Cruising the disputed Paracel Islands, one of the world’s most unlikely tourist hotspots

Video produced by Vicky Feng and Robin Fall for the South China Morning Post 

Entry is for mainland citizens only – and even then, intense screenings apply. The destination is the South China Sea’s disputed Paracel Islands, an area that has become the flashpoint of a global sovereignty row. As we count down to the United Nations ruling over China’s claims to the waters, the SCMP joined a one-of-a-kind cruise for a sneak peek at one of the world’s most unlikely tourist hotspots. Stay tuned for more exclusive reports in the coming days.

Mainland Leukaemia victim blames illness on exposure to chemicals at Hong Kong-owned Shenzhen factory

Video produced by Vicky Feng for the South China Morning Post 

Zou Xiuhua, 30, has been suffering from leukaemia for almost two years. He believes the illness was caused from exposure to harmful chemicals in a Hong Kong company’s Shenzhen factory where he worked for 18 months. visited Zou in a Guangzhou hospital in December.

Confessions of a Tokyo bar hostess: ‘I’m not a pure girl any more’

Video produced by Vicky Feng and Tomasz Wiktor for the South China Morning Post 

Text by Vicky Feng 

On a balmy autumn night, a Chinese woman walks under colourful LED lights on a street in Shanghai. She just wants to be called by her Japanese name Hikaru, which means light.

The 28-year-old real estate agent has a past that many women of her age can never imagine — she realises now that she lost her innocence.

“This job changed me. I am not a pure girl any more. I have become a materialistic and pragmatic woman,” Hikaru told The Post in her aunt’s Shanghai apartment.

Hikaru went into her mother’s profession as a bar hostess in Tokyo after she moved there in 2007. She had just graduated high school and was studying at a language school to prepare for university.

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In telling her story, ‘Hikaru’ explains the life of a mid-20s hostess. Photo: Tomasz Wiktor

Her move is like that of more than 400,000 Chinese students who have chosen to study in Japan since the early 1980s. And at that time, many Chinese students took up bar hostessing to finance their study in Japan, said Chinese-Japanese scholar Gracia Liu-Farrer.

After working part-time in a restaurant far from her home, she was on the metro and fainted from the heavy workload.

Her mother offered to bring her into the world of hostessing and for more pay and less work she agreed — she went on to spend more than five years in the industry.

Being a hostess doesn’t necessarily lead to moral corruption, and in the end Hikaru successfully made a new life for herself.

But in the process, she dated a much older man, had two abortions and learned the hard way that men can change under the influence of alcohol.

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‘Hikaru’ puts on lipstick in her aunt’s house. Photo: Vicky Feng

Hostess work is not as it seems

In Japan, hostess bars and clubs are entrenched in the nightlife industry. Men go to have hostesses accompany, entertain and flirt with them.

The first bar Hikaru worked at had eight hostesses from different parts of China, owned by a middle-aged Shanghainese woman.

The bar was in Tokyo’s central Kanda district surrounded by office buildings and restaurants. The tiny 60-square-meter bar, awash in yellow light was filled with white-collar workers aged from 30 to 50 crooning on the karaoke machine. Customers would come to the bar alone, with colleagues or friends.

They pay 3000 yen an hour (about HK$191) for their own alcohol and 1000 yen (about HK$63) for each drink the hostess has.

Hikaru was the youngest at her bar, aged 20, and would work from 8pm sometimes until 4am. Workwear usually meant a short tube dress and heavy make-up, her role was to drink, sing and try to talk with her customers in broken Japanese.

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‘Hikaru’ in her bedroom. Photo: Tomasz Wiktor

“When I first started, I was very nervous because I knew nothing. I observed arguments between women and tainted relationships between men and women,” she said.

As her Japanese improved, so did her experience. She learnt to fake her smile and tell racy jokes. And she learnt ways to deal with customers by observing and discussing with other senior hostesses.

“If a customer touched my breast, I would bow down and pretend to pick up something that drops on the ground or I would make him a drink and divert his attention,” Hikaru said. “I would have a smile on my face and not let him feel that I hate his behaviour.”

Playing the game

While Hikaru became experienced at playing the game with men, the beautiful impressions she used to have towards men shattered.

“After drinking, some men who are decent office workers during daytime would argue with you, touch you and insult you at night,” she said, “some of them would even take off their trousers, kneel down and ask you to lash their bottoms with a belt.”

Hikaru’s starting salary was 1800 yen an hour (about HK$115) and it rose to 2000 yen an hour (about HK$128) three months later. At its peak, her monthly salary rose to 400,000 yen (about HK$26,000), while the average monthly salary in Shanghai at that time was about the equivalent of HK$4000.

However, she spent it all.

“You earn money easily, so you spend it easily”, she said.

Bar hostesses are not supposed to provide sex services, but the topic inevitably comes up. The salary system applied by some hostess bars and the job environment can incentivise hostesses to have a sexual relationship with their customers.

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Shanghai’s skyline glitters as it welcomes ‘Hikaru’ back. Photo: Tomasz Wiktor

‘I sold my body’

“Customers gave jewellery and designer bags to some hostesses as presents. As a woman, I felt bad when others had them and I didn’t. And every hostess was involved in this kind of exchange. So I also lied and sold my body for it, ” Hikaru confessed.

On the other hand, she was romantically involved with her customers. She dated a 44-year-old Japanese software engineer for six years and had two abortions for him.

“I believe he loves me but he doesn’t want to marry me,” she said.

After graduating with a degree in business psychology this August, Hikaru decided to return to China.

And she has no regrets. “I don’t think my previous work was dirty. I used my wisdom and made great efforts to support myself,” she said.

Michelin Guide features Hong Kong street food for the first time

Video produced by Vicky Feng and Silvio Carrillo for the South China Morning Post 

Michelin has released its eighth edition to the Michelin Guide Hong Kong Macau. For this year, a new section has been added to the guide on street food that has been compiled by the Michelin’s Hong Kong-based inspectors. SCMP’s Bernice Chan and Michael Ellis, International Director of the Michelin guide, visited three of the 23 listed places and tasted their signature dishes.