A fortune-teller once predicted that I would end up working in the sex industry. The idea seemed scandalous at the time but five years later I found myself sitting on the wrong side of one of Hong Kong’s notorious topless bars. My trusty regular, a Dutch sex shop owner, and I were sitting out the graveyard shift, discussing the merits of nipples as thermostats when, as if he’d read my mind, he leaned across the bar. ‘Darling,’ he said, ‘my mother was the greatest hooker in all Amsterdam and she was never ashamed of it.’ I laughed. Hearing myself, a humble topless barmaid, compared to Amsterdam’s finest was confirmation that destiny had caught up with me.
After university, I watched the corporate world pick off my friends one by one and bailed out as quickly as possible. In Hong Kong and Japan I found a subculture of young British women. Using the Far East as a base, they work for a few months as nightclub hostesses, then head off on their travels until the money runs out. Then they go back to the clubs and start again. The handover of Hong Kong has caused problems for them, but anyone who’s been working there since last April should be able to carry on for a while. Many others will move on to Japan.
To anyone with exhibitionist tendencies who is also workshy and greedy, hostessing sounds like the finest game in the world. Hostesses are paid up to £30 an hour for ‘entertaining’ businessmen. All it involves is wearing a silly outfit, drinking heavily and impersonating Madonna on the karaoke. The only skill you need is the ability to pretend you’re in love with the man sitting next to you. My family had some difficulty believing this wasn’t a front for blatant prostitution, but the travellers I met in Thailand assured me that nothing more than verbal prostitution was required, so I bought a ticket and went to Hong Kong, to see for myself.
Nightclubs in Hong Kong aren’t like British clubs. The entertainment is built around cabaret, karaoke and girls. Most are several floors up, guarded at the entrance by any number of burly Sikhs – the smarter the turban the more exclusive the club. Having been turned away by four golden turbans and three silver ones, I was let in through a door flanked by two skinny guys in plain red headgear. A beautiful young girl dressed as a fairy princess showed me up in the lift and into the huge but – considering it was late on a Friday night – disturbingly empty club. What I didn’t realise was that most of the clientèle was tucked away in the myriad ‘VIP rooms’ which lined the outer walls, singing away the week’s stress. I waited in a quiet corner to see the manager. Someone brought me a glass of Chinese tea. I didn’t touch it for fear of drugs or enormous bills. An old man came shuffling over to my table, sat down and started talking to me in extremely strange English about his losses on the stock-market. Eventually I realised that he was the manager and was offering me a job: and did I have any friends? He only had one other English girl (nowhere to be seen) and a small troupe of 16-year-old Russian dancers to satisfy the demand for Western flesh. We drank beer together and he let me into a karaoke room to practise. Then he asked if I’d like to try on the uniform. After a few beers the see-through belly dancer’s outfit seemed quite attractive. It was only later that I learned how inevitably the tasselled skirt would tangle itself around the legs of the very person I was trying to get away from. How the bow at the front of the chiffon top was begging to be undone by drunken fingers. How genuine the risk of pneumonia was in the enthusiastically air-conditioned club.
In the beginning if all seemed funny. I recruited two friends who shared my view that the only people being exploited in this situation were the ones paying £30 to spend half an hour in our company. When we showed up for work the next day we giggled through the whole introductory process. Each of us was given a number and we joked about the brothels we’d heard about in Thailand where the girls walk around naked except for a number. We were disappointed that we didn’t get to wear ours – the club liked to play down its cattle market aspect. But it was very downmarket nevertheless. The entertainment was half-hearted at best, consisting of two shows by the Russian dancers. The routines looked as if they’d been choreographed by a sixth-former on speed, but that didn’t matter: the point was that the girls were half-naked and could be hired later to keep the customers company.
Ninety per cent of the Chinese girls working in the club were full escorts. At the end of the night they’d pile out of the club, usually too drunk to stand up properly, and head for ‘love hotels’ in Kowloon Tong. These were the girls who thronged the canteen all night, who we’d often hear throwing up in the toilets or crying in the locker-room. The only people they smiled at were their customers and, of course, the mama-sans – in our case, scary ex-prostitutes with tattooed eyebrows, thinning hair and too much attitude. Mama-sans are the undisputed queens of any hostess outfit, each with her own girls and her own customers. She takes a cut from the girls’ hourly rate for company inside the club and a cut from whatever they make ‘outside’. Any mama in the club could make use of us if her customer requested a Western girl. We soon found out how much of a liability we were: because we didn’t ‘go outside’ for sex, they couldn’t make money out of us – and we kept men occupied who could be paying good money to sleep with their girls.
At first we were blissfully unaware of our tricky situation. The manager was too afraid of the mama-sans to order them to find customers for us. Any one of them had the power to take a huge chunk of business away from the club. So, in a crafty manoeuvre, we were showcased on a pair of black leather sofas right in the middle of the club, in the hope that we might attract passing trade. And the odd punter did spot us on his way to the loo, especially in our heyday, when there were often eight of us squashed onto our sofas. It was from this vantage-point that we began to experience the realities of life in a hostess club. If a mama was forced to use one of us she’d appear at our table, scrutinise us all with disgust and then point to her victim, who would have to trot after her, quoting her number. Next stop was death row, the mama-sans’ lair, where the number was registered and off again, usually to a VIP room containing about half a dozen men, a few prostitutes and the odd Russian dancer. The mama would take the girl by the hand and both would beam radiantly at the customer as introductions took place. A short discussion in Cantonese followed, after which the trio downed a cosy shot of brandy together to celebrate.
Since the customer pays the English girls by the half-hour, the mama would return at this interval, becoming more and more anxious to replace us with Chinese girls. What they told our customers wasn’t inspired: merely that they’d never get us into bed and, anyway, hadn’t they noticed how bad we smelled? The first allegation was the more annoying: although it was true, we’d all cultivated a coquettish ‘maybe’ in reply to the inevitable requests for sex. If men were stupid enough to go for this, it was possible to get them to come back time after time on the pretext of getting to know them better before granting the favour. The record stood at 16 visits and a gold watch. I noticed that the Chinese girls would often leave the club with customers, but then part company round the corner. Not wanting to lose face with the mama-san but too drunk to perform, the man would pay up and go home to his wife. It was tempting to risk the move from verbal to virtual prostitution, and I did try it once, with a gentle Italian who wanted nothing more than to escape. Once outside I hadn’t the heart to take his money and spent the rest of the week being hounded by the mama for her cut.
When I started the job, I was worried about being able to sustain long conversations with middle-aged businessmen who spent 18 hours a day in the office and the rest of their time in hostess clubs. But I needn’t have worried, because the favourite party tools of Hong Kong businessmen are also the two greatest conversation killers: karaoke and lie-dice. Start to have a proper conversation and someone was guaranteed to thrust a microphone under your partner’s nose. And if that didn’t happen, the dice cups were bound to come out. Lie-dice is a drinking game, and nobody ever seemed to get bored with it: in time I came to appreciate its finer points. If I felt like getting drunk I’d lose all night. If I felt like staying sober I’d win instead.
It was a job in which weeks collapsed into one another. One Sunday night I was working on my own to make up for a sneaky day off and was taken into a room with just one man in it. This was unheard of; there was no karaoke, no dice, not even fruit or booze on the table. He didn’t speak a word of English and spent the next half hour trying to get his hands inside my top and under my skirt. It should have been frightening but I was stronger than him and all I could hear in my head was the Benny Hill theme tune as he chased me round and round the table until the mama-san came back and let me out. The next day I got the chance to take revenge on the whole establishment. Six of us were working and three French guys came in. They hadn’t been able to get much sense out of their assigned mama-san so they came over to our sofa and kidnapped the lot of us, taking us to their VIP room. We found lots of Grease songs on the karaoke, jived on the sofas and got completely hammered. Every time the mama-san came in some-body landed her with a hand-towel or a cherry tomato. The managers didn’t fare much better and eventually we barricaded the door with stools and a drinks cabinet. We kept our jobs because at the end of the night our French friends paid their gigantic bill, gave us all a huge tip and left quietly. We cut the mama in on our windfall and that seemed to pay off. After that whenever there was a loud party one of us would be shipped in to entertain. When my turn came it was as though I’d stumbled into the Mad Hatter’s tea party. I was introduced to the Potty Barrister, Mr Pathologist and Mr Chief of Police, together with a supporting cast which included a comically oversized bottle of Hennessy and a sleeping Russian dancer who was being used as a cushion. The game was Truth or Drink. ‘Where do you come from?’ asked the Potty Barrister. ‘England,’ I replied. ‘No, no, wrong, you come from your parents. Drink!’ I entered into the spirit of the thing and talked more nonsense than all of them until the Russian woke up and slapped me for flirting with her customer. She was upset because they’d told her that if she wanted to stop drinking she’d have to bark like a dog.
Then I succumbed to a nasty bout of sofa syndrome, a soul-destroying complaint which mainly afflicts brunettes, especially those who have offended one too many mama-sans. I started to find myself alone on the black leather sofa. The blonder, skinnier girls were otherwise engaged and I had time to reflect on the unpleasantness of it all. Girls have been known to recover from sofa syndrome but I diagnosed myself as a terminal case and stormed out one night, shouting. In the morning I realised that I hadn’t saved enough money to move on – and I couldn’t stay in Hong Kong without a job. Someone said that there was a job going in a topless bar. It didn’t seem much of a comedown. The outfit in the club had been see-through anyway, and at least if I was sitting behind a bar nobody could touch me. I got the job. The place was staffed by South Americans, all at least fifteen years older than me. The ‘girls’ in topless bars are often women over forty and the worst kind of customers are very vocal about how ‘disgusting’ they find this. Being young, I was given lots of dubious compliments. Despite this, the bar felt more wholesome than the hostess club, where the atmosphere had been aggressively sexual. The barmaids could entertain their customers without recourse to karaoke or dice. Granted, conversations were often about sex, but they were based on giving as good as you got. Sadly, though, I became a sleaze magnet, and retired after a couple of weeks. I’ve hung up the high heels and I hope it’s for good.