The Walrus Blog

I recently travelled north to the Mongolian border and south to Guangzhou and Macau, working on separate stories about human trafficking and China’s African population. This postcard is from Macau, where prostitution thrives even as the casinos tank.

MACAU—The hosts at the Chinese sauna — twenty years old, tops, with brush cuts and baggy suits — hand us a laminated menu with peeling corners. A “Taiwan Model Massage” runs for HK $1,914, the most expensive on the list, followed by Korean, Chinese, Mongolian, Vietnamese, and Filipino massages, at varying prices.

“Fifteen percent government tax,” one host tells us, tapping his index finger on the menu. “Hand jobs are cheaper.”

“We want to see the girls first.”

“No problem.”

He escorts us down a short hallway into the dimly-lit sauna, where a few dozen men wrapped in red towels — mostly Chinese with a few foreigners — stand around a peanut-shaped hot tub.

“Wait a minute,” the host says.

A moment later a line of 70-odd women in lingerie is paraded by to the blare of thumping electronic music. Each woman has a number pinned to her bra. The men go wild, hurrying down the line to their preferred girl, with whom they will be given two hours in a private room.

“This is more depressing than I imagined,” Tom Mackenzie, a fellow journalist, whispers in my ear.

We’re in Eighteen Sauna in a hotel in Macau’s old city, witnessing a scene that repeats throughout the Portuguese colony-turned-gambling Mecca, where we visited recently doing the back-end of our story about Mongolian human trafficking. In Macau, we visited several saunas, attended a conference on human trafficking, and accompanied a Mongolian outreach worker to bars and clubs around the city.

Macau is perhaps the most bizarre place I’ve visited in Asia. It’s got none of Las Vegas’ pizazz — no Copperfields, Sigfrieds or Roys, Flamingo Hotels or showgirls — but all of its seediness. In other words, it’s no place to take the family, but if you’re into gambling, Macau is right up your alley. Since its handover to China in 1999, Macau has become the casino capital of Asia. The city attracts more than 30 million visitors per year; more gambling money flows through here than Vegas.

Most visitors come to Macau roll the dice, but a great many come for sex — unlike mainland China, prostitution on the island is legal. Many of the hotels and casinos that dot this former colonial trading post have entire floors dedicated to “saunas” — a polite term for brothels. Google “prostitution Macau” and the first hit is a guide to finding hookers.

Though Macau is in the middle of a serious economic downturn — several massive developments along the Cotai Strip, home to the stunningly tacky Venetian, lay dormant — the sex trade does not seem to be letting up. Signs of it are everywhere, from casino floors to the saunas to the streets.

Many of the women engaged in the trade are not here by choice. According to the U.S. State Department, Macau is a destination for the trafficking of women and girls from the Chinese Mainland, Mongolia, Russia, the Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam, Burma and Central Asia, for the purpose of sexual exploitation. They are deceived into voluntarily migrating to Macau and, upon arrival, are passed to local triad groups and forced into sexual servitude through debt bondage, coercion, or force.

“Victims are sometimes confined in massage parlors and illegal but widely tolerated brothels, where they are closely monitored, have their identity documents confiscated, and are forced to work long hours, or are threatened by violence,” the department’s 2008 human trafficking report says.

In one 2007 case, a 15-year-old girl’s tongue was cut out by her captors after she sent text messages pleading for help, according to casework from the Mongolian Gender Equality Center (GEC).

In Macau, we meet Naran Munkhbat, a GEC outreach worker from Ulan Bataar who has spent four months seeking out Mongolian sex workers in Macau and Hong Kong, attempting to gather their stories and, if possible, offer help. Because of fear of violence, most girls will not speak to Naran in the capacity of an NGO worker. She often pretends she’s a prostitute on a visa run from Hong Kong, and sprinkles into her conversations questions about the women’s health and safety.

“Traffickers control everything about the girls. They threaten to call their families and say they’re working as a ‘slut’ in Macau. The pimps treat the girls as money making machines and they control them by any means to keep them in debt,” Naran says over noodles and tea in Macau’s old city. She says she worries about her safety when talking to girls in the bars, or for being mistaken as a prostitute at the border.

While in Macau we attended a conference on human trafficking, where several officials spoke about the islands attempts to combat trafficking. In June last year, the Macau government introduced a new human trafficking law, which has given police more powers to arrest and prosecute those involved in the trade. A 24-hour hotline has been set up and seminars have been organized.

But critics say it’s far from enough, and Macau’s police force complains that, despite the new legislation, detectives still lack the proper legal tools to enforce the law. And the travel policy that opened Macau up to mainland tourists in 2003 has made things more difficult, police chief Cho Wei Kwong said at the conference. “The new travel policy has made trafficking much easier,” he lamented.

Out on the street, the trade goes on. At a sauna at the run-down Rua Cantao hotel, the staff, dressed in sweat pants and orange t-shirts, hovers around the three doorways, attempting to bait customers. Inside, music blares, steam rises from a small hot tub in the centre, and 20 girls are told to line up for us in a single row. The girls bow when we enter. They look drained and withdrawn.

Outside and out of sight, Naran puffs on a menthol cigarette. “It’s like this all over the city,” she says. “We don’t know exactly how many of these girls are here of their own choice, but if there are any, they’re in the minority.”

Photo (magazines) by James Wasserman. Photo (Macau old city) by Mitch Moxley. Read the full story at

Posted in Letter from China  • 

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  • Raquel Dias

    hi, great story. I’ve lived in Macau my entire life and I do agree with you. Although I don’t think its not a place to take a family, there’s more than one reality in macau (as in most places).
    However, prostitution is not completely legal over here, it’s a very gray area, the proof is how you see girls running from the police. I know first hand stories of how difficult it can be for Russian girls who try to leave their pimps and for the men that help them. I imagine that for Asian girls it’s even harder. What is worse is how the society in general views them, as if somehow is their fault… very sad…

    • Nameless

      Prostitution is entirely legal, they just run from the police because most are staying on expired tourist visas.
      Forcing someone to prostitute itself or withholding documents are criminal offenses.

    • Eric Larson

      i was interested to read a comment from someone who actually lives in macau. from your firsthand experience what happens to these women eventually? i have heard that a lot of them are in debt but do you think that they are eventually able to pay their debt. i guess what I’m trying to say is are these women held forever or do they eventually fnd a way out?

  • James

    There is so much money to be made by corrupted government officials, why would anyone in the government even bother to start cracking down on human trafficking?

  • Buya

    Hi there. I’m Mongolian. just want to share ideas and make it clear. What about if the woman worked as massage parlour, go back to macau by her own will. Is she trafficked or just hooker? There must be difference between human trafficking victim and just a hooker.

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