The Secret Sex Life of Hong Kong
Three women working in the city's sex industry bare their souls—and their stories couldn't be more different.
When Saanvi started taking estrogen tablets to become a woman, she couldn’t climax for the men who would buy her for an hour. This was a problem for Saanvi—her clients expected her to dominate them sexually, and to come. Why pay for a prostitute who can’t perform? Saanvi kept going with the drugs and kept working, too.
The city’s sex workers don’t have much of a choice.
Vice and Vulnerability
Hong Kong’s laws don’t make prostitution illegal, but that’s not to say that sex work here isn’t criminal. Soliciting sex is illegal. The law also states that it is illegal for more than one prostitute to work on the same premises—sparking a widespread city phenomenon known as the one-woman brothel.
The implications of a one-woman brothel can be hard to stomach. There’s a strong risk of violence—and death—as these sex workers, mostly migrants, are alone in their apartments with potentially abusive or homicidal clients. They aren’t allowed by law to hire security or have another sex worker keep watch.
“These laws make them vulnerable,” says Mabel Au, the director of Amnesty International Hong Kong. She gives the example of the March 2008 killings, when four sex workers were murdered in three days. There are more cases, and it appears that no one is particularly interested in investigating these crimes.
Au recognizes that local efforts to protect sex workers move slowly. Discussions in the legislature about how to provide greater protection in the sex industry are few and far between. Some district councilors, most often around election time, want to eradicate sex work altogether, says Au. “I don’t think a city can make sex work disappear. It’s very natural everywhere,” she says. “Sex workers are also residents—they just have a different business.”
The Local Sector
Sex work in Hong Kong isn’t just for migrants. Local NGO Action For Reach Out works to support women working in the city’s sex industry. According to its most recent report, 2,658 sex workers and their families visited its drop-in center between July 2014 and June 2015: Just short of 85 percent were from Hong Kong, up from 77 percent the year before.
A serious problem for sex workers from the city is that they’ve come out of local schools with no sex education. In Hong Kong, sex education in school is not mandatory—and the type of education, if it’s offered, is at the mercy of the school.
Some girls are so uneducated that they’ve washed their vaginas with Coca-Cola after sex to try and prevent unwanted pregnancies.
Advocacy group Zi Teng is one of the most prominent NGOs representing sex workers in Hong Kong. One of their advocates, who goes by “Miss Lee,” says that “there is not really a law promoting sex education in secondary schools… it’s totally up to the school. We know that some schools won’t talk about sexual behavior in sex education class, and some teachers will only scare the students into not having sex.”
Lam Po-yee, who runs advocacy group Teen’s Key for young women working in the sex industry, says that she’s had girls come to her NGO who were so uneducated that they’ve washed their vaginas with Coca-Cola after sex to try and prevent unwanted pregnancies.
Teen’s Key specializes in helping women under 25 years old and sees a lot of girls who go online to sell their bodies. Before the advent of mobile chat apps, these girls would typically work at night clubs. But now Lam says she gets about 30 new cases a month of these so-called compensated daters, each of whom uses three to five accounts on forums and apps such as WeChat to solicit their services—making the number of compensated daters in Hong Kong impossible to count.
Trans and Trapped
It’s impossible to put a face to Hong Kong sex work—and it can’t be stereotyped by young Hong Kong girls on their iPhones or mainland women in grimy one-room brothels. Eric Sin Man-hon is an advocate for Midnight Blue, an NGO that works with both male and transgender sex workers. He says that transgender sex workers—who are most often migrants from the mainland, Thailand and the Philippines—face especially acute problems. Namely, they feel a need to keep their penis despite their desire to fully transition into women. This need is two-pronged. First, long-standing Asian family traditions that scare them into thinking they must be fathers. Second? Sex workers with breasts and a penis can charge more.
Midnight Blue sees anywhere between 20 and 40 cases of transgender sex workers seeking support every month. Again, the number of these sex workers is impossible to count—they’re either migrant workers, asylum seekers or illegal residents, often leaving as quickly as they came.
For these sex workers, life can become uniquely difficult when they run into problems with the law, says Sin. If they are incarcerated, their heads are shaved and they aren’t allowed their hormones—and if they’re sent back to detention at the Immigration Department, no one knows which cells to put them in. Sin and his colleague, who uses the name “Rain,” say that transgender sex workers detained at immigration have complained of being locked in solitary confinement from seven to 14 days, sometimes longer. There is no window, a light is kept on for 24 hours and they are only allowed 10 minutes outside of the room each day to take a shower.
Rain says that between 2013 and 2015, Midnight Blue recorded the arrests of 37 transgender sex workers. Nine of them are post-operative—they have vaginas—but they were still searched by male correctional officers because of the sex listed on their ID cards. All 37 were sent to psychiatric facilities at some point. They told Rain that their heads were shaved, they were given male uniforms and they had to use the same toilets as male inmates.
Thankfully, that policy might soon change. A judicial review was filed in January 2015 to challenge the detention policies of transgender prisoners, spurred by the June 2014 experiences of a 20-year-old transgender woman sentenced on drug charges. The woman alleges that she was examined by male doctors while correctional officers stood by and ridiculed her, that the hormones she’d been taking since she was 12 were cut off, causing her to grow an Adam’s Apple, and that she’d undergone a string of sexual assaults while being detained in police stations and correctional facilities. The lawyer handling the case, Patricia Ho, says a substantive hearing is scheduled for August 8.
Read More: Abuse, Assault and No Hormones: Transgender Woman's Allegations Challenge Prison Policy
These are the stories of three Hong Kong sex workers: Xiao, Lilly and Saanvi. Their names have been changed for their protection.
Prostitute at 35
When Xiao sees her ex-husband and two little children on Sundays, she talks about her exhausting week selling wedding dresses. She recalls busy days of white lace and white smiles. She makes girls’ dreams come true.
But Xiao’s never told her family that she works at a foot massage parlor. She’s never told her 10 and 6-year-old that those foot massages turn into sex. She’s never told her ex-husband that since their divorce two years ago, she’s become a full-time sex worker.
For Xiao, working in bridal fashion is a fantasy—and on Sundays, with her family, she lives the life that she wants to live.
“The worst part about men is that they’re ma fan [troublesome],” say Xiao, speaking from a dingy apartment in Mong Kok that doubles as an NGO office and a makeshift health clinic. The walls are lined with condoms on strings and anatomical charts of vaginas.
“Work is no good. Men are no good. They’re too demanding.” —Xiao, 35, prostitute
Xiao is from Dongguan, China’s notorious sex capital—just over the border in Guangdong province, where the Chinese government has been cracking down on spas and brothels. There she worked in a hotel concierge, cleaning and making coffee. Xiao moved to Hong Kong with her husband 10 years ago—“It’s money, money,” she says, “we came here for money.” She worked again at a concierge and life was relatively good, until the divorce. That’s when, at 35 years old, Xiao became a prostitute.
The parlor she works at doesn’t explicitly advertise sex. “I work there from noon to 10 at night, Monday to Saturday,” Xiao says. “My boss, he brings men upstairs from the parlor and I take turns with the other girls,” she tells me. “But sometimes work is no good. Men are no good. They’re too demanding.”
Xiao shares a tiny apartment with another woman, not far from where she works in Kowloon. She might pull in $10,000 in a good month. But while Xiao keeps up a girly effervescence, one subject roils her—her eyes turn red and she retreats into herself.
She says that the police scare her when they raid the massage parlor, lining women up, pointing at their heads and demanding to know where their boss is. “When we say that we don’t know where he is, the police officers insult us.”
But today, dealing with the police is not her top priority. She’s looking for another profession and a way to support her children. Xiao is certainly conscious of her age—and that her job at the parlor has an expiration date. She gives it two more years.
“I would do fashion if I could do something different,” she says. “Right now it’s all work. I don’t have time to sleep and I don’t have time eat. I don’t have happiness.”
Punters on the Phone
It’s surprising to see that the girl sitting on the couch of another one-room NGO is a Hong Konger. Lilly is 23 years old but the tiny patches of rosy acne on her cheeks make her look like a teenager. Legally an adult but with the appearance of a girl, she’s the perfect candidate for compensated dating.
Lilly is a quiet rebel. She was kicked out of secondary school in the New Territories at 19 for being difficult—not showing up, not studying—and she cops a little bit of an attitude with me, too, answering only what she feels like answering, with a soft voice and a smile.
Lilly is in touch with her mother, who still lives in the New Territories, but who has no idea that she is a sex worker. Lilly will never tell her, either. Mom thinks that she makes milk tea at a restaurant, which is what Lilly did for almost a year, at 21. But, like high school, she just couldn’t hold it down.
Faced with the challenge of making an income when she realized school was no longer an option, Lilly scoured the internet and saw that girls her age were posting on local internet chat forums, selling their time by the hour. She copied their profiles, added her own picture, and left her MSN Messenger handle.
“The first time I went on a date, the guy was so ordinary. We met at a train station so that it would be safe. We went to have sex and it only took him 15 minutes. I left after that and it cost him $1,000,” Lilly says. At the time, she had just moved out of her mother’s to live with her boyfriend—who also didn’t know about her new job. They’re broken up now, but she won’t say why, or if she has a new one.
“I make my own money, and I don’t take it from the government.” —Lilly, 23, compensated dater
Lilly says she’d never take money just to accompany a man—maybe dinner and a movie—without sex. Those compensated daters make just $100 an hour. Money is important to Lilly, whose only days off are when she gets her period.
Times have changed since Lilly started out. The days of having to use internet chat clients has been left behind for the convenience of WeChat, WhatsApp and Line—that’s where she fields punters now, from her mobile phone. But with the digital revolution has come a serious challenge for Lilly.
“Pok gai [drop dead],” Lilly sighs. “All the cops in Hong Kong, pok gai.”
Lilly doesn’t meet new clients anymore—she only uses repeat clients, “stable,” she calls them—because a few years ago she was arrested by the police during an undercover sting. A cop pretended he was a punter and, when he met Lilly in the lobby of a hotel, cuffed her and brought her to the police station. There’s a legal argument that soliciting sex on the internet could be interpreted as soliciting in a public place, and therefore illegal in Hong Kong.
She was held for hours in a freezing room until a cop finally came with confession papers to sign. Lilly says she didn’t understand what she was signing. An NGO advised her to pay the fines handed down by the court: She couldn’t afford a drawn-out legal battle. Lilly is a five-foot-tall convicted criminal.
Lilly isn’t happy with her work, although she says she enjoys talking to her clients. But she hates the sex and she doesn’t know what she’ll do next. For now, she’s volunteering with an advocacy group that helps sex workers keep on top of their STD checks. Sex work shouldn’t be stigmatized, Lilly thinks—and working against this deeply ingrained Hong Kong mentality is important to her. “I make my own money, and I don’t take it from the government,” she says. There’s a long-standing stigma against those who apply for social welfare: Lilly’s a Hongkonger, after all.
Read More: Abortion Advice, Chinese Nationalism and Karaoke Prostitutes: Hong Kong After Dark
Pressure for Premarin
Womanhood is relatively new to Saanvi. Back in South Asia, she knew she was a gay man. But in her traditional hometown, where she worked in a hotel, she had a dangerous brush with religious radicalism that threatened her life. She eventually made her way to Hong Kong, where she explored hormone therapy to make her dream of becoming a woman come true.
She found an unlicensed Filipina nurse, also an illegal resident like Saanvi, to shape her breasts for $8,000 and later fill them with injections for $1,000—six times. She gets hormones from her “gay friends,” she says. Today, Saanvi has full breasts and a penis.
“Sometimes, people on the train point and call me a man. I say, ‘yes, and I have a very big dick. It’s bigger than yours,’” laughs Saanvi.
Saanvi came to Hong Kong seeking asylum. Her first asylum claim—that she was a victim of torture—was denied, and she started over again. The process has become so long and convoluted that Saanvi has forgotten what legal grounds her current claim is based on. She knows that she will never return home for fear of her life—and her mother has never seen her as a woman. Saanvi tells her mother that she doesn’t make enough money to afford a phone or computer with a camera when they use Skype to communicate. Her mother will never know, she says. Saanvi still sends her money.
That fear from her hometown even now follows Saanvi—sometimes, she realizes that she’s deeply afraid to tell her friends here in Hong Kong that she’s transgender, despite it being obvious. “They knew I was different at home because of the way I spoke,” she says. “I spoke like a woman and they could tell.”
“Clients want to bottom for the lady boy.” —Saanvi
But despite her identity, Saanvi has no plans to transition fully into a woman. She wants to keep her penis. Her penis is her moneymaker.
“Clients prefer it—otherwise, they wouldn’t get a lady boy. Clients want to bottom for the lady boy,” she says—they want her to do the penetrating. “They don’t like the operation.”
Saanvi’s been arrested twice; both times she went to prison. And prison proved highly problematic for Saanvi. She wasn’t allowed her hormones, which took a toll on both her mental and physical health. The second time she was incarcerated, a psychiatrist intervened with an evaluation and Saanvi was sent to a psychiatric facility for the rest of her sentence. She says she spent most of her time there in solitary confinement, and again she wasn’t allowed her hormones.
Because Saanvi’s asylum case is pending, by law she’s not allowed to work. She’s driven to sex work by her need to buy Premarin estrogen tablets—and crystal meth, which keeps her awake when she works. Sometimes a punter will recognize that she’s high on ice—and she’ll sell him $500 worth for $1,000. “It’s never been about sex,” she says. “It’s about the money.”
Saanvi has just started a profile on Tinder, a possible route to settling down in a relationship, perhaps even transitioning out of sex work. In her profile photo she’s wearing a traditional dress from her home country. But “if someone on Tinder is not going to pay me and just masturbate to my pictures, then I’m not going to give them my time,” Saanvi says. She might not be ready for a traditional relationship just yet.