‘When I was around eighteen, I went with my best friend to watch a movie. He was very handsome. In the cinema, I don’t know why but I kissed him on the cheek. He backed away and scolded me for doing what he called a crazy thing. The kiss felt good to me. Deep in my heart, I had crossed a bridge. I knew I could never turn back again. After that incident, however, I became depressed and even contemplated suicide. During those sad moments, I would fondle my chest and long for women’s breasts. I would also grab my genitals roughly and wish I didn’t have them. I used to think of ways to rip it off. Like wrapping one end of a chain around it, the other end to a moving motorcycle or car.’ She laughs, revealing big teeth. ‘The idea was crazy of course, and I was too scared to do it. Then I researched sex-change operations on the Internet. I also chatted online with a few mak nyah and they helped me through that difficult period. Later, I moved out of my parents’ home and worked in Singapore. Within three years, I’d saved enough for a sex-change operation in Bangkok. Life took on a new beginning for me.’
An Indian boy brings a battered metal tray containing our food and drinks, setting them in front of us. Sophia and I start to spear strands of boiled, yellow noodles to our mouths. Onlookers and flesh-hunters are wandering past, gawking at us and ogling the sex workers standing in the walkways.
Sophia lifts a finger to wipe chili sauce from the corner of her mouth. ‘Then, I had a Chinese boyfriend. He was a shipping executive. We met when I was working in a karaoke bar in Penang, and he was a regular customer. He didn’t know my past, and assumed I was a natural girl. He booked me frequently at the KTV, and later he asked me out. I was twenty-three and he was thirty.
That’s a concise overview of what I know about Kuala Lumpur. I’ve said here before that it’s not among my favorite cities in the world to visit, which is probably why I’ve taken so long to post this report. It’s not a terrible place but there are a number of other cities that I personally prefer. Everyone has their own opinion, but one thing is for sure. Sex is on sale in Kuala Lumpur.
I share all your sentiments. It’s not great, but Kuala Lumpur has a certain charm that’s fun and at least it’s not expensive like Singapore.
I go to Kuala Lumpur every few weeks for business and often explore on foot on my own just to get a feel of the city and scene. I ended up at Thai Club a month or so ago totally by accident. Just walked by it, said to myself, "that looks like a awesome combo of seedy working bar and SE Asia entertainment. I was not disappointed. It’s a funny mix of working girls, couples on dates, friends out for fun, and featured a pretty decent and entertaining cover band with hot dancers.
I had no shortage of propositions, but was just window shopping and didn’t lift the offer. I’m heading back on Sunday and will probably wander over again armed with knowledge of the scene. It was really a funny mix of locals on dates, mates on the pull, and mafia types drinking whiskey out of bottles with their names on them written in black sharpie. Was beach club similar?
I know you don’t recommend, only report, but is beach club significantly different than Thai Club. I’ll be in town Sunday and will head back over to the street.
No, I would say that the Beach Club is much more focused and you are a lot less likely to see "regular people" having "a night out on the town." I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a couple on a date inside as a matter of fact. Cheers.
As business have become increasingly more competitive in recent times, massage centres employ innovative methods to win and retain customers. Most massage centers today run a customer loyalty discount program - somewhat like what Coffee Bean does. Customers collect stamps on their loyalty cards each time they go for a massage then exchange a fully stamped card for free massages. Alternatively, some massage parlours issue discount vouchers to customers which can be redeemed on subsequent visits. It has become a standard feature for larger Spas to offer free buffet feasts to customers - eat all you can while you take your time to select a massage girl.
Spa massage centers desperate for customers are even offering "Free Trial" for new customers introduced by regular customers. The "introducer" gets a discount on his massage and the new customer gets a free massage - usually a 30 minute (1/2 hour ) normal massage. Of course, the "special" or batin massage isn't free - new customers must pay additional charges should they want an upgraded service. Experienced massage girls will persuade new customers (getting the free massage) to pay "a small fee" for an "upgrade" to an additional 1/2 hour massage, or for a special or batin massage. So the actual offer is: free 1/2 hour normal massage, but pay extra for a longer or premium service.
It is also not unusual these days for Spa and massage parlours to resort to spamming people's handphone to get new customers - my friend has reported to me that he has received an anonymous sms message stating "Massage Kuala Lumpur - First Time Offer RM35. Call Sally +60124460864".
Getting a Special massage in a massage parlor is not without its risks. Under Malaysian laws, massage centres are probited from offering any kind of Special massage but these massage parlours operate without license and are thus frequently raided by the government authorities. Also, due to the "underground" nature of these establishments, the massage girls are not required to undergo health checks, thus, customers risk contracting STDs.
Here is a long list of massage parlours, massage centres, health centers, Spa and escort agencies in Kuala Lumpur. A longer list of massage parlors in Kuala Lumpur and its vicinity.
After passing Nam Sing Pub, I reach Diamond Musical Hall, decorated with a row of colourful lights hanging over its doorway downstairs. What is it like inside? My stomach churns and I furrow my eyebrows and release them as I trudge up the stairs to enter a room lit by red bulbs. Six or seven transsexuals are sitting on sofas and bar stools. A transsexual with a small head, low forehead and wide, mean mouth approaches me, pulls me towards her by my hand and croaks ‘Mari, sayang, duduk dengan saya (Come, darling, sit with me)’, while her other hand – muscular and strong – starts fondling my crotch!
Another transsexual, sinewy and square-jawed, tugs at my other hand, pursing her red, rubbery lips, cocks her head and leans toward to my cheek! ‘Mari sini, sayang (Come here, darling),’ she growls. Yikes! Their voices, as rough as sandpaper, indicate that they are pre-op transsexuals. Fear tears through my solar plexus and my heart kicks off into a steady, galloping tachycardia. I pull my hands away from their grip, and bolt down the stairway, two steps at a time, and flee to a coffee shop.
Why do men seek out transsexuals instead of female sex workers? To get answers to that question, I later return to Hell’s Kitchen of KL to interview customers. Several refuse to talk and wave me off; a few play dumb and ignore me, but my persistent attempts over two hours produce five interviews.
Devadas, a twenty-four year old electrician, says: ‘I don’t mind having sex with a pondan transsexual as long as he’s gone for a sex-change operation. With my salary, I can’t afford high-class prostitutes. On the other hand, I don’t fancy a cheap ayam, [prostitute] who’s old and ugly. I’ve got taste, man, and I go for appearance. So, I come here to look for pretty pondans.’
She puts down the spoon and fork, opens her handbag and takes out a glass phial containing black oil and a figurine. ‘This love potion’s really effective. Ever since I started using it, few clients have rejected me. Many even give me tips.’
Not brave enough to hold the sinister-looking phial, I eye it warily. Thank goodness, I am out. ‘Get out, get out,’ she says. ‘I’ve given you my service. Don’t create any trouble here.’ The male DNA in her body manifests in two hands balled into dangerous fists.
Murali clumps down the stairs, unlatches the grille door and trudges away into the darkness.
‘How did you meet Helen?’ I ask, looking at the red and gold koi swimming in the pond.
‘I got to know her through an escort website – her picture was in it,’ Edwin says. ‘It was not a nude picture – just a headshot. Out of curiosity, I booked her. After several bookings, we started to chat on Skype. Slowly, we became closer and closer. Then, we went out on dates. Movies, walks in the parks, ladies’ night in dance clubs.’
Edwin, a twenty-eight-year-old car salesman, and I are standing on a bridge in Batu Caves Hindu Complex. My friend Murali arranged my meeting with him. Minutes ago, we partook a vegetarian lunch in a restaurant in the complex. Too many customers made it inconvenient to talk so we decided to stroll around.
‘Does Helen have a full-time job?’
Edwin is brawny and wears an earring. ‘Yes, she works in a hair-and-beauty salon in Sentul. escorting is her part-time job.’
‘What attracted you to her?’
He tears a slice of bread into pieces and scatters them into the pond. ‘Her personality, her understanding nature. I find today’s independent women too assertive and aggressive.’ Koi thrash about in the pond to snatch the pieces of bread, causing the water to splash.
Several days later, Xiaoling requests Jimmy to help her family members who need money urgently. Her father’s ailing trading business requires working capital, and her mother needs a heart bypass operation. He remits 100,000 yuan to her bank account in China. She is grateful, and they meet more often, and she ups the bar of her service. Whenever Jimmy is doing some business uptown, and figures he can sneak in an appointment with no one at work being the wiser, he drops by for a stress-relieving session. A fortnight passes. Xiaoling’s uncle’s house in another province is damaged in an earthquake and needs repairs. Jimmy plays the role of gallant knight again. He starts to come home late frequently, and gives the excuse of entertaining clients to his wife, Lily.
‘Who’s that China bitch you’ve been seeing?’ Lily asks one evening, jabbing Jimmy in the ribs with her fingers. On the outer glass surface of a casement window, two house geckos entangle in battle over a moth that is caught in the jaws of one of the reptiles.
Lily sits on the bed, holding his credit card statements and phone bills in one hand. Jimmy’s mobile is in her pajama pocket. His laptop is on the side table on the other side of the bed.
Jimmy opens his eyes and pushes his bolster aside. ‘What? You still awake? What did you ask? ‘ He sits up and rubs his eyes.
‘Who’s that China bitch you’ve been seeing?’
‘What do you mean?’ He squints under the bright lights.
‘You bought jewellery for someone recently, didn’t you?’
‘It was my co-worker’s birthday. Everyone chipped in, gave me the collection to buy something. I didn’t want to carry so much cash so I used my card.’
Eyes ablaze, she waves a sheaf of papers – his mobile phone bills – in his face. ‘And you called China several times. Why?’
Cold spiders of panic crawl down Jimmy’s back, and he takes in a few deep breaths to try to keep calm, look calm, act calm.
‘Why did you rummage through my stuff?’ He tries to reach for the phone bills but she scatters them on the laminate flooring. ‘My colleague borrowed my mobile to make those calls. His handphone was under repair.’
How did she become pregnant? Frankie, a well-heeled businessman, recalls having seen needles sticking in a pincushion on top of her bathroom countertop on many occasions. Furthermore, she always went to the bathroom to get condoms. He realizes she has trapped him by using condoms punctured with needles. Frankie’s thoughts churn like a tornado yet a thrill tingles in his spine as images of a future young man, a likeness of him, flash through his mind. ‘How long will you be here?’ he asks.
‘Only two weeks. I’m staying at the Swiss Garden.’
Frankie turns away from her to hatch a plan and rubs his chin. A moment later, he says, ‘I’ll buy my son from you.’
Miss Li squares her shoulder. ‘Hao (okay).’
He looks into her eyes, as if bracing for his throat to be slashed. ‘How much?’
She tosses her hair back. ‘One hundred thousand yuan.’
A pause. ‘I’ll come to your hotel in a few days’ time.’ He pinches the bridge of his nose and closes his eyes for a few seconds. ‘I need to find a baby-sitter first.’
Charles Chow gathers contact numbers of freelance sex workers from his philandering buddies and supplies a list of names to me. I send text messages to them requesting for interviews, with assurances of confidentiality. A China doll, Zhao Mi, replies and I set up an appointment.
Stepping into her condominium in Pandan Perdana, I give her a plastic bag of apples and oranges. ‘Some fruits for you as a token of thanks.’
‘Xie xie.’ She takes the bag and places it on the kitchen table.
I sit in the living room and fish out my Philips GoGear MP4 Player from my trouser pocket. ‘Can I record what you tell me?’
Zhao Mi eyes the thingamajig for a moment but does not answer. She jabs a few buttons on a remote control. An air-conditioner projecting from the architrave of the balcony entryway starts to hum and cool air washes over me.
The client, a grey-haired man approaching sixty, drives her to Genting Highlands. She experiences a pulse-throbbing time in the casino with gambling chips supplied by her client, and spends an entertaining evening watching a singing performance in the theatre. When they return to the hotel room, the old man pops a Viagra, undresses her and takes off his thick spectacles. They lay on their sides, locked in each other’s arms. He kisses her cheek, he kisses her lips, he kisses her ears, and he kisses her breasts, while waiting for the drug’s reaction. Slow warmth glows through Zhao’s body, gathering in intensity in the deepest place inside her, lighting a fire.
‘It’s huge!’ she exclaims, half an hour later. ‘I’m scared. Can I switch off the table lamp? I dare not look.’
‘As you wish.’ The room becomes pitch dark. ‘Let me go niao niao (pee).’
The old man starts to cross the room. ‘Aaaargh!’ Zhao hears the sound of furniture sliding.
She switches on the bedside table lamp. Her client is grabbing his crotch. ‘Tsk! I hit the back of a chair.’
‘No, my manhood! I think it’s broken. Argh … very painful.’
Zhao jumps to her feet and taps the ceiling-light switch, illuminating the bedroom. Her client’s limp weenie has turned purplish!
The old man begins to put on his clothes. ‘Quick, I need to get to a hospital. The injury’s serious. Wear your clothes and pack up. We’re checking out.’
The old man drives to a private hospital in Kuala Lumpur and from there, Zhao takes a taxi back. Zhao’s laughter shatters all images in my mind.
‘Where’s your friend Siqin?’
‘Gone out shopping. Will be back anytime.’
‘Her hong hong (period) has come.’
Zhao’s cell phone rings. She answers the call and rises from her chair. ‘My client is coming up. I’m afraid you’ve to leave.’
From my list of freelancers, I give the number of Rina (short for ‘Afrina’) to Leo Lee, on condition he gives a detailed field report. He agrees.
In his recollection, my buddy parks his car outside a block of apartments in Puchong, registers at the guardhouse and takes the lift to a certain apartment.
He rings the bell and a brown-skinned girl opens the door. Of height five feet three inches, she has an oval face and a short, straight nose. She wears her hair in a shaggy bob and is dressed in a halter-top that exposes her sloping shoulders and ample cleavage. They exchange formalities. Rina tells Leo she shares the apartment with a friend, who’s also a freelance sex worker.
Ivan Chow, eager to tick ‘African’ off on his list of conquests, asks me whether I have any contacts. I call my former college interns, whom I am still in touch with. Oladipo, a Tanzanian, says he will ask around and get back to me. He graduated in multimedia communications two years ago, and now works in an advertising agency. Days later, he emails me the cell phone number of a Nigerian student named Kimbassa. I forward the email to Ivan, who asks to see her picture, and Oladipo gives her full name and asks me to check out her Facebook profile. I relay the message to Ivan.
‘Can you accompany me to her condo?’ Ivan asks me over the phone. ‘I don’t trust these Nigerians.’
‘Sure, buddy. Better check there isn’t any hidden camera in the bedroom. She might videotape the love-making and attempt blackmail.’
On the appointed day, we walk through the entrance of a condominium property near Metro Prima in Kepong. The security guard does not bother to ask us to register in the visitors’ book. We take the lift to her apartment and ring the door bell. There is no grille door and the wooden door opens.
‘Hi, I’m Kimbassa.’ Gleaming white teeth shines through full, dark lips as she grins. She is wearing a tight-fitting blue dress that shows off her wide hips. ‘I thought you’d be coming alone, Ivan.’
‘My friend wants to meet you. Maybe give you future business.’
Kimbassa invites us to sit on a couch while she goes to the kitchen, pours out two cups of coffee and puts them on the living-room table. She drops to another couch and stretches her legs out, the tightness of her dress only barely keeping her knees together. We sip our coffee and talk about her country, her studies, her part-time work. After the chit-chat, she takes Ivan to her bedroom.
It’s an hour later when the entry door to the condominium opens from the outside. An African man, six feet tall and sinewy, walks in and locks the door. He has a face that looks as if it has been used as a doormat.
‘What are you doing here?’
‘I’m waiting for my friend. He’s with Kimbassa.’
The African man knocks on the bedroom door. After several minutes, Kimbassa and Ivan come out.
The African man pokes a finger into Ivan’s chest. ‘She’s my girlfriend,’ he says. ‘You seduced her, had sex with her. Now, you must compensate me!’ Kimbassa slips back into the bedroom.
‘Your girlfriend’s a hooker!’ Ivan says. ‘I paid her two hundred and fifty ringgit.’
I say to the African man, ‘She’s violated her student visa by prostituting herself.’
‘No, no, you pay compensation or you don’t leave this place.’
‘Cut the crap!’ I produce my MP4 from my trouser pocket. ‘Everything she said has been recorded.’
Ivan’s eyes remain fixed on the African’s face. ‘We have two more friends waiting downstairs. They’re coming up with the police if we’re not down in ten minutes.’
From the bedroom, Kimbassa, scowling under lowered brows, strides to the door, unlocks and flings it open. Eyes flickering, the African man’s shoulders slump and he runs a hand through his hair.
Ivan and I stride out of the condominium.
They perform the helicopter position for more than half an hour, with Mongmong spinning like a propeller. They swap positions and Charles does the rotating until he gives his hot surrender.
In the car, Charles continues: ‘Hey, something’s wrong. I’m cold. My manhood seems numb, cannot feel anything. I’m also nauseous. Maybe, I caught a chill just now.’
I throw a swift sideways glance at him. ‘Better see a Chinese sinseh (traditional physician).’ His forehead is beaded with sweat and his face is pale. ‘Go to Old Kelang Road. I know a sinseh there.’
‘Anything to get myself cured!’
I direct Charles to a Chinese herbal medicine store. The sinseh is sitting at a desk in a corner of the shop, in consultation with an old patient. Two matronly women come in and sit on a bench to wait their turns. The old patient goes away and it is Charles’ turn. He sits at the sinseh’s desk, resting his hand on a small pillow, and explains his physical condition.
The sinseh, a middle-aged man with a lean face, feels his pulse with his fingers. ‘Are you married?’
‘Did you kiew kai (go to prostitute)?’
The two matronly women giggle and slap their knees. Charles’ face blushes and turns as red as a ruby. ‘Er – er – yes.’
‘Wind has affected you,’ the sinseh says, his expression like stone. ‘Drinking excessive cold water after sex, too much oral sex, over-masturbation and exposure to cold wind after sex are possible causes. They result in too much yin. In severe cases, they can cause suo yang.’
‘What’s that?’ Charles asks.
The sinseh suddenly speaks in English: ‘Suo yang is koro or genital retraction.’ He writes a prescription of herbs on a pad and tears out one sheet. ‘Add three bowls of water, boil until only one bowl remains.’
After browsing, we proceed to the first floor and traipse along the side passageways, where most of the reflexology establishments are located.
The first centre, measuring about sixteen by fourteen feet, looks squeaky clean. Four reflexology chairs are illuminated with overhead bright lights and there are no partitioned areas. Three women are seated on plastic chairs at its entrance.
‘Massage, sir?’ A woman, possibly mid-thirties, asks.
We smile, shake our heads and move on. After thirty paces we start to pass another joint. Four women are seated outside, waiting to solicit customers.
One of them rises from her chair. ‘Want reflexology?’
A counter faces the entrance. Behind the counter is a thin fibre-board partition, which smacks of sleaze.
‘Can I be happy?’ Ivan asks, smiling.
The woman moves closer to him. ‘Can. Can give handjob and mouth-job.’
‘Thirty for handjob.’ She places a hand on Ivan’s shoulder. ‘Fifty for mouth-job.’
Ivan spies a prettier women sitting down, so he walks away and asks what services she offers. She says something to him and he comes back.
‘Not all girls do it,’ he tells me. ‘Come, we look around first.’
We saunter down the passageway and pass at least six or seven more reflexology shops. At every shop, women accost us. We take the elevator to the third floor, where more pleasure-houses await.
‘Massage?’ asks a woman wearing bare-back halter top and knee-length skirt. Her porcelain face is caked with thick make-up that fails to hide her age.
‘Anything else besides massage?’ I ask.
She points to a manila card with felt-pen writings in both English and Mandarin. Among the services are ear candling, cupping, reflexology, body massage and aromatherapy.
‘Any other services?’ Ivan asks.
Her face becomes solemn. ‘No.’
‘Then we’ll walk around.’
‘Go ahead and walk till you’re satisfied.’
We proceed further ahead where more reflexology centres await us.
Selayang. After given a day’s rest, the girls are driven to a brothel in Brickfields every evening to work. ‘Kerjanya senang (The work is easy). Just lie on your back!’ Pak Hartono briefs them. The pimp in the brothel charges clients 70 ringgit for a short session. As the girls’ families have taken cash advances from Pak Hartono, three-quarters of their earnings are deducted to repay the debt and the cost of their lodging. Two months later, Pak Hartono takes them to Klang to work and subsequently to Sungei Buluh.
Images of her past fade away in my mind as Budiwati stops talking and resumes eating her rice. We are in a nasi padang restaurant on Tuanku Abdul Rahman Road. The scent of coriander, lemongrass and beef mixed into the humid air fill my lungs.
I cut a piece of curried chicken into half and eat the morsels and we remain silent for a few minutes. Budiwati puts her fork and spoon down. She drinks her air bandung (rose syrup), and her big eyes dart about, seemingly to make sure no one is eavesdropping.
Putting the glass down, she continues talking in Indonesian language. ‘I’ve been staying here illegally for over a year. My mother’s debt has been settled but I won’t return to Medan yet. I intend to earn more money before I leave.’
‘What’s your worst experience here?’
‘On one occasion, I had so many clients for two consecutive days that my private parts hurt. I asked Pak Hartono to take me see a doctor, but he refused; said we couldn’t register as patients because we didn’t have passports. Instead, he took me to a bomoh in Kampung Datuk Keramat. The bomoh gave me jamu (herbal) pills. Pak Hartono only gave me a day’s rest.’
‘How many clients do you serve a day?’ I sip my Coca-Cola.
‘When I was a new face in the brothel, I served fifteen to twenty customers in one day.’
‘What has become of the other girls – your co-workers?’
‘One got arrested in a police raid; another returned to Sumatra. Two others are like me, working freelance. We’re staying together.’
Ismail returns to the dark-skinned man, still standing where he left him. ‘I’ll take Siti,’ he says.
‘Okay, pay me the money. Go get a room and wait. I’ll bring the girl over.’
Having sealed the transaction, Ismail waits in a room in Fook Loke Hotel. It costs him RM30 for an hour. Sitting on the bed, he looks at his watch. Why is the girl taking such an awfully long time? His one-hour rental expires and he goes to look for the man in batik shirt but the hustler is no longer around.
Ismail goes to the convenience store. Siti is seated at the cash register, while Hamidah is arranging boxes in the store, its door left ajar.
‘Hello, why didn’t you come to my hotel room?’ Ismail’s voice is serious but subdued.
‘What room? What hotel?’ Siti glowers at him, raising her voice. ‘I don’t know what’re you talking about!’
‘What about my money? Your friend paid you, hasn’t he?’
‘What money?’ Her eyes narrowed, her tone is challenging. ‘What friend?’
Reality sinks in, and Ismail walks away, his nostrils flaring.
After finishing his supper of bak kut teh (pork rib soup) on Raja Laut Road, Ah Lek wanders in the direction of a former cinema. His watch shows 11 pm, and he is keen to sample the street hookers in the area.
After a hundred metres, he nears a chocolate-coloured woman on the pedestrian walkway. She is wearing pants and a top with a pattern of multi-coloured splotches of paint no doubt bright once, but now faded to orange, yellow and blue ghosts of what they must have been.
As he passes her, she smiles and asks in Malay, ‘You want young girl?’
She appears to be in her early forties.
Stopping in his tracks, Ah Lek considers for a moment. ‘How much? And I need to see her first.’
Kuala Lumpur – the multi-cultural capital, home of the Petronas Towers
George Town – the cultural and cuisine capital of Penang
Ipoh – capital of Perak with historic colonial old town
Johor Bahru – capital of Johor, and the gateway to Singapore
Kuantan - capital of Pahang, and commercial centre of the east coast
Kota Kinabalu – close to tropical islands, lush rain forest and Mount Kinabalu
Kuching – capital of Sarawak
Malacca (Melaka) – the historical city of Malaysia with colonial-style architecture
Miri – resort city of Sarawak and gateway to UNESCO World Heritage Site Gunung Mulu National Park
Langkawi – an archipelago of 99 islands known for its beaches, rainforest, mountains, mangrove estuaries and unique nature. It's also a duty-free island
Penang (Pulau Pinang) – formerly known as the "Pearl of the Orient", now bustling island with excellent cuisine which has retained more colonial heritage than anywhere else in the country
Perhentian Islands (Pulau Perhentian) – glittering jewels off the East Coast still undiscovered by mass tourism
Redang (Pulau Redang) – popular island destination for scuba divers
Tioman (Pulau Tioman) – once nominated one of the most beautiful islands in the world
Malaysia is a multicultural society. While Malays make up a 52% majority, there are also 27% Chinese, 9% Indian and a miscellaneous grouping of 13.5% "others", such as the Portuguese clan in Melaka and 12% of indigenous peoples (Orang Asli). There is hence also a profusion of faiths and religions, with Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, Taoism, Hinduism, Sikhism and even shamanism.
Ah Lek walks to a liquor store at the junction of Petaling Street and Sultan Road, which is a hang-out spot for Indian transsexuals and Indian hookers. On a previous occasion, he picked up a fair-skinned thangachi (girl) at the store for a romp in a budget hotel on Petaling Street. He was satisfied. At the present moment, two male customers sitting separately at the tables are drinking Soong Thai and Thai Girl, but there are no hookers.
He saunters to a back alley to check the market for East Malaysian tootsies. A section of the lane reeks of putrid stench from the waste bins. At several back entrances to the joy houses, bouncers beckon to passers-by.
He steps inside a brothel and climbs the rickety wooden stairway to the first floor. The area is carved into cubbyholes made of plywood. The cubicles have open ceilings. Voices chit-chatting in an alien language tell him the hookers are Kadazans and Ibans. A flesh-peddler with a pockmarked face leaning on the door jamb starts to follow him.
A woman with shapeless body tries to pull him into her room. ‘This woman gives good service,’ the pockmarked-faced pimp says. ‘You want? She’s got hard breasts. Twenty only.’ The pockmarked-faced pimp mumbles something to her and she grins, revealing a missing front tooth.
Kuala Lumpur Erotic massage parlors, also called as Spas, Salons or Health centers, also have turn into a big part of Kuala Lumpur’s adult entertainment and sex business, especially erotic massage is very popular now days. Many of these parlors offer erotic massages and happy endings with their services. Male customers are very interested in having sensual massage, nuru massage, 4hand massage, prostate massage and so on. Sometimes erotic massage parlors might be even called as barbershops, but this name is more often used in China.
Because of the interest in erotic massages, women from China and neighbouring Thailand, Philippines, Indonesia and Cambodia arrive at KL to be effective in Spas, health centres, or similar establishments. These girls, type in the country with social visit Visas to locate easy employment as "massage girls" (as the local call masseuse). Despite their name, some massage centres aren’t greater than brothels.
In Kuala Lumpur, massage parlors which provide erotic massage may also be present in some 3-5 star hotels in KL, or even in commercial centres near KL, for example, Subang Jaya, Sri Petaling, Puchong, Ampang, Pandan Indah, Bandar Tun Razak, Cheras, Damansara Utama, certain parts of Petaling Jaya and Kepong.
Asian karaoke establishments (karaoke boxes) are often fronts for so-called gentlemen's clubs, where men are paying for female hostesses to drink, sing, and dance with them. There happens a lot of flirting with the working girls and many times it's possible to take a girl out from these venues. Girls are wearing sexy clothes and play with you. Usually there are no places to have sex in KTVs with the hostesses but who really can know for sure what is happening inside these private singing rooms. At least you are able to negotiate about taking the girl back to your hotel room or apartment.
If you are not sure what to do in a KTV you can always ask the hostesses or the manager how does everything work there. Especially if you look western or wealthy person they are very happy to explain you what services are possible and how much everything costs.
Many girls work as Guest Relations Officers (GROs) or Hostesses in the many karaoke (KTV) and Japanese bars in Klang Valley area. These girls are more selective and require a customer spending time and money on them in the bar before being able to take them out for a negotiated price. You can find there working girls from China, Vietnam, Thailand and Cambodia, while the Indonesians tend to work out of the many Dangdut Pubs, with their erotic Indonesian dancing around Klang Valley. Dangdut is a genre of Indonesian folk and traditional popular music.
Ladyboy is a common name for transsexual in Asia. Kathoeys (or "ladyboys") in front of the bar.
Where to pick up transsexuals in Kuala Lumpur?
The best spots are Lorong Haji Taib, Lorong Haji Taib 1, Lorong Haji Taib 2, Lorong Haji Taib 3, Lorong Haji Taib 4, and Jalan Sri Amar. Collectively, these roads-of-sin form a grid in an area called Haji Taib. The enclave is just 10 to 15 fifteen minutes’ walk from Plaza Hotel on Jalan Raja Laut and also De First Inn at the Jalan Raja Laut/Lorong Haji Taib junction. A handful of gaudy, cheap bars enhance the sleazy atmosphere here. Pub New Jingle Bell on Jalan Raja Laut/Jalan Sri Amar junction; Nan Sing Disco Lounge and Diamond Musical Hall, both on Lorong Haji Taib 1 are hotspots for transsexual GROs.
Chow Kit is also known for its red-light district as well as for its nightly gathering of transwomen.
Golden Rule Number One: if you ask how much and she offers an irresistible price, never accept in glee and follow her immediately up to her flat. Enquire further whether there are any other charges. Is the price inclusive of the room? Are condoms free? Are tissues free? Are towels supplied without charge? Is there a hot shower?
Almost every hotel allows guests to their rooms. For hotels which using access cards for the lifts the security personnel will usually escort your female guest to your room after registering them. Part of the registration process requires your guest to correctly provide your room number and your name. Certain hotels require you to come down to the lobby to pick up your guests.
The crime rate is higher than in neighboring Singapore. Crimes towards tourists are usually restricted to bag-snatching, pickpocketing and petty theft. It is important to keep a close eye on valuable items. Theft is more common in crowded places, such as markets and on public transport. Generally, if you avoid deserted areas, get back to your hotel before midnight and use your common sense, you're unlikely to be assaulted. Homosexuality is a crime hence gay and lesbian tourists should be self-aware and careful.
The women who Chin and Finckenauer located for interviews may have been recommended by key informants because they were more independent. An unknown number of women who experience more exploitation and suffer more force or coercion in the decision to sell sex overseas were not identified by the authors. Only fifteen to eighteen women were interviewed in any one study site. As a result, it is hard to generalize more broadly about the experiences of women selling sex either within or beyond the ten sites studied. These challenges are inherent in all research that seeks to collect data in natural settings.
Selling Sex Overseas: Chinese Women and the Realities of Prostitution and Global Sex Trafficking
Reading Selling Sex Overseas illuminates the complexities of transnational prostitution markets. Women have different motivations for and experiences selling sex abroad. Their experiences and their perceptions of these experiences may also change during the course of the time they sell sex, complicating the task of researchers to gauge exploitation. The women Chin and Finckenauer interviewed did not generally have the characteristics of sex trafficking victims. This finding stands in stark contrast to studies that rely on interviews with people who are working with service providers or the police who report experiencing much more exploitation and coercion. Although they leave open the possibility that women in other types of commercial sex markets may experience exploitation more in line with our understanding of sex trafficking, they conclude that anti-trafficking policy must be informed by more reliable information about the problem.
Selling Sex Overseas is an important and timely book. It should prompt scholars, policymakers and advocates to reexamine previously held assumptions about sex trafficking and prostitution. Chin and Finckenauer demonstrate that researchers can reach key actors in the sex industry and build the rapport necessary to learn about their experiences. They call on researchers to examine more deeply the market aspects and demand side of commercial sex industries in an effort to provide empirical evidence as opposed to anecdotal accounts or unsubstantiated reports upon which to develop policy. Selling Sex Overseas is an excellent read. It should provoke important conversations about both the nature of the transnational commercial sex industry and the problem of trafficking persons for sex.
Upon seeing him, she raises three fingers, unsmiling. Her curly eyelashes and delicately sculptured features charm him. This is his lucky day, he thinks. She should be worth eighty.
He enters the room and pays her in advance.
The hooker unbuttons and unzips her jeans. Still clad in her t-shirt, she hops to the bed, her back propped against the headboard by two pillows.
Ah Lek steps out of his pants and briefs and hangs them behind the door. He starts to unbutton his shirt.
‘No need to remove your shirt!’ the hooker snorts. ‘Come, quick, quick.’ Ah Lek’s gut twists.
For the next five minutes, she repeats, ‘Quick, quick, quick.’
Ah Lek disengages himself and dresses. If steam could escape from his pores, he would be enveloped in a toxic cloud.
The girl climbs atop a sink supported by a wooden T-beam, squats and starts to wash up. Her agility at the sink makes Ah Lek do a double-take. How can she be a newcomer to the profession?
As he shuffles past the stair landing, he remarks to the bouncer, ‘Good service? The girl’s so arrogant!’
‘You think your thirty ringgit’s very big?’ the bouncer retorts, his voice nonchalant. ‘She’s beautiful. You get what you pay for.’
This is my story came to an end. You are welcome to Malaysia, my friend.
We would also like to express our heartfelt gratitude to those people working for various nongovernmental organizations and social service agencies who gave us their time and help. We are particularly grateful to Elise Chung of Zi Teng in Hong Kong; Kendy Yim of Action for REACH OUT in Hong Kong; Fran Gau and Sally Chou of the Women’s Rescue Foundation of Taipei; Ruengrawee Pichaikul Ketphol of the Asia Foundation in Bangkok; Michael Chong of the Malaysian Chinese Association in Kuala Lumpur; Selvi of Pink Triangle in Kuala Lumpur; Lee Soo Choo of Tenaganita in Kuala Lumpur; Elizabeth Dunlap of the International Organization for Migration in Jakarta; Debbie Marulanda Referral Hotline in New York City; and Wenchi Yu Perkins of Vital Voices in New York City.
Ilene Kalish, Executive Editor at NYU Press, was critically helpful in shortening and improving the manuscript. She offered us many excellent suggestions, and above all was just a most pleasant person with whom to work.
We are also indebted to Despina Gimbel, Managing Editor, and Aiden Amos, Editorial Assistant, of NYU Press for helping us in the transformation of our manuscript into a book.
Thanks also to five anonymous reviewers (in addition to Sheldon Zhang and Barbara Stolz) for their helpful comments on earlier drafts of this work. Judy Mellecker edited the manuscript and we would like to thank her for doing an excellent job.
Thanks to Min Liu for managing our data sets. In addition, Phyllis Shultze of the Don M. Gottfredson Library of Criminal Justice, Rutgers University, deserves a special mention here for providing us with so much information and material on prostitution and sex trafficking.
Unable to follow the legal route of migration, one can approach a Sister Ping or one of her many counterparts. For a price that can vary from a few hundred dollars in the case of Mexican coyotes (as those particular smugglers are called) to well up into the tens of thousands, all travel and necessary documentation will be arranged. Human smugglers are in the business of illegally moving people across national borders. Their clients are willing customers.
Once the fee has been paid in full and the transaction has been completed, the customer, the person smuggled, is generally free and clear of the smuggling operation, although they are illegal aliens in their destination country.
Human trafficking is defined by the exploitation of victims. These victims are forced to work with little or no pay; they are beaten or raped; they and their families are threatened; they are deceived by being promised one job and then forced to work at another; they are controlled in their movements; and their documents are held.
The Tang and Sun cases above had one or more of these characteristics. Our focus to this subject during the past decade or so. Literally hundreds of articles, books, and reports have been published, especially in the past several years.
So why do we need yet another examination of the issue? Despite the concern and attention heaped on this problem, there is still much about it that is unknown or subject to controversy. In general there is little empirical research on the issue, as was suggested by Sheldon Zhang, a sociology professor, in his review of the literature on human trafficking:
Much of the current discourse on human trafficking has not been guided by empirical research. The increased urgency in U.S. government policy and funding priority to combat trafficking in women and children has been influenced more by a moral panic that continues to gain momentum rather than by solid and systematic assessment of the problem. Research on human trafficking remains challenging due to its secrecy and political sensitivity.
Some years before the United Nations and the U.S. government set out their official definitions of sex trafficking, Kathleen Barry, an influential sociology professor, offered the following definition that subsequently became a model for later depictions:
Traffickers are traders in human beings who either buy women from husbands, buy children from parents, fraudulently promise them well-paying jobs or lucrative marriages at the other end, or they abduct them. Traffickers take their acquisitions to market via overland routes or, through the more sophisticated crime gangs such as Yakuza in Japan, they transfer women and girls by air to their destination, usually a brothel where acquired women and children are sold as merchandise.
Following this definition, the U.S. Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) defines "severe forms of trafficking" as:
a. sex trafficking in which a commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such an act has not attained 18 years of age; or
b. the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for labor or services, through the use of force, fraud, coercion for the purpose of subjection to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage, or slavery.
After the TVPA was passed in 2000, a number of high-ranking U.S. government officials began to publicly denounce the cruelty of human the following: "The overwhelming number (of trafficking victims) are women and children who have been lured, coerced or abducted by criminals who trade in human misery and treat human beings like chattel."
Then-FBI Director Louis Freeh was also quoted after he delivered a speech in Romania: "This is a modern-day form of slavery—women and children stripped of their freedom and dignity, subjected to forced labor and prostitution, repeatedly beaten and abused."
At just about the same time, and in response to the growing problem of transnational organized crime, the United Nations adopted its International Convention against Transnational Organized Crime in Palermo, Italy, in November 2000. This Convention was supplemented by the UN Protocol to Prevent, Suppress, and Punish Trafficking in Persons.
Although not at the same level of intensity as some other sex trafficking controversies, such as whether or not all prostitution should be considered a form of sex trafficking or about just how big a problem human trafficking is, a fair amount of discussion and debate have also centered on whether sex trafficking is a criminal activity dominated by well-established organized crime groups.36 The nature of this discussion revolves around a contention by some skeptics that certain special interests advocate for a big organized crime role to hype interest and gain attention. If it seems that a particular crime can be associated with the "mafia," people and politicians will take it more seriously. On the other side, those who argue that organized crime is very much into human trafficking cite the scale and sophistication of some of the cases. They say the ways the trafficking is carried out suggest the hand of professional criminals and not "mom and pop" amateurs. The latter especially focus on the violence and corruption that is often involved — factors which are indeed hallmarks of organized crime.
What difference does it make? you may ask. The gravitas that being labeled organized crime and especially mafia brings, does get high level attention, does make something a priority, and does get resources. Mafia control connotes threats, violence, and intimidation. It scares off the amateurs; it silences witnesses; and it cows potential victims. Organized crime also has the bankroll and the political reach to protect its operations via corruption. And sophisticated criminal organizations can mount more complex operations, including transnational ones.
We were well aware that Chinese women were also reportedly going to Australia, Burma (Myanmar), Cambodia, the Philippines, Japan, South Korea and some countries in Western Europe, the Middle East, and Africa to engage in prostitution.
We excluded those sites because we did not have the same access there, and because we were limited by time and resources.
We believe that there is sufficient variability among the ten sites we selected to give a relatively good representative picture of the situation.
Among the major premises upon which our research approach is based is our belief that the best sources of information about prostitution and sex trafficking are the very people who are most directly involved in it.
These include women who are providing commercial sex services, the owners, operators, or managers of the venues where those services are being provided, law enforcement and other government officials who are charged with combating sex trafficking, victim services providers who work with sex trafficking victims, and certain local individuals who can be key informants because they have good "street" knowledge and connections.
The latter are the kind of people found in nearly every city, such as cab drivers, bartenders, and hairdressers who "know where the action is."
Between December 2006 and August 2008, we conducted 350 face-to-face interviews with the following groups of subjects: prostitutes (or prostituted women), sex ring operators, government officials/law enforcers, and NGOs/other key informants (see Table 1.1).
To conduct these interviews, we took three trips to Asia (lasting for a total of seven months), numerous trips to New York City and towns in New Jersey, and one trip to Los Angeles.
• Leisure and life-style: Routine activities; leisure activities; level of freedom of movement; social network (if any) in the destination country.
• Perception of involvement in the sex industry: How the subject saw it; what plans did the subject have for her future both in the destination country and in China?
We also conducted face-to-face interviews with 76 sex ring operators and others who facilitate commercial sex operations. This group of subjects includes sex establishment owners or managers, pimps or intermediaries, drivers, and telephone operators. As with the women who engaged in commercial sex, we also interviewed the vast majority of this group in their own settings, although five subjects were interviewed inside a prison in Taiwan. An interview guide was developed to help us with the interviews with all the subjects in this particular group.
The interviews with operators/facilitators focused on the following domains of information:
(1) individual characteristics,
(2) group characteristics,
(3) what factors determine subject’s involvement in the sex business,
(4) types of sex rings or establishments,
(5) the processes of recruiting, transporting, and managing women from China,
(6) the economic aspects of the sex trade,
(7) problems encountered in the sex trade and the subject’s coping mechanisms,
(8) subject’s involvement in licit and other illicit activities,
(9) possible membership in organized crime groups, and
(10) subject’s perceptions of his or her involvement in the sex business.
If you are a male, all you need to do is call the phone numbers listed in the local newspapers, ask them where they are located, walk in as a customer, and once inside a room with a woman, tell her you just want to interview her. You must tell her she need not do anything else, and you will pay her the normal charge. I assure you every prostitute you approach this way is going to talk to you!"
Eventually, we relied on three methods to locate and interview our female subjects. First, we found them on the streets. For example, in Singapore, we found most of our subjects in the streets of a red-light district where they were soliciting business, and interviewed them in a nearby hotel. We also located and interviewed quite a few streetwalkers in Kuala Lumpur the same way.
Second, we located them at the indoor sex venues where they worked. After we arrived at a research site, we would first find out where the various sex venues were located by asking any colleagues, friends, and relatives who happened to live and work there. Sometimes these contacts would refer us to individuals who became key informants. In some cases, we found locations by reading advertisements in the local newspapers or by asking taxi drivers to take us to sex venues.
For example, when we were in Hong Kong, we visited several so-called one-woman studios and conducted the interviews inside these premises. We found their advertisements on the internet, called them, and asked for their addresses. After arriving, we told the woman we were just doing research and would simply like to interview her.
We also used the same approach to find subjects who were working out of small hotels or old residential buildings in Macau, and likewise those who ply their trade out of small apartments in New York City. Because the women working in these types of venues were most likely to be working on their own, the process of finding them, entering their premises, and asking them to participate in our study was not that difficult, because there was no third party involved.
According to a 2003 report by the World Health Organization (WHO), "interviewing a woman who has been trafficked raises a number of ethical questions and safety concerns for the woman, others close to her, and for the interviewer. Having a sound understanding of the risks, ethical considerations, and the practical realities related to trafficking can help minimize the dangers and increase the likelihood that a woman will disclose relevant and accurate information. WHO recommends the following ten guiding principles for interviewing trafficked women:
(1) Do no harm;
(2) Know your subject and assess the risks;
(3) Prepare referral information—do not make promises that you cannot fulfill;
(4) Adequately select and prepare interpreters, and co-workers;
(5) Ensure anonymity and confidentiality;
(6) Get informed consent;
(7) Listen to and respect each woman’s assessment of her situation and risks to her safety;
(8) Do not re-traumatize a woman;
(9) Be prepared for emergency intervention; and
(10) Put information collected to good use."
Five years later, in 2008, the United Nations Inter-Agency Project on Human Trafficking (UNIAP) also developed a guide to ethical and human rights issues in conducting research on human trafficking and recommended seven guiding principles that were similar to the WHO guidelines.
When we were in the field interviewing our subjects, we abided by all the recommendations made by WHO and UNAIP. We did nothing to harm our subjects; we went in with information about various local intervention agencies in case our subjects needed it; we did not collect any identifiable information about the subjects; we asked for their verbal informed consent and we did not pressure anyone to participate in our study; we did not ask any questions that might upset our subjects and let them decide what questions they would answer and to what extent; and, we believe we are putting the information collected to good use. We were especially mindful of the first principle—not to harm our subjects.
• Some of the interviews were conducted in the subjects’ own settings and readers may consider it to be a weakness because they assume that most subjects may be afraid to tell us the truth while they were under their controllers’ watchful eyes. However, we want to point out that, even though we interviewed them in their own settings, many were independent prostitutes and so the question of being watched by one or more controllers was not an issue. Moreover, because the interviews were conducted one-on-one in private and without the presence of a third party, subjects’ fear was also in this respect minimized. Since the interviews were conducted face-to-face, we were also able to observe whether our subjects appeared to be fearful while being interviewed; and we did not encounter anyone who was afraid to talk to us because she thought her boss or mommy might get upset. In fact, subjects were more concerned about us (the interviewer) than their employer or manager, if they had one.
• Some subjects were referred to us by their employers, agents, or mommies and some readers might be concerned that these subjects could have been instructed by their sex ring operators to tell us falsely that the subjects were willingly engaged in prostitution and that they were not being victimized or exploited by their handlers. Again, we do not think this is a major concern because, as we think you will see in reading the stories of the women in the following pages, their stories ring true; and in fact most were not shy in complaining about their dealings with their handlers if they were not satisfied.
• The last issue may or may not be a limitation, but it clearly is a finding. It is the issue that will perhaps (probably) be likely to garner the most attention and controversy. This is the fact that, even though we set out to study the transnational movement of women for commercial sex and its possible links to sex trafficking, and given our best efforts using the approaches described, we were not able to find many transnational trafficked victims who either explicitly told us they were, or who otherwise gave the appearance of, or described experiences of being deceived, forced, or coerced into their current situations. One of the exceptions was an underage subject, a 17-year-old streetwalker in Singapore, who was by legal definition a trafficking victim simply because of her age. Another woman in Bangkok said she felt like she was deceived by her "auntie" who brought her there because the auntie did not tell her that as a hostess, she would have to sleep with men. This is not to say that some other subjects, more than a few as will be seen, had not been victimized or otherwise exploited at some point during their involvement in commercial sex. We did encounter a number of subjects who can be considered to have been domestic trafficking victims, because they were coerced or tricked into prostitution in China.
In chapter 6, we will take a look at the people who facilitate the movement of Chinese women from one country to another and engage them in prostitution.
We will examine all the participants in the sex trade: chicken-heads, agents, mommies, escort agency owners, brothel keepers, jockeys or drivers, fake husbands, and others.
We will conclude the chapter with an examination of whether or not transnational commercial sex seems to be controlled by Chinese organized crime groups such as the triads in Hong Kong, organized gangs in Taiwan, and Chinese tongs and street gangs in the United States.
We will examine the economics of transnational prostitution in chapter 7. Specifically, we will explore how much, if anything, Chinese women must pay to go overseas, how long it takes them to clear their transportation fees, how much they make from prostitution, and how they manage their money.
Here we will argue that transnational commercial sex is a business, and that the sex business is, like any other business, organized and functional in such a way that the benefits to all the participants are maximized, without certain participants having to be sacrificed or exploited.
We will then focus on the customers, the sex buyers. We will examine the socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds of the men who bought sex from our subjects. We will also explore the issue of abuses by clients. Lastly, at the end of the chapter we will discuss the nature of buying sex.
We will examine the role of the police and other governmental and nongovernmental agents in chapter 8. We will begin the chapter with a discussion of how government and police agencies in various research sites are responding to the increase in foreign prostitutes in their jurisdictions. We will then describe our female subjects’ experiences with the police. We also will explore the problem of police corruption in combating human trafficking.
In chapter 9, in order to assess whether our subjects can be truly considered to be trafficked victims, we will compare our subjects’ experiences and situations with those set out in the description of the nature and characteristics of sex trafficking as promulgated by both the United Nations and the U.S. government. Finally, in the concluding chapter we will probe the politics of prostitution and sex trafficking, the issue of defining and estimating the volume of sex trafficking, and then end with a discussion of what we see as the need to reexamine the predominant trafficking paradigm.
Since we interviewed women who had not already been identified as victims, and since the interviews were conducted either in these women’s natural settings or in public places, some readers might want to argue that what we are studying is actually prostitution, and not sex trafficking.
If our purpose is to study the latter group, these readers might suggest, we should interview identified trafficked victims and trafficked victims exclusively.
However, were we to do that, we would simply be repeating what the majority of other studies have done over the past ten or so years. Instead, our plan was to examine the broader issue of the transnational movement of Chinese women for commercial sex, and in the process, determine what constitutes prostitution and sex trafficking, respectively. How are the two related?
We think we can show that the prevailing human trafficking discourse fails to capture the many nuances of prostitution and sex trafficking, and that the definition of sex trafficking needs to be reevaluated to reflect the reality in the field.
A trafficker or a controller is anyone who plays a role in the transnational movement of a woman for the purpose of commercial sex. Many different roles have been identified in the literature on trafficking, and these include recruiter, transporter, trafficker, brothel owner, and pimp. As will be clear later in chapter 6, within the Chinese context at least, many more roles are involved in the transnational movement of Chinese women.
We will use the terms used by our female subjects and sex ring operator subjects when we refer to these people (i.e., chickenhead, agent, mommy, escort agency owner, fake husband, jockey, etc.).
We will often use the term sex ring operator as a generic term to refer to all the people who facilitate the transnational movement of Chinese women.
Reading Selling Sex Overseas illuminates the complexities of transnational prostitution markets. Women have different motivations for and experiences selling sex abroad. Their experiences and their perceptions of these experiences may also change during the course of the time they sell sex, complicating the task of researchers to gauge exploitation. The women Chin and Finckenauer interviewed did not generally have the characteristics of sex trafficking victims.