Just a few blocks down from Miaokou Night Market, you can find the red light district of Keelung. Here the lights are dim, storefronts are partially shuttered and people passing through walk hurriedly with umbrellas hiding their eyes. Rocky ledges of storefronts create a barrier to distance its owners from the street hustlers and scantily clad women; motorcycles zoom pass with couples tightly wound together to brave the fear of this strange place. In this neighborhood, it’s good to linger in the shadows, away from the harsh street lights...because otherwise, you may find yourself drawn into the allure of the red city. A less discussed part of Keelung culture.
On a quiet Tuesday evening, I decided to stroll through the red district. KTV signs and 小吃店 (xiaochi dian) with beautiful women plastered on neon signs led me to the area, guiding me to the eerie red-lit street. On both sides, women in “caged” doors gossiped loudly to each other, discussing their earlier adventures at the hair salon and recent developments in popular television shows. They were dressed in tight mini skirts and form-fitting crop tops with skin-colored leggings, displaying their bodies in different angles as they swayed left and right. As I passed by, they glanced at me curiously, noting that I was a small-statured girl walking alone at night in their territory.
At the end of the caged doors, an aiyi smoking casually, Ms. Lao, called out to me. She wore a friendly smile despite the cigarette clipped between her two fingers. Although my immediate reaction was to run away as far as possible, I went up to her door with a reciprocal smile. It took several minutes to explain who I was and my purpose in the red neighborhood, exacerbated by my strange American accent and her frequent reliance on Hokkien rather than Mandarin Chinese. At first, she thought I was there to make money, telling me that I could easily gain one thousand kuai for fifteen minutes of sex. But the situation was quickly resolved at the sudden appearance of her pimp, who, intrigued by my intentions as a researcher of keelung culture, agreed to translate between Hokkien and Mandarin for the remainder of our two-hour long conversation.
Ms. Lao is from Yilan, Taiwan. Though she is now almost completely illiterate, Ms. Lao used to be a top-notch student at university, even completing a year abroad in California. Following the deaths of her parents, however, she began soliciting sex to care for her three younger brothers. For her, initiation was swift due to the existing network of prostitutes of the Vietnam War era, and she moved to Keelung for better “work” opportunities. She has since become one of the most well-known sex workers in Keelung’s red district, serving as a kind of mentor to other prostitutes.
Ms. Lao explained that Keelung’s red district attracts prostitutes of all ethnicities. On official records, a majority of immigrants to Keelung come from Asian countries like Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, and the Philippines. Yet unofficially, immigrants to Keelung come from all over the world, including Eastern Europe and parts of the Middle East. Ms. Lao told me that only yesterday there had been a Russian backpacker who wanted to make quick money, stopping for only one night of soliciting sex before continuing on her journey. Arrival stories like these are common, she said, citing stowing away on shipping containers and flying to the tropical island under a temporary work permit as common methods. Indeed, from Keelung’s long maritime history starting at the Ming Dynasty to today’s position as Taiwan’s second largest shipping container port in the world, it seems only likely that prostitutes in the area would have diverse nationalities.
But despite the varying nationalities that make up this part of Keelung culture, their socio-economic backgrounds are the same. Many prostitutes, almost all of them women, come from low socio-economic classes and large families. As a result, many sex workers find themselves drawn to Keelung’s red light district under the guise of false marriages to wealthy individuals or better work opportunities. Ms. Lao says that the prostitutes in Keelung believe in a particularly negative view of themselves. They refer themselves as “equal to dirt” and “powerless” to the constant, looming threat of deportation or arrest.
Taiwan’s government has been especially cautious about prostitution. In 2011, the national legislature, Lifa yuan (立法院), passed a law allowing prostitution in specified “red light districts” that are managed by local officials. The law was in response to the growing concern for prostitutes themselves, whom many believe are forced into this line of work and should not be arbitrarily punished for their difficult circumstances. Community leader and long-time resident of the red light district Lee Lung Jing reinforced this point of view, commenting, “Their situation is pitiful, everyday crying behind closed doors.”
Although there is a consensus on these women’s desperate situations, no one seems willing to step up and take lead in building official red districts. Out of Taiwan’s twenty-two districts and cities, not a single politician has paved the way for designating red light areas. Additionally, the new measures seem to do the opposite of its intended effect. Both the prostitute and patron are now fined anywhere from NT$3000 to NT$30,000 under the revised Social Order and Maintenance Act, inhibited from the politicians’ hesitation of creating red light districts. Without formal ties, sex workers are now forced to go further underground to find work.
Ironically, Taiwan is known as the second safest country in the world, only narrowing missing the #1 title to Japan. Taiwanese investigators cite increased police resources and an amended Organized Crime Prevention Act as the cause of the one-eighty turnaround, from the 1980s strong mafia power to today’s sublime crime rates.
Keelung, however, has a different perspective on the low crime rate. According to Mr. Yu, one of Keelung’s police officers, Taiwanese democracy prevents the police from entering any place of residence arbitrarily, prohibiting authorities from entering a sex worker’s home on mere circumstantial evidence, echoing a policy quite similar to the United States’ “don’t ask, don’t tell.” The fragile police-prostitute balance is maintained from Keelung’s desire to purport the status quo.
Lee Lung Jing points out that this apathy is in fact better than the alternative, which would expend resources and exploit the women further. Noting that many prostitutes do not have a choice in entering their line of work, Lee suggests that the situation should be examined before taking any action. In this way, Keelung’s sex workers would not delve further underground and face even greater problems, such as child care and health, under their illegal work.
However, while Keelung’s red district problems should indeed be studied further, Keelung is ripe for instigating change. Keelung’s tourism industry continues to grow, and, with Taiwan’s newly minted trade agreements with other countries like New Zealand, researchers predict a rapid rise in visitors to the port city. As the maritime industry switches to a tourism economy, Keelung’s population will gradually diversify and bring in a higher volume of visitors, including visitors seeking prostitutes. Establishing a red district would resonate with this influx of clients, thereby increasing Keelung’s economic power, and modernizing the thinking within Keelung culture.
In addition, gender equality and social progressiveness cannot be advanced without the acceptance of red light districts. In all conversations with Ms. Lao, Lee Lung Jing, and Mr. Yu, the words “prostitute” and “sex” were never mentioned. Rather, they were implied through conservative gestures and awkward smiles. This inability to even speak about sex demonstrates the ever-beating hesitancy against normalizing a natural phenomenon, sex. A red district can break down this barrier and push forward a liberal agenda, coinciding with the new DDP-backed government.
Of course, like any contentious issue, creating a red district also has drawbacks. Keelung’s ethnically diverse group of prostitutes poses a threat to immigration and would condense sex workers in one location, forming a community built on at-risk individuals. Noise complaints, already frequent due to the red district’s neighboring Miaokou Night Market, would rise. And, finally, Keelung’s public image would be drastically changed. Yet I wonder—is an economy built on legal and controlled sex necessarily evil?
To Mr. Lee, the problem of red light districts is already understood. The missing component is finding someone brave enough to address the issue. To Ms. Lao, your life has been spent hiding from the authorities—and we can bring about change, if you are willing to speak up on behalf of your community. To Keelung culture of today, I urge you to take responsibility for these women. Because if you do not, the ignorance will continue and there will be nothing left to salvage out of this spiraling economic downturn.
Excluding Lee Lung Jing, all interviewees’ names have been changed to protect privacy.