No romance in the real world of Suzie Wong

No romance in the real world of Suzie Wong

This is where men come to find their Suzie Wongs - and end up with Nika.

In knee-high boots, a barely-there skirt and pink lipstick, the Filipina, who says she is 29 but looks like she is 19, pouts atop a high stool outside the Express Club where, beyond velvet curtains, scantily dressed women are glimpsed dancing.

She arrived in Hong Kong three months ago, she says. Each month, the sex worker earns HK$10,000 (S$1,700) which she sends home to her parents and three sisters. "They think I work as a waitress."

Ask if she has heard of the beautiful and gentle-hearted prostitute who plied her trade in the same area, as immortalised in the 1957 novel The World Of Suzie Wong by Richard Mason, and she asks back: "Who is Suzie Wong?"

Half a century after the fictional love story between an impecunious British artist and the eponymous cheongsam-clad Hong Kong courtesan was published - spawning a movie, a ballet and countless fevered male fantasies - there is little that is romantic about Wan Chai's Lockhart Road.

Along two rows of buildings parallel to Victoria Harbour, it hosts scores of fleshpots - girlie bars, basement discos and British-styled watering holes with names like Club Bunny, Wildcat and New Makati.

"Baby, come in for a drink," coos Nika's colleague at passing businessmen and tourists. Others can be more aggressive. A banker recounts to The Sunday Times how a rebuffed woman once asked him, as a jibe: "Are you gay?"

The area's seediness was underscored by news this month of British banker Rurik Jutting, 29, who had picked up two Indonesian women there - their butchered bodies were later found in his flat just 10 minutes' walk away.

Beyond the flesh trade, Wan Chai has its charms as one of Hong Kong's oldest and most iconic neighbourhoods. A mix of residences and offices, it is wedged between the financial centre of Central and the shopping hub of Causeway Bay, with its own heartbeat.

Fanning out from the banks of a cove - its name means "small bay" in Cantonese - Wan Chai had its first denizens as early as 1819, later becoming a working-class neighbourhood for the Chinese such as dock workers, separated from the British and other foreigners living in Central.

In 1879, they were joined by sailors after the British established the Royal Navy base at Tamar in the adjacent Admiralty.

Over the decades, given its location, real estate developers moved in, and with them, the upwardly mobile, expatriates and hipsters. Wan Chai today has one of Hong Kong's highest proportions of millionaire residents.

Century-old tenements, their paint peeling, slouch against the smooth edifices of new condos (Mr Jutting lived in one of these, where rent for a 600 sq ft pad is HK$40,000 a month).

Here, too, is a symbol of the rise of local Chinese power - the cylindrical Hopewell Centre built by tycoon Gordon Wu. When completed in 1980, it became - for a brief flicker in Hong Kong's ever-changing landscape - the city's tallest building, eclipsing Jardine House of colonial firm Jardine Matheson.

Beloved communal landmarks include the Southern Playground - a concrete rectangle where the young play basketball, the old practise taiji and the degenerate exchange drugs for money - and the trams passing through Hennessy Road, the location for Crossing Hennessy, a 2010 film that starred Wan Chai as much as actors Jacky Cheung and Tang Wei.

But sex is a perennial attraction. Its odour permeates the district today just as it did in the past.

From the beginning, Hong Kong captured the imagination of many Western men as a "sexual playground", says historian Mark Hampton, writing in a book about Hong Kong and British culture.

In tandem, venereal diseases were said in the 1850s to have decimated the crew of every ship that entered the harbour, and Rear Admiral James Stirling in 1854 described Hong Kong as a "Pest House" with the potential to infect the whole population of China, writes geography academic Philip Howell of Cambridge University.

Wan Chai was a key player in the scene - an 1879 report on the Contagious Disease Ordinance found it had "the least privileged class of brothels and inmates", with brothels in Ship Street - now home to hipster eateries - frequented by soldiers and sailors.

Another brothel zone sprang up along Spring Garden Lane in the 1920s, known as Big Number Brothels as they were identified by giant street number signs on their gates, says Mr Cheng Po Hung, author of the Chinese-language book Early Brothels In Hong Kong.

It was also then that Lockhart Road blossomed as a red-light district, following reclamation that extended the shoreline. It boomed, given its proximity to Fenwick Pier, where United States military ships docked and soldiers fighting in the Korean and Vietnam wars disembarked for recreational leave.

"There was that kind of synergy," says historian John Carroll.

Working girls then - including a real-life Suzie Wong on whom the fictional character was based, says Mr Cheng - were locals. In the 1970s, Wan Chai's flesh trade was advertised in official guides by the Hong Kong Tourism Authority. "You can speak to the ladies and take them out," goes an entry.

"It was pretty clear that sex is what was implied," says Dr Hampton.

But the profile of the women in Lockhart Road was evolving. After the 1970s, South-east Asian women, especially moonlighting domestic helpers, became a favourite of many European men, says Dr Hampton.

Meanwhile, Chinese prostitutes - many of them now mainlanders - crossed the harbour and operated in Kowloon districts such as Sham Shui Po and Mong Kok instead.

Prostitution today in Hong Kong is legal, but not the operation of brothels or pimping. NGO Ziteng estimates that there are about 2,000 legal yat lau yat fung - or "one unit, one phoenix".

Beyond that, there are more than 2,000 foot massage parlours, and more than 100 clubs, karaoke joints, bars, guesthouses and saunas where sex is sold. These do not include streetwalkers, escorts and those working over the Internet.

On a recent Friday night, Lockhart Road is buzzing. Streetwalkers stand at the corner of junctions while tourists and office workers crowd the pubs for a pint. One man darts in and out of four successive "curtained bars", as if he is perusing goods on display.

The scene has become even more alive in the past five years, says the banker who rebuffed a woman's offer. After the 2008 financial crisis, pressure in the industry escalated and a Friday night out to unwind became mandatory, he says.

A typical night will start with drinks at a pub before a few move on to other joints. Brokers hosting clients are the biggest spenders.

That said, news of the alleged murders has rippled across the establishments. A voluptuous Filipina, working outside Club Bunny, says she was shocked when she saw the news on Facebook but is not worried. With a tight smile, she says: "I am sure we're safe here."

Never mind love a la Suzie Wong. For these girls, they just want the music - and their lives - to go on.

This article was first published on Nov 23, 2014.
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