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Brother Boys, The Real Lives Of Hong Kong's Male Sex Workers

Hong Kong only decriminalized homosexuality in 1991, but there had long been an underground LGBTQ+ culture, including male sex workers. They have learned to survive in difficult conditions, but their experiences are far from how they're portrayed in films.

Photo of Hong-Kong streets

Hong Kong at night

Shuhua Zheng

HONG KONG — David's working place is in an old Cantonese style building from the sixties, with a massage bed placed right in the center. There is a TV and a sofa, with walls painted his favorite shade of white. The room is bright and cozy – unlike how certain films would portray the working environment of sex workers.

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David entered this profession 20 years ago "as an act of impulse". Now nearly 70 years old, he speaks of his job with a smile on his face. His clients ranges from 18-year-olds who call him "uncle/daddy", to elderly people in their nineties who still have sexual needs to be fulfilled.

In Hong Kong, male sex workers are usually referred as "brother boy", and they usually work individually in separate building units, which are close to residential areas. They can also be seen in massage parlors, or go on paid dates. Different from the general female sex workers in Hong Kong, male sex workers will not be visibly looking for clients on the streets, but would use dating websites or apps and online forums to find customers.

Before and after decriminalization

David's working mode is the only legal mode of sex work operation in Hong Kong. If there is more than one sex worker on the premises, it would be deemed as a "place of prostitution" with both the operator and manager being in violation of the law.

There are no official statistics on the number of male sex workers in Hong Kong. A number from 2011 guesss it would be between 2,400 to 3,700. Before the 90s, homosexual acts were condemned as illegal in Hong Kong, and it is only in 1991 when a bill was passed to decriminalize consensual male sex in private places by adult men who are of and over 21. It was only in 2014 when the government lowered the legal age for sex between men to 16, the same age limit as for heterosexuals.

Due to the legal limitations, homosexual identities had to be concealed in Hong Kong, but LGBTQ+ and sex culture have been actively shifting over the past centuries. Due to the conservative cultures of the past and the lack of formal social areas, public toilets had been secret gay meeting places. There were underground gay magazines and adverts by male sex workers on newspapers. With the decriminalization in the 90s, gay bars and nightclubs began to flourish with the rise of the service industry, while smart phones and social media also popularized "online seductions".

Apart from local sex workers like David, there are also ones coming from Mainland China. Zihao is one of them. He was born between the 70s and 80s in southwestern China. Witnessing the dramatic changes of China's "Reform & Opening Up", he followed the trend to seek fortune in the emerging southern cities. In the 90s, a wide range of erotic venues sprang up in the mainland, with Hong Kongers going north to find sex as the cost is lower. That's when Zihao entered the industry to serve gay and Hong Kong customers as a masseur.

ZIhao is quite frank to admit that he had picked up the profession for the sake of "earning money". He felt that there is no difference between sex work and mainstream works. "We are all just using our own things to make profits. What is wrong with this kind of profession?".

Relationships in secret

Zihao has been away from his home the most of his life. Originally he knew no Cantonese, but Zihao never thought about moving to Hong Kong until he unexpectedly met his Hong Kong boyfriend at a party, and moved with him in 2010. His boyfriend knows about his job, and does not interfere because "loving him is not possessing him". But Zihao admitted that it's inevitable to feel psychological pressure when having sex with others after having a partner.

The gay culture in Hong Kong is even more conservative than the Mainland.

Living in an international metropolitan like Hong Kong, Zihao has had clients from both east and west. He said that sex is a universal body language that is common everywhere, while the expression of sexual pleasure does reveal certain cultural differences in his experiences.

Having lived on the Mainland and in Hong Kong, he feels that the gay culture in Hong Kong is even more conservative than the Mainland. Zihao seemed upset when referring to an event in 2019, when a promotional advert implied that homosexual relations was banned from Hong Kong's airport and metro stations. "Conditions for homosexuals in Hong Kong are so backwards! People are even timid when mentioning 'sex', let alone gay sex." He is also an advocate for legalizing homosexual marriage in Hong Kong.

As homosexual marriage is not recognized, Zihao and his partner did not bother to get registered abroad. Like many homosexual couples, they face the issues of not being able to make medical decisions for one another, nor can they open a joint bank account. Although Zihao is open-minded, he has never held hands with his partner in public spaces because in Hong Kong, "not everyone accepts that."

For David, he has a more difficult love life. He was even married to a girl for a year, but he did have a long-term partner. However, such a romance was taboo in the conservative Chinese tradition. The partner insisted David find a girlfriend and "live a normal life" like him, but their relationship lasted for more than 30 years until his death. David never revealed his profession to his partner, nor did he ever make their relationship public.

Photo of a Cathay Pacific same-sex advert in Hong Kong

Cathay Pacific same-sex advert in Hong Kong

Chan Long Hei/SOPA / Zuma

New beginnings

When David first entered the profession, Hong Kong was experiencing its prosperous golden age. He was very popular at first, even seeing eight clients a day. Now he also uses social media to look for new clients, but publicizing his phone number also led to hostility from strangers. He has received phone calls and messages with insults, but he never cared.

Only 20% can make really good money.

Still, David would not introduce himself as a sex worker to people outside the industry, as it is still deemed to be "dirty, unclean." Zihao only worked from 2006 to 2015. He is now completely cut off from his past as a sex worker because he "wanted his own life". They described the industry as having "mutual supportive peers", but it also showed the best and worst of humanity. "Only 20% can make really good money in this industry, 40% would just survive with it, while the remaining 40% would almost starve."

Zihao had found his home in Hong Kong despite the harsh realities, but he said he "had found his peace". As for David, the profession "brings him freedom", and he is "never empty or lonely with it."

When asked whether he expects any changes after his 20 years of experience, David said he's be happy enough in maintaining the status quo. "Will Hong Kong ever be as open as the Netherlands? No, but I am indifferent. I have enough experience to survive in the industry."

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Photograph of Chinese President Xi Jinping and U.S. President Joe Biden walking side by side in the Filoli Estate in the U.S. state of California​

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