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From 'sin city' to 'hush city'

Red light districts in Dongguan are dotted with hotels, nightclubs and massage parlours. But many of these have suffered drastic fall in business after the anti-vice campaign in Dongguan, once labelled China's "sin city".
Red light districts in Dongguan are dotted with hotels, nightclubs and massage parlours. But many of these have suffered drastic fall in business after the anti-vice campaign in Dongguan, once labelled China's "sin city".Teo Cheng Wee
The Dongguan Crown Prince Hotel was the most high-profile casualty of the anti-vice campaign in Dongguan. The five-star hotel is still operating but is quiet today, with its seven-storey sauna centre closed for business.
The Dongguan Crown Prince Hotel was the most high-profile casualty of the anti-vice campaign in Dongguan. The five-star hotel is still operating but is quiet today, with its seven-storey sauna centre closed for business. ST PHOTO: TEO CHENG WEE

DONGGUAN, Guangdong - A crystal chandelier. A grand staircase. A gilded painting of horses and chariots that stretches two storeys high.

Found in the lobby of the Dongguan Crown Prince Hotel, they are reminders of the splendour and wealth that must have passed through the five-star establishment's doors during its heyday.

Everything changed in February 2014 when Chinese authorities unleashed an anti-vice crackdown in this coastal manufacturing hub. Thousands of people were arrested; establishments linked to prostitution were shut.

 

An eerie silence filled the Dongguan Crown Prince's lobby when I was there recently. The hotel is still open for business but there were only three people in the huge lobby, roughly about a quarter the size of a football field.

From the lobby, I could see the second- and third-storey foyers, both bathed in darkness, their lights switched off. Large potted plants blocked the entrance to the adjacent seven-storey sauna centre, now a shadow of its thriving seedy past.

The hotel, which opened in 1995 and is one of the oldest luxury hotels in Dongguan, boasted 99 sauna massage rooms and more than 100 sex workers were available at any one time, according to local media reports.

"I used to bring so many businessmen here," said my taxi driver, Mr Yuan, 41. "Now it's so quiet."

Away from the Crown Prince, there are other reminders of the "sin city" that Dongguan once was. "Massage" signs displayed in bright neon lights dot its red-light districts, while establishments come with suggestive names like "Virgin Hotel".

There are also numerous reminders of the crackdown - abandoned nightclubs and deserted restaurants. Glass panels are now fitted on all doors in massage parlours, so that nothing can take place unseen behind closed doors.

I visited places that locals told me used to offer "special services", but almost none of them solicited business from me.

Attempts to contact women who used to work in the trade as "mummy" - she takes charge of prostitutes in the trade - also met with a dead end. A few numbers were terminated. One insisted I had called the wrong number.

One woman who appeared to be soliciting via WeChat messaging blocked me after our initial contact, when there was no immediate response to her reply.

And in a sign of how sensitive people have become, when I asked a front-desk employee at a hotel how to get to its sauna centre, he told me the hotel never had one.

This despite the fact that a signboard on its directory clearly showed it used to be located on the second floor.

"No, we never had one," he insisted, when I asked him when it was closed.

The people I spoke to in Dongguan were divided in their opinion of the crackdown in Dongguan.

Most people hold practical, nuanced views on prostitution that do not gel with the official moralistic stance of the Chinese government. They see the flesh trade as something society can never be completely rid of, so the question is how much one should tolerate it.

Those who support the crackdown feel those running prostitution in Dongguan went too far. The flesh trade was widespread, open and brazen, as evidenced by media reports of rows of naked women being paraded or dancing in front of customers.

Mr Yuan is one of those who felt it had becoming too demeaning, even though his own income has halved since the crackdown.

"The things they were being asked to do... it was getting out of hand. I felt at times they didn't treat the women as human beings," he said.

Those who are against it argued that most of the women came from neighbouring provinces like Hunan and Guangxi willingly to become sex workers to earn more money.

"They were not drugged and trafficked here," one former customer said.

They also asked why crackdowns were not taking place in other major cities as well, saying that the actions against Dongguan had left it more sterile than many other places.

The crackdown in Dongguan has renewed calls to legalise prostitution in China, following the example in countries like Singapore. That is unlikely to happen, given the strong stance that the Chinese government has traditionally taken against prostitution.

What is less certain is when the crackdown will end. Checks are still ongoing, local sources say, with the police being told to keep a close eye on the situation. A police car was in fact parked in front of the Crown Prince Hotel's lobby when I was there.

But in a trade as shadowy as this, there are also whispers that it may be making a comeback. One former customer told me he has been receiving more text messages on his phone about sex services in recent months, after a long lull.

"Even if there is a comeback, it'll be small," he said with a shrug. "After this, Dongguan will never go back to the way it was."

chengwee@sph.com.sg