Bomborra Media
Hong Kong Before the Handover

Published on Mar 14, 1998 by Luke Hunt

Cover Image
Love is a Many Splendoured Thing was a fitting 1950s Hollywood tribute to romance. Hong Kong war correspondent falls in love with local girl. He dies. She cries. A decade later, Honkers is a Cold War transit lounge where boy spy meets girl spy, they sleep together then part. Now it’s The Kong and Luke Hunt tries to explain.

Rosie doesn’t see herself as a whore, after all she is discerning. The term prostitute is equally insulting and Rosie is uncomfortable. She fidgets – and with some pride proclaims: “I’m a barfly.”

Indeed, she is the classic barfly, which in The Kong has its own peculiar definition, and is the last line in a game that is structured by the local rackets and sanitized by Asian values. Filipino, reasonably educated and at 19-years-old she is what the German expat shouts from above the techno music; “very fucking horny” and “good at sports”.

Of course it’s late, and the nightlife in Wanchai is bristling with drunks, drugs and hard-up Westerners. By 4:00 am the stench of rotting garbage has fused with the humidity and heat. Down Lockhart Road, the incense wafers across the street where scores of brothels disguise themselves as nightclubs.

Outside toothless women hustle, they offer discount beer as a lure and a “pretty lady” if you care. One-by-one, and in groups of seven and eight, they file through the velvet curtains in search of the thrill.

British novelist Richard Mason glorified the prostitute with his 1950s account of Suzie Wong. He died in 1996 having never returned to his version of the exotic Far East. Two visits, the last in the early 1960s, were enough for Mason who feared the latter-day version of Wanchai would spoil his romantic vision of life and sin in a British colony.
It was a convenient excuse.

Life does change but the reality is Hong Kong has always measured prosperity by the number flies that swarm the rubbish — supply — against the number of prostitutes — demand. It’s all about money and getting as much of it as fast as you can in the world’s most celebrated consumer society. In any city prostitution is about as accessible as a tea bag.

Where Hong Kong differs is in the marketing and Rosie’s concept of a barfly stems largely from Chinese attitudes to sex which blurs the line between prostitute and concubine.
This is somehow more comfortable because Rosie says she is a Catholic.

Wanchai is not Bangkok’s infamous Pat Pong Road. The girls here do not turn tricks with razor blades or ping pong balls with the same flair as a Romanian gymnast.

In fact, on first sight they appear tame. Some tunes, polished mirrors and a small stage — where the girls perform a disco routine, clad in lingerie that never comes off. Mamasan can charge $45 HKD a beer for starters, and except for that who could really complain?

The recipe underpinning this industry carries historical attitudes, beguiling Chinese contradictions which say girls are useless unless sex is involved.

There is a quant Chinese definition for taking a virgin. Seducing a 13-year-old girl is ‘trying the flower’ a year later it is ‘gathering the flower’. Polite enough for a medieval dictionary, perhaps, and then there’s the Chinese proverb: “Ten fine girls can not equal one crippled boy.”

Prostitutes in China have never been treated with the same contempt as their counterparts in the West. As the lowest of the low the mui stai simply share their status with other women whose importance is garnered from the men they keep. On the mainland the communists have banned vice but traditions remain and especially flourish where Western capitalism has conspired with Asian characteristics.

It provides an easy cover for Rosie. As a typical Filipino her background is Christianity of the Latin American brand and her society’s mores are strict in defining a whore. Being a prostitute at home is out of the question. Besides the relatives are always around the corner and the local church is down the road will take a dim view.

Why risk the embarrassment and it’s such a dirty business. But you can be a dancer and live as a barfly in Hong Kong on a short-term contract. Do it sort of legally, without moral posturing and at a safe distance from home. Perfect!

She tells Rev the same story she told her mum. Rosie was hired by an agent in Manila on a six month contract as a dancer (no nudity) in Hong Kong. Food and lodgings are provided; she works a six-day week and is promised a small fortune from tips. The money she makes will enable her to complete a university education, set up a small business of her own, or make big inroads in alleviating her family’s Kong.

Food and lodgings are Importantly, if Rosie decides she wants a boyfriend then this is at her discretion, therefore she rationalizes that she can not be a prostitute. However, the gulf between Rosie and the outside world is tremendous.

Most people can only peer into Rosie’s life and make assumptions. It’s a zone where the saying “don’t knock it till you’ve tried it” doesn’t really stand up. At this level it’s not about bored housewives dabbling on the side, it is about very young girls from genuinely poor backgrounds whose fate rests solely on the ability of a system to exploit their sexuality.

In the outside world is Mylinh Lee, an Australian girl who admits to being a feminist when it suits her. Vietnamese born of Chinese parents she works as a communications consultant in Hong Kong. Her heritage is important only because tedious stereotyping means horny cab drivers and drunken businessmen will assume she works the street, if she stands on a Wanchai corner for more than five minutes.

They don’t see her background, Sunday at the football in Melbourne, cricket at the MCG, beach barbecues, a loving family and a good job.

She believes for a girl to become a prostitute is to bounce across the last line of life. It is certainly not on her agenda. “Sex is like survival, it’s for procreation but for a woman it can mean children or the next meal, it’s like a commodity and most women have fantasised about it, particularly when they come out of a bad relationship which was based solely on sex.

“They can be emotionally numbed and say to themselves, why not make money out of it and some con themselves that this is a win win situation.

“But once you cross that line something inside you must effectively break, you turn your back on all previous relationships and what has made you what you are and then you open up on a new level, one where relationships are based solely on strangers, and you lose the sense of who you are. Life becomes a series of snapshots, a photo album where the present is captured but there’s no real link to the past or future. There is no background, no substance and I think that is very sad.”

Mylinh’s perspective is important because it is honest and encompasses a subject where the lines of political correctness have taken hold. It’s not cool to sledge a working girl but hey if there’s nothing wrong with it says Dan Boylan how come I don’t want my mother or sister working as a whore.

“If I had a daughter and she had the slightest thought of becoming a prostitute, why is it that I’d want to throw a chastity belt on her and lock her up for 30 years. There’s something inside you that says there’s something wrong but you can’t really say it’s wrong.”

Across the border they keep coming. The Pearl River Delta has four cities where the industry thrives. In Macau Russian blonds are traded by the mafia in Vladivostok with local triads. Guangzhou at the tip of the Delta provides a beachhead for mainland girls, from there the destination is often the frontier town of Shenzhen where Chinese girls are prepared as industry rivals for Rosie and the Russians in the old European colonies.

The promise is to makes a year’s pay in just two weeks, however, some will stay in Shenzhen where the concept of the concubine is being reinvented and become mistresses or second wives to Hong Kong truck drivers who ferry through several times a week.

Shenzhen is a mad house. The streets are lined with barber shops that double as brothels and dentistry’s which deliver capped teeth with the speed and finesse of a McDonald’s restaurant. The agenda of a future mainland prostitute is always to work in the rich cities of Hong Kong or Macau. Once in Shenzhen they work in the barber shops (with no scissors) offering a haircut, a massage, and a blow job for the locals. But the biggest problem is their teeth.

A calcium deficient diet leaves them stained and slightly tanslucent which betrays their rural mainland background and provides an easy tell for wary customs officers. Once they’ve saved enough money a shoddy dentist will cap them.

Between Hong Kong’s New Territories and Shenzhen lies a filthy river. It serves as the no-mans land which divides poverty and promised riches. The strip is heavily fortified, and the gun towers and razor wire tell the locals they are not welcome. In the days of Richard Mason, Shenzhen was a sleepy fishing village of a few thousand, today its population of four million stretch resources and frustrate the authorities who have been charged with the impossible task of holding China’s poorest at the gates of Hong Kong. 

As Boylan, who has written on the region since his days at the Tiananmen Square massacre puts it: No one was born here, everyone is from somewhere else, 10 years ago the local language was Cantonese now it’s Mandarin.”

Fake passports or travel documents inevitably result in thousands sneaking through. It’s only a five minute walk from the barber shop to customs and then a two minute walk across the river where a train will deliver its passengers to Central station within an hour. Girls can also bribe two-way permit visas from local officials which allow them a short visit but legally they are not allowed to work.

Enter author Kate Whitehead who has lived in Hong Kong since the 1970s and recently published After Suzie: Sex in South China. She does not complain nor judge to the point of being very correct. And she has interviewed scores of prostitutes, pimps, brother owners and triads.

To cater for the vast numbers of incoming girls, Kate says, the seedier side of Hong Kong sleaze has moved across the harbour to Tsim Sha Tui and Mongkok where the laws of supply and demand mean the girls are a quarter of the price and in greater abundance than their peers in Wanchai.

“In Wanchai it’s a tourist trap to the point where their competitors in Mongkok and Bangkok use the Internet to warn dedicated sex hunters to stay away,” she says. “It’s a great form of advertising.”

Kate is very matter-of-fact and states bluntly that the sex industry fills a need but she concedes “it is all so sad” and this sadness stems from the denial and lifestyle which reality serves up after the girl arrives.

“The girls make up stories about themselves to the point where I really don’t think they have a grip on reality. They all have a boyfriend, or regular client, someone who will take them away from all of this. They invent a new life which makes it easier.

“The drugs are also a big thing that has to be supported. Right at the bottom is the heroin addict, at the top its cocaine, in the middle it’s amphetamines, and it all adds up to one thing. It creates an economic need and they can’t escape.”

She says it’s an open secret that Hong Kong’s sex trade is controlled by triads. And triads you don’t mess with as Kate found out. She went into hiding once After Suzie was published where she wrote: “Aside from the top-class escort agencies almost all other areas of the sex industry, from karaoke bars to massage parlours have triad links. 

Whether the triads own an establishment, organize the recruitment of girls, or simply pay regular visits to collect protection money.”

While it’s foolish to romanticise organized crime the triads do pale when compared with the Russian mafia in Macau. A few years ago a New Zealand lawyer fell in love with a White Russian prostitute and decided to marry her. The pimp agreed to let her go after consulting with girl’s agent in Vladivostok. The fee was arranged and both the lawyer and pimp travelled to Far East Russia where the payment was suppose to be made. 

Their bodies were found two days later. They had been executed gangland style with their hands tied and then shot in the back of the head.

Their deaths were a very public warning that once a girl is on the game then that’s where she stays.

“The triads have a notion of civility, the Russians, well you just don’t fuck with them,” Boylan says.

Some do skirt the triads and the mafia and Joy is a case in point.

She’s the type that would fit comfortably on a Penthouse centerfold. As an Italian blond she is also every bit the high class international hooker who charges $1,000 USD a night. She freelancers and flies around the world on a whim and loves it when men adore her body to the point where they pay. It’s a lifestyle which some magazines try and glorify and Joy likes that idea too.

“I met a man once who tried to pick me up in a bar. At first I told him I was a model, and that was okay, then I told him I was a high class hooker. The minute he said that he pulled out a thousand US and I liked it, it turned me on.”
For Joy the breast implants have long since paid for themselves but even her in your face – I can do whatever I like – attitude seems flawed.

“I saw that guy again in the street and he ignored me. I wasn’t acceptable after he did what he did.”

Then inexplicably she says: “You know I adore my mother and if she ever found out what I was doing she would die of shame. I know it’s an old line but an old prostitute once said to me once a whore always a whore.”

On Kowloon side the money is not so good. Kate says there are more than 450 vice deans in Mongkok and the mamasan will take more than half. There’s the noodle shop which looks like a restaurant, the menu is Thai noodles ($25 HKD), Philippine noodles ($35 HKD), Malay noodles ($45 HKD), add a zero and order the girl of your preferred nationality. Here the margins are low but the income is bolstered by increased volumes, between 10 and 20 men a shift.

In the back rooms, as Whitehead documented, some of the girls compare notes. 

Western men “have big weapons”, Chinese men are easy and undemanding, Europeans want to fall in love. There’s the middle class Americans who insists on showing family snapshots. There’s a happy wife and a couple of kids, it’s as if it is going to ease their conscience before they drop their pants a request some penance.

Americans take too long. The Australian navy doesn’t come often enough. The Japanese are nice and quick. My pimp is squeezing me, mamasan takes the money and I can’t find my drugs.

They also complain about the ‘chicks in Wanchai’ who they fear are better looking, more exotic and therefore command a higher price.

Rosie is blissfully ignorant of this, after all she’s not a prostitute, she’s a barfly. Around her is half a dozen Australian Rugby League players. One pukes, another sings: “I’ve been to paradise but I’ve never been to … while others brag about their conquests of Russian girls in Macau and near death experiences with Macanese pimps.

Rosie cavorts from behind the bar teasing the drinks with innocent poses while pretending to be a dancer. The club she works is indifferent to the others around the corner. There’s the Pink Pussycat, San Francisco, Fire House, Crazy Horse.

Rev: So Rosie, it is a business and you sleep with men for money?

Rosie: “No”, she fidgets again. “I told you I am a barfly – first I must like you.”

“If I want to go out with you then first you must get permission from mamasan. If she agrees then it’s okay to go on a date. Would you like to meet mamasan? Then first you buy me a drink.”

Behind the bar the girls continue to dance, shimmering up against a stainless steel pole, simulating a blow job towards a European who’s sniffing and picking his nose. He smiles, she winks, and initial negotiations are done. Meanwhile the German expat is chatting-up another hostess who sat down for a drink while Rev was entertaining the idea of buying Rosie for the night.

Rosie asks Rev to buy her a drink. This costs $250 HKD for one plus 10%.

Rosie gets $25 HKD, mamasan the rest.

At this stage it becomes obvious that Rosie likes Rev very much and has invited herself home for the night. But first Rev must negotiate with mamasan. “Would you like to meet mamasan?” Rosie asks.

“Nah, not this time, besides my partner would kill me and what would I tell my mum?”
Rosie’s attentions are now focused on the German.

In After Suzie, Kate argues that the frivolity of the Suzy Wong days – when Western men were lured by legend and the promise of Oriental beauties – are long gone and that the magic is wearing thin. Hong Kong still means Fragrance Harbour and perhaps the fragrance is gone.

But the reality is that hatching an icon from a holiday and turning it into an international best seller was a tribute to Mason’s imagination.

The romanticized version probably never really existed. But the intrigue remains in the denial and the truth somewhere behind Sino-Western facades and plastic teeth, Rosie will never admit it’s all about money.

And Joy will always lament “once a whore, always a whore it doesn’t matter where or when.” That was a swipe at the days of Richard Mason.

“The double standards and Western hypocrisy, I can never be accepted. I live in a closet.”