A protester at a rally in Central condemning allegations of sexual harassment and assault from HK Police Force. Lipstick was used to write #ProtestToo on the arms of the attendants, referencing the #MeToo movement, 28 August 2019. Photo: Alex Yun for Lausan
Sex workers discuss ‘Restore Tuen Mun’
Translation | Hong Kong's sex workers are a key part of the struggle against police violence.
Author: “Poultry Alliance from the Margins of Depravity” 雞鴨鵝蟲孽緣連線
Translators: LWH, Ellie Tse, Joy Ming King, Rosemarie Ho, Promise Li
Translator’s note: One of the key features of Hong Kong’s ongoing anti-extradition protests is the geographical diffusion of dissent and protest actions across virtually all neighborhoods in Hong Kong. Districts across the New Territories, Kowloon, and Hong Kong Island have become—and continue to be—sites of confrontation with police and organized protests.
This wave of neighborhood-specific protests began with a “Restore/Reclaim Tuen Mun 光復屯門” rally held on July 6th by the Tuen Mun Park Health Concern Group 屯門公園衛生關注組 against middle-aged women performers—derogatorily referred to as dama (大媽, literally “big mama”). Damas are typically middle-aged or elderly women from Mainland China who participate in collective “square-dances”—so named for their origin in public squares—which have their modern roots in mass political campaigns of the Cultural Revolution. Simultaneously a collective fitness exercise and a social activity, these square-dances often attract audiences of typically middle-aged or elderly men who may sometimes give donations to the dancing damas. “Restore/Reclaim Tuen Mun” protesters demanded that the Leisure and Cultural Services Department address the social problems caused by the dancing damas—“nuisance to residents and park-goers, including problems of noise, as well as alleged begging and sex work.” While the demands of the “Restore Tuen Mun” protest were not explicitly linked to the extradition bill, the usage of the term “restore/reclaim/liberate” (光復) and timing of the protest implies a clear association between the wider anti-extradition movement and concerns about the PRC’s influence in Hong Kong.
Written by a coalition of sex workers and allies, this article is a response to the deeply misogynistic and anti-sex worker slant of the Tuen Mun protest. In this piece, the authors point out the incongruity of associating sex workers with the police—given long-standing police brutality and repression against the community, as well as the need for anti-extradition protesters to build solidarity with other victims of police brutality. The authors also touch upon the need to decriminalize sex work in Hong Kong.
While the authors of the original piece provide a valuable analysis into anti-sex work attitudes, the translators of this piece also recognize that more recognition of the gendered xenophobia directed towards damas is needed. JN Chien points out that “the rejection of mainland authoritarian rule has trickled down into the ethno-supremacist rejection of mainland people’s social values and cultural identities as supposedly backward, uncouth, and contrary to Hong Kong sophistication, respectability, and cosmopolitanism.” Sexism—combined with xenophobia and anxiety over access to scarce public resources—has been an undercurrent in localist factions of the broad pro-democracy camp since the early 2010s. Poor labor conditions in Mainland China, especially in the wake of Deng Xiaoping’s rural reforms, drove many women to migration and entry into the sex industry in Hong Kong. New York–based sex work advocacy group Red Canary points out that many of these same workers later end up in places like Toronto and New York. Consequently, sex workers’ fight for liberation is undoubtedly a transnational one.
As local sex workers advocacy group Zi Teng also notes, elements of coercion and trafficking are indeed huge problems in the Hong Kong sex industry, but many ‘anti-trafficking solutions’ of governments, NGOs, and even social justice organizations in fact further entrench these workers in abusive conditions by criminalizing them and forcing them underground, away from legal protections. There are no easy solutions, but as the authors of this piece suggest, an important first step is to recognize and help make visible the voices and struggles of sex workers. This is far from a secondary task in the face of the extradition bill: Hong Kong sex workers have been facing the police’s brutal oppression long before the protesters. In this sense, sex workers “have been a central pillar of Hong Kong’s fight against the police’s systematic abuse of our basic rights.”
All hyperlinks and footnotes in the article are provided for context by the translators, not the authors.
Editorial note: Grass Media Action received this article about the Tuen Mun park incident from a group of sex workers.
Different sex workers’ organizations have previously issued a joint statement denouncing police abuse of sex workers and infringement on their occupational safety. The statement is included in the further reading section for your perusal.
In the past two days of anti-extradition protest actions, we—a group of sex workers, allies, and clients and others from the poultry world1—have joined the collective fight against police authority. One of the five major demands of the protests is to thoroughly investigate the abuse of power by the police. In reality, many of us in the market for sex, including “ptgf/ptbf” (part-time girlfriends/boyfriends), “One Woman One Brothel,”2 and enko (compensated dating),3 have long been struggling against arbitrary arrests by the police. We have thus been a central pillar of Hong Kong’s fight against the police’s systematic betrayal of our basic rights.
But in the recent Tuen Mun incident, everyone went so far as to frame “dama sex workers” as accomplices of the police. Under the overarching agenda of the anti-extradition movement, we are accused of aiding and abetting the police in their transgressions. We feel that we have been wronged by this mischaracterization. Though we know that everyone was actually opposing the noisiness of dama activities, can people pause and reflect before they create these accusatory slogans and treat all sex workers and clients as enemies and figures of attack?
Don’t lump us all together
We can certainly discuss how annoying these damas are, but people have lumped all the characteristics of damas together uncritically in an attempt to undermine them as a whole. However, we can actually dissect and analyze the hateful offences attributed to damas step by step. Raucousness, occupying public space, being unwilling to communicate, doing business, low-brow culture, selling sex, setting a bad example for children, showing sexual desire in a public space—these are all traits associated with damas, but do we need to oppose and criticize all of them? For example, why should selling sex be included into the list of objectionable activities?
Sex work has long been seen as an inglorious form of labour. If you think that the extradition bill will result in white terror (白色恐怖), try putting yourself in the shoes of sex workers—sex workers have always lived under this climate of terror! Currently, 99% of “soliciting” charges against sex workers are unwarranted. Even if sex work isn’t solicited, the police has always been able to incriminate workers with fabricated charges at their discretion. The courts have never suspected the police of lying.
Honestly, how have we offended you by courting clients online or on the streets? If a beer promoter4is so inclined to have a “side gig” and solicit clients in the process, far be it for you to drive them away and call all their male clients “perverts”: to each, their own. Similarly, if people are enjoying themselves in a park, why should we be concerned about whether they are selling sex? In Taiwan, “binlang girls”5 and miaohui temple fair pole dancing also thrive as a form of folk entertainment and sexual desire in popular society. If you don’t like raucousness, just say you don’t like raucousness; it has no relationship to selling sex. There’s no need to say that you oppose public displays of sexuality and the selling of sexual services.
The dilemmas and hesitations of sex workers in the movement …
Just as you have chosen to use sex work to attack the Tuen Mun damas, there also seems to be an underlying conflict between conservativism and sex-positivity. If you really want to oppose sex-positivity openly, we are happy to engage with you in debate.
But this is one of the battlegrounds of the anti-extradition movement. We are comrades on the field, but when you attack us like this, should we turn a blind eye to your anti-sex worker attitudes in order to maintain the movement’s unity, or should we speak out against such blatant hatred? Isn’t it time for us to actually ally together against police power? Since sex workers have always resisted police power, are we really not going to work together against the oppressor we have in common? Can we suspend this anti-sex worker rhetoric and put an end to attacks on those on your own team?
On the argument of “opposing damas to support sex work”
Some people argue that it’s not that they oppose sex work, but that damas are vicious competitors who impact sex workers’ income. By that logic, allies of sex workers should ostensibly support “Restore Tuen Mun.” But there is actually a difference between paying $150 for a dama’ssong and groping her boobs to inflate one’s own sense of masculinity, and paying for the services of “One Woman One Brothel” full-service sex workers. “One Woman One Brothel” sex work and other sexual services complement each other and expand the market together. Does this really need explaining?
Some people also feel that paying for ‘One Woman One Brothel’ sex workers is safer and suggest “sticking to the one sex worker per building system if you want to sell sexual services.” Do you really want the sex worker community to go on operating in such marginalized and underground conditions? It is because of this relentless persecution and climate of hostility that sex work has been limited to “One Woman One Brothel” services in the first place.
Lastly, to reiterate, we really do despise the fact that people have monopolized a space in loud and unreasonable ways; these rude damas exist in Sai Yeung Choi Street, Tuen Mun, or To Kwa Wan Park—they are everywhere. However, the need to vent your pent-up frustration and resentment does not only exist in situations where your daily activities are obstructed by damas who retaliate brazenly when confronted. Actually, this need to find an outlet to release negative energy is also what drives people to seek out sex workers when they have bottled their feelings up for too long. In both cases, this is commonplace and part and parcel of human nature.
We want to emphasize that we also hate when our public space is snatched away.
Parks are public spaces that should accommodate the needs of every user in a collective process of negotiation and coordination. If you think you can win just because you have the numbers and can dominate a public space for years as your own concert hall without any consideration of other park users—you really are despicable. With mutual understanding, parks and other public spaces can be used for street stalls, second-hand booths, goods exchange, singing, dancing, mahjong, hawkers, selling sex, and skateboarding.
We detest those who take over a space by drawing a line in the sand, and this is why we may oppose some dama performers. We oppose military bases for the same reason—they simply draw a perimeter around a space as they see fit and then take it as their own. We stand firmly against any of these enclosing and exclusionary ways of using space.
But what we don’t agree on is the question of methods: when have clients and sex workers ever been protected by the police? It’s therefore a great injustice to be accused of siding with the police for those of us in the sex worker community. We have been mistreated by the police for decades, and to suddenly turn around and claim that we are on the same side as the police… would you be calm in the face of such absurdity?
How do we want the world to change?
1. We hope that protesters will stop hurling verbal abuse against sex workers. In the anti-extradition protests, protesters should recognize that sex workers are your comrades in opposing police power.
2. Don’t talk about “One Woman One Brothel” working conditions like it’s heaven for us. We want spaces that keep an open mind to sex work, an environment where we are able to attract clients in search of a variety of sexual services. When you get old, you may want to buy sex and flirt on the streets too. Everyone has different sexual needs. One can still protest problematic aspects of these needs upon careful consideration without categorically suppressing all of us with extreme prejudice and hostility. Even those who are regularly deemed “inglorious” or “morally deviant” need a public space for their activities. (Again, please stop telling us to become “One Woman One Brothel” sex workers.)
3. We’re not against your complaints about noise, but please don’t turn this into a blanket opposition against sex work.
4. We know that everyone wants to express their discontent with damas in the most vehement terms possible and, as a result, denounce everyone who is associated with them. It’s not that we are preventing you from raising any criticism about damas. Rather, we are merely opposing the fact that you indiscriminately castigate all sex workers and take issue with sex work as a whole. This is incredibly denigrating for our “poultry” friends. Please don’t split the movement or the masses; it’s necessary to understand and distinguish separate problems in our criticism. On a strategic level, we really hope to unite and bring more people into fighting this battle against police power.
Once upon a time, erotic culture (for example, the “Poor Man’s Nightclub” and erotic publications) belonged in the realm of local culture and entertainment, enjoyed by all. Why should it be marginalized by the priorities of “civilizing” and “public hygiene” today?
1. “Poultry” and “chicken” are derogatory Cantonese terms for sex workers.
2. “One Woman One Brothel” (一樓一) refers to sex work conducted in hotels, tong lau tenement buildings, and mixed-use residential and commercial property. It is a go-to business model due to Hong Kong’s semi-regulated sex work industry, where sexual transactions themselves are not criminalized, but solicitation and organizing sex work through the establishment of brothels are prohibited. This term originates from the industry practice of “one sex worker per building”; “One Woman One Brothel” circumvents the legal consequences of running a sex work establishment, which is defined as a venue where more than one person engages in sex work.
3.Enjō-kosai, often shortened as Enko (援交), is a Japanese term referring to the practice of older men giving money and gifts to attractive young women for their companionship. According to social workers, teenage girls as young as fifteen have advertised themselves as available for compensated dating. The practice has become more acceptable among Hong Kong teenage girls because it does not usually involve sexual intercourse and they can choose their clients, while giving them more means to fulfill their material needs.
4. Colloquially known as “beer girls” (啤酒妹) or “beer ladies” (啤酒女郎), promoters are usually young women employed by beer distributing companies to serve as brand ambassadors in restaurants and bars, where they receive commissions based on sales performance. Though they are strictly prohibited from drinking with customers, the revealing design of their uniform has led to a widespread misconception that sex work is a part of their services. Sexual harassment is rampant in their line of work, and the often disreputable clientele who frequent their workplaces exacerbates this situation.
5. “Binlang girls” or “betel nut beauties” (檳榔西施) refer to usually agricultural and working-class young women selling betel nuts and cigarettes from brightly lit glass enclosures while wearing revealing clothing. It is a distinctly Taiwanese phenomenon.