Red lights dimmed but shine on in seamy Chengdu

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 27 February, 1994, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 27 February, 1994, 12:00am

THE big sign above the door labels the establishment, somewhat ambiguously, as an amusement centre. Step inside, and any uncertainty is quickly dispelled.

On the left, behind clapboard panels, are three sitting rooms with low-slung vinyl sofas and lotus bud-shaped table lights - all bathed in red light.

In the bar, karaoke music plays while a few couples dance and others sit laughing and chatting over drinks. The women, perhaps a score in all, are young, their faces powdered white like geishas.

The men are middle-aged and probably well-heeled, judging less from their attire than by the fact they do not flinch at the high tariffs charged here.

It is mid-winter, and there is no heating, so most people are keeping their overcoats on.

The proprietor, a woman in her fifties with permed hair, a long leather coat, leopard-skin leotards and fuzzy bunny slippers with droopy ears, hardly looks the part, but she is the mamasan. She ushers the men in and out, and helps them select female company.

''She is very good to us,'' a 19-year-old woman confides. ''She provides us with imported condoms.'' The business, in a small town near Chengdu, is flourishing despite numerous crackdowns on prostitution and the rest of the vice trade. The police use sometimes questionable means - when an anti-prostitution campaign is announced, they are often given quotas to fulfil, and arrest women on the flimsiest of evidence. Dating a foreign man, even being his fiancee, can be taken as an excuse for detention by over-zealous policemen.

Officials will ask friends to help them track down suspects. One woman in Beijing who went to the police after being raped was herself arrested for alleged prostitution, apparently to make up numbers. However, such cases are probably the exception, rather than the rule, and no one challenges the assumption that most women picked up for soliciting are indeed breaking the law.

In Sichuan, a recent anti-sin campaign appears to have been fairly successful. The authorities have closed down numerous gambling dens, small versions of Macau-style casinos, according to local residents. And bars in Chengdu no longer provide the sort ofextra services the Government is always railing against.

But prostitution has not been totally eradicated. Some of it has just moved to this a town about an hour's drive from the provincial capital. In the small town mentioned above, the police are less stringent, and local officials more willing to turn a blind eye.

The bar scene here presents a different tableau from the official picture. The official media admits there is prostitution in the country, but tends to link it with coastal cities and foreign clientele. This place is deep in the interior of China, away from most foreigners. Women bar employees say their customers are mostly mainland Chinese, usually big company bosses, and often married. There are about half a dozen hostess bars in the town.

One 20-year-old woman said she graduated from a vocational school in a big Sichuan town. ''Things didn't turn out ideally,'' she said. She wound up at this bar. The men who came here were usually rich, she said. ''If they are looking for a few moments offun, they can find it here, but if they are looking for love, they won't have any success,'' she said.

The 19-year-old, with long hair, wearing a red scarf, flowery vest and rhinestone necklace, is a recent arrival. She will only stay for as long as it takes to clear 8,000 yuan (about HK$7,100). That is the sum she borrowed from a boyfriend to pay for an operation on her mother. Since then, she has broken up with her boyfriend and needs to pay him back fast. Her mother does not know where she is, or what she is doing, and the woman is not going to tell her. ''She is feudalistic in her thinking,'' she said.

''At first I didn't like it, but then I got used to it,'' the woman said of her new job. She said she had a customer practically every night. The going rate for an hour in the karaoke room is 500 yuan. She asks clients to use condoms. If they refuse, shecharges extra. The madam does not allow overnighting because she fears the provincial anti-prostitution campaign may come her way at any time.

For the moment, with campaigns having made prostitution in the provincial capital and other towns dangerous, the bar scene in this small town is booming. But who knows how long the campaign in Chengdu and elsewhere will last? After each drive, family and friends use bribes and other methods to get the women out, the detention centres empty, and the issue is forgotten for a while, until officials decide it is time to crack down again.