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Saturday, 20 October 2012

Endo Kosai and Red Envelopes

Night view of Ximending

One evening I was walking with an Austrian friend of mine in Ximending, one of the busiest shopping streets in Taipei. Ximending, which has its origins in the Japanese colonial era, was the first pedestrian zone in Taiwan and has become a meeting point especially for young people.
Every now and then my friend looked around with a somewhat shocked expression.
“What's wrong?” I asked him.
“Look at those girls,” he said. “They're dressed like hookers.”
He was surprised when I explained him that many of those girls were indeed hookers.
“I thought prostitution was illegal in Taiwan,” he remarked.
“It is,” I said. “However, a lot of young girls come here and offer their services to men.They want to earn some money. It is a strictly 'private' transaction. It's hard for the police to find out.”

Japanese school girl
Image courtesy of Danny Cho
Ximending has often been described as the Harajuku or Shibuya of Taipei. Famous for its fashion and (often Japanese-style) subculture it is a place that throbs with life, especially at night. It's one of the few areas in Taipei where you can see a street art culture like in London or Berlin. It is popular with young people. And it has one of the highest crime rates of the city. It is, in fact, the centre of Taiwan's prostitution industry and the illegal activities related to it.

Ximending has always been a peculiar place in the rather prude capital. In the 1950s it became known for its so-called 紅包場 or “Red envelope bars”. In Chinese culture “red envelopes” are used to put money in as a gift for children and, when children grow up and earn money, as a gift for their parents. After the end of the Chinese Civil War and the establishment of the temporary government of the Republic of China on Taiwanese soil, mainland soldiers frequented karaoke bars in Ximending. However, listening to the beautiful singers' performances wasn't enough for them. They began asking for “extra” services by giving the girls or the owners of the bars “red envelopes” with cash. Soon those bars turned into a hub of illegal prostitution and remained so until the 90s.

Traditions don't die easily. With prostitution banned, other forms of sex services arouse, fostered by the unlimited opportunities offered by the internet. The last innovation to appear on Taipei's sex scene has been imported from Japan. It is enjo kosai.

Enjo kosai means “compensated dating”. In Chinese it's called “援助交際(yuan2zhu4jiao1ji4), which means “intercourse aid”. A compensated date is the practice of paying girls to have a date with them. This might involve sex or not, depending on whether both parties consent to it after meeting each other. Most of the times it is elder men who request such services, but there are also many young guys who are thrilled by the perspective of dating a beautiful girl, hoping that something more might happen than just going out and drinking a coffee or tea.

I have a friend who works as a yuanjiaomei, a dating girl, in Ximending. She is a 19-year-old college student. The reason why she began doing that job is that she didn't have enough money to buy brand clothes and a smartphone. She joined several websites and began “hooking up” men online. This system is definitely safer than traditional prostitution. 

First of all, she doesn't have a pimp – and everyone knows that pimps might not always be the nicest guys in the world. Therefore, she has absolute control over how she trades with her body. Second, it is a date, which means that the man and the girl don't have sex immediately but usually meet in a neutral place, such as a coffee shop or a department store. At any stage of the date both parties can withdraw from the deal. If the man doesn't like the girl he can just talk to her for a few minutes and then leave. If the girl doesn't like the man, she can refuse to go with him.

Even if she likes him enough to go and have dinner or a drink with him, it doesn't mean she has to have sex. She does it only if she wants to. Of course, going out with strangers can always turn out to be a dangerous enterprise. In 2008, for instance, a 16-year-old yuanjiaomei from Hong Kong, Wong Ka-mui, was dismembered and her body parts were dumped in the sea by a man she had dated for cash. A terrifying story.

Is enjo kosai therefore a bad thing that society should condemn? Many people hastily come to the conclusion that it's because of increasing materialism or family issues that girls retort to compensated dating. As far as underage girls are concerned, I definitely agree that this phenomenon should be stopped. But what if a girl over 18?

Night view of Ximending
Well, my friend is happy with what she does. She has some extra money every month, and she doesn't feel filthy, as some puritans might assume.

In my view, as long as you are not compelled to do anything you don't want, selling your body is nothing exceptional. 

What do you think? Please leave a comment below if you want to.

I am quite interested in this phenomenon, that's why I am currently writing a book about it.

I wish all of you a nice day. Please comment and subscribe!


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