Published 17 July 2009
As darkness falls the girls, in their shiny evening dress-ups, emerge into the glare of neon lights. Every clichéd male fantasy is on offer in the gaudy strip of nightclubs of Chongqing: there are milkmaids, girls in old-fashioned frills and plenty of tight satin hot pants on parade.
At the XO bar, there isn't actually a bar. The moodily lit tunnel leads instead to a series of private rooms, with deep, red padded lounges, velvet and mirror-tiled walls and giant-screen karaoke TVs. Tonight, however, there are no well-heeled businessmen demanding the attention of the hostesses. It's still early, and the only visitors are wearing white coats.
Chongqing is not far from the epicenter of the devastating Sichan earthquake in May 2008, and the visiting health team isn't mincing its words.
“An earthquake is a disaster, yes, but HIV/AIDS is also a disaster. There are five new infections every minute and four dead from HIV/AIDS every minute; half of whom are women,” says the doctor, leading a Global Fund-supported intervention team. “And in China infection rates are increasing.”
The girls at XO are being tested tonight for HIV and AIDS. The tests come with condoms and advice, and have been arranged by the Global Fund-backed Association for the Culture and Entertainment Industry. Commercial sex is illegal in China, so – officially – these girls in tight black satin chongsams are well-paid hostesses not sex workers.
At 19, and with no higher education, Miss Liu says she can earn more per month at the XO than a white-collar worker in a professional job. The club boss expects his girls to take HIV tests, she says, but the issue of illegality means no hostess is willing to admit to providing sex services to the bar's clients. However, they all know "friends” who do and have “heard” of clients who refuse condoms. At this end of the market sex sells for about 500 yuan – as much as two weeks’ wages for a domestic cleaner, for example.
Mr Feng, who heads the association, says it was initially difficult to convince club owners to allow in HIV/AIDS prevention teams because of the implied link to illegal commercial sex. In this entertainment district alone, he says, there are up to 5,000 sex workers. But transactions are carried out in secret. Clubs do not double as brothels because police raids are routine. They can serve only as pickup points, he says.
“Nowadays most club owners let us in, because after some information sessions they now understand the risks. We are trying to educate sex workers about HIV and teach them how to use condoms to protect themselves.”
Mr Feng estimates condom use has reached about 60 per cent for girls in upmarket clubs like the XO, and 40 per cent for cheaper bars. “The HIV education is very useful. In future I plan to quit and start a business,” says Miss Liu.
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