Abortion Advice, Chinese Nationalism and Karaoke Prostitutes: Hong Kong After Dark
In the heart of Mong Kok, the city comes alive at night. Photos by Kirk Kenny
10pm Temple Street
Under moist tarpaulins along Temple Street, two women are having their fortunes read. Another two sit patiently for theirs. For tarot card reader Brian Wong Man-kam, predicting the future is natural and he doesn’t know how it works. While other card readers languish in wait for customers, his stall thrives. He says it’s because he tells his clients exactly what the cards say—unless the cards say to get an abortion.
Most of Wong’s clients are young women. “A lot of women are wondering if keeping a baby will keep their man,” he says. But even if the cards advise otherwise, “I always tell them to keep it,” Wong says. “I have a strong opinion, I don’t believe in abortions.”
Wong says that these clients are often initially happy when he tells them the cards say to keep the baby. “My role is to give life,” he says. But Wong can still be disappointed: He says most women come back to him with news that they went through with the abortion.
Sometimes, the advice is about getting pregnant. Wong says he once advised a 16-year-old teen mother not to have a second baby—not because of what was in her cards, but because of how he felt.
Wong has been operating successfully on Temple Street for 13 years. He’s making enough that he doesn’t have to supplement his income during the daytime. He says that the tarot card readers along Temple Street “operate in silence.” What he means is that they don’t have licenses from the government to use their plots—instead there is an unspoken agreement that they can operate there. That’s the way it’s been for the 13 years he’s been reading cards.
Near the tarot tents, a mix of voices is butchering what might be Cantonese opera. Under a makeshift tent, a group of elderly men and women passes a microphone back and forth around a state-of-the-art karaoke machine. One of the singers, at least 60 years old, wears a skin-tight neon pink skirt and red lipstick.
We ask about the stall and a friend of the boss’s tells us to take a seat. Her name is Sa and it’s her second time working there as a karaoke companion—she’s paid to sing songs with people. She comes when the boss needs her—she’s worked in another outdoor karaoke tent, right next door, for seven years.
“The government doesn’t make us pay,” she explains. “They let us use it because of cultural heritage. We have a silent agreement,” says Sa, using the same wording as Brian Wong. She adds that these agreements keep out developers from building high-rise mega blocks—and triad-controlled businesses. “This place belongs to us.”
Last night on the job, Sa made a meager $400 singing with clients. They asked her to sing either Cantonese opera or Cantopop—or “Jingle Bells.” “There haven’t been too many weird experiences,” Sa says. “Sometimes there are drunk people, but it’s rare they’re so drunk that they try and touch me. It’s peaceful here.”
But now it’s just before 11pm and a police car pulls up by the curb in front of the tent. A female officer has some words with the boss and everyone hurries to the microphone for just a few more songs. “It’s way too early for them to stop us,” one man tells us, finishing his beer. “The police have a bad attitude. I just don’t like them.”
Drunken voices drown out the karaoke machine amid the rush for the final songs of the night.
“It’s hard to find a good singer these days,” Sa laments.
12:05am Yau Ma Tei Fruit Market
It’s only minutes after midnight at the wholesale fruit market in Yau Ma Tei and the first stalls are just opening for business. Boxes of pomelo block the street. From this 102-year-old market, the rest of Hong Kong’s fruit stalls buy their produce.
For a graying Mr. Yip, who’s been working at the market for 36 years, fruit is political.
“Hongkongers will eat Japanese fruit because they have short memories,” he says. “The Koreans and Taiwanese won’t eat it.”
Mr. Yip is the boss of his own fruit stall. He’s an advocate of Chinese fruit—Xinjiang apples, in particular. He says they get sweeter every year, far eclipsing the quality of American apples. “America’s been interfering too much in China’s problems. There are so many misunderstandings and what the U.S. media covers isn’t true.”
He places a crate of apples onto a freight elevator and paces around. He’s dressed more formally than the others at the market, in smart black slacks and a white button-down shirt. “Even in the fruit market, just like China, we sometimes have arguments,” he says as the freight elevator rises. “China is so big and 56 races are arguing for territory. We can solve this problem by ourselves, so why does the U.S. need to get involved?”
Mr. Yip came to Hong Kong from Dongguan in the 60s, at a time when the fruit market was profoundly different than it is today. Decades ago, it operated during the daytime and also sold meat. The market was an infamous hotbed of illicit activity. Mr. Yip says he was frequently bothered by junkies. Gangsters used to steal his fruit and sell it to hawkers at a reduced price. “But those were the old days,” he says. “Now it’s safe. We have cameras at the shops and thieves don’t come in anymore.”
“I’m still doing business with the Japanese,” Mr. Yip tells us. “But if they continue to deny history, I won’t be happy about that.”
2:15am Portland Street
A neon sign for a gentlemen’s club glows over Portland Street. It’s just after two in the morning in Mong Kok’s red-light district, and there’s barely anyone outside. Karaoke blares through the front door.
We walk inside and a woman greets us immediately. She tells us she’s in charge of the gentlemen’s club and that her name is Mary. She says “thank you and you’re welcome” instead of “thank you” at the end of her sentences. She’s in her 50s, maybe older. Her hair is permed and her lower teeth stained black.
Inside, past a karaoke area, the club is partitioned into tiny rooms. Each door has a glass window in it. Inside, there’s a small L-shaped faux leather couch. It’s $500 for one hour with one of Mary’s girls—that’s just to drink beer and talk, though. Touching, like a massage, will cost $100. Everything else costs an extra $100 to $1,000—Mary runs a sliding price scale.
“Yuli” is one of Mary’s girls. She moved to Hong Kong from Suzhou. She says it was to seek a better life, but she still goes back to Suzhou every holiday. She speaks her native language, Mandarin, and some broken Cantonese. She waves to Mary through the window if she wants to express something more clearly in Cantonese. Yuli says she speaks through Mary—or “mommy,” she calls her—to talk to her western clients.
In spite of Mary, Yuli is happy to give a massage for free. She’ll drink beer, but prefers red wine. And she says she’s happy to do her job. She’s expected to work until eight in the morning, but clients rarely come in that late. She often goes home early and says she doesn’t have to work too hard. The money’s good, she says. And a lot of clients just want to talk.
“They don’t all want sex, sometimes they just drink beer and chat with me,” she says. She does complain, though, that most of her clients aren’t handsome. She prefers body hair, and men in their twenties—uncommon for the men who walk through the club’s door.
At the karaoke area of the club, a man screams into the microphone, wailing lyrics by Beyond. Everyone else covers their ears. Mary sits smoking a cigarette in a leather-clad booth, with a man about her age.
“Thank you and you’re welcome,” she says, as Mong Kok fades into morning.