She stands only at five feet tall; her body is thin and slender. She’s wearing a white sundress that is layered in lace and cutout stars, her dusty blonde hair sections into curls on her shoulders.
Her fingers, accented by long acrylic nails that alternate between hot pink and full glitter, clutch onto the handle of a Louis Vuitton tote bag. Her makeup is thick – black eyeliner, mascara and a multitude of fake eyelashes round up her doll-inspired look, but her foundation shows her age, the powder has filled and accented the wrinkles that frame her eyes.
I met KK in the office of Zi Teng, a non-governmental organisation that provides aid to sex workers in Hong Kong. She agreed to talk to me about her morning routine, but it is clear that she’s rather reserved. She answers my questions in short sentences as I ask them:
What is your daily morning routine?
“I get up around 10-11 and have breakfast. I then put on makeup, get dressed and go to work.”
How long have you been working?
What are your working hours like?
“From 12 noon to 11pm.”
I venture further and try to ask more personal questions. She answers in the same casual, unconcerned manner. KK is 45 this year and has been in Hong Kong for ten years now. She’s from Guang Zhou province in China and followed her ex-husband here after getting married. Their marriage lasted for ten years before the divorce in 2012, she says.
Initially after their split, she held cleaning jobs and other low-end service jobs, but was soon fired for spending too much time looking after her daughter, who lives with her husband full-time.
“This job is more flexible,” she says, “I told my friends that I know how to cut hair and some massage techniques, so they introduced me to this job at a salon. I didn’t know that it was sex work.”
It was only when her boss tried to punish her by pushing her to the ground, that she realised she could no longer run away from the physical advances of her clients.
“From that day, I gradually realised the situation I was in and tried to get used to it,” she says, “I didn’t feel too much, I had no choice.”
Now, KK says she makes around HK$10,000 a month at the salon-fronted brothel that has two beds in the back room. Customers often come in first for a haircut or a massage, and if they asked for extra services, she, or one of the other women there would oblige.
Such salon- or massage parlour-fronted brothels are illegal but common in Hong Kong, according to Zi Teng. While sex work is legal in the city, it is forbidden to operate in groups or solicit clients in public.
Although numbers are difficult to determine, there has been an obvious increasing trend of sex workers from the mainland as rural immigrants flock to cities such as Hong Kong in search for jobs. Often, a skills mismatch and a lack of capital push these women into sex work for survival.
A recent collaboration study by Zi Teng and related organisations showed that the typical profile of a mainland woman who works in the sex trade in Hong Kong, Macau and Shenzhen, is 32 and married with children and wants to travel the world.
After an hour of questions, finally KK lights up when I ask about her daughter, who does not know of her mother’s occupation. “I don’t want her to feel disappointed in me, or look at me in a different way,” she says, “I don’t want her classmates to bully her in school if they know.”
“I hang out with her once a week now. She’s so smart and hardworking! She’s a primary six student, right now in a local school and she always gets good grades in her exams, her English is good, her Math is good,” she shoots off.
“I’m very proud of her,” she tells me smiling, “I hope she will become a doctor in the future. She stays with her dad because he is smart and can teach her, you know? I don’t have any skills, I can’t really teach her anything.”
KK says that she doesn’t let her emotions affect her job as clients expect good service and she will try to give her best, but she doesn’t expect to stay in the industry for much longer, due to the profession’s age restriction.
“If I can earn enough money, maybe around HK$80,000-100,000, I will return to Guang Zhou and restart my business, if not, I will try to find a job in retail,” she says, citing her childhood passion for style and fashion.