taiwan sex trade

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Subject: taiwan sex trade
From: Melanie Orhant (morhant@igc.org)
Date: Mon Apr 26 1999 - 12:39:08 EDT


April 26, 1999

                   Taipei's Slower Sex Trade
                   Leaves Rebound Uncertain

                   By RUSSELL FLANNERY
                   Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

                   TAIPEI, Taiwan -- When voters threw out reform Mayor
Chen Shui-bian
                   in December, his gloomy supporters predicted Taipei's
sex industry would
                   come roaring back.

                   During his four-year term, Mr. Chen shut more than
400 brothels, sleazy
                   hotels and hostess bars as part of an unprecedented
crackdown on
                   prostitution. So thousands of cabdrivers and
bartenders and pimps -- who
                   had thrived on the sex trade here in Taiwan's capital
-- voted for Mr.
                   Chen's opponent, Ma Ying-jeou. His Nationalist Party
has been winking at
                   the city's sprawling sex industry for 50 years.

                   Yet almost five months after the election, while some
sex operations have
                   reopened, the business hasn't grown anywhere near as
big as it once was.
                   Around Jilin Road, a downtown hub for the industry
before Mr. Chen
                   took office, it's still as quiet as it was after he
shut down its biggest brothels
                   in 1996. A "For Rent" banner is tacked to the World
City Barber Shop, a
                   hulking three-story brothel with white pillars. A
billboard at Dachiang
                   Barber Shop touts the empty bordello as "suitable for
a bank or
                   restaurant." (Since most prostitution was technically
illegal even in the old
                   days, the customer was often serviced in a barber's
chair in front of a
                   mirror in a dingy cubicle.)

                   "The sex industry may creep back a little," says
Hsiao-hui Sung, a
                   middle-aged street hawker who is grilling ears of
corn on a cart along a
                   deserted stretch of Jilin Road, a street of three-
and four-story buildings
                   housing clothing shops, appliance stores and
middle-class apartments. "But
                   it's never going to be the same as before Chen was
mayor. I just don't
                   think it will happen."

                   'More Open-Minded' Society

                   Taiwan has changed since the industry's heyday a
decade ago. Young
                   adults in the nation's most cosmopolitan city are
more liberal about sex
                   than their parents. "The more open-minded a society
is about sex, the less
                   prostitution there will be," says Ken Chiu, former
chairman of the Taiwan
                   Association for Human Rights, who as a lawyer has
also defended
                   businesses Mr. Chen closed.

                   In addition, a younger generation of
international-oriented, better-educated
                   executives entertains clients differently from a
decade ago -- meaning sex
                   isn't necessarily part of the sales pitch anymore.

                   There's also a crucial political change. The end of
four decades of
                   heavy-handed martial law by the Nationalist Party in
1987 makes it harder
                   for Nationalist politicians to ignore a business the
middle class doesn't want
                   in its neighborhoods. The Nationalists' loss to Mr.
Chen in 1994 in the
                   city's first mayoral elections after the end of
martial law forced the party to
                   face that fact.

                   "The Nationalists know they have to try to satisfy
voters who don't want to
                   see the industry come back in a big way, and yet
there are a lot of
                   sex-industry interests out there right now that want
to test how far they can
                   go," says Chen Po-kuang, an assistant to three
opposition-party members
                   on the Taipei City Council. So far, he says, the sex
business has grown
                   only slightly since the new mayor took office. "We
assume the balance will
                   shift toward the industry, but it may take a year
before that becomes
                   clear," he says.

                   Prostitution was once one of Taipei's biggest
businesses, growing with the
                   city as it emerged as a trading center 200 years ago.
The Japanese who
                   ruled Taiwan as a colony between 1895 and 1945
expanded the business
                   to lavish hot-spring villas in the northern suburb of
Peitou. After China's
                   Nationalist government lost the civil war on the
mainland and moved its
                   capital to Taipei in 1949, the city's sex industry
opened its arms to
                   hundreds of thousands of troops. Prostitution was
more accepted here and
                   was a more fundamental part of doing business than in
the West.

                   'Beautiful' Lights

                   The industry peaked during a boom in the stock and
real-estate markets in
                   the late 1980s and early 1990s, when there were as
many as 100,000
                   prostitutes in this city of three million people. The
symbols of the industry's
                   heyday were the bright twirling barber poles in front
of neon-lit
                   "barbershops."

                   "At night, you could see the poles and colored lights
all along main streets
                   like Chang Chun Road. It was beautiful," says a
former brothel manager
                   who now works in a downtown restaurant catering to
prostitutes.

                   Barbershops were hardly the only choice.
Businessmen's hotels often had
                   discrete dining rooms for small groups of businessmen
served dinner and
                   drinks by naked women.

                   AIDS and the end of the boom put a dent in
prostitution, but the biggest
                   blow came at the ballot box in 1994 when Mr. Chen,
who is now 48, won
                   the mayoralty for his Democratic Progressive Party by
running against
                   alleged Nationalist corruption. As a young lawyer, he
had defended
                   dissidents jailed by the Nationalists during martial
law.

                   But Mr. Chen didn't always have a strong legal basis
for closing the
                   brothels and other businesses he targeted, say their
lawyers. Meanwhile,
                   the crackdown grew increasingly unpopular with people
who depended on
                   the sex trade for a living.

                   "You have to give people some room to survive," says
Lin Chu-long, a taxi
                   driver on the night shift. "People lost their jobs,
and in the end they all
                   voted against the mayor." That was enough, in a close
election, to cost Mr.
                   Chen his job when the Nationalists ran their own
version of Mr. Clean.

                   Continuing Crackdown

                   The police say they are still cracking down, citing
what they say is a tripling
                   of prostitution-related detentions in the first three
months of the year.

                   Yet while prostitution hasn't exploded, some hostess
bars have begun
                   opening since the election, and prostitutes say it is
easier to get
                   better-paying jobs now as these new bars compete for
workers.

                   Hsiao-mei (her nickname) is a 25-year-old who
switched to a hostess bar
                   that opened only in February, after the election,
because the pay is better.
                   After all, she says, "I do this for the money." The
bar is in the basement of
                   an office building in a glossy neighborhood of sleek
high-rise offices. In a
                   series of small dens equipped with couches and
karaoke machines, women
                   like her, in a black tank top and bikini briefs, sit
on the laps of men often
                   nearly naked themselves. The going rate for two hours
of sex in a hotel
                   afterward can be as much as US$400.

                   For now, say social activists, they will wait and see
what the new mayor
                   does. "I'd say we're still in a testing period
between the industry's backers
                   and city enforcement," says Hui-Jung Chi, chief
executive officer of the
                   Garden of Hope Foundation, Taiwan's biggest support
group for
                   prostitutes trying to quit the business. "The
ultimate outcome will depend
                   on the determination of Mr. Ma."

                   The police, Ms. Chi says, used to take bribes from
the brothels with the
                   connivance of Nationalist politicians, a charge that
a spokesman for the
                   new mayor doesn't specifically deny.

                   Tough Reputation

                   The 48-year-old mayor -- with his youthful good looks
and Harvard law
                   degree -- hardly looks like a friend of the sex
trade. Urbane and a fluent
                   English speaker, he is a former law professor and
justice minister with a
                   reputation for being tough on organized crime and on
vote-buying.

                   "It's a false expectation" the mayor will tolerate a
return to the past, says a
                   city-government spokesman. The mayor pledges to crack
down on
                   prostitution regardless of whether party members are
involved.

                   Mr. Ma represents a newer, friendlier, younger face
of the Nationalist
                   Party, which faces increasingly effective opposition
in Taiwan politics,
                   despite its stranglehold on patronage and political
contributions.

                   Yet he is already having to make an accommodation
with the city's sordid
                   past. Recently, he offered a two-year grace period to
several dozen
                   licensed prostitutes who lost their jobs when the old
mayor closed their
                   brothels. The party had handed out dozens of licenses
to brothels in the
                   1950s and never revoked them.

                   These women, mostly middle-aged, can still find work
in Taipei's Wan-hua
                   district, where prostitution still thrives. Even the
old mayor couldn't -- or
                   wouldn't -- wipe it out here, since Wan-hua isn't in
the center of town and
                   its working-class brothels didn't flaunt themselves
with the bright barber
                   poles.

                   Another Image

                   Wan-hua couldn't be further from the brainy high-tech
image Taiwan likes
                   to present as a maker of computers for all the
world's computer
                   companies, a business that's kept its economy from
crashing like the rest of
                   Asia. Wan-hua is a maze of alleys and tea houses with
suggestive names
                   such as "Your Second Wife" and "One More Time," some
of them fronts
                   for prostitution.

                   Heavily painted middle-aged hookers stroll the
run-down streets, worlds
                   apart from the neighborhoods frequented by the elite
engineers and
                   financiers who keep the high-tech industry running.
Between customers,
                   the prostitutes repair to carts selling smoking
barbecued sausage.

                   The question here, experts say, isn't about Mr. Ma's
integrity, which is
                   widely regarded as high; it's whether he has the
political power to restrain
                   the sex industry that once exerted so much influence
over city government.

                   "The industry for now is just testing the water,"
says Tim Ting, chief
                   consultant to the Gallup Organization in Taiwan and a
frequent critic of the
                   Nationalists.

                   "They will come back very quietly, but eventually it
will be out of control."


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