The Sex Trade Industry in Hong Kong : A Call for Activism and Transformation

(A) Profile of Sex Workers in Hong Kong

Today, many women with a minority of men and transgender in Hong Kong, become sex workers for a multitude of reasons – debt, family burden, materialism , loneliness, or even, upkeeping of stray animals . Many of them are local, but a sizeable number are from China and other asian countries eg Thailand , Philippines, Burma. They may work as a lounge hostess, bar waitress, masseur, social escort, or provide services in ‘salons’, saunas, or rented rooms. In Hong Kong, “yeit lao yeit fong” (or “one apartment one woman”) is most common. Depending on the location, the type of services provided, the quality of the women, the amount of tips received, the wage of these women varies (see Table 1).

Average Fees Charged (HK$)
Nite Clubs (including Karaoke)
Drinking with clients

Going out with clients
Service Charge
Tips (within premises)

a. 110- 120 /hour
b. 120- 135 /hour

800– 1,000 /2 hours
800– 1,500 (negotiable)
200 /300 /500 /700 /800 (each time)

Massage Parlours
380 –700 (depending on the quality of the sex worker)
Japanese Style
400 – 500 (variable)
200/ hour (excluding service charge)
388 – 598/ 2 hours (variable; excluding service charge)
“One Apartment One Woman”
150 – 350 (variable)
Bar Waitress
700 –1,500 (variable; client would book the hotel)

Source : Sun Papers 19 July 2001

Table 1

There are currently about 20,000 women involved in sex work in Hong Kong with active sex trade areas in Mong Kok, Tsim Sa Tsui, Wan Chai, Tsuen Wan, Shum Shui Po districts for example. In Mong Kok alone, there are approximately 500 brothels, motels and massage parlours, over 1,000 workers in the sex service industry, and between 10,000 to 20,000 ‘clients’ a day. Known pimps may earn over tens of thousands of Hong Kong dollars a month (HKD8 = USD1). Given the lucrative trade, it is no wonder that many sex work premises are controlled by pimps and triads.

Purchasers of sex in Hong Kong are mostly local men, with a fair mix of overseas workers and businessmen. Compared to other Asian cities, Hong Kong is less dependent on foreign service men and tourism. Nonetheless, there remains a lot of mobility of sex workers and their clients, to and from Hong Kong, Macau and China.


Despite the history and ubiquitousness of sex work, and the unquantified GDP, sex workers are continuously plaqued by society’s bias, legal amibivalence, occupational health hazards, violence and police harassment. Migrant workers, especially illegal migrants, being foreign, ignorant of Hong Kong laws and fearful of authorities, are even more vulnerable. While there has been greater acceptance of sex work as trade work, sex workers’ rights are yet considered workers’ rights, and less so human rights.

(i) Social Discrimination

Todaty, the issues on sex work remain a societal taboo in Hong Kong. Sex education and public discussion seldom highlight the problems of sex work. This has led to the public’s misunderstanding, discrimination, and contempt of sex workers, and their family and friends.

Even when unjust laws are imposed on sex workers, this seldom arouse public dissent. Hence during the last legislature election, political candidates were able to manipulate public sentiments, and persuade the police to ‘crackdown’ on sex workers, for their selfish gains.

(ii) Ambiguity of Legal Rights
Although sex work is not illegal in Hong Kong, there are several laws that restrict sex work. Notably, the law on “soliciting for immoral purposes” (CAP 200, No 147) indirectly bans street bargaining and puts sex workers in a very vulnerable position. Most sex workers who were caught, either in ignorance of legal aid or in hope for more lenient sentence, would plead guilty. Often, they are unable to resist even though there are bias and mistreatment throughout arrest and legal proceeding. As sex workers are coerced into pleading guilty, courts have no opportunity to investigate or clarify the legal position. The legal ambiguities give only power to local police, to harass or repeatedly prosecute sex workers (see below).

The maximum penalty for this offence is fine up to HK$10,000 or imprisonment not exceeding 6 months. Often, fines, imprisonment and criminal incrimination exacerbate financial and emotional distress, leaving these women little choice but to return to sex trade, risking again police harassment.

The problem is worse for migrant sex workers, who have less understanding of Hong Kong law. Also, the penalty may be doubled, if the worker was an illegal migrant or had breached her condition of stay. Unless such discriminatory laws are repealed, sex workers would be left in a vulnerable position.

(iii) Vulnerability to Violence and Police Harassment
Due to the “invisibility” and stigma attached to sex work, sex workers are often subjected to violence and abuse by clients, pimps, mafia, drug-dealers and law enforcers. Be it rape, robbery, abuse or threats, sex workers often dare not, and have no chance to identify the criminals, as the legal, social, and enforcement system continue to believe that sex workers have “asked for it”.

Recently, there has been an increased in the robbery of “yeit lao yeit fong”, sometimes resulting in rape, violence or even murder. Women sex workers have started installing security cameras to capture pictures of these violators, and using them as evidence to help police prosecute some of these robbers. However, most sex workers cannot afford the expensive equipment. Their lives are therefore threatened on a daily basis, and they remain ill-equipped to identify the violators, leaving many robbers at large, perpetuating the dangerous environment within which sex workers operate.

Apart from violence, police raids and draconian measures have also been disruptive of the livelihoods of sex workers. In more notorious districts like Mong Kok, police are reported to have ‘investigated’ sex work premises an average of 50 times each within the first 6 months in 2001. Premises used for illegal sex trade would be notified to cease trading within 4 months. If sex trade is carried out in the same premise within the next 12 months, the police may apply to court to seal the premises for the following 6 months.

(iv) Occupational Health

While “regular condom use” appears to be high (81.1% of male clients in the AIDS Counselling Service in 2000) , sex workers remain vulnerable to transmission of STDs/AIDS.

With recession, as people become thrifty in spending, higher grade sex workers have been descending to lower grades, while pushing street walkers into further destitution because of the increased competition. As a result, older/ less attractive sex workers have had to charge lower prices and/ or accept clients who refuse to use condoms. Also, sex workers have reported of clients who use remove condoms during sex for their selfish pleasures, but at the risk of sex workers. While this is tantamount to rape, since the sex worker had only consented to sex with condoms, and not without, there is no law in this area to protect sex workers.

The problem is compounded for sex workers from China, as many are illiterate and have little awareness of STDs/HIV and prevention of infections. For these migrant workers, their risk of infection is extremely high, since condom supplies are seldom available and their bargaining power is low.

(v) Migrant Women Sex Workers

As the economy in China liberalized and urbanised in recent years, drastic income gaps were created, with large influx of people pouring from villages to cities, in search of jobs. Global economic restructuring and China’s joining of the WTO is expected to exacerbate the imbalanced development.

Currently, about 80% of these migrants are women. Without capital or skills relevant to urban work, many end up in the sex trade. However, there is limitation in demand for sex with the large influx of urban poor. Hence, many are pushed to work further popular sex trade centers such as Hong Kong and Macau. Many visit Hong Kong for a short while (7-day visa) and move on to other places, such as Macau (40-day visa and less restrictions). Given their illegal status, migrant sex workers often risk police arrests and exploitation of middle agents. When police raid brothels, these women are the first to be arrested and sentenced, while waiting repatriation to China. Upon repatriation, these sex workers may be further fined and/or jailed as involvement in sex work is illegal in China.


Given the many problems faced by sex workers in Hong Kong, several local organizations, in recent years, have began providing health and legal information and referral services to sex workers. Notably, Ziteng has been advocating better social rights and legal status for sex workers’, and challenging the public discrimination of sex work. eg a recent public demonstration was led against International Red Cross’s discrimination against sex workers and sexual minorities from donating blood .

Over the years, public education and empowerment of sex workers have created discernable changes – public becoming more aware of sex workers’ issues, gradual decrease in police harassment and prosecution, sex workers asserting needs for themselves. Yet, for so long as the abovementioned problems, and other issues on legalisation of sex work , taxation on sex work income , for example, remain unresolved, activism shall remain necessary. Society’s deep-rooted bias towards sex work also calls for transformation of collective consciousness.