Selling Sex Overseas: Chinese Women and the Realities of Prostitution and Global Sex Trafficking by Ko-Lin Chin and James Finckenauer

Background from Wikipedia

I looked up the Teochew Han ethnicity, because I had never heard of it before. The author mentions it, because it is common in Thailand. Most Thai Chinese are of Teochew descent. The Teochew are originally from coastal Guangdong and speak an ancient dialect of Chinese. Their neighbors are the Cantonese, Hakka and Hokkien (Fujianese). Famous people of Teochew ethnicity include:

  • Michael Chang, the American tennis player,
  • Ma Huateng, founder of Tencent QQ instant messaging,
  • Li Ka-shing, founder of the Cheung Kong property development group,
  • Major General Lê Văn Viễn of the Bình Xuyên, who use to run Cholon, and
  • Heung Chin, founder of the Sun Yee On Triad.


The authors studied Chinese women from People’s Republic of China (PRC) only. Most other books have focussed on trafficked women, but this one focusses on voluntary prostitutes. They repeatedly state that their sampling of prostitutes was not a random sample. The authors acknowledge that their samples were not fully representative and could be skewed. They used what is called purposive sampling, it is not random, but they try to interview a variety of people, and try not to be skewed toward any particular group. They admit that it is hard to find trafficked prostitutes, because they are much more likely to be hidden than voluntary prostitutes. All interviews were conducted by male interviewers, because they could not afford female ones. The interviewers obtained informed consent  from the prostitutes interviewed. No third parties were present during the interview, so the women could speak freely. Women were not pressured to answer questions. They documented rejections; there was a 9% rejection rate.

Kinds of People Interviewed

  • prostitutes
  • managers of venues
  • law enforcement officials
  • victim services providers
  • cab drivers
  • bartenders
  • hairdressers

Research Sites

  • Hong Kong
  • Macau
  • Taipei
  • Bangkok
  • Kuala Lumpur
  • Singapore
  • Jakarta
  • Shenzhen (only location in PRC)
  • Los Angeles
  • New York City


  • xiaojie: little elder sister, Chinese term for female prostitute
  • xiaolongnu: little dragon lady, Chinese prostitutes in Malaysia
  • China doll: female prostitute (Malaysia)
  • wuya: crows, young Chinese students in Singapore looking for rich old men
  • chickenhead; man who arranges travel from PRC to a foreign city for prostitution
  • chipor: chicken lady, moves women from villages to coast
  • mommy: woman who finds customers for prostitutes
  • daddy: local male protector
  • falangmei: hair salon lady
  • jishi: technician, masseuse in spa or sauna
  • jockey: man who drives women to clients
  • yazi: duck, man who sell sex to women
  • yadian: duck house, yazi brothels
  • mistress village: city in Guangdong Province where rich businessmen from Hong Kong and Taiwan keep their mistresses
  • beigu: girl from the north (in Hong Kong)
  • KTV: Karaoke TV lounge
  • flower hall: nightclub where the chosen girl receives a flower ring around her neck
  • debt bondage: prostitute cannot leave her pimp until she pays off her travel fee
  • bounded rationality: making a choice in the context of limited options
  • symbolic politics: a form of advocacy that publicizes a problem, without actually helping solve the problem — used in this book with respect to the advocates of sex-trafficking laws

Motives for Becoming Sex Workers

  • member of rural poor in villages
  • alternatives pay poorly: domestic workers, dim sum cart, cleaning lady, factory work
  • daughter becomes a sacrificial lamb to help support the family
  • only daughters, not sons, are asked to support their families
  • girls drop out of school, but their brothers continue with their education
  • to pay father’s debts
  • to escape a bad husband
  • to support her boyfriend
  • to pay husband’s debts
  • gangster husband arrested
  • divorced women with children not receiving child support
  • women work overseas so family will not know
  • to be able to shop for nice things

Recruitment, Money and Working Conditions

  • Many overseas prostitutes were prostitutes earlier back in PRC
  • Most customers are ethnic overseas Chinese men
  • Mainland women are often recruited by a returned xiaojie, who receives a referral fee
  • Agents (chicken heads) are needed for travel documents
  • Women usually repay agent fee in 1-2 months of work.
  • Assault by a client is rare.
  • Pimp helps watch out for police and protect the women from violent customers.
  • Women keep about half of the fee paid by the john
  • Women can make good money just by sitting at customers tables at nightclubs (w/o sex)
  • Chinese prostitutes generally do not have any problem getting their clients to wear condoms. They refuse to have sex with them if they won’t.
  • Drug use is not common among prostitutes.
  • When there are no customers, the ladies play mahjong.

Differences in Work Locales

  • New York and Los Angeles: Favorite destination, because it pays so well. Prostitutes the U.S. are older and better educated than those in Asian locales. Before the Chinese influx, Koreans made up a large percentage of Asian prostitutes in the U.S.
  • Taiwan: PRC women in Taiwan are given away by their accents, so to avoid the police they cannot walk the streets and instead must work for escort services. It is hard to enter Taiwan from PRC. So the women need an agent, who arranges a fake marriage between a fake Taiwanese husband and the PRC woman and brings them back to China for a fee. The woman rarely sees her fake husband after she moves to Taiwan.
  • Hong Kong: Easy destination for PRC woman. It is legal for an individual women to operate a one-woman apartment for sex work. Hong Kong men prefer to go to the mainland to buy sex, for price and anonymity.
  • Macau: Macau surpassed Las Vegas in 2007; Macau more tolerant of prostitution than Hong Kong; look for them in the lobbies and basements of large hotels
  • Jakarta: officials more corrupt than most of the places studied, and the women had less freedom, because they were required to give their travel documents to their employers.
  • Bangkok: Chinese prostitutes in Bangkok don’t like Teochew clients, because they are old, cheap and gossip amongst each other.
  • Shenzhen: Prostitution in the PRC is concentrated on the coast.

Organized Crime

Asian organized crime has little interested in prostitution, because there is not enough money in it. Organized crime makes more money from drugs and gambling. In China girls are traded for adoption and marriage but not for prostitution.

Sex Trafficking

There is a lack of consensus on the definition of sex trafficking. Some radical feminists claim that prostitution is never voluntary. Because of pressure from the United Nations, the European Union and the United States, local officials are pressured to treat voluntary prostitutes as victims of sex trafficking and deport them.

Moral Crusade

Fighting against sex trafficking has become a moral crusade. There is a lot of hype regarding sex trafficking. T-visas give temporary resident status in the United States. Few have been issued for the victims of sex trafficking. Why? Is it because there are not many such women in the United States? Advocates of the sex trafficking view stand to gain government grants. Governments rely on NGOs and newspaper articles for sex trafficking statistics. The current book is an attempt to make a more objective and rational appraisal of the situation, at lease with respect to the overseas Chinese. This book has little information on the situation in Eastern Europe and Muslim countries.


The Wisdom of Whores: Bureaucrats, Brothels, and the Business of AIDS by Elizabeth Pisani

The author is a journalist-turned-epidemiologist. She has a master’s degree in Classical Chinese from Oxford University. She also speaks Spanish, French and Bahasa Indonesian. She has a doctorate in Infectious Disease Epidemiology from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine.
Pisani is very outspoken. She criticizes the political Left for saying that AIDS is a threat to everyone, because it takes the focus away from high-risk groups such as prostitutes and drug addicts. She also criticizes the Left for asserting that poverty is a primary cause of the AIDS epidemic, because it concentrates aid on the poorest people, rather than those at most risk for AIDS. She criticizes the Left for asserting that routine HIV testing stigmatizes homosexuals. She criticized the political Right, for its objections to providing addicts with clean syringes and prostitutes with condoms. She is critical of feminists, for pretending that African women are pure victims of husbands who sleep around, but not admitting that many young African women are also promiscuous. Pisani points out that the main path for the infection of young African women is their association with older men who have more money than young men.
Besides condoms, she also emphasizes the use of sexual lubricants, because they prevent skin tears that can let the AIDS virus in. She also mentions that other STD’s, such as herpes and syphilis, increase the risk for HIV infection, because the skin sores offer a route into the blood stream. Male circumcision substantially reduces transmission of the AIDS virus.
Pisani says that countries, such as Uganda, whose governments speak openly about AIDS, drugs and sex do a better job restraining the epidemic than those that are less candid, such as South Africa.
Pisani is not just a bureaucrat who sits behind a desk. She has spent a great deal of time in Indonesia talking with people in high-risk groups. She is a believer in the idea that the perfect is the enemy of the good. Sure, it would be nice if there were no drug addicts, no prostitutes, and no cheating husbands, but given that no one knows how to change human nature, we should concentrate instead on the prevention of the transmission of the HIV virus among high-risk groups.
Pisani talks about the waria of Indonesia, who are a third sex, people who are physically men, but think of themselves as women. Most of them do not want a sex-change operation, even if they could afford it, because with the loss of the penis would come the loss of the ability to experience orgasms. Waria who are sex workers do not have pimps. I was surprised that Jakarta was such a wild place, since Indonesia is a Muslim country. Pisani mentions that following the lead of the West, homosexuality has become more open in Asia in recent years. Another surprise was the high variability of the frequency of AIDS between different places. For example, there is almost no AIDS in East Timor, especially since the Indonesians have left.