On the last night of her life, Seneng Mujiasih stopped by the Queen Victoria Bar in the heart of Hong Kong’s red-light district. Dressed in a leopard-skin jumpsuit, she was on her way to a Halloween party at her favorite haunt, a bar two doors down. Six hours later, police found her with her neck slashed in an upscale apartment two blocks away.
“She gave me two kisses on the cheek as always,” said Robert van den Bosch, a 47-year-old Dutchman who works as a disc jockey in the Wan Chai bar district and knew her for three years. “She said, ‘I am going to enjoy myself tonight.’”
The next day, on Nov. 1, police carrying photos of the dead woman retraced her last steps, trying to identify her. Van den Bosch recognized Mujiasih, a 29-year-old Indonesian better known around the Hong Kong bars as Jesse Lorena.
Police also found the body of another woman at the apartment, 23-year-old Sumarti Ningsih from Cilacap, Indonesia, who was visiting Hong Kong. Two days after police discovered her decomposing body in a suitcase on the balcony, her one-month tourist visa was to have expired, according to information released by the Indonesian consulate.
In this Saturday, Nov. 1, 2014 photo, police officers investigate inside the rooms of a man's apartment at the J Residence building in Hong Kong's Wan Chai district..
The grisly double murder has shone a light on the seamy side of this city of skyscrapers and luxury boutiques that its tycoons would prefer to ignore. A district of cheap sex that once catered to U.S. servicemen during the Vietnam War is now sustained by well-heeled expatriates.
It also highlights how young women fleeing economic hardship in their home countries put themselves at risk by working illegally in cities like Hong Kong.
The neighborhood is becoming gentrified, sporting a McLaren car dealership and Michelin-starred restaurants including The Principal and 22 Ships. Decades-old walk-ups exist side by side with shiny new luxury apartment buildings with rooftop bars.
The heart of Wan Chai remains true to its red-light origins. Its central axis is a strip of Lockhart Road, lined with bars named “Club Venus,” “Club Wild Cat” and “Hawaii Club,” where heavily made-up young Southeast Asian women sporting thigh-high leather boots and micro-minis beckon men to enter through heavy velvet curtains.
There are women, and some transgender men, from diverse racial and national backgrounds: Filipinas and Thais predominate, and there are Indonesians, Russians, Vietnamese, Brazilians and, more recently, Africans. Many enter Hong Kong on tourist visas and make money from commissions earned by encouraging men to buy drinks in bars or by selling sex. Their patrons are typically Caucasian men from Europe, the U.S., U.K., Australia and Canada, among other countries.
Hong Kong’s sex industry, including part-timers and freelancers who may have day jobs, employs as many as 100,000 people, according to A. Li, a spokeswoman for the sex-worker advocacy group Zi Teng. Most are mainland Chinese serving clients in single rooms of hotels and flophouses in Kowloon, across the harbor from the Wan Chai bar scene, she said.
Women like Mujiasih are among Hong Kong’s most vulnerable. She entered the country in December 2010 on a two-year visa to work as a domestic helper. When her employer terminated her contract 13 months later, she had two weeks to leave the country, the Indonesian consulate said. Instead, she overstayed. She still owed money she had borrowed for arranging her employment and couldn’t afford to return home, according to her friend, Lea Icut, reached by phone in Indonesia.
The family of Sumarti Ningsih, in Cilacap, Central Java, Indonesia, on Nov. 3, 2014, is requesting that her killer be put to death, and that her body be immediately brought back to Indonesia.
A cousin of Mujiasih’s living in Hong Kong provided police with the dead woman’s passport, which had expired last year, said Rafail Walangitan, Indonesia’s consul of consular affairs in Hong Kong.
To find another job would have required flying back to Indonesia and paying a recruitment agency a fee equivalent to about six months of the legal minimum salary of HK$4,110 ($530), a practice which lands virtually every domestic worker in debt.
By staying, she became part of Hong Kong’s band of undocumented immigrants who make up one of the city’s most-vulnerable groups. Many lack the ability to speak Chinese and fear deportation if they report violence to the police or get into trouble, Li said.
“They are living at a level of precarity you wouldn’t warrant in a world-class city like Hong Kong,” said Kay McArdle, chief executive officer of Pathfinders, a nonprofit organization that helps immigrant women in Hong Kong. “The reality is, these women fall far and fast through Hong Kong’s otherwise world-class social and welfare safety net.”
Mujiasih was ultimately able to send money home to build a new house for her family, according to van den Bosch, who identified her as a friend in photographs shown to him by Bloomberg News.
Her ramshackle living quarters in Hong Kong involved a room no more than 50 square feet (five square meters) in a subdivided apartment on a traffic-clogged road parallel to the bar district. Mujiasih shared the tiny space with a roommate, even hosting Sunday lunch for friends crowded onto her bed, according to Icut, who identified photos sent to her by text.
Five rooms with padlock hinges, their doors decorated with Disney-character decals, share a bathroom and two gas burners. A knock today on Mujiasih’s unit, displaying a foot-tall sticker of an Aristocats kitty, went unanswered.
For Ningsih, there were few choices. The second-youngest of four children, she was the sole breadwinner for the family, with no husband and her own five-year-old son, plus her parents, her two brothers and her sister’s child to support. During a two-year stint working in Hong Kong starting in 2011, she sent back about 3 million rupiah ($247) a month, according to her father, 58-year-old rice farmer Ahmad Kaliman, reached by telephone at his home on the southern coast of Indonesia’s island of Java. His daughter told him she worked as a waitress, he said.
The amount she sent back was about equal to the minimum monthly wage for a factory worker in Jakarta, and the family relied on it to buy staples, her father said. He’s only able to earn 2.4 million rupiah each harvest, four times a year. Ningsih never went to high school, he said.
“She decided to work overseas because she won’t get enough money in Indonesia,” Kaliman said. “It’s a huge loss for me. She’s the backbone of the family. I don’t know what will happen with her son’s future. I am already old and getting sick a lot.”
Pedestrians cross a street in front of bars and restaurants in Hong Kong's Wanchai district on November 3, 2014.
After returning home in 2013, Ningsih took a disc jockey course and then flew back to Hong Kong. She had telephoned her father in October to say she would return on Nov. 2. Instead, he received the news of her death.
Police have completed autopsies on the women, and the Indonesian consulate is arranging to repatriate their bodies to Jakarta and then on to their families for Muslim burial by early next week, the consulate’s Walangitan said today.
“My request to Hong Kong and the Indonesian government is to send her body back home as soon as possible, so we can lay her to rest at her home,” Ningsih’s father said.
Charged with the murders of both women is Rurik George Caton Jutting, a British former employee of Bank of America Corp. The bodies were found in his 31st-floor Wan Chai apartment, according to charges read out in a Hong Kong court on Nov. 3. Jutting, who didn’t enter a plea during his appearance, is next due to appear on Nov. 10.
On Sunday, the Indonesian Migrant Workers Union plans a prayer service for the victims in Victoria Park, the gathering place for that nation’s domestic helpers on their day off. A cousin of Ningsih’s and a friend of Mujiasih’s are to speak, according to the IMWU’s head, Sringatin, who goes by one name.