Tougher laws for sex bars

KARAOKE bars employing underage girls as prostitutes will be brought to heel under planned changes to legislation that controls public entertainment, it was revealed last night.

A Government inter-departmental working group is studying amendments to the Places of Public Entertainment Ordinance that would effectively force vice-related karaoke bars out of business.

Public disquiet over the recent upsurge in vice connected with the clubs has prompted the establishment of the group.

The present entertainment ordinance does not define karaoke bars as places of public entertainment - allowing unscrupulous operators to run them outside the law that controls safety standards at concerts and musical shows.

It is hoped that by making karaoke bars subject to the same stringent fire and structural conditions as other places of entertainment the unscrupulous operators will be priced out of business.

The group, comprising police officers, representatives from the Recreation and Culture Branch and the Urban Services and Social Welfare Departments, is also examining other measures, but is expected to decide on a final plan by October.

Group chairman, the Recreation and Culture Branch's principal assistant secretary (development and entertainment), Olivia Nip Sai-lin, believes they will recommend the amendments be implemented.

Miss Nip said the Government had been planning to update the 74-year-old ordinance since 1990.

''Our major aim is to update the definition of entertainment under the ordinance. Karaoke bars are one new form of entertainment we are considering to include as a kind of public entertainment so that we can bring in relevant fire and structural safety rules to control them.'' She said the amendments might attach additional conditions to the issuing of karaoke bar licences.

''We believe that the amendments could be introduced to the Legislative Council in the coming Legislative year,'' Miss Nip said.

She said they were also looking at ways to make future updating of the ordinance more easy if syndicates were to introduce another form of vice-related entertainment.

The hundreds of karaoke bars across the territory now need only business and company registrations to operate.

But senior police sources doubted whether legislation alone was enough to eradicate the problem.

''At the moment, the working group is looking at various possible measures, anything that could stop the multiplying of this new vice business.

''If there are stringent rules to be satisfied, I trust that operators will treasure their licences if they are genuine karaoke operators. But if they are conducting vice activities, they could easily change their mode of business,'' one police source said.

But legitimate karaoke bar operators received the news with mixed reactions.

The supervisor of 168 Karaoke in Aberdeen, Lai Ka-hon, welcomed the move because it would force the ''bad boys'' out of business.

''It would also raise the safety standards of many of these clubs in Hong Kong, but I suppose those syndicates would turn to other avenues to continue their vice activities,'' he added.

An operator in Tsim Sha Tsui was concerned that more stringent regulations might put pressure on legitimate businesses.

''They might end up hitting the wrong people,'' he said.

In the meantime, police in the four districts most affected by the sex for sale bars - Yau Tsim, Mongkok, Shamshuipo and Kowloon City - will look at a number of interim measures.

One anti-vice officer said they would co-ordinate with other relevant government departments.

''If the problem worsens in the coming weeks, we might have to take a multi-agency approach, that is asking Fire Services, Lands Department or Health Department to jointly clamp down on their operations.

''This approach could allow us to pick on their fire safety standards, their structural and hygiene standards. If they run into so many operational obstacles every day, I believe it will to a certain extent affect their businesses. Our aim is to make it very difficult and very unpleasant for them to carry on,'' he explained.

There are up to 200 bars in the four districts and about one-third of them are believed to serve as facades for gangs to offer sex with underage girls, some as young as 12.

Police sources said a small number of girls were tricked into selling their bodies.

''Although there have been tales about how willing many of these girls are in offering sex for customers, some are very naive about the nature of the business and truly believe they could just do the PR job,'' the source said.

''There were cases in which young girls were forced to sleep with customers to repay hefty loans. Say if the girl is to get an advance before starting off work, she will in return have to work for an agreed number of hours.'' The source said the police also hoped to attack the sex-for-sale karaoke business by charging them with loansharking.