Seedy business is good business. At least that’s what the owners of many of Jakarta’s massage and spa parlors believe, with some reason.
It’s no secret that there are many venues offering far more than just the advertised services — clients head there with one thing, and one thing only, in mind. Raids take place once in a blue moon, usually during religious holidays, and for the rest of the time this shady sector remains Jakarta’s elephant in the room. Everybody knows it happens, though officially it is illegal.
The history of what Indonesians refer to as “Massage Parlor Plus Plus” goes back a long way. No one interviewed for this piece knew exactly when the trade emerged, but all agree it has been a thriving industry in Indonesia for at least 20 years.
The nattily dressed Randy (not his real name) is the 31-year old co-owner of a successful parlor in North Jakarta. He’s suffering from a bad cold, but is still eager to talk to me about the trade he has been involved in since late 2008. He even brings along one of the women who work for him — a Sundanese woman in her early 20s. Although he had said she would be happy to be interviewed and photographed, she is reluctant to do so.
Randy entered the industry by investing in a parlor owned by one of the city’s largest massage groups.
“They’ve been around for about 23 years, I think,” Randy says. He adds that the group owns most of the city’s well-known parlors, and he became acquainted with the association through friends.
Bobby (also not his real name), the co-owner of a parlor in the Kota area of Central Jakarta, says he is “a fan of girls foremost and a businessman second.”
Profusely sweating when we meet, the thin-haired Bobby is in his early-50s and says he has been in the business almost seven years. “I used to go to [parlors] when I was in my 20s and 30s, which is how I learned about the trade and management of places like this.”
By his early 40s, it became Bobby’s goal to run such a venue. He begun saving money and building connections. In just a few years he achieved his dream, buying a stake in an established venue which he now owns with three other people.
Michael, 38, (who repeatedly reminds me not to mention his real name), owns a massage parlor in one of Indonesia’s biggest cities — “Don’t mention which, because the sheer mention of it tips people off,” he says. He was handed the business by his wife, of all people.
Michael’s wife is the step-daughter of a prominent “businessman,” which ensures that all Michael has to do is manage an already well-maintained machine.
When it comes to running the venue, Randy claims that contrary to what some investigative reports about trafficked women might indicate, most women who work in the industry do so willingly. He says he does not consider himself a pimp, but rather an entrepreneur.
“We have around 200 girls in our place now. And all of them we got through the six or seven agencies that specialize in tracking down girls that are interested in this line of work,” he says.
“The agencies provide a hostel for them to live in. Sometimes the senior girls choose to live by themselves, which is something [the parlors and the agencies] don’t like, since it means they can earn money [independently],” Randy says.
He adds that most of the girls hail from small towns with few prospects, and that they are open to any kind of work available.
Certainly, the worker who accompanied him at the interview did not seem to be under any duress. She said she had been working at his parlor for over a year.
Michael’s description of sourcing workers is less benign than Randy’s. He uses the word “indoctrinate” to explain how he manages to turn often-naive village girls into sex workers.
“The ‘training’ session is challenging,” he says. “Firstly, we indoctrinate the girls into believing that [hand relief] is not a sin. After they do this, the rest tends to progress more naturally through their experiences with clients. We let the market do the talking,” Michael says.
“Eventually some of them resign themselves to the sexual nature of the job, while the ones that don’t eventually leave.”
Many parlors also employ women from mainland China, who are considered more exotic and can command Rp 2 million ($216) per client — almost four times the price of local women. The owners and clients refer to them as chungkuo girls, Chinese for China. These imported employees do not only earn more, but are given more luxurious accommodations and other perks.
“They earn us more, but they also cost much more to employ,” Bobby says. “We have to take care of their visas, as well as renting them a house or apartment to live in. Sometimes, to keep them happy, we have to give them extra shopping money to satisfy their expensive habits.
“They think they’re divas,” he laughs.
Randy, Bobby and Michael make a good living out of their business, and they insist that their female employees earn a decent amount of money, too.
“We have different systems of payment,” Michael says. “There is the ‘include all’ package, which lets you order the whole deal through the receptionist, for which we charge Rp 300,000 to Rp 600,000, depending on the girl. They get 30 percent [of this fee and tips].”
Michael explains that a client can also request a massage then make a private deal with the girl once inside the room. “They receive incentives for those kinds of deals, which give them a lot more — around Rp 500,000 to Rp 700,000,” he says.
He acknowledges that women who are initially unwilling to engage in sex often eventually do so because of the money they are offered by clients.
Randy and Bobby, however, refuse to divulge details of their workers’ fees or payments.
“They make good money, plus they get a lot of tips from satisfied customers,” Bobby says without elaborating.
Dani, 30, an unmarried branch manager of an internationally branded car dealership in Central Jakarta, is one of those satisfied customers. He frequents the parlor owned by Bobby, and spends around Rp 1 million a month on one or two visits with local women.
“Sometimes I spend more, like on chungkuo girls, but that is only if I’m being treated by someone else,” Dani says.
Like Dani, many of these venue’s visitors are clients that are being “treated” by marketing officers from a partner company eager to secure a deal.
“Sometimes marketers treat me to fancy dinner, and sometimes they treat me to girls,” Danny says, laughing.
Michael tells the story of a father and son who unknowingly visited his parlor at the same time.
“The father was upstairs with one of the girls when the son came in for a visit. I told him that his father was there. But instead of leaving, he asked me to show him to his father’s room. Then, instead of being angry at the father, [the son] gave him some recommendations regarding our best girls,” he says.
Dion, 25, is a bank employee who regularly visits sex workers. “I’m young and not in a committed relationship. This is the modern age, and I think it’s archaic to consider these kinds of activities a sin. Illegal maybe, but not a sin,” he says.
When asked about the challenges of running a business that is officially illegal, Bobby grins knowingly.
“Let’s just say that you need to send certain groups of people their monthly allowance,” he says.
“If you don’t have the connections to engage in businesses like this, then don’t,” Michael advises.
Then there is also the issue of safety and security — Randy says they get aggressive customers about twice a week.
To ensure the protection of the workers, Randy, Bobby and Michael employ neighborhood toughs, who are feared and respected in the local area. Michael says a good relationship with the neighborhood is crucial.
Neither Randy, Bobby or Michael seems to harbor any regrets about their line of work.
“If it’s not me who runs this, then somebody else will,” Michael says.
And what about temptation at the work place? Randy says he doesn’t even think about it, while Bobby says he indulges “once in a while.”
But Michael says, “Are you crazy? My wife would literally kill me. Everybody is scared of her.”