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55 years after Suzie Wong, Wan Chai prostitution now stamped ‘made in China’

“The World of Suzie Wong,” a 1960 American movie starring William Holden and Nancy Kwan, takes us through late 1950s Hong Kong. The film introduces us to an American man looking for a hotel room in Wan Chai. By chance, he sees a woman whom he had met earlier on the Star Ferry leaving a run-down hotel. In the bar next door, the American finds her dressed in a red cheongsam selling her body. She called herself Suzie Wong, and she became the epitome of the Hong Kong prostitute.

Fifty-five years after the release of the movie, Wan Chai’s night life still resembles the Suzie Wong era. Run-down hotels, foreign tourists and businessmen frequenting sleazy bars are the backdrop for the ladies of the night waiting for clients on many street corners.

But what has changed over the years is the coat of arms on the passports of the sex workers.

Melissa Hope Ditmore wrote in 2006 in the “Encyclopedia of Prostitution and Sex Work” that prostitutes in Hong Kong came primarily from Southeast Asia, while some were from Eastern Europe, Russia and the United States.

But since 2003 when the Beijing government started allowing Chinese tourists to travel to Hong Kong with a special permit, known as the “Individual Visit Scheme,” the number of sex workers from Mainland China in Hong Kong has increased.

Research on trafficking of Mainland Chinese women into Hong Kong’s sex industry, carried out from 2003 to 2006 by criminologist Karen Joe Laidler and law professors Robyn Emerton and Carole Petersen, supports what is apparent anecdotally after repeated visits to the Wan Chai red-light district.

Prostitution in Hong Kong is legal, but the law puts some limits on it. The law targets pimps by making it illegal to live on the earnings of prostitution of others. Public solicitation and running a brothel are illegal. The Hong Kong police regularly undertake operations to combat illegal forms of prostitution, in particular prostitution activities organized by syndicates, including large-scale cross-border operations.

This March police closed down an organization that operated 31 brothels housing Mainland prostitutes in Tai Po. In September, 62 suspected prostitutes from Mainland China and Taiwan were arrested at a karaoke bar in Wan Chai.

Ah Fong, 38, could have been one of them. She borrowed 200 yuan from a relative to come to Hong Kong as a tourist for a week, during which she planned to make as much money as possible by selling her body. “It was a lot more difficult to sell sex in Hong Kong than I had imagined,” she said. “I won’t come back to this city again.”

Another sex worker from Northern China, who wishes to remain anonymous, said, “Business has been difficult in recent months. Police has stepped up their operations in the area to arrest Mainland sex workers.”

The Hong Kong government reports that the number of people arrested for suspected unlawful employment involving sex work grew by eight percent from 3,829 in 2013 to 4,133 in 2014. The rise may be the result of a crackdown by authorities in Guangdong in February 2014 covering over 2,000 entertainment venues in Dongguan, a city just an hour’s train ride away from Hong Kong. More than 3,000 people were arrested.

During a council meeting in late October, Ben Chan, a legislative council member, questioned Lai Tung-kwok, Hong Kong’s Secretary for Security, about raising penalties on offenders of prostitution laws. Mr. Lai said that Mainlanders caught in Hong Kong violating prostitution laws will be sent back home and banned from visiting Hong Kong for two years. Mainland residents need a valid Exit/Entry Permit for traveling to and from Hong Kong and Macau with an endorsement that defines the number of entries and the length of stay permitted.

Still, the Hong Kong government may increase penalties on Mainland prostitutes, yet they may still make their way here out of desperation. “I felt very bad about becoming a prostitute but I had no alternatives,” said Ah Fong.

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