DONGGUAN (Guangdong) • It is 12.30am on a Sunday. At a music bar in the town of Changping in Dongguan, a bargirl eyes her surroundings as she pours another round of drinks for customers.
Only two small groups of men are there, drinking and playing dice over the bar's techno beats. Most of the tables are empty. It is another quiet night for business.
Dongguan's nightlife has been like this for the past year, says the bargirl, who goes by the name of Xiaofeng. Petite and fair, the 25-year-old is wearing a sleeveless, short, orange dress and high heels.
"I used to work at a hotel nightclub with 500 girls, but I moved to this bar after the government's sao huang operation," she says. "Life has not been the same for Dongguan since."
Sao huang literally means "sweeping yellow", a colour associated with sex in China. With about 250,000 sex workers in a city of just seven million people, Dongguan was once a byword for prostitution, which picked up together with the city's manufacturing sector in the 1990s.
Locals tell The Straits Times that nightclubs, hotels and saunas were open fronts for sex workers who flocked here from nearby provinces, making 500 yuan (S$109) to 2,000 yuan per customer.
A BAD NAME
In the past, whenever I tell people I'm from Dongguan, they'd give a knowing look and smile, and say, 'Yes, lovely place.' I don't want my hometown to have this kind of reputation. Many of us make an honest living.
SHOP ASSISTANT ZHOU XIAOLI, on why the crackdown is heaven sent
"Everyone was very open about it. We would entertain clients at dinner, then go to a nightclub or sauna for girls after that," says a factory manager who wanted to be known only as Mr Ma, 40. "This was standard for businessmen here."
But this ended early last year, in what turned out to be China's most sustained and widespread anti-vice crackdown in recent memory.
Shortly after Chinese New Year last year, state broadcaster CCTV aired an expose on Dongguan's sex trade, showing the flagrant parading and hawking of prostitutes.
This triggered a crackdown on China's "sin city", with police raiding massage parlours, saunas, nightclubs and hotels. More than 3,000 had their operations shut or suspended, 3,000 suspects were nabbed and 200 gangs busted. More than 30 city police officials, including former deputy mayor and head of the local public security bureau Yan Xiaokang, were sacked or suspended from their duties.
The crackdown took place amid President Xi Jinping's war against corruption and vice.
Vice trade targeted in clean-up campaigns
Prostitution is illegal in China.
The communist government is opposed to the sex trade - from both a moral and a Marxist point of view - which it sees as an exploitative industry, experts tell The Straits Times.
Yet, prostitution has been allowed to operate and, in the case of Dongguan, even flourish.
While there are no official figures, a 2009 report by the United States Department of State claims that 1.7 million to six million women earn their primary income from prostitution in China.
Another eight to 10 million women occasionally accept money as well as gifts or rent in exchange for sexual services.
The law is more lenient towards prostitutes than people who run prostitution rings.
Prostitutes face fines or short jail terms, but operators could get a life sentence or even the death penalty, says Dr Elaine Jeffreys at the University of Technology, Sydney, who has written books on prostitution in China.
Still, crackdowns take place periodically - usually timed by politicians to send a message.
"The government typically conducts them before major political events or during a certain campaign, to send a message," says Dr Peng Peng at the Guangzhou Academy of Social Sciences.
The crackdown in Dongguan comes amid an unprecedented campaign by the government and President Xi Jinping against corrupt officials who, in Dongguan, had let prostitution thrive.
Mr Xi's administration has also mounted a morality campaign against online pornography and racy TV programming. Even scantily clad models at car shows have not been spared criticism.
"The anti-prostitution campaign also reflects the governing mentality of Xi Jinping's leadership... Increasingly, these vices are being targeted in clean-up campaigns," said a commentary in the South China Morning Post after the Dongguan crackdown.
Perhaps Dongguan had become too well-known for prostitution, and the government felt a need to bring it under control, adds Dr Peng.
Teo Cheng Wee
In May, a high-profile trial opened against Dongguan's "hotel king" Liang Yaohui, 48, who was once listed among China's 500 richest people and was a deputy to the National People's Congress, China's Parliament.
Forty-seven people - all stakeholders or employees at the five-star Dongguan Crown Prince Hotel - were charged with organising or facilitating prostitution, which is illegal in China.
The hotel generated close to 50 million yuan in illicit income in 2013, according to reports. Liang, the hotel's chairman, has denied the charges, as did three others. The rest pleaded guilty. Liang could face the death penalty if found guilty. A recent visit by The Straits Times found the hotel open for business, but its seven-storey sauna centre was closed, its glass entrance blocked by large potted plants.
More than a year after the crackdown, the effects are still being felt in Dongguan. Employees at nightclubs and massage parlours say the number of customers has plunged by more than half and that the authorities have not let up on checks.
"Why don't you call the police and check with them?" one massage parlour receptionist replies tersely, when asked if sexual services were still offered in Dongguan. At the Tianerhu red-light district in Changping, bright neon signs with the Chinese characters for "massage" dot the streets, but on a Saturday night there were few people to be seen.
A massage parlour that once employed up to 300 girls has had to let two-thirds go, says an employee.
At one nightclub, three customers were drinking and singing karaoke. "We no longer have any girls on our payroll, so the customers stopped coming," the manager says, adding that businesses have remained wary of the police.
At the height of its boom, it was estimated that Dong guan's sex industry generated 50 billion yuan in business, or about one-tenth of the city's revenue.
The crackdown has hit the city hard, even in sectors that are not directly related to prostitution. Mr Yu Licheng, for instance, had opened a restaurant three months before the crackdown, ploughing 500,000 yuan into the business .
Business was good initially and he could make about 50,000 yuan a month. Once the crackdown started, his earnings "practically dropped to zero".
"The girls go to salons to get their hair and nails done. They buy new clothes. They rent rooms in apartments nearby. Everyone goes out for supper at night. Businessmen throw money everywhere. So when the authorities cracked down, many people were affected," says Mr Yu, 32.
That is not to say that prostitution has been completely eradicated in Dongguan. Mr Ma, the factory manager, says it is still possible to arrange for sexual services.
"They're not allowed to openly offer services as in the past, but we have maintained contact with relevant people and we can make calls."
Sex workers have also turned to social networks like WeChat, where a search of "People Nearby" throws up women with suggestive pictures and contact details.
During a visit to a nightclub in the town of Humen in Dongguan on a Sunday night, a manager sidles up with a proposition.
"If you pay 550 yuan, you can get a drink and she'll accompany you," he says, pointing to one girl. "After that, you can do whatever you want, you negotiate."
But the scale is clearly not what it used to be, which may displease those whose business has been affected. But to locals like shop assistant Zhou Xiaoli, 27, the crackdown is heaven sent.
"In the past, whenever I tell people I'm from Dongguan, they'd give a knowing look and smile, and say, 'Yes, lovely place'," she says.
"I don't want my hometown to have this kind of reputation. Many of us make an honest living."
As with China's ongoing anti-corruption campaign, nobody knows for sure when - or even if - the crackdown in Dongguan will end. Locals see no immediate let-up.
Back at the music bar in Changping, it is 2am and a middle-aged customer beckons Xiaofeng over.
He puts his arms around her and asks for a photo. She giggles as the picture is taken, then takes a tip from him as he gets ready to leave.
"I don't make even half of what I used to," she says. "Many of my friends have left Dongguan for places like Huizhou and Shanghai. I think I'll join them soon."