a girl into Hong Kong.

The head of another vice syndicate, who called himself Mr Lam, said that in desperate situations, the gang would simply try to bribe the mainland Customs officers.

'The mainland side is easy. You usually need to pay $6,000 each time. But Hong Kong immigration officers are impregnable. So we have to time our border-crossing well. Usually we choose public holidays when their workload is extremely heavy,' Lam said.

The man from the other gang echoed his view. 'During the peak hours, an immigration officer has to clear dozens of mainland visitors. If the visitor has no trouble passing the mainland side, the Hong Kong officer won't pay too much attention to her,' he said.

Last year 6,975 visitors were refused entry at various border checkpoints for 'visa reasons', according to the Immigration Department. That figure reached 5,691 in the first nine months of this year.

The boss said that in the past, syndicates would get girls into Hong Kong by replacing the picture on a real visa with a photograph of the girl they wanted to smuggle in.

'This kind of visa is called a 'chop-head visa'. But ever since the Immigration Department introduced a machine which checks if the visa has been tampered with, this no longer works,' said the boss.

A spokesman for the Immigration Department said they purchased a video spectral comparator in early 2000 from the Dutch National Criminal Intelligence Service. The state-of-the-art machine compares documents against high quality colour images of genuine travel documents from over 198 countries.

Lam said that since the introduction of the machine, his syndicate had started to buy visas directly from mainland officials.

'The visas we use now are never tampered with,' he said. 'Technically they are real, except the information inside is false.'

The gang would usually have several middlemen working for them in different provinces, he said.

'That way, if there is a crackdown in one province, we can still get visas from another. For example, visas issued by officers in Guangxi used to be popular, but now the officials have attracted too much attention and have to lie low. We have to get our visas from Hubei instead,' Lam said.

The boss said many girls had sneaked into Hong Kong as illegal immigrants in the past. However, after the governments on both sides reached agreement in January to relax the entry requirements for mainland visitors, many now choose to come in through the front door.

'If the girl is smuggled in [as an illegal immigrant], she has to be kept inside the house and never allowed to go out. If arrested, a visa-holder only needs to serve 40 days of imprisonment, while an illegal immigrant has to face a 10-month jail sentence,' Lam said.

A 19-year-old mainland prostitute called Shiu, who has visited Hong Kong twice to work in brothels, said that on each occasion she had used a passport that carried someone else's personal data. 'Getting a Hong Kong visa is not difficult. You just need to learn how to answer the immigration officers correctly. The checks are quite lax,' she said.

Lam also claimed the vice raids carried out by Hong Kong police are welcomed by mainland public security officers who take the opportunity to 'milk the same cow twice'.

'Public security officers are the biggest winners. Each time a girl is sent back, we have to pay $3,000 to $4,000 to ransom them back from the Lowu border checkpoints,' he said.

'Try doing a background check on those mainland officers. They all have cars, houses and kept women. How can a mainland public servant afford such a luxurious lifestyle?'

Lam claimed the trade was so lucrative that even a small gang could make hundreds of thousands of dollars in a few months. 'That's why there are so many bosses out there. Everyone wants to have a share,' Lam said.

The girls come from all over China. A 'chick-head' - the equivalent of a talent scout - would recruit girls from remote areas such as Harbin, Xinjiang and Xishuangbanna in Yunnan province.

Lam said most chick-heads were opportunists who happened to know girls willing to come to Hong Kong.

The chick-head gets $3,000 for each successful recruit. Some may also take a cut from the girl's income in future.

A chick-head from Hubei said that with tens of millions of people jobless on the mainland, he had no problem finding girls willing to try a trip to Hong Kong. 'Most of the girls will send money back to their village or hometown once they get their money. Many are the breadwinner for the family. My wife used to make $30,000 a trip. Of course she has quit now,' the man claimed.

A gang member said choosing the right chick-head was a crucial part in their business.

'Some girls are abducted from remote villages. If you take these girls in, you risk your life.

'If you are caught running a vice syndicate, you get a few years' imprisonment, but if you are caught kidnapping and forcing girls to work as prostitutes, a life sentence is the most lenient you can expect,' the gang member said.

'That's why we always ask the girl if she knows what she is going to do in Hong Kong, and if she makes the decision, it is of her own free will,' he added.