KUALA LUMPUR - They are confined in luxury condominiums to satisfy a select club of the rich and old in Malaysia, who visit them regularly in late afternoons. These "noon brides" are visited by patrons who wine, dine and have sex with them, before going home to their families.
But many of the women are confined, often against their will, and "shared" among a select club of like-minded rich businessmen, officials and activists report.
The "noon bride" phenomenon is only one dimension of the burgeoning trade in young women from southern China down to Malaysia. Many of them, hailing from rural areas in China, are lured on the pretext of working as office staff, nurses and interpreters.
"When I refused to work as a prostitute I was slapped, kicked and spat upon," said a woman identified only as 22-year-old Lin, whose story and that of her 23-year-old colleague Wern was published in local media in June.
"The man told me if I didn't work, I would be starved to death and never return to China," Lin told reporters. Police had rescued her after she tried to climb down from the 27th floor of a luxury hotel where she had been forced to do sex work.
Wern, who hails from Guangdong province, escaped with a help of a friendly customer, found her way to the office of a support group. She had been kicked, slapped and burned with cigarette butts to make her have sex with clients.
"Cases of forced prostitution are becoming common - we had 170 such complaints last year, and in June alone there were 24 cases," Michael Chong, head of the public complaints bureau of the Malaysian Chinese Association, said in an interview.
Chong is so popular that kind-hearted taxi drivers who transport the Chinese women from one customer to another also give them his contact numbers. It is not unusual for Chinese girls to flee suddenly, take a cab and head for Chong's office in central Kuala Lumpur.
"Previously the trade was in girls from Thailand, but now it is mostly from China," Chong said.
In May, police raided 1,740 nightspots in the major cities and towns as part of a cleanup campaign. In every one of the raids, they found Chinese women outnumbering Malaysians and other nationalities working in the clubs, most of which are thinly disguised fronts for brothels.
Activists say some girls from China, held captive in rundown budget hotels, are forced to service up do a dozen customers a day.
Lately and after police stepped up pressure against trafficking groups, syndicate members have turned to transporting the women from one home to another using cellular phones in what the media have dubbed "home delivery".
Researchers say a combination of factors - customer preference, poverty and dislocation in southern China, and a false perception that there is a lesser danger of HIV (human immunodeficiency virus, which can cause AIDS) infection from Chinese women - are reasons behind the "noon brides" phenomenon.
But Irene Fernandez, director of Tenaganita, a leading women's support group, says there is a wider backdrop against this - the tremendous expansion in trade, business, education and tourism links between Malaysia and China in recent years.
"The Chinese here and those in China have traditional cultural links but these have been expanded tremendously in the last decade," she said in an interview. "There is a keen interest here in everything China, including in young Chinese women. Human traffickers are just exploiting the links and interest.
"The girls are lured here with promises of well-paid jobs - sometimes a syndicate offers up to US$1,000 when in China they earn less than $50 a month," Fernandez said. She added that the promise of high pay is difficult to ignore, especially when the girls know that there is a large community of Chinese in Malaysia who have struck it rich.
"Stories of Malaysian streets paved in gold are completely false, but are widely believed by many foreigners who are only shown the gleaming Petronas Twin Towers but not the slums hidden behind the glamour," Fernandez said.
Government figures for 2002 show that 5,600 foreigners were deported for involvement in the sex trade, and among them, Chinese women were the second-largest group. There were 2,155 Indonesians, 1,230 Chinese, 946 Thais, 298 Vietnamese, 189 Filipinos, 138 Uzbeks and 125 Cambodians.
But these numbers do not reflect the true extent of the problem. Chong said syndicates based in Hong Kong and mainland China place advertisements in Chinese newspapers to lure the women, and provide them cash for daily expenses, airline tickets and hotel accommodation.
"Once here, the local syndicate takes over. They seize their passports and tell them to work as prostitutes to repay the expanses that are arbitrarily inflated to huge sums impossible to be repaid. It can be a lifetime trap," Chong said.
But some businessmen argue that their relationships with the women are mutually beneficial.
"They are young, slim, soft-spoken and so well mannered. I have had three China 'noon brides' in the last five years," said a 57-year-old businessman who made a fortune selling motorcycle parts in Klang, an industrial town about 30 kilometers north of the capital.
The businessman, who did not want to reveal his name, said Malaysian-Chinese businessmen used to keep mistresses in Singapore, Thailand and Hong Kong. But the trend now is to buy "noon brides" from middlemen in China, Hong Kong and here, fly them over and house them in condominiums.
"It is cheaper and a lot more convenient," he said. "Noon brides are extremely popular. Just go to any upscale restaurant in the city and you can see an old man cloistered with a young, slim girl from China."
The women, he says, mostly enter as English-language students and make enough money in three years to return home rich. "Some have married and settle down here," he added.
Chinese students, numbering 10,640 last year, form the largest contingent of the 32,000 foreign students in Malaysia, which aims to be a regional education hub. This month, the government announced plans to set up regional recruitment offices in Chinese cities and double the intake of foreign students this and next year (see Malaysia's school daze, June 26.
Experts say traffickers are already exploiting these policies. They are bringing in "students" from China, paying their college fees and collecting their student identification cards before distributing them to restaurants, hotels and brothels.
"I was hired as an English lecturer and on arriving at the college found empty classrooms," said a lecturer who realized the link between trafficking and the women's enrollment as students. "The college told me to hang around, collect my wage and not to worry."
(Inter Press Service)