Hong Kong Alarmed Over Sex-Worker Murders

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Sam Tsang / SCMP

A 24-year-old male suspect was arrested on February 5, 2009, in connection with the alleged murder of a Thai prostitute in a Hong Kong apartment

In Richard Mason's 1957 best-selling novel The World of Suzie Wong, a young English artist checks into the fictional Nam Kok Hotel in Hong Kong, not realizing it is also a bordello. He meets and eventually falls in love with Suzie Wong, an archetypal "hooker with a heart of gold," and the novel ends happily.

But if The World of Suzie Wong was written today, it would likely be a horrifying whodunit that ends with police finding a semi-naked woman murdered by a suspected serial killer. Hong Kong, a metropolis relatively free of violent crime, has been shocked by a spike in murders of prostitutes including three sex workers who were killed in their apartments in January. The rising death toll is forcing the city's conservative leaders to consider how members of the world's oldest profession might be better protected under Hong Kong law. (Read about Amsterdam's drive to clean up its red light district.)

After the recent string of murders, police have started conducting sting operations at sex-for-hire haunts and are offering rewards for information leading to arrests. All three of the women killed recently appear to have been robbed and murdered by someone posing as a client. Police found their badly bruised bodies on the floors of their apartments. Autopsies confirmed that they were each suffocated to death, leading police to suspect a serial killer was responsible. On Feb. 4, police arrested a local 24-year-old man in connection with the most recent killing, a 38-year-old from Thailand. The suspect remains in jail. "Enquiries are ongoing to ascertain whether the person arrested is connected to other similar offenses," a Hong Kong police spokesman says.

Whether or not a serial killer is on the loose, the murders are part of a disturbing trend. Hong Kong, a city of 6.9 million, saw 36 murders last year, twice as many as in 2007. Six of the 36 were sex workers. In a particularly gruesome incident in May, 2008, a 16-year-old girl involved in sex trade was decapitated, flayed, chopped into pieces, and dumped at a local market where meat was sold. "We are very frightened of this dangerous situation," says Jade, a 40-year-old Hong Kong prostitute who declined to give her last name. "We don't know why these people want to kill us."

Some policymakers, activists and scholars say these are crimes of opportunity — and that the law may be helping to create that opportunity. Prostitution is a shadow profession in Hong Kong. It is technically legal, but traditional brothels are classified as illegal "vice establishments." Landlords who rent a single premise to more than one sex worker can face jail time. This means sex workers are forced to operate mainly as one-woman businesses out of their homes. There are approximately 1,600 one-woman brothels in Hong Kong, according to the Hong Kong police. Operating in isolation and without protection, these prostitutes are vulnerable to violent crime. Five of the six sex workers who were murdered last year, and all three killed in January, died in their workplaces.

Simon Young, director of the Center for Comparative and Public Law at Hong Kong University, says the current laws were designed to cut down on organized crime and pimping — it's illegal for anyone except a sex worker to profit from the services rendered. But the code "is out of touch with reality," Young says. "A clearer law must flow from a policy change that recognizes the existing law hurts many innocent people."

There appears to be little agreement just what this change should be. Young suggests licensing prostitutes so the industry "is more controlled, regulated and safe." Hong Kong lawmaker Margaret Ng is calling for changes so that more than one prostitute can operate out of the same apartment. That way, workers can watch out for each other. "We need to aim our efforts against organized crime instead of exposing sex workers to danger, especially when it's a danger to their lives," says Ng. "But I get the feeling that most people in the government don't have a lot of sympathy for sex workers, so there's not enough energy put into changing the law."

Zi Teng, a Hong Kong sex-workers' support organization, has tried to help prostitutes by subsidizing the installation costs of surveillance cameras and alarms in workers' apartments. Zi Teng also organizes self-help groups in basic self-defense skills. But Elaine Lam, Zi Teng's director, argues such measures might be less necessary if prostitution were completely legalized. Sex workers currently are stigmatized by society, which can make them a target for violent crimes, Lam says. "We have many cases where sex workers say they open their door for a client and they are attacked and stabbed because they are seen as bad people in society," she says. "We need whole legal reform, where sex work is decriminalized and treated as a normal industry so it's protected and respected."

The Hong Kong police, for their part, argue that the current law is fair. It "strikes a reasonable balance between the human rights and privacy of sex workers, the well-being of other members of the community as well as the prevailing moral values of the community," a police spokesman stated in an e-mail. "The police aim to prevent the exploitation of women and girls for the purposes of prostitution, to combat organized prostitution activities and to lessen the nuisance to members of the public that 'vice activities' may cause." A more pressing goal, however, is to catch the men who are killing Hong Kong's prostitutes.

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