Reaching out to Shanghai’s sex workers: Leyi

Reaching out to Shanghai’s sex workers: Leyi

Shanghai Leyi does what the police and other government institutions can't, offering help and advice to the city’s most marginalized and vulnerable: sex workers
Shanghai Leyi volunteers
Shanghai Leyi volunteers prepare material for their next outreach program.

Zheng Huang is privy to a world that many trivialize, ignore or disrespect: the lives of Shanghai’s sex workers. It’s easy for outsiders to forget the people behind the trade, but Zheng emphasizes that those who enter the profession put themselves at risk, both physically and legally. Zheng’s organization, Shanghai Leyi, has become an important resource and the only organization working with sex workers in Shanghai. 

Leyi reaches out mainly to Shanghai’s male sex workers, who aren't as visible as their female counterparts. “We just want to create a better environment for sex workers,” says Zheng. “They’re still people, they have rights.” Leyi founder Zheng "Tony" HuangLeyi founder Zheng "Tony" Huang.

For those who might argue that an organization to help those in an illegal profession do their work safely makes no sense, Zheng answers, “Any industry exists because it answers a need. This is the same.”

Building Leyi

Zheng, who hails from Fujian but has been in Shanghai for a decade, started Leyi in 2004 on his own, but now his office in an unassuming office building is also home to four coworkers.

While Leyi started out as an organization providing services for the male sex worker population and transvestite sex workers, in 2008 they responded to the requests of female prostitutes and expanded to providing services for transvestites and female sex workers as well. They steer clear of the 'hair salons' though, often a front for brothel workers, focusing on those vulnerable solo female sex workers who frequent parks and work the streets. “Almost no one is paying attention to them,” Zheng says, “so they need our help.” 

The organization supports sex workers through a hotline, providing legal and health training, and medical services. This helps them gather useful information and pass it on to other sex workers. They also run a newsletter which gives sex workers information about how to protect their rights.

Health services are an important part of Leyi’s work, especially as sexually transmitted diseases are a constant concern for sex workers and incidences of HIV among men having sex with men are rising in China.

A volunteer who recently participated in a Leyi visit to a massage house staffed with five male sex workers was impressed with the outreach worker’s methods. “He was basically hanging out with them, getting to know them and gaining their trust. Once he’s got their trust, they call him if they have problems like STDs. He doesn’t force any information on them,” the volunteer says, adding that the outreach worker also passed out free condoms to the sex workers. “By the work they are doing, they’re slowly pushing sex worker rights.”

Helping where others can’t

"We just want to create a better environment for sex workers. They’re still people, they have rights."— Zheng Huang, Leyi Shanghai founder

Right now it's easy for anyone who's lived in China a while to think, "Isn’t this just the kind of organization that finds itself closed down after operating a month or so?" Well, that’s not the case, says Zheng. “We’re still operating after all these years. The police have never come knocking. That’s the biggest vote of support.”

Leyi accomplishes what the police and local institutions can’t: providing help to those in a marginalized community working in an illegal profession. “There’s so many sex workers in Shanghai,” he says. “Even if there were three or four Leyis, that still wouldn’t be enough to provide resources for them.” 

Last year Leyi collaborated with UNAIDS to establish the China Sex Worker Organization Network Forum, bringing together nine organizations working with female sex workers and three organizations with male sex workers in a national network.

“If it’s just Leyi speaking out, we’re too small,” Zheng explains. “But if we join together with other sex worker organizations and work together we have more of an influence. And in this way we can bring more sex workers together to work for a common goal.”

For more information, contact Shanghai Leyi at +86 21 6380 1891 or
Rebecca Kanthor is an American freelance writer and producer based in Shanghai.
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