Along with gambling, sex is big business in Macau. This story will explore how the sex trade works, and how it survives in a legal grey area bequeathed to Macau by its former Portuguese colonial rulers.

The Lives of Sex Workers

Miss Lin comes from Mainland China. She spends her days in her room, sleeping, listening to music, or cooking for herself. But when darkness falls, she puts on make-up, a tight skirt, and high-heeled shoes, and strolls through in a luxury shopping mall looking for men who will pay her for sex.

After a short while, a man looks at her to show his interest, and follows her to a corner. After a brief chat, she leads him to her room.

Miss Lin is a young single mother with a 4-year-old child. After a friend who works as a sex worker gave her an introduction, she moved to Macau and became a prostitute. She regards her work simply as a means of making money, and doesn’t feel ashamed about her occupation, because just like other people, she is relying on her own effort to look after her family.

Miss Lin is not alone.

There are many prostitutes like her in Macau. Most come from Mainland China, Japan, Mongolia, or Europe. They can be found in Macau’s casinos, karaoke bars, nightclubs, massage parlors, hotels, and residential building, or on the street. In general, they charge from 12 to 125 US dollars a time, although sometimes the fee is less than 12 dollars.

Among the most visible are those to be found every evening in the lobby of Macau’s famous Lisboa Hotel. Under multicolored lights, young women in sexy outfits wander around staring at the men passing by and asking them “Have a try?”

“With pinching and scraping, the majority of savings these women earn are remitted home to their husbands or children,” says Lee Yuk Ling, who works at the Chi Tang Womens’ Association. “They hardly ever buy themselves any luxuries. To avoid embarrassment, they have to tell their family members that they are working as waitresses or hotel cleaners, concealing the real occupation.”

Lee’s association is one of just a few organizations in Macau that reach out to the prostitutes, providing medical booklets, condoms and other sex products and informing them how to protect themselves. Some also offer free blood tests to prevent or treat sexually transmitted diseases. In addition to economic and psychological pressures, these women also face danger such as the threat of violence, during their work.

Ian Hon Lane. Photo by Danika Liu Dan.

Amy, a Filipina who works as a domestic helper during the day and a sex worker at night, stays at Ian Hon Lane, which is famous for its “one floor one” service (a term to describe a special situation in Hong Kong and Macau where there is only one prostitute in one building). In Macau, most of the Philippine servants cannot live at their employer’s residence and must find lodgings outside. As a result, Amy is free at night to make some extra money selling sex. But she has had some terrifying experiences. On one occasion, she was subjected to sexual abuse by an African client. When she called the police, the official first arrested her because her visa card had expired. Instead of dealing with sexual violence, Amy was deported.

Lee Yuk Ling at the Chi Tang Women’s Association said that because of the high cost of treatment in Macau, she had had to take injured sex workers to a hospital across the border in Zhuhai several times.


Is it legal or not?

The dangers faced by sex workers are common. Prostitutes often ask organizations such as Chi Tang Women’s Association for help, instead of the government.

Professor Luo Weijian, the vice-chairman of Macau’s Law Reform Commission, noted that prostitution is illegal in Macau, but it is very difficult to determine which behavior someone should be accused of.

“For instance, if sex workers and consumers are acting privately and with mutual consent in a non-public place,” he said, “the police have no right to accuse them.”

That is why police cannot arrest women wearing flashy dresses and looking for customers in hotel lobbies. Another factor making it difficult is that police are not allowed to search private places where prostitutes work unless they already have evidence.

Sex workers were arrested by the police. Photo from Macau Daily.

According to Prof. Luo, the Macau authorities handle legal and illegal workers differently. Since there is no way for a woman to apply for a legal visa as a sex worker, foreign prostitutes are considered as illegal immigrants and have little protection from the government or the law.

Should it be a side industry to gambling?

In Macau, the sex business is intimately related to the gambling industry. Experts say serious gamblers actually don’t like sex workers, and tend to think that a beautiful girl in a sexy outfit standing near them will bring bad luck. Instead, sex workers attract casual visitors to the casinos rather than hardcore gamblers.

According to the Macau Statistics Office, about 50% of visitors visit Macau for the first time every year. They are curious about many things, and that includes the sex trade.

Since the Macau government has no clear legislation on the sex business, casino operators are helpless. Dr. Fong Ka Chio, the director of the Institute for the Study of Commercial Gaming, believes that casino operators in Macau don’t like the sex business.

“They want sex workers to leave, and the real gamblers to come,” he said.

Gamblers and sex workers outside the casino. Photo by Hazel Wan Zhenxia.

But large-scale moves against the sex industry in casinos will certainly affect the gambling industry, since the revenue of the casinos depends on how long gamblers stay. If they are attracted to the sex business outside the casino, there is no benefit for the gambling industry. And the so-called benefits that produced by sex business have nothing to do with the casinos.

A low-rent building for sex workers. Photo by Danika Liu Dan.

“A study shows that, 60% of the gross domestic product of Macau comes from gambling industry. However, the sex business has nothing to contribute.” Dr. Fong Ka Chio said.

In some countries, the sex business is legal, with officially approved red-light districts in places like the Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland and Japan. The scale of Macau’s sex business is not small, but there is no legal district at all.

Dr. Fong argues that, “The Macau government should set up a red light district, in order to strengthen the specification management of sex business.”

Lee Yuk Ling at the Chi Tang Womens’ Association also noted that, “If the legalization of sex business in Macau is difficult, the government should strengthen the management and fundamentally forbid it; if legalized, the government should set up the red light district to safeguard the rights and interests of women and protect the image of the city.”

Casino Lisboa. Photo by Danika Liu Dan.

Danika Liu Dan, Hazel Wan Zhenxia, and Amber Wu Xiaolei are graduate students in the Department of Communications at the University of Macau.