Hong Kong, China

Fuk Wa Street, Sham Shui Po

Street scene in Sham Shui Po, Hong Kong

Hong Kong, China

Outside on the street, a large dot-matrix ticker display showed the number of street prostitutes that the local police had arrested in the past year: more than 2700.

Inside, the apartment was cool, an overhead fan spinning silently. In the narrow entrance, a blue plastic hairdryer was hung from a nail driven into the grouting between the pale green tiles. On the adjacent wall, three large coins with holes in their centers had been Scotch-taped to the plaster.

The blonde Englishwoman sat on the corner of the bed, leaning against the television set. George Bush appeared momentarily on the screen, looking out at the spartan interior of the room. It was just large enough for the bed, with just enough room left over for the door to open and close. The three other women sat cross-legged on the other end of the bed: the stocky woman, her face serious, pulled at the grubby pink bedspread that covered her legs. Her companion, broad-shouldered and rather masculine-looking, smiled at the visitors, leaned back against the wall, while the third perched on the far end, half-hidden by the door.

“So what do they mostly do?” inquired the Englishwoman. The interpreter put the question in Cantonese. “Just fucking,” she said. “And how many men do they see each day?” “Three or four, sometimes five or six.” “Did they have problems with the police?” Yes, they were afraid of being arrested. The police were cracking down on prostitutes in Sham Shui Po. Going outside was risky for them: the police would spot them by the way they dressed, by the way that they cautiously looked for trade on the crowded streets.

The women were from semi-rural areas of Guangdong, and had left their homes to come and work in Hong Kong. They had 14-day visitor permits. Some of the women could get permits to visit a relative, which were good for one or even three months. At the end of the time, they would go home, apply for permits again. Sometimes they could get a fresh permit in days. Sometimes it would take months.

“Do they have children?” They nodded. The three women sitting on the bed were all mothers. They had left their children behind in their villages. “And are they happy with this work? Has being able to work here made their lives better?” They nodded again. The short-haired woman in the black T-shirt smiled again.

“Oh yes, absolutely.” said the interpreter. “Absolutely.”