Beaten, abused and afraid: The plight of Hong Kong’s sex workers
A client pays a prostitute for her services at a brothel (AFP)

There are few customers in the New Makati pub, one of a string of bars along Hong Kong’s Lockhart Road. It was here that Seneng Mujiasih – a 29-year-old Indonesian – officially employed as a domestic worker – was last seen alive.

On Friday, she was at the first-floor bar with a group of other Indonesian women and expats. “One of my friends bought her a drink,” says one foreigner, who does not want to be named. It was Halloween. Around midnight she left.

Just over three hours later, police were called to the flat of Rurik Jutting, a 29-year-old British banker. Jutting lived in a luxury apartment block, J residence, off nearby Johnston Road. There they discovered Mujiasih with knife wounds to her neck and buttocks. She died soon afterwards. Stuffed in a suitcase on the balcony was the decaying body of a second Indonesian woman, 25-year-old Sumarti Ningsih. Police believe Ningsih had been murdered four days earlier.

The case has attracted lurid headlines in part because of Jutting’s privileged backstory. He was privately educated at Winchester College, read history at Cambridge, and had a high-flying career in finance, first with Barclays and then with Merrill Lynch. But less attention has been paid to the two victims. They were freelance sex workers who, like thousands of other young women from the Philippines and Indonesia, travel to Hong Kong in search of a better life.

“Why do I do this? Life in the Philippines is tough,” one woman, Erica, explains. We are in the Neptune, a basement bar and pick-up joint full of young Filipino women and grey-haired westerners. “My son is nine years old. I have to pay for his education. It’s hard being a single mum.” Erica came from Laguna, a province south-east of Manila. She works 14-day stints in Hong Kong, followed by three or four months at home.

Behind her, a live band belts out pop hits. Some women flirt with customers; others, bored, perch on stools and play with their iPhones or message using WhatsApp. Conversation flows in one direction. First “Are you single?”, then a request for a drink – a tequila shot. A sign, possibly ironic, reads: “No immoral activity or soliciting.” Police officers enter the bar and check the women’s IDs. They ignore the men. “We are looking for crimes,” one officer says. They depart after 10 minutes.

The Wan Chai area of Hong Kong is a study in what you might call remorseless street capitalism. Lockhart Road is both a red light district and a popular drinking venue for expats. It is home to sex-bar “discos” and to traditional British pubs. Women sit outside neon-lit bars, chatting with potential clients. On the corner, Gambians and Nigerians sell cocaine. There are businessmen and drunken tourists, but also Chinese parents strolling with pushchairs.

Prostitution in Hong Kong is legal, but often it is not codified as such. According to the Filipino manager of one disco bar, her “girls” come to Hong Kong on official six-month “entertainment” visas. They can, if they are lucky, earn $200,000 (£16,000) in one stint, she says. The bar prices “hostess” drinks at $330HK; the women get a cut; sexual services are extra. (There is a curtained booth, but most encounters take place in private flats or hotels.) At the moment, though, “business is bad”. This appears to be true. Inside, a woman in bra and knickers twirls to Alicia Keys before an empty bar.

Many of the sex workers in Wan Chai are freelancers. They are not attached to a particular bar or area. Typically they come to Hong Kong as live-in domestic workers. On Sundays, their day off, Lockhart Road fills up with women seeking to supplement their meagre $4,000-a-month incomes. The financial pressures are huge, locals and NGOs say. Often they have to pay substantial fees to agencies. They are also vulnerable to employers who can terminate contracts, effectively forcing them to leave. In a report last year, Amnesty said beatings and underpayment were common. Some cases amounted to modern-day slavery, it said.

Indonesian and Filipino women arrive in Hong Kong as tourists on 30-day visas. Vietnamese women vanished from the sex trade a couple of years ago when Hong Kong’s government restricted them to just seven days – too little time to earn back the air fare. Many overstay. Mujiasih’s domestic worker’s permit had expired; Ningsih’s visa was about to run out.

Murder is rare in Hong Kong; sexual exploitation, however, is widespread. One expatriate working in financial software says: “You see some horrendous behaviour towards women. You’ll see a guy walk into a bar, grab a woman’s bottom and sit her on his lap. “There’s a fine line with domestic workers. These girls are doing this to feed their families. A lot of westerners pick up easy women, then lose respect for women and treat them like objects. They think it’s real. It isn’t.”

On the day of her murder, Ningsih visited the Queen Victoria pub, two doors down from the New Makati. According to Richard Wake, a 62-year-old engineer and long-term Hong Kong resident, the murders have left regulars shocked. “This is normally an old man’s drinking spot,” he says, sipping a pint of lager. On Sundays, the pub is popular with housemaids. It has a DJ. The rest of the week, the “QV” is a typical British boozer, with a relaxed atmosphere, a pub quiz on Mondays, and even a Welsh male voice choir.

Wan Chai has long been a red light area. The writer Richard Mason wrote his classic novel of prostitution, The World of Suzie Wong, after living in a seedy nearby hotel, Wake points out. “I don’t disparage these girls at all. They can earn far more in a short spell here than at home. It’s simple economics.”

According to one British bar manager, Hong Kong’s triads, and its powerful 14K gang, own and run some of Wan Chai’s “girlie” bars. These have little need of customers, he suggests, since they are essentially money-laundering rackets. The triads request protection money from Chinese businesses, but don’t touch western-owned ones, fearing foreigners are more likely to complain. Referring to Ningsih, he said: “I saw her a couple of times here but didn’t really know her.”

Other expats say the pace of life in Wan Chai can be exhausting: a non-stop haze of partying, drug-taking and drinking. They said couples who arrived in Hong Kong on professional postings frequently split up. The pressures included too little space in a city jam-packed with vertiginous high-rises. And then there were the temptations: young women who apparently found all western men, even those who were overweight, instantly charming.

“I lived in Wan Chai for four months. After that I had to move out,” one expat confesses. “In London you drink until the last train. Here you go out at midnight.” He says J-Res, where Jutting lived, is the most expensive block of flats in the neighbourhood, which has undergone dramatic gentrification. A nearby block is home to eastern European sex workers who service wealthy Hong Kong Chinese clients. For a single man, Hong Kong is a dream, he says: a 15% tax rate, a lively nightlife and bands that play your every request.

Last week’s murders take place against a backdrop of political turmoil on the island. Pro-democracy protests have preoccupied officialdom. But since the murders, resources have been reallocated to Lockhart Road. On Tuesday night, pairs of officers were posted on street corners.

Jutting is now in jail, charged with two counts of murder. On Monday he appeared at Hong Kong’s eastern magistrates court, a bulky figure, bearded, with black plastic glasses and dressed in a casual black T-shirt. His next court appearance will be on Monday.

Jutting’s trial will be of little consolation for Mujiasih and Ningsih’s grieving families. Mujiasih was from Muna, an island south of Sulawesi. Ningsih came from the village of Gandrungmangu on Java. Both were young women from the provinces, facing few options in a confused mercantilist world. © Guardian News and Media 2014