Magazine article Newsweek International

Fifteen Minutes of Fame

Magazine article Newsweek International

Fifteen Minutes of Fame

Article excerpt

TAIWAN

Turning on the red lights for legal prostitution

Chia Chia swipes a thick swath of glistening pink lipstick across her lower lip. She coats her eyelashes thickly with mascara. She smoothes toner into her skin. Now she examines her face in the mirror the same way her next customer will: impersonally. Just three weeks earlier, she could hardly have imagined that she would be back at work in her Taipei brothel this month, one of 128 legally registered prostitutes in Taiwan. Chia Chia, 37, once received as many as 20 customers a day, and her $3,000-a-month earnings supported a whole constellation of relatives. But two years ago, the city's mayor forced her and other prostitutes into retirement. Now a new mayor has brought them back--at no small loss of face for the city government.

To her customers, Chia Chia is one thing. But to Taipei's voters, she and other sex workers became a symbol of women's rights, of the little people taking on the big shots. The melodrama began in 1997, when reformist Mayor Chen Shui-bian launched a crusade against the sex industry, raiding "love hotels" and rooting out tens of thousands of illegal hookers. But when he also revoked the licenses of "public prostitutes" like Chia Chia, a decades-old institution in Taiwan, many people thought he had gone too far. The legal prostitutes had worked in government-run brothels, received weekly health checkups and enjoyed police protection. In short, they had their place of honor. "There is more of God's creative beauty in [the prostitutes] than in almost anyone else in our society," says sociology student Kevin Leaung, one of their defenders.

Spurred on by feminist groups, the public prostitutes staged hundreds of raucous rallies against Mayor Chen. As he battled for re-election in December, prostitutes besieged him, shouting, "Dictator. …

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