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.

‘I think I can do more’: Chinese woman sails the world in 497-day adventure

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

Text by Vicky Feng 

Giant eight-metre waves, weeks alone at sea and a severe lack of sleep may not be unusual for a seasoned sailor, but for first time seafarer Wan Jinyu they were all part of an incredible adventure.

The 52-year-old businesswoman recently arrived in Hong Kong after a remarkable 497-day trip – and said she wanted to keep on going.

Wan and her Swedish husband Rolf Nylander set off from a Mexican beach on November 8, 2012 – their fifth wedding anniversary – before travelling south to La Paz, and then taking in a host of exotic destinations such as French Polynesia, Tuvalu and Samoa.

The mammoth journey, which took in a total of 39 destinations, ended with a trip through the Philippines before they docked in Hong Kong on March 19 this year.

The longest the couple went without seeing land was a lonesome 38 days.

“Going on a transoceanic voyage was Rolf’s lifelong dream,” explained Wan. “After we got married, we started to plan it.”

Supporting her 62-year-old husband’s ambition was a brave decision for Wan, who had no sailing experience whatsoever.

Travelling with her seasoned voyager husband made her feel safer and more relaxed, but Wan still faced challenges as things easily done on land become significantly more difficult on a bobbing sailboat.

“Cooking on the boat is very difficult,” said Wan, “I had to try to stand firm and use a towel to wrap the pot to stabilise it. I had to hold something with one hand to keep steady and use the other hand to cook the food.”

The feat wasn’t without its dangers and splashed cooking oil left her with scars on her neck and ankle.

Sleeping properly became a luxury during their life on the ocean. Space in the 39-foot sailboat was limited, with the couple spending the nights on a small bed that folded out during the day to double up as a table. And even when they were asleep, they had to keep an ear out for the potential dangers of the changing weather.

“We just slept five to six hours intermittently every day,” Wan said. “When the weather was really bad and waves were big, we couldn’t even sleep.”

Life on the sea was more dangerous than she had imagined, with four- to five-metre waves often tossing their boat around. But it was a storm on September 10, 2013, which was most terrifying.

“Waves were seven or eight metres high. From 8am to 4pm, for the entire eight hours, the day looked like night,” Wan recalled. “Our boat was hit by the waves. The wind was strong. It was horrible.”

Apart from the dangers, life on the ocean wave left Wan with some unforgettable memories. One night she was lucky enough to see a “moonbow” – a rainbow produced by light reflected off the surface of the moon.

“It was the only time in my life,” she said excitedly. “Words are not enough to describe its beauty. It can only last in my memory.”

So would she put herself through such an ordeal again? Absolutely.

Braver and more confident now, Wan and her husband are planning to travel from Hong Kong to Gothenburg in Sweden – their home country, setting off in October or November this year.

“I’ve accomplished things I never did before, and I think I can do more,” Wan said.

 

Powerful Beijing doctor’s illegal structure tops them all

A view of the fake mountain and trees on top of the residential building in Beijing’s upscale Park View estate. Photo: Simon Song
By Vicky Feng for the South China Morning Post

When it comes to illegal structures, a rooftop villa built by an eccentric Beijing resident on top of a 26-storey residential building puts Henry Tang’s wine cellar to shame.

Beijing’s chengguan, or urban management, officials on Monday issued an ultimatum to a former government advisor, demanding he tear down the sprawling structure that he had built over the last six years on top of his top-floor flat. The rooftop house features elaborate fake rocks, real trees and grass, and covers the entire top of the building. Parts of the structure look as if they could spill over the edge of the roof at any time.

The bizarre two-storey structure, located in a high-end residential compound called Park View in Beijing’s Haidian district, an area of government institutions and universities, has bothered the building’s residents for years. Local newspapers have identified the owner as Zhang Biqing, a doctor of traditional Chinese medicine and former member of a district People’s Political Consultative Conference who owns a national chain of acupunture clinics.

Zhang Biqing, the owner of the rooftop villa. Photo: SCMP Pictures

Disturbed by constant noise from heavy construction machinery working on the roof, water leaks and worried about structural damage to the whole building, neighbours have complained repeatedly to the building management company, local urban management officials and even the police. The new ultimatum, published Monday evening on many local news sites, urges the owner to dismantle the structure himself within 15 days. Failure to comply would result in forcible demolition, it says.

When confronted earlier by reporters from local newspaper Beijing Morning News, Zhang, who sometimes identified himself as a professor, had said, “Since I dare to live here, I am not worried about complaints.

“Famous people come to my place and sing. How can you stop them?” the newspaper quoted him as saying about the noise at night.

Some neighbours who had complained over the years suffered harrassment and threats from the owner, Zhang Biqing, local newspapers have reported. One 77-year-old man was beaten up several times by Zhang and eventually forced to move, it was reported. Police didn’t seem to have intervened.

The community’s property management office declined to comment and phone calls to the Haidian district urban management office went unanswered on Monday.

The “rooftop garden villa” might not be the only illegal construction in this community, Chinese netizens have found out.

A property agent posted photos of another apparently illegal rooftop house online in late 2011, featuring a blueprint of a three-storey structure with more than a dozen rooms and a bird’s eye view of a nearby lake.

A view of the fake mountain and trees on top of the residential building in Beijing’s upscale Park View estate. Photo: Simon Song

The structure, which the agent also called a “rooftop garden villa”, had a total indoor area of more than 590 square metres and an asking price of 15 million yuan (HK$19 million).

When contacted by phone by thePost on Monday, Sun Jianchao, a Beijing real estate agent who posted the pictures, denied the structure in the pictures was the same one in the news this week, but declined to give more details.

Some Chinese netizens mocked the rooftop house. “Even the Hanging Gardens of Babylon are overshadowed by this hanging villa in Beijing,” said one Weibo user.

Others were angry at the owner with one internet user saying, “How can this guy be a professor? He gained his happiness by torturing others.” Many also expressed anger at the failure of chengguan officials, known for their thuggish, often brutal behaviour throughout the country while dealing with unlicensed street vendors, in enforcing the law on the rich and powerful.

Almost all add-on structures or alterations to residential buildings are illegal in China. However, this hasn’t stopped thousands of owners of top-floor or ground-floor properties from adding rooms, and even floors, to their homes, or encroaching into public space by putting up additional walls or fences

Hong Kong Christians ‘harassed’ by mainland’s Church of Almighty God

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A speech denoucing the Church of Almighty God held in Tuen Mun this March. Photo: Vicky Feng
By Vicky Feng for the South China Morning Post

Chan Kang-kwong lived a quiet life with his wife in Tuen Mun before she encountered the Church of Almighty God, which has been branded an “evil cult” and banned by Beijing.

As his wife became more involved in the church, also known as Lightning of the East and which has one million followers on the mainland, Chan became more worried.

“She was addicted to the heresy of the Church of Almighty God,” said Chan, 55, who works at a financial company. “It was very serious. Her conversion influenced me a lot. I couldn’t sleep for a whole week at that time. And our relationship was very bad.”

The sect, which believes a mainland woman is the second coming of Jesus Christ and calls the Communist Party the “great red dragon”, is notorious among Christian communities for its aggressive recruiting methods.

Hong Kong’s mainstream Christian churches have given sermons, handed out leaflets and set up a Facebook page to warn people about the sect.

It allegedly has kidnapped, tortured and brainwashed people into converting on the mainland. In December, about 1,000 followers were arrested and accused of spreading doomsday rumours, a key religious concept of the sect.

Mainland immigrants brought the church to Hong Kong about 10 years ago, and there has been a huge push to expand membership beyond its 2,000 followers, said Kevin Yeung Tze-chung, general secretary of the Concern Group on Newly Emerged Religions, who has been studying the sect since 2008. He said the source of money spent on the campaign was unknown.

The Church of Almighty God was seen handing out leaflets in Tsuen Wan this May. Photo: Yeung Tze-chung
The Church of Almighty God’s “belief is antisocial and destroys the value of family”, Yeung said, adding that the sect denies the value of love, care and tolerance and keeps indoctrinating followers with its second-coming story. Yeung claims 200 Christians in Hong Kong have been harassed and “mentally hurt” by the sect.

Saleswoman Leung Fung-tai, 50, of Tin Shui Wai, said she had been targeted by the sect and dragged to a Bible study group by an acquaintance.

She was told bad things would happen to nonbelievers and she stopped attending the group because she did not like being threatened.

Chan’s wife, 52, finally returned to her regular church and refuses to talk about her experience because she feels guilty and ashamed.

But others have been strongly influenced by the sect.

Angel Lee’s mother has been a member for more than a year. Lee, 28, said her and her sister’s relationship with their mother had soured. She had become irritable and spent all day and much of the night at the church. She had also ignored all her old friends.

Kung Lap-yan, an associate professor studying religion at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said he preferred to call the church a “new religion” rather than a cult.

The mainstream church sells leaflets to warn its followers of the Church of Almighty God’s infiltration. Photo: Vicky Feng

Mainstream churches were afraid of losing their followers.

“I don’t see any bad influence it has had,” he said. “Every religion has the freedom to preach and there is no evidence it has done anything illegal.”

The Church of Almighty God refused to directly comment on the accusations, but hit back at its critics.

“Mainstream religious leaders don’t serve God. Instead, they serve themselves. They make themselves the idol of their followers and control them,” it said in a 40-page statement.

School blames examinations authority for DSE cheats

By Vicky Feng

Modern College chief principal Kason Chan and principal John Ma face the media after 23 pupils were disqualified for plagiarism in their school-based assessments. Photo: SCMP Sam Tsang

(The report first published on the South China Morning Post on July 16, 2013)

Modern College says it is not responsible for 23 of its pupils being found guilty of plagiarism, and it has blamed the Examinations and Assessment Authority for not providing software to check the pupils’ work.

The candidates enrolled with the private tutorial company had their marks in the Chinese-language section of this year’s Diploma of Secondary Education exams invalidated after their school projects, which counted towards grades, were found to include plagiarised passages from the internet with no citations.

Without a score for the subject, they have lost any chance they might have had of getting into a university this year.

All the pupils, who sat the exam between March and May, were taught by the same teacher, but the school refused to disclose details of the teacher’s experience and the branch of the school where they studied.

Modern College, a secondary day-school linked to Modern Education, has four campuses in the city.

The college’s executive officer, Twinkle Lai Wai-ling, denied that the teacher involved had covered up for the pupils.

“Our teacher tried his or her best,” she said, refusing to identify the person concerned.

“The teacher discovered three plagiarism cases and reported them to the authority. They are not sure about the other cases. It was the authority’s responsibility to do further checks.”

The projects were marked by the teacher and then sent to the exams authority.

The college also said it knew about the plagiarism cases in May and that it had held several meetings with the authority.

“The teacher’s ability was limited and our resources were also limited,” said college principal Kason Chan Kay-sang.

“The examinations and assessment authority didn’t provide us with software to check students’ work.”

But the authority said it was not its responsibility to provide schools with anti-plagiarism software.

Chan said the college would strengthen the supervision of similar projects and that school principals might read pupils’ work themselves in future.

The teacher involved has been suspended for violating the rules set by the authority and for not having asked the pupils involved to sign a declaration stating that their work was original and properly cited.

The head of the branch of the school has also been suspended.

Lawmaker Dr Kenneth Chan Ka-lok said he had written to Education Bureau Secretary Eddie Ng Hak-kim, urging the bureau to follow up on the case and to take appropriate action where necessary.

“I think it was a very serious case,” Chan said.

“The teacher involved and Modern College itself might have covered up for the cheating pupils.

“The teacher and the college had the ability and the responsibility to prevent this happening, but they didn’t fulfil their responsibilities,” he said.

Desperate mother tried to set herself on fire in Hong Kong’s July 1 march

BY VICKY FENG

Ran Chongbi stays at a Hong Kong hospital after she was released on bail. (Photo:Vicky Feng)
Ran Chongbi stays at a Hong Kong hospital after she was released on bail. (Photo:Vicky Feng)

(The article first appeared on the South China Morning Post on July 3, 2013)

A mainland mother was released on bail yesterday after apparently trying to set herself alight at the July 1 march to win justice for her daughter.

Ran Chongbi doused clothes she was holding with alcohol and was trying to set them on fire using a lighter when she was stopped by Liu Weiping, a human rights activist who was taking part in the march.

Police took Ran, who escaped injury, from Victoria Park to hospital where she was examined before being taken into custody for suspected disorderly conduct in a public place, according to police.

She was later sent back to hospital again due to poor health.

Speaking from her hospital bed yesterday, the 38-year-old told the South China Morning Post: “I tried to burn myself there to get justice for my daughter.”

Ran’s daughter was raped at five years old in Dongguan, Guangdong, in 2008.

The 50-year-old man who attacked her was jailed for six-and-a-half years. After Ran appealed in 2009, the sentence was increased to seven years.

Ran appealed to the local court to have the sentence increased further but was rejected.

Liu Weiguo, a Chinese human rights lawyer based in Shandong, said: “The judgment was absolutely unfair.”

He added: “According to criminal law in the People’s Republic of China, perpetrators who rape girls under the age of 14 should be jailed for more than 10 years.”

Ran said yesterday: “I don’t have money or power, but the Guangdong government has. It has hired gangsters to persecute us.”

Ran said that her daughter has been suffering ill-health as a result of the attack while she herself has been left jobless as a result of the government harassment and persecution.

“I don’t have the money to cure my daughter,” said Ran. “And her whole life is destroyed.”

Ran’s Hong Kong visa runs out on July 5 and she fears what repercussions she faces back home.

Liu Weiping, the activist who stepped in to stop her actions on Monday, said: “If the international society doesn’t pay attention to her, she will face stronger persecution after going back.”

Ran has been told to report back to police in early September.

Alcoholism in Czech

 Jan Boháč (Photo provided by Jan  Boháč )
Jan Boháč
(Photo provided by Jan Boháč )

BY VICKY FENG

PRAGUE, CZECH – Jan Boháč started to drink when he was a teenager.

He was lost and couldn’t find the place he belonged to.  He used graffiti, hip pop and alcohol to find himself.  Alcohol made him feel big and safe in his illusions.  He had drunk more and more, from beer to liquor, until alcohol brought problems to his work and hurt the ones he loved.

Jan is one of the 700,000 alcoholics in Czech, a small country with 10.5 million population but ranks No.2 in  alcohol consumption.   Relaxed laws, cheap alcohol price, cultural acceptance and ineffective preventive and treating program are considered the reasons for alcoholism in Czech.

As a result, the government established the first addiction clinic treating and researching alcoholism in Prague last April, to coordinate two existing facilities, Center for Addictology of Charles University and Unit for Addiction Treatment of General Faculty Hospital (VFN). 

It’s still too early to evaluate the effectiveness of the addiction clinic, the head of inpatient woman’s ward at VFN Olga Pecinovská said, but according to a 2010 research on patients who stayed in VFN at least for three weeks and had left for three years, 50% were alcohol free..

Community treatment is an important part of the basis, incorporating into both inpatient and outpatient treatments.  When inpatients go through the process of abstinence, they also work on the life problems which lead to their alcoholism through community meetings.  Guided by a psychologist, the inpatients talk about their own problems, listen to other group members’ stories, analyze the problems and get improved.  “Of course group psychotherapy or individual psychotherapy is an important part of the treatment system,” Pecinovská said, “but main problems are solved in community.”

A woman patient said this hospital was good.  She spoke on the condition of anonymity because she hadn’t got the interview permission from the hospital.

Jan also asked for help in a hospital.  He just stayed there for seven days because he thought it didn’t work for him and he cherished his freedom.  “Any addiction is an individual thing,” Jan wrote in a letter to a Czech psychology website, “so in my opinion, can not be treated in the community, even though it has its charm.”

Jan began to treat himself by thinking and writing.  He realized how alcohol hurt his relationships with his mother and friends.  With the support from them, Jan had stopped drinking for four months, but he had a relapse two months ago.  He is trying again to quit drinking now.   It’s a tough journey for Jan.

Watch a related video by Yanni Zhang and Vicky Feng here.  

Blank Leaflets

October 16, 2011

BY VICKY FENG

The Polish artist Tomasz Wiktor is doing the performance on the street.
(From Tomasz Wiktor’s video “I’m mobile”)

SHANGHAI, China — The police stopped a Polish artist who was handing out blank leaflets on one of this city’s busiest streets for disturbing “social order” today.

Polish artist Tomasz Wiktor shuttled among the crowd and gave the leaflets to passers-by, while a camera recorded the event for a video called “I’m mobile“.  Wiktor got the inspiration of this performance from the aggressive real-life leafleteers in China.  This performance followed up on his last one “Immobile“, exploring individuals’ active and passive actions, interactions between people and the relationship between people’s movements and space.

On East Nanjing Road this afternoon,  most of the people hurried away with a confused look but some stopped and asked about the purpose of the blank paper.  Wiktor didn’t answer and kept on doing his work.  A middle-aged Chinese man walked up to Wiktor’s assistant, dropped the paper in front of the running camera and angrily asked, “What’s this for?”

Three minutes later, a junior policeman moved towards Wiktor and gave the order, “No!” Wiktor ignored him and thrust a flyer into his hand.  Then another two junior policemen arrived and three of them circled around Wiktor.   After a while, a woman city administrator drove up.  She got out of the car, walked to the artist and asked him what he was doing.  Wiktor turned a blind eye to her, too.  A little later, a policeman dressed in a black uniform and cap reached the scene by motorcycle.  He stopped Wiktor and asked him to show his passport.  Instead, Wiktor gave him a flyer.

Eventually the chief police officer arrived on the scene and talked with Wiktor.   Instantly, dozens of onlookers surrounded them.  Wiktor emerged from the crowd after talking with the cheif police officer.  “He asked me to change a place since he thought I made people confused and disturbed the social order,” Wiktor said.  “He also said the consequence would be terrible if I didn’t leave.  So I decide to move.”