YOUNG girls - some just six years old - are being forced to make a living singing songs for Hong Kong tourists and businessmen on the streets of Shenzhen. Working in pairs, they trawl nightspots popular with visitors from the SAR, begging them to pick a song and then perform for as little as five yuan (HK$4.40). Most of the modern-day street urchins - who work seven nights a week - come from one of the mainland's poorest provinces, Anhui, and earn as little as 100 yuan a month, a sizeable chunk of which goes to their bosses. 'It's Dickensian for little girls to go out in the streets to make money like that,' said Chinese University sociologist Ben Ku Hok-bun. 'It's a product of economic reform. The phenomenon disappeared after the communists took over but now it has reappeared.' Despite the mainland's Compulsory Education Act of 1986, which specified that every child should get nine years' free education, many of the girls have not even finished primary school. 'I used to want to go to university, but I don't think about it any more,' one girl said, adding she had no plans for her future. The city centre's Nanhu Bazaar is where most of the girls make their living. 'Visitors pay them because they like to be surrounded and entertained by girls when they are enjoying their supper,' said a stall owner. Most of the customers are wealthy visitors from Hong Kong or local businessmen. Most of the girls spoken to by the Sunday Morning Post were from poverty-stricken villages in Anhui, a 10-hour train journey from the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone. The only way many Anhui families can make ends meet is to send their children south - and singing is the latest path out of their plight. In one remote village, 60 per cent of the girls had left home to sing in cities like Shenzhen and Wuhan. 'I'm so tired. I don't want to sing, but if I don't sing here, my parents and my little brother at home will starve,' said a girl who claimed to be 14 but looked much younger. 'If we don't work, where can we get the money?' For most, it is the first time they have left home and they quickly come under the control of bosses, also from Anhui, who have been in Shenzhen for some time and know the streets. To show their 'appreciation', the girls have to surrender their pay at the end of each night and are given a salary at the end of the month. Older girls earn more. 'They don't have to sing, they just need to go to karaoke with their clients and they can earn $400 to $500 a night,' said a 10-year-old girl. Some teenagers have given up singing and work in night clubs, according to waiters working at the bazaar, a move often leading to prostitution. Professor Cecilia Chan Lai-wan, dean of the social sciences faculty at Hong Kong University and a council member of the Save the Children Fund, said the girls' plight was upsetting and she feared they might end up in the sex trade. 'They are vulnerable. Left unprotected on the street, I don't know what will happen to them,' Professor Chan said. Despite many community programmes in remote mountainous areas to help the poor, non-governmental concern groups are not operating in the Shenzhen city centre. 'They are very defensive over socially stigmatised problems. There is the problem of shame - they don't like to get too close to issues like Aids, the sex trade, child prostitution and juvenile begging,' Professor Chan said. In addition, the mainland has no professional social workers and its welfare system is not well established. When the Post approached the Shenzhen authorities for their views on the street girls, a spokesman said: 'I am not authorised to answer your questions and you don't have the right to ask.'