Hsiao-Hung Pai’s undercover work as a maid in a brothel

Posing as a maid, Hsiao-Hung Pai infiltrated the murky world of the UK sex trade and spoke to some of the migrant mothers desperately working to send money home to their families.

Invisible: Britain’s Migrant Sex Workers
by Hsiao-Hung Pai


Mia, a Taiwanese sex worker whom I had met while working as a housekeeper in a brothel in Stratford, east London, felt sorry for me when the manageress gave me the sack. She offered to introduce me to Grace, another brothel owner for whom she worked regularly.

Grace ran parlours in the north London suburbs of Finchley and Bounds Green, advertising them in the local newspapers and on her website. I was to discover later that Grace was well known for employing newcomers, both Chinese and Romanian. As with many Chinese-run brothels in the UK, though, she catered to a largely white male clientele. “Oriental” women (often, in reality, migrant mothers trying to provide for their families) are seen and treated as exotic (and erotic) providers of sex.

When I rang, Grace’s first question was whether I would be both a maid and a part-time xiaojie (female sex worker). In a Chinese-run brothel, the xiaojies are high above the baomu (housekeeper) in the labour hierarchy. They are the means of profits, the yao-qian-shu (money tree), while the maids are far more dispensable in the eyes of the owners. Some maids are encouraged to become zhuangzhong (stand-in sex workers during busy periods), and those who agree to fulfil such a dual role are highly sought after.

I detected Grace’s disappointment when I said I was just a maid who offered no other services. Mia urged me to “try it out”. Many housekeepers end up doing zhuangzhong, she said. “All you need is a makeover.” She studied me with a professional air. “You’ve still got the face for the job. You need to do it when you don’t look like an old lady yet.”

Grace had agreed to take me on in Finchley, and I rang her for directions when I arrived at Finchley Central. Rather than giving me the address, she kept me on the phone and directed me through every turn and corner as I walked. When I eventually reached the building, she told me to knock on the back door, saying her boyfriend Jamal would let me in. The door was opened by a young, well-built, Middle-Eastern man, who led me up to a first-floor flat with two bedrooms and a large lounge that doubled as Grace’s bedroom and the xiaojies’ sitting room.

A slim woman was having lunch at the table as I walked in. I guessed she was in her early 40s. Her hair was brushed to one side and her face was pale. She did not look at all well. To her left, a middle-aged woman was holding up a bowl of noodles with both hands, chewing noisily. She gave a slurpy greeting, introducing herself as Grace.

I said my name was Xiao Yun. My cover story was that I had come from Zhejiang province, a single mother with a seven-year-old daughter. I had outstayed my business-visitor visa and had been working in Britain without papers for almost three years.

Apart from verbal abuse, Grace, the brothel owner, treated the women like cargo, swapping them as she pleased

The sick-looking woman, who introduced herself as Ah Fen, soon retreated into her room in a fit of coughing. Grace followed her, shouting through her door: “You’ve been sick long enough! What luck I have!” Ah Fen carried on coughing. “She’s been ill for two days,” Grace informed me, clearly infuriated. Ah Fen was just as angry with the way Grace had treated her during her illness. “She’s been cursing me all day long,” she told me later.

Grace managed to include a swearword in every sentence. Her communication with Jamal was simply a stream of filth, to which her non-English-speaking xiaojies and maids would listen open-mouthed, amazed at her fluency in the language. In fact, she seemed barely able to put together a grammatical English sentence, her default mode being to scream at him a lot.

Ah Fen came from Fuzhou, in Fujian, and had been in Britain for four years. During the first two years, like many newly arrived Chinese, she worked in catering. In the third year she was laid off amid increasing raids on Chinese restaurants by the immigration authorities. A friend introduced her to the sex trade. With no skills to find other work, she accepted immediately. She told me it was the best decision she had made during her time in Britain: her income had gone through the roof and the money she had been able to send home was making a real difference to her family. “In a good week, I can earn £1,500 to £2,000,” she told me.

In the evening, two men turned up while Ah Fen was with a customer.

“Do you work as well?” they asked me.

“I’m a receptionist,” I replied.

They then asked Grace the same thing. She told them I didn’t do sex work, and turned them away. But the pair returned within an hour, complaining that there was only one girl when Grace had told them there would be two.

One of them asked me if I would be willing to do a session with him and Ah Fen.

I shook my head. Again, he repeated the request to Grace.

“No,” she said, sneering at me. “Apparently she doesn’t work.”

The following day Ah Fen seemed even worse, but just after 9am an elderly customer came in and spent three hours with her. (He paid £80 per hour and gave her a £20 an hour tip.) Apparently, the man was a regular and always prepared to spend.

“He doesn’t have intercourse with me, just enjoys touching and watching me,” Ah Fen told me at the end of the session. “But even that was exhausting!”

Ah Fen gave me her mobile phone and asked me to read out the names in her address book. “My friend put them in for me, but I can’t understand them,” she said. As I scrolled through the Chinese characters, I realised she was illiterate.

This was the first time in England that I had met a Chinese migrant who couldn’t read or write. Although she didn’t reveal much about her background, I imagined that she must have come from a village and had led a tough life before she left. She called her teenage son almost every day. She said she needed to hear his voice.

‘Some of the punters play tricks with you and take off the condoms’

Another xiaojie who worked for Grace was Ah Ling, a very approachable and chatty woman in her late 30s from rural Fuzhou. She kept saying: “We’re from the countryside.” She had a 17-year-old son, who was being looked after by her husband. She told me that she had once tried to run her own business and had made losses. She had then borrowed 200,000 yuan (£20,000) to pay to be smuggled into the UK in 2008.

“I wasted my first three years in England working in restaurants and takeaways doing tough work with little reward,” Ah Ling told me. “A year ago, a friend of mine in the sex trade suggested I try doing this. She said: ‘Try it once and see if you are OK with it.’ Frankly, I had no real alternatives.”

“How do you feel about it now?” I asked.

“Now I regret not having started it as soon as I got here.”

Sex work had transformed Ah Ling’s life. She had paid off all her debts within a year and was earning £600 a week. Her current aim was to pay for a new house back home for her family, and return after two more years of sex work.

At the same time, she admitted there was a high price to pay. “I have to watch out for my health,” she said. “Some of the punters play tricks with you and take off the condoms. Four times, punters have ejaculated when their condom was taken off.”

“Have you done anything about it?” I asked.

“I will. I am going to go for a health check … but I think it’s OK,” Ah Ling said, shrugging and trying to be optimistic. “This kind of thing happens to every xiaojie.”

She told me that she frequently gave oral sex without a condom, charging a £10 tip. She didn’t seem to think it was unsafe. (Grace told customers on the phone that it was available, and certainly never warned the women about the health risks.)

Grace also employed European women in order to “provide variety” to customers, but she never treated them with any respect. Grace’s pet name for one Romanian, Cathy, was “you ugly cunt”. Apart from verbal abuse, she treated the Romanian women like cargo, swapping them around in her premises as she pleased. Sometimes she had them working in both Bounds Green and Finchley on the same day, “to cover busy times”. Refusal to go where they were told meant the sack.

Grace kept up her campaign to talk me into doing sex work in order to help out with the business. She repeated the lecture every time a punter complained about there being only one working girl. Grace said she would help me dress up and look the part. I had the feeling she’d done this kind of recruitment many times before.

“You will be grateful to me for leading you into sex work,” said Grace, sitting on the sofa with her hair in a towel after a shower. “No one in this trade can avoid doing it.”

Ah Fen had taken £540 that day, and kept half of it. “You see, Xiao Yun, where else are you going to make such quick cash? In a restaurant kitchen? In a factory?” Grace sneered and shook her head.

I looked at Ah Fen’s tiny figure when she greeted each customer who came to her door. That body of hers, I thought to myself, is the only thing she believes she has to keep herself and her family’s heads above water. Ah Fen spoke no English other than “how long?” (do you want?) and “£90” (per hour), “£50” (per half hour) and “£40” (per 20 minutes).

One day, Grace asked me to show her my iPhone. I carried it in my shirt pocket and had been using it to make sound recordings as part of my undercover work. “Jamal’s friend has the same phone and he’s just lost it. Take the phone out of your pocket and let me have a look if it’s the same one.”

“Are you accusing me of stealing?” I was infuriated.

‘Oriental’ women are seen as exotic providers of sex

Following that incident, she became harsher with me. In the end, she called me into the front room. As I stood before her, she said coldly: “I have two choices for you: do zhuangzhong, or leave.”

“Why can’t I stay as a housekeeper here?” I asked.

“I don’t really need one,” she replied. “Anyway, all my previous housekeepers have done sex work to help out. And they were grateful to me for giving them the chance to make a lot more money than just maiding. You understand?”

I remained silent and waited for her to continue.

“Besides, your ability to speak English is an asset and it will bring in more customers,” she added.

Still I said nothing, and she demanded a decision: “I give you half an hour to consider it. Now get out.”

Thirty minutes later she called me back and I told her politely that I didn’t think I wanted to do zhuangzhong, but that I would ask a friend’s advice.

“You naive, stupid cunt!” she shouted. “Your bloody friend will only look down on you! What do you need advice for? This is not something you tell the world about!”

Then she tried a different tactic. “Don’t you ever think about your daughter? And your parents? What is a little sacrifice for your family? Isn’t this the reason why you are here, to make money for them?”

I listened quietly as I felt the weight of her argument. “If you don’t bring cash back home, you are nothing.”

Those words began to burden me – even though I was just a journalist working undercover. For migrants, this is at the heart of their work journey abroad. To succeed in supporting your family and accomplishing your mission was crucial for every migrant I met who was working in the sex trade. As Grace looked into my eyes accusingly, I began to feel that heavy weight of moral duty and responsibility on my shoulders. As a migrant myself (I still feel an “outsider” today), I could imagine how difficult it must be for someone in this position to resist Grace’s arguments.

I listened, wondering about her past, trying to imagine her as an exploited newcomer. Had she made the same sacrifices as other migrant mothers here, trapped in the role of absentee breadwinner?

Grace continued with her assessment of “success”. If you can feed your family with your earnings, you are average, she said. If you can build houses and really improve their lives, you are counted as successful. “And if you can make so much money that you can afford an affluent lifestyle, then you are everyone’s envy and your family’s pride,” Grace said with conviction. She clearly wanted to achieve that affluence herself.

In the end, she agreed that I could work for the rest of the week. I think she was still hoping she could change my mind.

Grace told me that I wasn’t allowed to go to sleep until the flat closed at 2am, even if there were no customers. I was utterly exhausted at the end of each day, having started work at 7.30am. Grace became harsher as the week went by. Ah Fen told me that Grace would treat me better if I’d agree to take up sex work. “All you have to do is take one or two customers a day. No more than that. And see how you fit,” she said encouragingly.

From sweeping the stairs to cooking, Grace gave me her detailed criticism on a daily basis. Meanwhile, her campaign of persuasion carried on. One afternoon, she asked Ah Fen to train me to massage customers. “You give them 40 minutes of massage, heat them up and then give them sex,” said Grace, face down on her bed, while Ah Fen sat on her back massaging her.

“Come over here,” Grace ordered me. “Massage my forehead.”

Later, three punters turned up while Ah Fen was working. Again, Grace tried to persuade me to take one. I refused. She stormed into her room and quickly put on her work clothes, but was refused by all three punters, one after the other. I’d never seen her looking so humiliated. That was the last straw. “Fuck off,” she said to me. “You’re just not for this job.”

I had been sacked again.


Invisible-Britains-Migrant-S• All names have been changed.

• This is an edited extract from Invisible: Britain’s Migrant Sex Workers by Hsiao-Hung Pai, published by the Westbourne Press at £10.99 on 15 April 2013.


To order a copy for £8.79 with free UK p&p, go to guardian.co.uk/bookshop or call 0330 333 6846

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