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September 21, 2017

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Under the red light: The women of Taiwan's sex trade

TAIPEI, Taiwan -- Down a flight of dimly lit stairs, reflected by mirrors and reverberating with bass from an aging sound system, the women of a "bar" in Greater Taipei sit at smoky booths and wait for the first Friday night customers. Two sisters, the youngest looking of the five women sitting around the backroom table, brush their hair and try on jewelry brought over from the mainland by a former employee.

"My sister say she think I should buy this necklace," says one of the two girls while holding up a knock-off Chanel amulet, "but I don't like (the chain) … It's too little. Will get caught in my hair."

One of the women, who looks around 30 years old and wears a tight skirt with see-through stockings, stands up as Mamasan (a term common in Asia referring to a brothel's madam) dips through the curtain and leans in to tell her a group of mainland Chinese businessmen wants a round of drinks and a girl to sing karaoke with them. Mamasan looks to the elder of the two sisters and asks her to come too. For now, the two girls will sit with the men and sing and drink watered-down scotch, at a cost per glass of NT$400. The men, of course, pay. Even if they do nothing more than drink and sing, it is sure to be an expensive night out.

Two of the three remaining women continue to rifle through the box of cheap jewelry, while the younger sister pours a pitcher of Taiwan Beer into the glasses on the table. "Rita" has been working at the bar for nearly a year, and has gotten used to foreigners asking questions about her work. "I have drinks with Chinese, and sometimes sing. But here (this booth) is VIP for foreigners. Sometimes Chinese come back here looking for me, but Mamasan say for them to go out and she bring them a girl."

Most of Rita's customers are foreigners, she says, though occasionally locals come in with big money. Not all the patrons to the bar, of course, play by the rules. "(The customers) say to me, 'Come to my hotel, but don't tell Mamasan, OK? Just between you and me.'" She says she turns them down, but will oblige if they're willing to take care of business in the booth with the curtains drawn. Rita claims the men want to purchase sex, but seek to cut out the expensive premium that Mamasan charges for the introduction. "Mamasan can tell if the customer is a good man. She works very hard too, so she need to make money."

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