An interview with Tony Zheng, founder of Shanghai CSW and MSM Centre, talking about their work and how SCMC began. Tony was elected to the APNSW Management Committee in 2016.
(This page was contributed by Project-X in Singapore, who conducted and translated the interview from Mandarin Chinese.)
SCMC was established in 2004, and we initially set out to provide support services to gay male sex workers. Later we found out that if we only worked with the sex workers but not their clients, the outcome would not have been great. The clients of male sex workers are gay as well and so we decided to work with both groups of people. Some male sex workers are street-based, others will transition or be drag. They work in the same spaces as cis-female sex workers, and because of that, some sex workers will ask us why we don’t support cis-female sex workers, since the issues faced are quite similar. From then on (around 2006 – 2007), we started to work with sex workers of all genders. Female sex workers are now part of us in various meaningful ways either as staff or as peer educators.
I became an activist because I’m gay and I’m also a sex worker. Being personally involved in the sex industry, I witnessed various difficulties faced by sex workers such as violence, difficult clients, and HIV/AIDS. When we realised that they have no where to go to to seek support, I wondered if there was anything that I could do. A lot of work in China revolves around health and not quite human rights. However, equal access to health services is also a human right, and so we set out to address the issues of human rights vis-a-vis access to health and justice.
“The biggest challenge we face in our work is that firstly, sex work is illegal in China. While sex workers are willing to get involved in things, they are afraid to stand in front of a camera or publicly come out as a sex worker. Doing so may put them at risk of arrest or put their lives in jeopardy. As such, many of my colleagues would rather remain behind the scenes.”
In my experience as an activist, I realise that when you solve one problem, another will arise. When you solve that problem, another will arise. So it is important to continuously involve and mobilize more people. As such, to continue efforts to build a movement is one of the strongest driving force for me to keep going as an activist. In 2009, we started working with other sex worker organizations from other parts of China. Because we realised that just working in Shanghai doesn’t have a significant impact. We connected with organizations from other parts of China in order to voice out sex workers’ concerns. Ideally, we would like to have non-sex worker organizations to join us in our fight. This will ensure that our voices are heard and that we can positively impact the lives of the community members.
The biggest challenge we face in our work is that firstly, sex work is illegal in China. While sex workers are willing to get involved in things, they are afraid to stand in front of a camera or publicly come out as a sex worker. Doing so may put them at risk of arrest or put their lives in jeopardy. As such, many of my colleagues would rather remain behind the scenes. The decriminalization of sex work will definitely help us build a stronger movement by enabling more people to come out and voice out. However, it is not going to be a reality soon and so in the meantime, we do our best to address issues around health and violence.
Nonetheless, we have definitely progressed a lot. Initially, many sex workers did not want to talk to us when we went for outreach as they were afraid we are police officers. But now, people are willing to come into our office to talk to our staff and share their difficulties in terms of health, or family. I find this a great achievement.
Moving forward, I can’t say for sure when it’ll be possible for more sex workers to come out and voice out. However, I believe with perseverance and hard work, more and more people will be willing to do so.