Losing sex appeal? The future of Hong Kong’s red light districts
Hong Kong’s red light districts are being reinvented as upmarket, hipster town centres and might not serve as visible trading bases for sex within the next decade, support workers and academics have said.
Combined with the growth of the online sex trade, gentrification of some of the city’s main nightlife bar districts – Wan Chai, Lan Kwai Fong and Tsim Sha Tsui – is being cited as a driving force behind the trend.
Wan Chai, a base for Hong Kong’s sex workers since the early 1900s, was recently thrust into the spotlight during the high-profile double murder trial of British banker Rurik Jutting, jailed for life last month for killing Indonesian women Sumarti Ningsih and Seneng Mujiasih, whom he met in the district’s bars.
Following the shocking details of the trial, commentators predicted Hong Kong’s sex industry would move underground as the government and others sought to burnish the city’s standing as “Asia’s World City” and one of the safest places on earth.
They suggest areas such as Wan Chai, where an estimated 600,000 people visit daily for work or recreation, will eventually start to memorialise its red light district as part of the city’s cultural heritage, taking inspiration from the Dutch capital Amsterdam.
Professor Brian King of Polytechnic University’s school of hotel and tourism management said Wan Chai’s “brashness” would continue to decline as the full effects of gentrification took hold.
He said the district would see a decline in the number of revellers seeking out prostitutes in bars as more people instead opted to meet prospective sexual partners online.
“[The sex industry] there is not really going to be a week-long activity any more, in the age of the internet,” he said. “Sailors will still come and go to Wan Chai, as they have done throughout history. But the overall seediness of the area will start to disappear with new businesses coming in, and we are seeing the beginnings of that now.”
Meanwhile Dr JJ Zhang, an assistant professor in the geography department at the University of Hong Kong who specialises in tourism, said the gentrification of Wan Chai meant some sex workers would find it increasingly expensive to operate there.
He said the Jutting murders had “shed light on the underbelly of Hong Kong’s society”, which the government would be keen to replace in observers’ minds with an image of a world-class city.
“We may see a change in the prostitution landscape in Hong Kong,” he said. “It could shift to a more freelance operation, considering the advent of internet and social media advertising platforms.”
Sex work in Hong Kong
An estimated 20,000 sex workers operate both part-time and full-time in Hong Kong within any given month, according to non-profit organisation Zi Teng, which has provided support services for them over the last two decades. The total number of sex workers operating locally could be as many as 500,000, the organisation suggests, although it admits this is a “loose estimate”. The figure includes women offering sexual services in the city’s infamous massage parlours and those participating in compensated dating, in which women receive gifts in exchange for sexual favours. Prostitution is legal if it merely involves a monetary transaction between a sex worker and a client. But brothels are illegal.
The majority of migrant sex workers in Hong Kong are from the mainland, while a smaller proportion are from Thailand, the Philippines and Indonesia, according to Zi Teng. A much smaller proportion hail from African and eastern European countries, and even fewer are locally born Hong Kong women. Zi Teng also said the New Territories is home to a high concentration of one-woman brothels in which sex workers rent their own room and can work legally if they work alone and for themselves. Street walkers often target poorer districts in Kowloon, such as Sham Shui Po. Meanwhile, some women advertise their services online before meeting a customer for sex in a “love hotel” at various locations across the city. Rooms at such hotels can be rented by the hour.
Many prostitutes are trapped in a cycle of debt. Some have been trafficked here by triad gangs who promise them work in Hong Kong. The gangs reportedly withhold their passports until they pay off the debt. But the police have previously denied that prostitutes are being brought to the city and held against their will. They contend most of the city’s prostitutes are working alone, although officers will occasionally raid apartment blocks where they are based and arrest them for immigration violations.
Wandering the streets of Wan Chai
Prostitutes in Wan Chai, many of whom are from the Philippines, are known to be informally enlisted by some bar owners to entice customers. Under the arrangement, they receive a commission for every drink that is bought. Still, the bars continue to display signs prohibiting customers from soliciting sex for money on the premises.
Amazonia, Dusk Till Dawn, Joe Bananas and Typhoon – some of Wan Chai’s most popular watering holes where sex workers are known to congregate – did not respond to the Post’s requests to comment for this article.
Zi Teng volunteer Wing Pang said the city’s sex industry would never vanish but it might increasingly go underground and become less visible with the rise of social media.
“The biggest problem for us is information cannot be sent to them,” she said. “So we cannot always contact them if they need help.”
Pang predicted the gentrification of red light districts such as Wan Chai would likely result in a “higher class” of escort congregating there, charging higher prices as the area attracts ever affluent customers. She estimated those escorts might be able to charge up to HK$3,000 per hour, while prostitutes at one-woman brothels in Sham Shui Po would be restricted to charging about HK$800 per customer due to a less affluent customer base.
In addition, Dr Zhang predicted there would be an “increased clampdown on illegal prostitution and more stringent requirements” both in legal and health terms.
“As such, we can envisage a shrinkage of red light districts as a whole, but a higher concentration in one or two locations,” he said.
City of contrasts
Observers suggest Wan Chai has become increasingly divided into “seedy” and “non-seedy” areas, with Lockhart Road markedly contrasting with Hennessy Road and Queen’s Road East.
Professor King highlighted progressive planning initiatives in foreign cities such as Sydney, where politicians were trying to help ensure there was a more “vibrant and inclusive atmosphere”. But he said real change would come from better town planning, not just marketing.
“Rather than the image, I feel that it’s about managing the precinct,” he said. “There is a certain clustering effect in Hong Kong’s red light districts. The brash bars with noisy entertainment tend to cluster together.
“Overcoming violent incidents is about more than branding. It’s about providing convincing reassurance that places are safe. Such changes involve policing and licensing, as well as branding.”
Former stalwarts of Wan Chai’s bar scene on Lockhart Road, such as the Old China Hand pub, have closed down in recent years as rising rents crippled businesses and revellers opted for more upmarket venues.
Laetitia Roueaut, bar manager at Mahalo Tiki Lounge on Queen’s Road East, said her business was deliberately positioned away from Lockhart Road when it was opened last year to attract a different clientele.
She said the district’s gentrification over the last few years had undoubtedly helped make the bar a more viable business.
“Mahalo is somewhere people can go and relax,” she said. “We consider ourselves to be the tropical side of Wan Chai. We have about 50 per cent locals and 50 per cent expats, some young professionals but some tourists. We don’t get any troublemakers.”
Roueaut said she regularly meets informally with other bar owners and managers working in and around the Hopewell Centre to discuss ways to boost trade.
Upgrading red light districts
Commenting on its promotion of Wan Chai, a Tourism Board spokeswoman said the group preferred to promote activities and a “diverse experience” across “the whole district”.
She said its particular areas of interest included Tai Yuen Street, also known as Toy Street, and the district’s wet markets such as Bowrington Road.
She added the board preferred to tout nightlife activities across Hong Kong rather than focussing on specific Wan Chai night spots.
“Regarding nightlife spots, the Tourism Board promotes a host of nightlife experiences that a visitor can find across Hong Kong such as bars with different themes, night tours, late-night dining, and night markets,” she said.
None of Wan Chai’s district councillors responded to the Post’s requests for comment, nor did Paul Tse Wai-chun, the Legislative Council representative for tourism.
Reinventing Lan Kwai Fong
Meanwhile, over in Lan Kwai Fong, better known in the city as Hong Kong’s central party hub than a red light district, the effects of gentrification are sinking in. An increasing number of higher end establishments have opened following a revamp of the California Tower in 2014, which many saw as a cornerstone of the area.
Founder Allan Zeman said he had not deliberately sought to overhaul the district’s image, but was responding to market demands when bringing in new and more upmarket businesses.
“In 35 years, I have seen it evolve and change,” he said, adding that it was necessary to adapt to the times. “Some businesses do not change, they do not step up to the plate and then they go out of business.”
He added that he did not consider sex workers to be a major issue in the area.
“My office overlooks the main strip, and I never see them,” he said. “If it was a problem, then we have good relationships with the police. They are doing a good job of keeping the area safe.”