Red Lights Go Gray

China’s former sex capital, Dongguan, retires in style.

Words: Lin Qiqing    Visuals: Wu Yue

GUANGDONG, South China — Just a few years ago, hundreds of sex workers lined the entry hall at the Versailles Hotel. Clients called the hall “Flower Street,” and the men’s clothes were sometimes torn as the young women fought for their favor. But in September, the once-buzzing four-star hotel reopened as a nursing home.

It was a land of heroes, a den for burning gold. Wu Jiaming, nursing home resident

The Versailles Hotel used to be one of the most popular nightclubs in Changping Town on the outskirts of Dongguan, a city known for its booming sex trade. According to the owner, at the hotel’s peak, more than 800 sex workers and 500 clients would pass through the doors on any given weekend evening. But a tough government crackdown on sex work in 2014 compelled the business to turn to a different market.

Now, the erstwhile Versailles Hotel is heralding a new age: Out with the young and in with the old. Former guest Wu Jiaming, 66, moved in eight months ago, before Hao Xiang Kang Le nursing home officially opened. He didn’t know it was the same place until he saw the familiar facade.

“It was a land of heroes, a den for burning gold,” Wu recalls, sitting in his wheelchair beside the vegetable garden. “It used to be all pretty girls, but now it’s all us old people.” As he speaks, he fiddles with the craniotomy scar on his bare head.

Wu is sensitive about his appearance and the fact that he needs assistance from a care worker. “I look like a ghost now,” he says, asking for a razor so he can freshen up before we film him.

Until his stroke last year, Wu led an active and colorful life. Originally from the provincial capital, Guangzhou, he was an accountant in Los Angeles for more than 20 years. In 2006, he moved to Dongguan to work in manufacturing exports and married shortly after.

Now, Wu rests where he once he reveled: He spends most of his day watching TV or reading novels on his iPad in his first-floor dorm that was converted from a karaoke room. “I just take things as they come,” he replies matter-of-factly when asked how he feels about the odd circumstances. “A lot of things bother me less since I fell sick last year.”

Wu doesn’t like living in a nursing home — he remembers his disgust upon witnessing a care worker here hit an elderly man with dementia just for eating too slowly. Previous nursing homes he tried were no better. “Everywhere is the same,” Wu says. “The care workers think it’s a demeaning job.”

But for now, Wu believes living at Hao Xiang Kang Le is what’s best for his family: His petite wife can’t carry him from the bed to his wheelchair. She visits him every couple of days with their kindergarten-age son. Every morning, Wu practices standing, hoping he can regain the ability to walk and finally return home.

Dongguan’s Heady Heyday

Changping Town was always an unlikely home for glamour and debauchery. Far from the rich and racy image of a red-light nightspot, the once-glitzy Versailles Hotel stands near a food processing plant and an electronics factory.

What I ran was a hotel and nightclub. Selling sex is something others did here. Huang Heshan, hotel and nursing home owner

The industrial area became a pleasure stop primarily due to its convenience for clientele from Hong Kong: Located about an hour away from downtown Dongguan, Changping Town developed a prosperous sex trade when trains running between Hong Kong and Guangzhou began stopping there in 1994.

Dongguan has long capitalized on its proximity to Hong Kong in China’s Pearl River Delta — an area that accounts for less than 1 percent of China’s land but has soaked up more than a fifth of the country’s total foreign direct investment. One of the first areas to open up to foreign trade under Deng Xiaoping’s reforms, the region had developed into an electronics manufacturing hub by the 1980s. A gray market quickly mushroomed in Dongguan to entertain visiting Hong Kong businessmen — often with compensated female companions.

Soon, Dongguan became known not only for supplying cheap factory labor to Hong Kong but also for myriad pleasures after-hours. In 2012, a 3-D erotic comedy titled “Due West: Our Sex Journey” depicted Hong Kong businessmen traveling across the border for what had become famous as “Dongguan-style service.” Beyond more vanilla staples, the smorgasbord of sexual services could boast up to 20 courses, including ear cleaning, nail clipping, and cupping — a traditional Chinese therapy.

Young people enjoy a recent Friday night at a club in Dongguan.

“Ninety percent [of our clients] came from Hong Kong. Many would cross over on Friday and Saturday, and return to their families on Sunday,” says Huang Heshan, owner of the Versailles Hotel and now the nursing home that stands in its place.

Huang, 63, looks every part the archetype of a southern Chinese businessman, with a deep tan, heavily accented Mandarin, and a potbelly accentuated by a gold Hermes belt buckle. Born into a poor rural family with six younger sisters in eastern China’s Fujian province, Huang’s education finished at the end of primary school when the Cultural Revolution broke out. At age 20, Huang moved to Hong Kong, where he built his wealth manufacturing crystal lamps. In 1988, he relocated his business — Versailles Lamps — to Dongguan for access to cheaper land and labor.

Chandeliers from Huang’s factories have gone as far as the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, he says, where they shine down on the country’s political luminaries. But by the end of the millennium, his luxury lighting business had taken a downturn following the Asian financial crisis. In 2001, Huang opened the Versailles Hotel, with more than 160 suites, 98 karaoke rooms, and a performance hall. Huang designed the palatial seven-story building himself, complete with imitation frescoes, Roman columns, and chandeliers from his own factories.

Parts of the former Versailles Hotel have been renovated, but others still feature décor from the building’s past life.

With more than 100 million yuan (then $12 million) in investment, the Versailles Hotel brought in 20 to 30 million yuan in profits each year, Huang tells Sixth Tone. While locals frequented cheaper establishments, Huang was familiar with the tastes and budgets of his fellow Hong Kong businessmen after more than a decade there. “Hong Kong men plan and spend carefully; in the early years, 1,000 yuan was enough for a round of fun,” he says, explaining that a small group would split the cost of travel, accommodation, drinks, and female companions.

Sex work has been illegal in China since 1949, when the new Communist government outlawed it as “feudal dross.” Yet despite intermittent anti-vice sweeps, sexual services persist in massage parlors, hotels, karaoke bars, and hair salons across the country. In Dongguan, the sex trade fueled adjacent tourism, entertainment, and hospitality businesses, with some estimates placing the total value of related industries at 50 billion yuan. Many venues operated in plain sight, as officials turned a blind eye.

Before the 2014 crackdown on the industry, Huang worried little about getting into trouble with the authorities for hosting sex workers and madams. “Everyone was doing it,” he says. Huang denies being involved in prostitution because sex workers were never on his official payroll. At first, they paid the hotel to use the premises, while in later years, Huang would pay to draw sex workers to the Versailles as competition among venues heated up.

Huang Heshan has transformed his gaudy nightclub and hotel into a nursing home, following a crackdown on Dongguan’s famed sex trade.

Elderly residents watch women dance with fans at the nursing home’s official opening ceremony. The garden here was once the epicenter of the nightclub.

The Versailles Hotel’s entry hall, which clients used to call “Flower Street,” is now an indoor garden at the nursing home.

“What I ran was a hotel and nightclub. Selling sex is something others did here,” Huang says.

Until the criminal law was revised in 2015, organizing prostitution could in theory result in a death sentence — but in reality, entertainment venue owners shouldered much less risk than madams and pimps. At most, they would be liable for an oversight in management, according to Pan Suiming, a pioneering researcher of the sex industry in Dongguan. Some local officials were themselves satisfied customers, Huang says.

The lucrative industry effectively came to an end after Feb. 9, 2014, when state broadcaster CCTV screened an exposé of more than a dozen venues. On the same day, the Party secretary of Guangdong province announced a “merciless” and “unyielding” crusade against the sex trade. Five days after the exposé aired, the vice mayor of Dongguan was removed from his position. In total, more than 2,000 hotels, saunas, and massage parlors were shut down. That year — after five consecutive years of steadily rising tourist numbers — Dongguan saw a decline in visitors.

A woman walks down Swan Lake Road in present-day Changping Town, which used to be one of Dongguan’s busiest entertainment districts.

Tourism in Changping Town was devastated. One hotel across the street from the Versailles has become a badminton court, while another has been refashioned into a restaurant specializing in roast pigeon. Huang estimates that more than 100,000 sex workers and businesspeople from related industries have since left town.

With few guests trickling through the Versailles’ doors, in 2015, Huang decided to turn the hotel into a nursing home, which he describes as “a more meaningful business.” He wanted to build a place where his 84-year-old mother could live comfortably — somewhere he would be happy to call home himself in the future.

Huang invested 20 million yuan ($3 million) into the transformation, but most of the former hotel rooms retain their previous décor, albeit with a thick layer of dust. The garish features look tired and confused in their new role, as though the spotlights suddenly dimmed and the music stopped.

Huang still harbors nostalgia for his former business. “When the industry changes, there’s nothing you can do about it,” he says. “I can only remember how it felt: It was a glorious, joyous time. Then, I have to forget it.”

A Radical Makeover

Though Dongguan’s sex industry had been an open secret for many years, the 2014 crackdown was unprecedented. It went further and higher than previous raids, as it constituted a key part of the nationwide campaign against corruption and graft that President Xi Jinping had made into a cornerstone of his leadership.

If people send their parents to a retirement home, it’s almost a crime of abandonment. Du Liuhua, nursing home director

The sweep continues today, even reaching provincial officials. Last year saw an investigation into the vice governor of Guangdong province, Liu Zhigeng, who was accused of protecting the sex industry when he was Party secretary of Dongguan from 2006 to 2012. In May, he was sentenced to life imprisonment for accepting bribes. The owner of the iconic five-star Crown Prince Hotel was given a life sentence as well in July for bribery and organizing prostitution, after a trial that lasted nearly two years.

Both the provincial and municipal governments have been desperate to shrug off Dongguan’s reputation as China’s sex capital. The day after the CCTV broadcast, the Guangdong government released posters to promote a whitewashed version of “Dongguan-style service,” highlighting the city’s precise and efficient manufacturing.

The nightclub-turned-nursing home, too, is trying hard to shake its past. The Amazon rainforest-themed performance hall has been transformed into a tranquil indoor garden chattering with birdsong. The pit under the mechanized stage that used to lift up dazzling dancers is now a pond filled with koi. The glittering ceiling that once parted to reveal a UFO set piece flanked by six women in skintight space suits, who would descend to writhe onstage, has been replaced with glass.

Yu Jifa, 88

A large birdcage at the nursing home recently housed a hill mynah that learned to repeat residents’ throat-clearing noises.

Chen Ouhong, 75

A garden at the home was once the hotel entry hall where hundreds of young female sex workers fought for clients’ favor.

Sunshine floods through, bathing the elderly residents and brand-new potted plants in a warm glow. “Some locals who used to party here have brought their parents to tour [the facility], and they’ve been very surprised: ‘How come it’s like this now?’” says Du Liuhua, the 41-year-old director of Hao Xiang Kang Le nursing home.

Though the site has undergone a dramatic physical transformation from its licentious past, elderly care is an intimate business in a different way — and many Chinese harbor moral aversions to paying for it. The industry still fights the perception that family responsibilities shouldn’t be outsourced to strangers.

Nevertheless, the sector stands to grow as an aging crisis looms over the country: By the end of 2015, more than 222 million Chinese were over the age of 60. The issue is compounded by China’s family planning policies: Known as the “4-2-1” problem, many young Chinese must support two parents and four grandparents with no siblings to help out.

Ren Xinping, 80

Residents at the home live in converted karaoke rooms. Tables where clients once sat to watch shows in the performance hall below remain at the site.

Zhou Bowen, 84

The home boasts myriad recreation options, including karaoke rooms, a ballroom, a theater, and fishponds.

At 4,000 to 5,000 yuan per month, the cost of living at the nursing home is midrange for elderly care in the city, according to Du, and around 100 families have toured the premises since it unofficially opened in October 2016. In February, the facility secured government approval, and it now accommodates 28 residents — including Huang’s mother — along with eight care workers.

The home has employed promotion techniques primed to reach China’s older demographic, handing out free rice and cooking oil with leaflets, but the facility is far from reaching its capacity of 300 residents. Huang blames the empty beds on locals, who he says lack filial respect. “Many locals have two homes. They live in the new one and put their aging parents in the old one as security guards,” he says.

To Du, however, the Confucian concept of filial piety is precisely the reason that many are reluctant to install their parents in a nursing home. Traditionally, Chinese people lived in big families with “three generations under one roof.” Adult children are expected to reciprocate the care their parents gave them.

“If people send their parents to a retirement home, it’s almost a crime of abandonment — the elderly will think that their family doesn’t want them anymore,” explains Du.

Leong Suikei, 91

A wooden boat at the home was once a dessert restaurant for hotel customers that could sway softly to mimic ocean waves.

Wu Jiaming, 66

The former hotel’s mechanized stage that would raise up dancers during performances has been turned into a koi pond at the nursing home.

But traditional attitudes have changed rapidly over the past decade, as the pressure on the one-child generation mounts. “Now, old people from big cities feel that it’s normal to go to nursing homes,” Du says, comparing the current situation with her early days in the industry 13 years ago.

Though the public is beginning to see the value of professional elderly care, the industry is hampered by a severe shortage of staff. Experts say that in theory, 13 million care workers would be needed to serve the country’s 40 million seniors who cannot live independently — but currently, nursing homes across the country employ fewer than 200,000 care workers.

The role is physically and emotionally demanding, but the pay is meager. All the care workers at Hao Xiang Kang Le are migrants from poorer provinces, as locals are reluctant to take on such hard work for a 3,500-yuan monthly salary. Only three of the eight care workers at the home have qualifications; Du plans to send the rest to a free weeklong training course organized by the Dongguan government.

Dongguan has more than 30 public nursing homes, but most offer few amenities and only take low-income local residents. To stimulate the industry, in 2013, the city began offering a one-off incentive of 10,000 yuan per bed to new private nursing homes, for which Huang intends to apply next year. Hao Xiang Kang Le is now one of six private facilities in the city.

Telling Chinese friends that you’re headed to Dongguan will still trigger sly smiles and raised eyebrows, but the 2014 crackdown has truly decimated the visible sex trade. With the help of new technology, some sex workers continue to operate underground, while others have transitioned to new careers or moved away.

Now [working girls] are so deeply hidden that I can’t find them. Dongguan driver

“Some Hong Kong clients will still give me a red envelope [of cash] and ask me to introduce them to xiaojie, but now they are so deeply hidden that I can’t find them,” a driver from a ride-hailing app tells us, using a euphemistic Chinese term for female sex workers.

As we drive through the lackluster bar district in the city center, he scoffs at the ban on sex work. “Even the Kangxi Emperor went to brothels,” he says, referring to popular culture depictions of the Qing Dynasty ruler.

Nevertheless, it seems the sin city has retired — at least at the former Versailles Hotel.

The nursing home’s official opening ceremony on Sept. 9 brings a rare bustle to the facility, which otherwise feels like an exaggerated, outdated photography studio or a clumsily furnished theme park. The deputy chief of Changping Town joins Huang for the ribbon-cutting. The planned lion dance — a traditional feature at Chinese business openings — was canceled because of the heat, but the qipao show isn’t affected. More than 200 women in the formfitting vintage dress fill the yard to perform a dance routine.

Zhao Jinyu, an 84-year-old resident, narrows her eyes at the dresses’ thigh-high slits, but she enjoys the liveliness of the crowd. While most of the residents at the home have Alzheimer’s or other serious medical conditions, Zhao only has minor ailments and can take care of herself. Her clear mind may be a curse in disguise: She has few peers to talk to, especially because she doesn’t speak any of the local dialects, as she’s originally from the southwestern province of Sichuan.

Despite her loneliness, Zhao says she likes the place more than another nursing home she lived in previously that had compulsory morning exercise. “It was like military training,” she complains. “Here, I can arrange my time freely.”

Zhao plans to spend the rest of her life at Hao Xiang Kang Le. She doesn’t know the building’s history, but she’s heard rumors that it was once an amusement park.

A care worker helps a nursing home resident walk through the garden. The home hopes to add another 150 beds after it reaches full capacity, though no timetable has been set for expansion.