The Decline, Or Rise, Of Wanchai
This is a little essay on a subject that came to mind when I read Stickman’s comments on the decline in the girlie bar business in Thailand.
There was a time – the days of The World of Suzie Wong – when Hong Kong was a well known centre of prostitution. Maybe, in some ways, it still is, but no longer in the “traditional” way, and no longer for “traditional” punters.
There are still girlie bars in Lockhart Road. You can still brush aside a dirty curtain, allow the smell of joss sticks to hit you like a wall, sit down, pay thirty HK$ for a beer, watch a couple of Thais or a Filipinas gyrating listlessly, and fend off the first of many calls of “You buy me drink!” – at a price of HK$500 for a lollywater. That is sixty five US Dollars, or forty-odd Pounds Sterling. Heaven knows what you would pay for a few hours of a lady’s company. Factor in the cost of dry cleaning to get rid of the reek of joss sticks, or everyone will know where you have been.
The bars are dwindling; when a bar closes, the premises become either a beer bar – usually packed out, and doing a roading trade – or, more commonly, into a plumbing and bathroom accessories shop.
One wonders why the remaining girlie bars are still there, and frankly I do not know. Conceivably, the tourist trade, conceivably, money laundering for triads, conceivably, just auld lang syne.
Hong Kong has grown richer – immensely richer – and its tourists have changed too – now they are mostly Mainland Chinese. I am given to understand that there is absolutely no shortage of expensive night clubs, massage parlours, karaoke joints and fishball stalls that supply Mainland Chinese women to visiting Mainland Chinese men. But I will assume, gentle reader, that you are not Chinese.
"The World of Suzie Wong" was the 1950s, almost out of living memory now, although the delightful Nancy Kwan is still with us, she having played the part of Suzie at a very tender age – 19, as I recall, and the product of an expensive and very proper English boarding school, who never quite mastered the Hong Kong accent!
Hong Kong was full of refugees from China, living in squatter camps, and if one daughter could support her brothers and sisters and her parents through working in the evenings, she very often did, making use of her limited English and the femininity that seems natural to the Chinese.
“Moh chin, moh d’ck kong!” (“No money, no talk”) was then the common phrase, “No Money, no Honey” came in with the Filipinas.
Fifty years ago, Wanchai was at its peak; the innovative use of chromium plated poles for young Filipinas to dance around was just coming in, and most bars still had a good supply of Hong Kong Chinese girls who very seldom danced but who would engage the passing gwai loh in conversation over a thirty dollar lollywater. Best of all, there was a war on, and HK was an approved “R and R” stopover for American servicemen.
Even as recently as the 1970’s, one aspect of Old Wanchai that will amaze today’s “mongers” was still current – you could drink, and, I am told, even take a girl out, “on tick”, if you were a regular, and settle your account at the end of the month. In those distant days your account would not be inflated either. Naturally, it paid to be on good terms with the mamasan.
Jump forward another twenty years, to the mid 1980’s, and the very last Cantonese bar girl had married her policeman and retired. There were no longer Chinese girls in the bars. Thais had made their appearance, in quantity (“Thais best for massage, Filipinas best for dancing” announced one mamasan). A ladies’ drink was now HK$110, beer was twelve dollars, and credit cards were taken – always in the name of a non-existent restaurant.
The girls from Thailand and the Philippines came in on 6-month “entertainer” visas.
A bar fine was HK$ 3,500, less after midnight, and always “long time”. Resident experts had already concluded that a return Cathay Pacific flight to Manila, a night in a five star hotel and an evening in the (then) fleshpots of Ermita was cheaper than a bar fine, a short time hotel, and the necessary lollywaters in Wan Chai.
(Today, you would have to fly to Clark and go to Angeles. Try Air Asia)
Wan Chai started to see the rise of the amateur, or rather, of the part timer – a brace of discos – still busy today – offered, and still offer, a spot for domestic helpers on their night off to trip the light fantastic, find gwai lohs, and negotiate the price of their affection. Besides Filipinas and Thais, these places are commonly full of Indonesians, adding to the variety, but one never sees a Mainland Chinese girl in either the traditional girlie bars or the discos.
There are Mainland Chinese girls in plenty, but they are confined to “Japanese style night clubs”, karaoke bars, massage parlours and fishball stalls, and they are unavailable to, and invisible to, the Westerner. They are on short term visas which they must constantly renew, and of course, like all the girls, they are in the control of the Triads, normally the Sun Yee Ong, who, in practical terms, own the bars.
Such has been the decline of a once internationally renowned red light district.
Is this what is happening to Thailand – less poverty, a higher cost of living, more Chinese tourists and, indeed, the seldom visible presence of the Chinese in the sex trade?
Wanchai is a ghost of its former sleazy self, becoming more and more respectable with each passing year. Rents are rising, to the point where paying “tong” over and above the regular rent makes a girlie bar un-economical.
Financially, “sex no longer makes sense!” in Wan Chai.
For the real Chinese sex-trade, one needs to cross the border, and visit Dongguan, a manufacturing city of eight million people – and at least three hundred thousand prostitutes, trained and graded to “Dongguan standards”. This is indeed commercial sex on an industrial scale, and every Chinese male knows what is meant by “Dongguan services”. Sadly for the Caucasian monger, he would stand out a mile, and be incomprehensible, in Dongguan…