Taipei’s legal brothels shut

By Lawrence Chung, The Straits Times, 28 March 2001

The move ends a 50-year-old practice but observers say, given the high unemployment, it will only drive the business underground.

TAIPEI—The city officially ended its five-decade-old legal prostitution system at midnight yesterday to improve its image as the capital. No longer legitimate, the prostitutes shown in these pictures must look for alternative work. Brothel patrons would review these pictures before picking a girl, said this volunteer who helped the women fight for their right to work. -- EVE SUN

But at a time when even men are reported to be hunting for jobs as male escorts or gigolos, many said the measure would only drive the sex business underground.

Yesterday, the last of the 42 legal prostitutes from 10 authorised brothels in two of Taipei’s red-light districts held a ‘heaven-thanking’ ritual for all those who had helped them fight for their working rights.

The ceremony brought a closure to their business and their years of fruitless pursuit for the removal of the ban.

‘What do they know about our plight?’ lamented Ms Li-chun.

The legal prostitute was one of those who had battled actively for the right to continue their work since then Mayor Chen Shui-bian ordered a ban on the licensed business in 1997 to please local women’s groups and to eliminate the sex trade.

She said many thought that they were lazy and vain, and did not want to get a decent job.

‘Nobody wants to be a prostitute’ she said.

‘All of us are poorly educated and have no skills,’ she said.

‘Some of us tried to change jobs, but it’s not that easy. Today when many are unemployed, getting a job at a factory or as a dishwasher is difficult.’

Since last September, Taiwan has had a relatively high unemployment rate.

That has led to some jobless men, including middle-aged former businessmen, to look for work as male escorts.

Police recently raided an illegal agency advertising such jobs in a scheme to swindle job seekers.

‘I am very tired,’ said Ms Li-chun, who hid the fact that she had breast cancer while leading her colleagues in numerous protests against the city government.

Asked whether she would return to the business, she said she had yet to think about her future, but said some of her colleagues might do that.

The city government said 56 of the 90 legal prostitutes had applied for low-interest loans to help them start new trades, including betel nut selling.

Ms Chou Chia-chun, president of the Collective of Sex Workers and Supporters, said most prostitutes had accepted their fate and no longer wanted to fight.

However, she said she believed Taipei’s sex trade would not end.

‘It will only go underground,’ she said.

‘I think the next question is how the authorities deal with this matter, including crime and disease control.’

City councillor Pang Chien-kuo suggested the city government set up a special sex-trade district to regulate all the activities.

According to a recent survey by the United Daily News, 64 per cent of the residents supported having a special district controlled by the government but 81 per cent did not want such districts in their neighbourhood.