Last week while visiting a Thai day spa, I had a conversation with a young woman that got me thinking. Upon asking if she had any plans for the Easter break, she replied, “ohh…no I will probably just be working.” Wondering what it was like to be alone in a foreign country I asked if she missed her family. “Yes, so so much,” she replied, massaging my feet with a sad little smile. It got me to thinking about all of the foreign women currently working hard in Australia to try and support their families, and the ‘punters’ who couldn’t care less about what their lives are like beyond the ‘happy endings’ they seek.
As this is the first Easter in 5 years that I haven’t been away, I decided to spend some time spreading kindness to those in the community. Raiding my local ALDI store for all of the best chocolate bunnies, hot cross buns and Easter goodies, I made a stash of gifts to give to girls I’d met at local massage shops, along with those who are currently working in illegal brothels.
I often think about how to tackle the problem of illegal prostitution, and unfortunately, it is a giant issue which is going to take time to solve (and a dedicated effort from council, government and police). One thing which really frustrates me is the tactic of police to punish the women rather than the men who purchase, so I try to take a different approach – making connections with these women and offering them support if needed. This was the idea behind my decision to spend my Easter break visiting these venues.
Along with the gifts, I drafted a basic flyer (which some friends helped me to translate into different languages) wishing the girls a happy Easter, and offering free advice to anyone new to Brisbane.
Armed with my gifts, I made my way into the first of 6 shops. Opening the door to the reception area, I looked around the empty area to see an Asian woman lounging on a couch at the back of the room, playing on her phone. Looking up at me from her seat it was clear she was confused as to why a woman was in that sort of venue, however she remained seated. Approaching the couch, I greeted the young woman and explained that I was spreading some Easter cheer by visiting local businesses to give out gifts. Looking disinterested, she told me that she already had chocolate and was ‘busy’, before going back to playing on her phone. Despite the empty shop it was clear that I wasn’t going to get very far…and forcing chocolate isn’t really my style (haha).
Disappointing as it was, I couldn’t be too surprised given the reputation of the shop. I’ve been to this place in the past and the mamasan was very quick to get me out the door when I enquired about booking a massage (meanwhile the several men leaving the venue made it clear to me who their priorities were), and none of the workers could speak any English, let alone understand me.
Making my way out of the venue I continued on, driving to another shop known for illegal prostitution. You’d be surprised to see how such places exist within ‘nice’ neighbourhoods – often going unnoticed, or ignored by the community and our government. As I walked toward the front door, I noticed a man literally circling around near the shop like a vulture (he was still hanging around when I left).
Opening the front door I entered a dimly lit area to find a number of young women in tight clothing and heavy makeup sitting on a couch – their eyes all fixed on me. Again I encountered suspicion, mistrust, and general dismissal.
Approaching the desk I spoke to an older woman (the manager, I presume) who was, like the previous place, very dismissive at first. Given that their customer base is comprised of men looking for sexual services, it makes sense that they would be suspicious as to why a white woman was visiting their venue with gifts. I mean, for all they knew I could have been the wife of any of these men, coming to give them a serving. Maybe they thought I had a bag full of rotten eggs or something?!
Explaining to them why I was out visiting local businesses it became clear that they were waiting for some sort of catch.“No thank you, we are not Christian,” said the manager matter-of-factly as I offered her the gifts. The suspicion and lack of trust was like a thick cloud all around, and in that room, it was strikingly clear that I was the odd one out. At this point, a middle-aged caucasian man walked into shop, much to the joy of the manager.
With the manager no longer standing between me and the other girls, I turned to a young worker and tried to speak to her. I was determined to let them know that there were no catches; this wasn’t a religious thing, there was no obligation for them to do anything…I was merely giving free gifts to those working on the Easter weekend.
“I know a lot of staff here work really hard and don’t get holidays like us Aussies, so I just wanted to give you some gifts to wish you a happy Easter,” I explained. Some of the girls sat together giggling and the manager continued to question me. Eventually however, she began to soften, listening with interest when I mentioned that I had friends who worked in the massage industry, and know what it can be like to be new to Brisbane.
“Oh…thank you – that’s so lovely,” she said, as I handed out some gifts to herself and the other girls. I felt my voice catch in my throat, my hands shaking as I smiled and turned to leave. I couldn’t believe how hard it was just to try to break through those barriers.
Just as I was leaving however, the manager stopped at the door behind me. “What a lovely thing for you to do. Thank you,” she said with a bemused look on her face. I smiled again and tried to keep calm as I walked past another man – and a woman who seemed oblivious to the venue she was standing outside – and made my way back to my car.
Making my way to shop # 3 I again found a similar attitude, although I was a little more confident in what to say this time. This place was quite different to the last, with a run-down, obvious look that screamed ”dodgy!” It definitely wasn’t the nicest place to be on my weekend. To this day, it frustrates me that police still have not done anything about this place (which I have been supplying evidence on for the last year, and even seen women fleeing from at night, dressed in metallic, skimpy attire).
Waiting in the front room a massage lady greeted me, asking if I had an appointment. After introducing myself I went through my spiel and explained again that I was just there to give some Easter gifts to people in the community – no catches. The woman (who I gather was the manager) was hesitant to accept, telling me that they already had chocolate. OMG, it’s chocolate not a gun, I thought to myself. I’d eat it all myself if I weren’t intolerant to dairy (haha). Eventually, she passed me onto a fellow worker who seemed somewhat more excited about the prospect of free chocolate and I handed them a flyer with my details. Again I sensed suspicion, thick in the air.
“What is this??” questioned the manager.
It’s a shame that these women have to be so distrustful of those who mean them no harm, as opposed to those out to exploit them, however it is something I hope to see change over time. I explained that I’d helped other young women who were new to Brisbane, and that the flyer was a simple way of passing on my details in case anyone was looking for a friendly face while visiting our city. The manager seemed intrigued, and I decided it was time to leave it at that. Trying my best to keep my game face on, I walked back to my car, exhaling only when I was out of view. This wasn’t as easy as I’d planned in my head!
Just as I was about to get into my car I noticed an Asian manicure shop beside me, and decided I may as well distribute some gifts there too. By this time I was feeling pretty deflated, so I was utterly relieved when the young worker seemed only too happy to accept the gifts.
“Oh, it’s like a random act of kindness thing yeah?” I heard a young manager/supervisor say as she walked over to join us.
FINALLY. Someone who understood.
“Oh my gosh is all of this for us!?” she exclaimed excitedly as I passed her a box of chocolate rabbits, hot cross buns and chocolate roses. Looking up, she must have sensed the exhaustion in my face, asking if something was wrong.
“No, no,” I laughed shakily (whilst also feeling like I WAS going to cry from the relief of having someone finally see my gift of generosity for what it was supposed to be). “It’s just that…I guess some people don’t quite understand why I’m doing this. It’s as if they expect that I, I don’t know, have an agenda or something…” I admitted.
The young woman hugged me, overjoyed and thanking me profusely for the gifts. I walked back to my car with relief, glad that at least someone had appreciated the gesture.
By this stage I was really tired, but also determined to visit as many places as possible, so I traveled out to a shop I’d come across last year (where I’d given assistance to a young Chinese woman after a particularly bad client left her in tears late at night). Sadly, there seemed to be a lot of confusion over whether she was, or wasn’t there, with the ML on reception telling me that there was noone there by that name, before also saying that, “X isn’t here today…”, and then swapping back to saying she didn’t know who X was. I couldn’t do much in that circumstance, so I passed along some gifts and made my way out, leaving my name with them in case X returned at some point.
The final shop on my list was a Thai massage place that I recently visited (mentioned in the beginning of this blog), which – to my delight – actually appeared to be a legitimate massage shop. I felt much calmer about entering this place; the open areas and bright, natural lighting coming through the windows (which distinctively lacked newspaper) made me feel more at home.
“Hello!” I said, greeting the manager. “I had a massage with ”X” last week and was hoping to thank her for doing such a great job. I’ve got a few little Easter gifts I’d love to give you guys if that’s okay?” Waiting for the cold stare and suspicious questions, I was relieved when she happily went and brought out the young masseuse. “Ohhh kopkunka!!” she cried when she saw what I’d brought her, bowing politely. “Thank you, kopkunka, kopkunka!”
It was an amazing feeling to know that I’d made a difference to at least a few women in the massage industry, even though my attempts to show kindness did not go as smoothly as I’d envisioned. I am hopeful that at least one woman from the illegal venues I visited will experience some happiness from my gifts; if they lead to even one woman to contacting me, it will not be in vain.
To end on a positive note – I am also currently in discussions with some influential members of Australian organisations, educational sectors, and members of the media, who I hope will be able to work with me toward our goal, which aims to eventually see the men in these venues held accountable for their exploitation of foreign women. I will keep working toward this goal, and I hope for more good news in the future.