HONG KONG – The five Chinese women stand on the sidewalk, smiling, chatting, primping their hair. Two are young and fresh-faced, reminding me of my students. The other three are pretty, but older, with a certain been-around-the-block look. All five flash more cleavage than your ordinary Hong Konger.
Suddenly, they scatter like startled geese, tottering in heels, click-clacking in the same direction. The spotter has signaled: cops coming. Seconds later, a patrolman in oxford blue strolls past, the bill of his black cap pulled down over the bridge of his nose.
He passes. The women quickly return, re-occupying their turf.
Working with our journalism students, it’s easy to lapse into thinking many of the mainlanders who migrate to Hong Kong are middle-class university graduates trying to broaden their horizons. And, to forget that hundreds of millions are desperate to escape the poverty of rural China.
As Ms. Magazine wrote three years ago, the 1997 handover from British to Chinese rule loosened border controls, attracting countless mainland women willing to prostitute themselves for quick cash. In 2006 alone, some 10,000 mainland women in Hong Kong were jailed for solicitation or violating visas.
According to the local advocacy group Zi Teng, most of their clients are older women – single mothers or married women – who find it more difficult to find work in China’s booming coastal cities. So, many try their luck in Hong Kong.
Most “want to make whatever they can in a week and return [to China],” an activist told Ms. “But … it’s actually really hard for them to make enough money to leave.”
On this night, it would be one thing if the scene were playing out in front of the seedy brothels or massage parlors in my former neighborhood, Yau Ma Tei. But I’m watching this just a few feet from streams of tourists browsing through the Temple Street night market, in my new neighborhood, Jordan.
I’ve never noticed these women here before, on my many walks through. Now I see why. The market stalls occupy both sides of the streets, allowing just a narrow path down the middle. To get to the sidewalk, you have to squeeze through the stalls, which are secured in back by metal beams and strung tarpaulin. The beams and tarp encroach onto the sidewalks, almost obscuring the store-fronts of other businesses. Like small restaurants, souvenir shops, and … hey, are those adult-video stores?
Never noticed those before. Or, the women. Lining the cramped sidewalk. Speaking Mandarin, I think. I’m no expert in Chinese tongues, but it doesn’t sound to me like local Cantonese.
I settle into an old-style Hong Kong restaurant: worn linoleum floors, chairs upholstered with plastic orange cushions, and signs pasted along the walls, promoting each dish. All of it looking savory, none of it in English. Nevermind. While working on my laptop, what I want is a house special: half coffee, half tea, iced with milk, and a tad too sweet.
Through the restaurant’s huge plate-glass windows, I have a clear view of these five women. Waiting for customers, they’re partly in the shadows of two stalls, one stacked with knock-off Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger, the other selling fake-leather purses. In the shadows, yet in plain sight.
They seem to be humoring each other, keeping the mood light. Most of the foot traffic past them are Chinese men, working in the market. One middle-aged Western couple walks by. After a few paces, the husband, with bushy mustache and pot belly, slyly turns for a second look. Longingly.
In the other direction, an old Chinese man shuffles by, eyeing each woman, head to toe.
Suddenly, the women scatter again. Another signal from the spotter. I now recognize him. Guy in the blue shirt. On the corner. Talking into an ear piece, with a satchel across this chest.
On my way out, I strike up a conversation with the waitress, whom I’ve noticed speaks English. All I want to confirm is if the quintet are migrants.
“The women out there, are they from the mainland? Are they speaking Mandarin?”
I see I’ve taken her by surprise. “Mandarin, yes,” she answers. “Some Cantonese.”
I’m not up for an interview, but I lob one more. “Are they out here every night?”
“What do I know?” she retorts, cutting this conversation short. “I’m in here, working.”
Oh, she knows alright. I head back into the sometimes-mean streets of Hong Kong, leaving the five women to their work.