A Visit to Taipei’s Former Red Light District
“Congee? For your late-night bite? You serious?” said my partner, May. She’d just returned with a bag of barbecued squids from a few stalls away. I was still standing where we’d parted, staring across the crowded street at a gloomy congee stall in front of a seedy coin-op game shop in the night market.
“Of course not. Don’t you see something interesting over there?”
“They have old Street Fighter machines?”
I do have a bit of a fetish for this classic video game, and May knows it well, but at that moment, what was captivating me was another kind of old street game.
“Haven’t you noticed those mini-skirted aunties next to that game shop, right in front of that dodgy entrance?” I asked.
The night market is within Qingshan Village, which is more famous for its now-obsolete name, Baodou Village. This is where the development of Taipei City started. 300 years ago, immigrants from China travelled across the Taiwan Strait, settled and started trading with inland Aboriginal people from the upper Tamsui River. Business led to prosperity and was followed by the construction of Taipei’s very first street and one of its most important temples, both neighboring the night market.
It also paved the way for one of the most primitive trades of humankind: the sex trade, for which this area has been well known across three regimes.
In 1945, when the current Republic of China government took over, it saw the then-legal prostitution system as an ungraceful remnant from Japan’s former regime, so ceased it. Then in 1956, the government issued its first prostitution license, which led to Baodou Village’s heyday in the1970s. By that time, there were over 100 licensed brothels in a small designated area, let alone all the unlicensed ones scattered across the village. From then on, the government gradually increased the value-add tax and limited the licenses issued until 2001, when prostitution was officially outlawed and the name of the area was changed to Qingshan Village, which, for many locals in Taipei, sounds too innocent to carry its history.
But though the village’s name was shaken from the map, the prostitutes’ licenses invalidated and the licensed brothels closed, the people living on this business didn’t disappear. Most of them either stayed underground or earned their livings on the streets.
Sitting at a table under the overhangs of the front of the game shop, May and I ordered two bowls of congee with minced meat. Food waste on the floor and occasional whiffs of sewage were around, but didn’t distract us from peeking at the dodgy entrance 15 yards away.
Three women in their 40s or 50s with heavy make-up, mini skirts and high heels were leaning against a wall with their eyes on passers-by. Any flash of eye contact from a man would function as a cue to deliver a string of lines that could only be heard between them. If he didn’t respond, the woman would follow up a few steps to finish her lines, or hook her arm around the man’s and walk alongside him.
Inside the entrance, a cramped corridor linked to an old lift. Every now and then, couples came in and out. We wanted to see their faces, but the dim light inside the building only revealed the women’s vivid dresses and skin.
“Go and check it out. It’s fun!” shouted a guy who had been sitting in front of the game shop.
It drew limelight to us from the store behind him, the congee stall and the dodgy entrance. Our embarrassment seemed to stoke the guy up. He turned to one of the mini-skirted, heavily made-up, high-heeled aunts.
“Invite them in! Show them! They’re interested.”
An aunt, whose name turned out to be Vivian, cast a smile in our direction then brought her bowl of congee along to join us.
Maybe just as evasive as our behaviour that night is Taipei’s attitude toward sex workers. The 2001 ban against prostitution lasted only 10 years. New laws now decriminalise sex trades within red light districts, but don’t promise any establishment of such places.
Baodou Village, for its historical red light district, was expected to be the first to revive. Compared to other places, most locals were already used to the existence of sex workers, just like the owner of the congee stall. But at a legislative level, the council had to deal with mafia, landlords, politicians, religious groups and education institutions. It never worked out, and ended up as a paradox: we defend sex workers’ right to work, but if they work, we will charge them.
Vivian acted similarly to a pushy salesperson. After we expressed our curiosity in the building’s interior and agreed on a price to have a look, May and I never finished a sentence without Vivian interrupting. She offered us promises for things we didn’t care for, and habitually said, “It’s gonna be fun!” When it came to answering questions about things we did care for, like the services her colleagues offered, she was shifty, and would swiftly change the subject.
I was about to argue when Vivian linked her arm with mine tightly, as if preventing me from escape, then led us towards the entrance. Across my chest, she patted May with her free hand.
“Cute little sister, you don’t mind me hooking his arm like this, do you?”
“No,” May replied.
“I’ll make it up to you later,” Vivian joked with an exaggeratedly erotic tone.
May and I glanced at each other with wonder.
”It’s gonna be fun,” she said, leading us into an alley.
The alley housed many secret dark entrances. It was busy and full of shops, all with two words in their signboards: Tea House. Karaoke noise flooded into the street; numerous air conditioners made the space warm, humid and mixed with alcohol, cigarettes, food, perfume, urine and sweat. Women of many ages, all in similarly provocative outfits, decorated the squalid street — some observing, some sitting on scooters chatting and patching up face powder, some sending patrons in and out the buildings.
The patrons were mostly middle-aged blue-collar men and pensioners. Occasionally, drunkards, vagrants and gangsters would saunter through and cast glances on us — or on May, to be precise.
This was part of Sanshui Street, famous for its tea houses, which are in turn famous not for their tea, but their underground sex businesses. It wasn’t actually the ban of prostitution that made this street “underground”; it has always been so.
When prostitution was legal, licenses were exclusively issued to women. Male sex workers have never been legal. They would gather around unlicensed brothels in Sanshui Street to solicit, particularly in 1970s and ’80s, when homosexuality was still taboo in Taiwan. Since the gentrification of Baodou Village from the late ’90s, the section of the street they used to hang in was demolished and turned into a park. Ironically, this park has now become the most popular among Taipei’s homeless. I can’t help but wonder: Is this place doomed to forever accommodate the abandoned?
The room looked just like a karaoke box, with devices from last century and useless insulation, thanks to which, we became well-aware that our neighbouring customers were singing songs from the ’70s and ’80s.
Vivian didn’t leave us alone for too long. She soon introduced us to Mimi, who was around 35 and from China. Mimi wore a countryside-styled dress with very light makeup, and she looked timid. Vivian led her to the seat next to May while gushing about how gorgeous, sexy and bold Mimi was. Mimi grinned. Two of her front teeth were missing.
All of a sudden, Vivian moved May’s hand onto Mimi’s breasts.
“Great tits, aren’t they? You can play with them by any way you like.”
May was absolutely petrified. I wondered if that’s what Vivian had meant by “I’ll make it up to you, little sister.” Vivian then pulled my hands to touch Mimi as well. I flinched, partly because her manner aroused nothing but my uneasiness, and more importantly, I was worried she was going to charge us an astronomical amount by enforcing extra services.
I asked Vivian if this was included in the entry fee we’d just paid her, which was already higher than our initial agreement. She confirmed and, at the same time, advanced to my side and dived in my ear, insisting people don’t come here for basic service. I insisted she clarify what exactly “basic service” included before going any further. She said I was too prudent, I screwed the fun and I didn’t act like a man with three cute girls by his side (mind you, she looked no younger than 45).
Then a “real man” came in. Beefy and dark-skinned, he served up a kettle of tea and two plates of nuts. Vivian complained to him jokingly, saying we were first-timers who didn’t know the fun and the rules. The man just stood there smiling until he received his tips and was sent out by Vivian.
They stayed outside for a minute, then Vivian came back in and closed the wooden sliding door. She and Mimi pushed a couch from a corner of the room and leaned it against the door to block it from being opened. Without saying a word, May and I knew we both wanted to leave.
“What’s this for?” we asked anxiously.
“To give us time if the staff try to open the door without asking,” said Vivian.
Then we finally heard Mimi actively say something:
“…or worse, if there’s any police inspection.”
“Of course, we would all be in trouble.”
“But we’re not doing anything.”
“It wouldn’t be fun if you came here and did nothing, would it?” said Mimi.
Although the situation was intense and Vivian and Mimi were not even close to professional sex workers at all, my immediate thought was that May and I might’ve been overreacting — according to the services they had insinuated they were ready to offer and the money we’d paid – 1200NTD, or around $50AUD – it was quite a bargain. It also saddened me a bit, if they lived on such a low wage.
Then Vivian said, “5000 more. We’ll give you a lot of fun.”
I asked her to get out of the way.
It was true that we’d come to the market for late-night bites and hadn’t brought much cash. They could see how light our bags and how empty our pockets were, so Vivian didn’t insist for too long after she realised we didn’t even have our debit cards. She took an extra NTD600 though, for what she claimed to be her basic service for befriending us and an agent fee. Then she left us in the room with Mimi.
As the three of us chatted, we learned that Mimi has a child with her Taiwanese ex-husband, which is why she can stay in Taiwan. We also learned the limit of her service in tea houses. It’s actually much less than we thought: a blowjob, and Mimi said she wouldn’t risk taking off her clothes because of potential police inspection.
Mimi was very happy that we admired her beautiful legs and her dress which, she said, Vivian always complained about. We talked, but each conversation could hardly go on for long, as we had so little in common. She invited us to sing songs and drink tea, but we turned her down because we were wary they’d come with unreasonable prices.
Not having much more to say, we touched each other, because that had been confirmed as complementary. 15 minutes later, via speakers, Mimi’s name was called by a coarse male voice. She had another customer.
Before she left, Mimi surprised us by asking for NTD600. We said we thought touching was included in the basic charge. She explained that it wasn’t for touching, but for chatting and accompanying us. May and I showed her all the cash we left. Mimi took all the notes, not very happy, saying it was a huge discount.
Back to the night market, May and I were still hungry, and only a few coins left. We wondered if two more bowls of congee would be a good idea.
Cover by Mark Ivan