IT’S AN UNSEASONABLY WARM Friday night in late November and everywhere we turn, sex is flagrantly for sale. My companion and I have just turned off the main thoroughfare of Jordan Road, leaving the hum and glow of the huge neon signs behind. A few hours ago this area was bustling with hawkers and vegetable vendors; now the prostitutes and their mamasans are in sole possession of the streets. Some can be seen lingering in darkened doorways leading up to dingy one-bed apartments. Others travel in small packs, their hard plastic heels clacking on the pavement as they wobble their way to the crowded KTV bars.
I’m walking with my old friend Amr, who happens to be in town from Miami for a business conference. Knowing him to be both uncommonly street savvy and always up for an adventure, I’ve invited Amr out for a night in Kowloon, promising a glimpse of the Hong Kong underworld that few visitors ever get to experience. Though we haven’t yet found what we’re seeking, the evening is already looking far more interesting than the usual Friday night bar hop down Wyndham Street ever would have been.
“How about this one,” Amr suggests, nodding in the direction of a street walker standing alone on the corner ahead of us. From her posture and uniform, she seems to fit the bill: short skirt, tall boots, puffy jacket, faux-handbag – her arms dramatically akimbo. We’re feeling a little frustrated by our five previous failed attempts, but remain energized by the novelty of our hunt. As we approach, the woman turns to size us up, while we do the same. She looks mid-to-late 20s, but with so much makeup, it’s impossible to confidently place her age within better than a decade of accuracy. Although heavyset, she has oddly long, skinny legs.
“Hello, do you speak English,” I ask in my friendliest voice. “Yes, six hundred,” she replies with matter-of-fact aplomb, making the Chinese hand signal for “six” and flashing a smile that comes across as defiant, coy and crazed all at the same time. Amr smiles back and offers her a cigarette, making small talk to confirm that she actually does understand English, before we attempt the difficult task of conveying what we’re after (a lesson learned from those five preceding dead-ends).
“So, we’re not interested in sex,” I eventually interject (we’ve made introductions – her name is Esther and her night has been fine). “We’re looking for boys,” I try to explain, “and we’ll pay you if you can take us to them. And, umm… we’re not gay.” Uncomprehending, Esther shakes her head, squints at us, and repeats: “Six hundred.”
“Ducks, we want ducks!” shouts Amr, doing a wing thing with his elbows, while trying to waddle in his snug designer suit – getting everyone smiling again.
Recognition finally registers in her eyes, as she drops her bag on the sidewalk and holds both hands to her face, squealing with laughter. “You want a duck club? I know one. Thai boys. You pay me – let’s go.”
WHAT THE FUCK IS A DUCK?
The colloquial term for female prostitute in Cantonese is “chicken.” Similarly – the fowl-based etymology remains unclear – the slang term for a male prostitute who services women is “duck,” while the word for a male prostitute for gay men is “goose.”
Female prostitution has been a visible – oft celebrated, oft decried – part of Hong Kong’s international identity since the city’s earliest days. And prostitution in China as a whole has ancient origins, with harem culture playing a prominent role in social and political institutions up until the Cultural Revolution, when the pursuit of sexual pleasure – and even genuine romantic love – was deemed a self-indulgent distraction from one’s proper and absolute devotion to the party. Under Mao, prostitution was outlawed and successfully eradicated until Deng’s years of economic opening allowed for a partial return to pre-Maoist sexual mores (all this despite the fact that Mao himself is known to have kept a secret harem of hundreds of young girls, emperor style, throughout his rule).
In Hong Kong though, prostitution is believed to stretch back without interruption into prehistoric times. And whether due to Suzie Wong-style pop culture sagas, the remarkable proliferation of one-woman brothels throughout every district of the SAR, or the notorious sexpat party scene of Wan Chai, female prostitution remains an all too familiar and altogether inescapable part of Hong Kong daily life.
Male prostitution, by contrast, is seldom discussed in casual company, rarely reported in the media, and virtually unknown to most residents, despite its fairly colourful recent history. As former sociologist Yeeshan Yang writes in her comprehensive study of the Hong Kong sex industry, Whispers and Moans (2006), male prostitution targeted towards a female clientele most commonly takes place in “host clubs;” and the first male host club in Hong Kong was opened in Repulse Bay in the early 1990s by two young local guys who had learned the trade in Taiwan and Japan [In her book, Yang keeps all the clubs names and specific locations secret, as they are generally run by triads].
Internationally, host clubs are most readily associated with Japan, due to their highly visible presence in the red light districts of Tokyo and Osaka. Japanese hosts are known to openly roam the streets outside their clubs in pursuit of lady clients, sporting the iconic J-host look, which invariably involves coiffed 1980s pop star hair style and outlandishly flashy white, silver or black suits. They basically look like a walking, smooth talking, anime version of a cool young Japanese businessman. This extravagant appearance has held them a place in Japanese pop consciousness ever since they first began to appear during the cash-flush bubble years of the 80s.
Although few are as flamboyant as the clubs in Japan, as Yang explains in her book, host clubs across Asia, including those in Taiwan, Korea and Hong Kong, generally share the following characteristics: They are bars staffed by young men, usually aged 18 to 25, who dress in slick formal wear and try to appear as youthful and innocent as possible. When female customers arrive, they are either given the chance to choose from the available hosts on duty, or the manager assigns one. The ladies then pay an hourly rate for the host’s time and are required to order overpriced drinks for themselves and their host throughout their stay. If they so desire, for an additional fee, they can arrange to join the host at a nearby love hotel for sex. The payment arrangements vary wildly according to the quality of the club and local market conditions. Top hosts in Japan claim to earn hundreds of thousands of yen a week (tens of thousands of HK$), whereas the precise earnings of Hong Kong ducks today are virtually unknown, but are almost certain to be much less.
In the late 1990s, host clubs briefly became popular in Hong Kong, with a few establishments opening in TST, Causeway Bay and Mong Kok. But even before the burgeoning trend gained any traction, the interest among Hong Kong men in getting paid to have sex far outstripped the demand for duck services (as Yang reports, a single newspaper advertisement for a duck club opening would immediately attract hundreds of applicants). Soon, the always enterprising triads appertained an opportunity ripe for exploitation and set up a number of scams to dupe the hordes of would-be lady killers.
Advertising for job openings at front clubs and non-existent host agencies, triad operatives would demand deposit money from applicants – as much as $20K – claiming it was necessary as a guarantee to protect the privacy of their rich female customers. Once the deposit was made, all calls went unreturned.
Another scam involved collaboration with corrupt local health clinics, with triad agents promising applicants their job was assured, so long as they went to a designated clinic and passed an HIV screening – the cost of which was vastly inflated. Once the results came back: “Congratulations! You’re clean. Unfortunately, times are a bit tough at the moment and we have no clients for you. But don’t worry, we’ll call you soon.” (They didn’t.)
After finishing her book, I paid Yang a visit at her film production offices in Kwun Tong (Yang has been working as a screenwriter and film producer since co-writing two cinematic adaptations of Whispers and Moans with Hong Kong director Herman Yau). As she sees it, the triad rackets were made possible by a fundamental misconception about the nature of a Hong Kong duck’s work. “When people first hear about ducks they usually picture good looking young guys satisfying bored, rich Tai Tais. There are a small number of liberal-minded women who use ducks, but not many. Hong Kong is small and remains relatively conservative in regards to female sexual expression. So if an ordinary woman – whether single or married – were to be seen entering a host club, or bumped into an acquaintance inside, the social stigma and loss of face would likely be severe.” Not surprisingly, there simply isn’t much demand for male prostitution among the general population, she says. “The vast majority of girls who frequent host clubs are themselves off-duty whores.”
As you’re now probably wondering: after a long day working the streets, the clubs or the hourly hotel rooms, why in the hell, would a prostitute want to spend her hard earned dollars on sex? “Being a whore is a difficult, emotionally taxing job,” Yang explains. “Many seek comfort by going to duck bars for male affection.” Women who have come to equate male attention with cash, are happy to pay for it themselves, it seems. “They also enjoy the power reversal of being the client instead of the sex worker. Unlike usual, they get to boss the men around and have the control in the exchange.”
THE TRIAD GIRLS
After my meeting with Yang, I pursued a number of fresh leads in the hope of meeting a duck or one of their prostitute customers, to learn more about this curious phenomenon (finding a Hong Kong woman who has procured the services of a duck and is willing to speak openly about it is no easy task). Eventually I am led to Nana, a serious young woman with soft, pretty features, who works as a cosmetician and bartender.
We’re sitting together in the back corner of a TST dice bar, sipping cold bottles of Tsingtao with an over-amped jukebox wailing out Canto pop classics beside us. Nana is explaining how she used to be romantically involved with a triad kingpin and how all the other boss’s girlfriends were her close friends. Often these gangster girls would go out on the town together while their boyfriends were busy with their internecine nighttime dealings; and occasionally, after they were drunk, someone would suggest a visit to a host club.
Nana remembers frequenting two clubs in TST and Jordan, one with Thai boys and the other with young local Hong Kong guys. “The ducks would line up and after you pick one you like, you go away together to a private booth,” she explains, fidgeting with a menthol cigarette. “It was fun. The boys are very charming. You just play some games and they make you feel like you are old friends. You can lean your head on their shoulder and they will give you a kiss. And if you have some stress or something that’s bothering you, you can vent to them. They’re good listeners and never talk about themselves.” She remembers paying the hosts around $300 to $400 for 90 minutes of private cuddling and conversation. At the end of the session the hosts would often hint about going to a hotel together, but Nana insists she never paid for sex, and isn’t sure how much it would have cost. She also doesn’t know whether her friends ever did, as she says it’s something they would have been embarrassed about – and which could have gotten them into serious trouble with their boyfriends if rumours got around – so no one ever discussed how their private time with the hosts was spent.
While Nana never worked as a prostitute, the ultimate imbalance of power at work in her relationship with the triad boss was presumably at least as stark as that between a john and whore. It’s not particularly surprising then, that her recollections would so closely correspond to Yang’s descriptions of the psychological appeal of host clubs in Whispers and Moans. As Yang writes, “a gigolo’s job is more complex than that of a female prostitute, who tends to have a simple sexual relationship with her men. Gigolos have to establish more of a personal relationship and connect with the souls of their clients… They become the shrinks for the wounded chickens, making them feel human and capable of experiencing tender feelings again.”
When asked what she liked best about the host club, Nana falters for a moment, before saying, “My relationship at that time was very painful. I wasn’t supposed to tell anyone about my private affairs. At the host club, I could talk with someone about my feelings and that was nice.” I gently enquire whether Nana thinks she or one of her friends might be able to introduce me to a duck or lead me to one of their clubs. “Oh no, not anymore,” she laughs, stubbing out her cigarette. In an Infernal Affairs-like twist of fate, Nana is now dating a vice squad police detective and has cut off all ties with the criminal underworld. As we’re leaving the bar, she tells me the general area of the clubs as best as she can remember and says that even men can occasionally get in. “Sometimes couples go, to play drinking games with the ducks for fun. You can try it,” she says, “just make sure you bring a girl. And be careful – the people who run these places can be dangerous.”
THE TEENAGE RETIREE
Hei is tall, athletically built, with big eyes and high cheek bones. He’s just 18 years old, but looks at least five years older. We’re slouched beside one another on a bench in a small empty playground at sunset, a few blocks from the game centre where we were introduced earlier in the night by a mutual contact. He’s got a jaunty swagger uncommon in Canto kids, but he sees his story as altogether ordinary and seems genuinely surprised by my interest.
Hei dropped out of school when he was 14. Bored, desperate for spending money and always attracted to the after-dark troublemaking crowd, it wasn’t long before he took a few older friends up on their offer to introduce him to the sex trade. For the following year and a half he worked as a pimp’s assistant, escorting prostitutes from brothels to their outcalls at hotels, making sure they arrived on time, got paid, and left without issue. It was easy money, he says, proudly. Always flush with cash, he could buy as many new clothes, sneakers, games and drinks as he desired. As Hei describes it, looking way too wistful for a kid of 18, for the next couple years, his life was pretty much one big endless party.
On the night he met his first ‘daddy’, Hei was out drinking with some friends at a bar in TST, shortly after his sixteenth birthday. He remembers he was chatting up some girls, when a slick looking older guy pulled him away for a chat. Complimenting Hei on his looks and easy manner with women, he offered to teach him how to become a duck, saying he could start him off with a few clients, so long as he kicked back 30 per cent of his profits. Drinking with rich women sounded more interesting than waiting outside hotels for bitter prostitutes, so soon Hei was working five nights a week, serving a small group of married, divorced or widowed middle-aged ladies, earning a base rate of $250-$350 an hour, often with generous tips and gifts on top.
I ask if he enjoyed it. “It was fun at the start, like a psychological game to figure out how to make them happy so they’d pay big tips.” He met his clients mostly by word of mouth, or by hanging out at a particular bar in Causeway Bay (now closed, he says) where ducks were known to make themselves available. Only occasionally would his sessions end in sex – about 10 per cent of the time. More often the women preferred to simply meet for a drink, to talk and hold him. He charged just $250-$400 extra for sex, but always had the option of declining. “I usually only fucked if they got me really drunk. It’s better for your business to keep them always wanting a little more, by keeping sex out of it.”
After about a year and a half, Hei was starting to grow tired of the erratic hours and the constant emotional maintenance his customers demanded from him – incessant texting and late night phone calls. “This type of woman is really pushy and annoying.” He says he quit a few months ago and recently picked up a day job as a mover. “Well, I still see a couple,” he admits moments later with a cocky grin, “it’s easy cash.”
Regarding the duck clubs for chickens, Hei once applied at one. “I know how to handle chickens, and they carry loads of cash –
I could have unloaded them. But the club rejected me; they only wanted Thai guys.” This particular club has also since closed, as far as he knows. “There used to be a bunch of duck clubs on Kimberly Road, but they have all closed.” A teenage expert on the underground sex industry, Hei explains that duck clubs were always most popular with the ageing Hong Kong career chickens, but in recent years the local prostitutes have mostly been driven out of the market by an influx of younger, prettier Mainland girls who come across the border on temporary tourist Visas for one or two weeks at a time. “The Mainland girls don’t want ducks. They work as much as they can in Hong Kong for two weeks and go home.” He suggests I check around the area where the cheap old whores still work – Sham Shui Po or Jordan. “Duck clubs are rare nowadays.”
INTO THE DUCK CLUB
“Do you visit this duck club often?,” Amr asks our new friend Esther, as she winds us through the busy, debris-littered, late-night alleyways, looking down and thumbing her mobile the entire time yet somehow managing never to walk into anything. “No, I don’t go. My friends go.” After a few blocks we come to a nondescript tenement house, which we notice, has an inconspicuous silver video camera installed above its gated entranceway. Esther hits the buzzer and shouts something in Cantonese at the intercom. The door pops open and she holds out her hand: “Gimme $100.” I hand over a bill and Esther waves bye-bye, bouncing up the pavement on her way back to her corner.
Peering up through the doorway into the darkened recess of the building, Amr and I are at a loss for what to do next. We need girls, but if we leave the building the door will swing shut. Amr tells me to hold the door and jogs away into the dark. I stand frozen in the shadow of the entrance, wondering who might be watching me through the camera. In less than five minutes, he is back, rounding the corner with a weathered prostitute on each arm. “I told them we would buy them drinks at the duck club,” he explains, beaming, “these girls are down for whatever.” We climb two flights of stairs – the girls yapping excitedly – before passing through a sound-proof door into a small, dimly lit bar.
The space consists of two adjoining rooms and the air smells of stale smoke and spicy Thai food cooking somewhere out of view. Large, low-slung semi-private booths line the walls. Hanging in the corners are huge framed pastel posters of topless Asian men with their heads thrown back and their arms open wide, as if flying through a soft-hued surrealist landscape. We’re greeted by a thin young Thai guy dressed in black, who is visibly perplexed and discomfited by our presence. Near the back, slouching behind the bar, are two tough-looking, older Cantonese dudes, silently smoking and playing cards. Otherwise the club is empty.
The nervous young manager speaks a little English and we manage to communicate that we’ve come to drink and want a duck to join us at our table to play dice games – preferably one who speaks English. Shifting from foot to foot, his countenance a complex array of off-putting facial tics, he tells us we’re too early but if we take a seat, the ducks will be arriving soon. He shows us to a booth and we order a bucket of beers at the marginally inflated price of $375. The girls snatch some tiny glasses and pour drinks all around.
Other patrons are gradually trickling into the bar – groups of working girls, a young couple, and a dour middle-aged guy (potential goose hunter?). It’s been over 45 minutes and the girls are growing a little restless. We’re working hard to ply them with drinks and keep them entertained, for fear that they might abandon us. (Our companions speak zero English and Amr, now rather drunk, has invented his own half-Canto language which he is eagerly trying to impart, insisting he’s from the foreign land of “Uberbadoo” and gesticulating wildly. Cheers is “choopla” in Amr’s alcohol-tinged, neologistic tongue, while “Harhaohao!” is what you shout after a lucky roll of the dice.) So far, in the effort
of attempting to meet a duck, all we have achieved is the effective casting of ourselves as low-rent, pro bono gweilo ducks at the service of these well past their prime – but admittedly, very good natured and actually quite likeable – chickens. The irony of the situation is not lost on our half of the table. Meanwhile, an older Thai guy has taken a small stage in the corner and is signing pop ballads over eerie synth cords on an electric piano. “If David Lynch made a movie with Wong Kar-wai, this is what it would be like,” I shout. “Do you girls like David Lynch? No? Heyyyy, choopla!” Everyone is fairly blasted by the time five young spikey-haired men in black emerge from the back and fan out among the booths. Introducing himself as Michael, one of them sits down at our table.
Michael immediately takes control of the dice game, warmly asking everyone their name, while one of the girls excitedly pours him a beer. He’s tall for a Thai man, nearly six feet, and strikingly handsome. With diamond studs in both ears, his bearing is one of smooth, flinty self-possession.
Spreading his attention around the table, I can tell he’s querying the girls on how they met us, and they’re laughing hysterically as they convey their bewilderment over where we’ve come from and what exactly we want, as we’ve repeatedly turned down their overtures for sex. In his limited English, he politely asks Amr and I a few general getting-to-know-you questions, his smile and gently inquiring mein a laser beam of undivided attention. The charisma is palpable, nearly edible – he’s one of those people with the preternatural ability to make a room full of people feel better about themselves simply by walking through the door (for some reason I keep picturing him as a slick young Thai Bill Clinton).
Between dice rolls and group cheers, I try to turn the tables a little by asking Michael some questions about himself. Initially, he’s obliging: he’s from Thailand, has lived in Hong Kong for three years, and worked at this bar for one. I ask him if he likes his job.
It’s ok, he says, awkwardly avoiding my eyes. He turns away again and shouts something funny in Cantonese to the girls; and again, they’re rolling around on their seats loving it. Everyone stands up to sing along to whatever tune the singer is playing, all of us dancing in place and pounding our drinks under Michael’s encouragement. “These girls love you, you must make a lot of money,” I say, perhaps a little too bluntly, as, by way of answer, he promptly walks away. The girls are disappointed and pepper us with incomprehensible questions. The ambiance of our table has vertiginously shifted from good-time party vibe to mutual misunderstanding and paranoia .When Michael returns, he ignores Amr and I – still grinning, but tenser. The girls are making “no idea, pleading innocent” gestures, in response to questions that are obviously about us. Through the cigarette smoke, I see the fidgety manager standing in the background, watching. Maybe we should get out of here, Amr suggests. I call for the bill and it’s delivered by the manager with desperate celerity – notably sans any charge for a host. Michael, meanwhile, has disappeared. As we make our way to the door, the Cantonese duo at the bar eyeball us stonily, flicking cigarette ash to the floor.
The walk down the stairs turns into a dash as we’re breaking through the door into the cool open air. The girls are already on the phone, making an anxious call to someone we intuit must be their mamasan, due to their repeated pleas to someone named “mama.” Saying goodbyes, we pass them some cash and turn away from the street, breaking into a run towards the big bright lights in the distance – drunk, adrenalised, and enthralled.