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Killings of prostitutes rivet Hong Kong

Laws designed to block pimps and brothels make it difficult for sex

March 15, 2009|Min Lee | Lee writes for the Associated Press.

HONG KONG — All four women were prostitutes. And all four were killed in rented apartments where they were working alone.

The back-to-back killings have drawn attention to a peculiarity of Hong Kong law: Prostitution is legal, but brothels are not. As a result, many prostitutes work alone in apartments, leaving them vulnerable to attack. The law also bans others from making money off prostitution -- a rule meant to keep out pimps, but which also prevents sex workers from hiring security guards.

"Prostitutes are our city's most vulnerable workers because of the ambiguities," Hong Kong's leading English-language newspaper, the South China Morning Post, said in a recent editorial urging the government to reconsider the laws. "They deserve, and must be allowed to receive, better protection."

So far, the government has rebuffed such appeals. The laws "strike a reasonable balance between the human rights and privacy of sex workers, the well-being of other members of the community and the prevailing moral values of the community," the Hong Kong Security Bureau said in a statement.

The debate highlights the role of the sex trade in freewheeling, capitalist Hong Kong, a former British colony now ruled by China. The latest government estimate, in 2001, put the number of prostitutes at 200,000 in this city of 7 million.

Prostitution has long been common at nightclubs, karaoke bars, massage parlors and hair salons, despite being illegal: The law defines brothels as locations housing two or more prostitutes.

A relatively small but growing number of prostitutes -- known as "phoenix sisters" in Chinese -- work on their own. The number of one-woman operations has grown five- or six-fold since a decade ago, to about 2,500, said Elaine Lam from Zi Teng, an advocacy group for prostitutes.

"Why do people target sex workers? They are isolated. Nobody cares about what happens to them. People also take out their frustrations on sex workers. People think, 'These women are bad women anyway. We can treat them however we like to,' " she said.

By contrast, in mainland China, the authoritarian government bans prostitution and paying for sex, although the sex trade is rampant. Police frequently round up prostitutes and place them in detention centers. Any discussion of legalization is rare, if not unthinkable, and recent immigrants from China are among the prostitutes of Hong Kong.

A report by the group Action for Reach Out, based on a survey of 113 Hong Kong sex workers from March 2006 to March 2007, found that 41% said customers had forced them to have sex without condoms. About 19% had run into customers who refused to pay, and about 13% said customers were violent.

The gory details of the three killings in January, along with one in November, riveted the media and public. They followed four similar killings in March of last year, including one in which the victim was strangled with a shower hose.

"New killer appears, anxiety spreads among phoenix sisters," blared a headline in the Ming Pao Daily News, a respected Chinese-language newspaper.

The most recent victims included a 43-year-old divorced mother and a 47-year-old. All eight victims worked alone out of rented apartments, known locally as "one room, one phoenix."

Activists want the government to allow prostitutes to work together in small groups, in effect legalizing brothels. But any such move promises to be politically sensitive in a city where many hold conservative social values.

"Most people may not accept it. Traditional Chinese society views sex work as immoral," said 52-year-old driver Ho Kwok-pun. He said he supports legalization: "This way we can protect them."

Even if the government isn't budging, police were quick to make an arrest.

Officers, with media in tow, made an unusually public visit to one of the crime scenes with a 24-year-old suspect. Live footage showed the man, charged with two of the January killings, walking with a hood over his head into a dark, narrow stairwell next to a shuttered storefront.

Meanwhile, activists are helping sex workers pay for safety alarms and surveillance cameras. Prostitutes say they are checking on each other more regularly.

"Why do we keep working? Because we need to eat. We need to support our children," a prostitute who would only give her name as Mimi said at a news conference organized by Zi Teng. She wore a blue hat and a white handkerchief over her mouth to conceal her identity.

"We need to support our children . . . Sex work is a profession."

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