CPEC: A hope for Pakistan’s two premier flesh markets


By Samuel Bid

A video recently went viral on social media in Pakistan showing a group of Chinese beating policemen in Khanewal in Punjab. The victims were assigned the duty to provide security to their assaulters. The violence occurred when the Chinese, including five engineers were prevented by the local police from going to brothels unescorted by them.

The Chinese engineers were working on the M4 Bahawalpur–Faizalabad Motorway, a project of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). The trouble started when the police force specially created as the Special Protection Unit (SPU) to protect Chinese workers engaged on CPEC–related projects, tried to stop them from visiting Khanewal’s red light area. The engineers, in addition to thrashing the police, stopped their work; abandoned their heavy machinery and vehicles in roads to create traffic problems; cut off the power supply to the public camp and complained to Chief Minister of Punjab province Shahbaz Sharif that the police was not allowing them to do their work. The Chinese engineers had protested the setting up of the SPU police camp near the site too close to comfort. Clearly, they did not want the police to have an eye on their going and coming and on their visitors.

Pakistan knows that the execution of the “game changing” China-funded projects in the country solely depends on its (Pakistan’s) ability to ensure Chinese workers’ security. China is intent on it. The Pakistan government and its military are doing their best to do so in the face of growing public disenchantment, with the Chinese. Despite all the security, the Chinese whether or not connected with CPEC projects, are killed or kidnapped in Pakistan not only by Baluch or Islamic State (IS) but by others too.

As shown in the recent violence in Khanewal, the Chinese carry their security threat within themselves: their uncontrollable primitive urge. It is not to hold against them especially if they are living in Pakistan without their families. Perhaps this vital aspect of an adult’s life was not taken into account while arranging for their security.

But despite the concentration camps like restrictions in their compounds, Chinese workers are not unaware of the locations of flesh markets in Pakistan. On the day of scuffle with their security policemen, the Chinese engineers wanted to go to Khanewal’s red-light district, where, it is reported, women are sold and bought.

The Chinese may not be unaware of the Asia’s famous Heera Mandi (diamond market) in Lahore. This mandi is said to be the target red-light area in Asia where choicest beauties from all over Pakistan are brought either kidnapped or on their own volition to earn money. In the past the mandi was a source of beautiful female talents for the Lahore film industry and the epicentre of many direct and indirect economic activities. Its flourishing business received a jolt in the 1980s when then military dictator Gen Ziaul Haq described flesh business as a blot on an Islamic state and put restriction on it. Sex workers and others who depended on this business for their bread and butter protested saying this amounted to snatching not only theirs but also the living of thousands of people’s families. The glamour of Heera Mandi dimmed while its young girls left these kothas to become call girls. About this time an Urdu newspapers traced the history of Heera Mandi to the nomad squatters outside Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s palace in Lahore in late eighteenth century.

Now, thanks to the hordes of Chinese arriving in Pakistan, legally or illegally, Heera Mandi can hope to revive its business to some extent. Until Gen Zia’s action Heera Mandi hardly faced a competition from call girls.

Arrival of the money-loaded Chinese can revive another historic red-light area in Pakistan. This is the Napier Street in Karachi. The street is named after Sir Charles Napier who was given military and political control in Karachi in the 1840s by the British government.

Until April 1977 Karachi was famous as a peaceful clean city of lights to which fun-hungry rich Arabs and others flocked weekends to enjoy to night life. Glamorous beauties from the Middle East and all over the world came here to make money. Many of them settled down in Napier Street which had a flourishing business. The visitors abandoned themselves to fun and mirth unmindful of their puree. Big shopkeepers, petty pavement vendors, taxi drivers and tongawallas in Karachi, all made hay while the sun shone.

The days of sunshine abruptly ending in April 1977 when then Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto faced with the Nizam-e-Mustafa (Islamic rule) movement against his secular government, backed on the sly by the Army headed by Gen Ziaul Haq. Bhutto nervously banned drinking for Muslims and changed weekly holiday from Sunday to Friday. With Sunday as a working day, weekends had gone. Together with it, the ban on drinking ended Karachi’s mirthful life. Sex workers suffered the most. Gen Zia’s restrictions on them in the 1980s further doomed them. Many young girls left their kothas to become call girls. They made fabulous luck when the Americans set up an airbase in Karachi in connection with the Afghan War in the 1980s. The kothas at Napier Street are now facing another serious challenge. This time from transgenders who have set up their shacks in Napier Street as rivals to the women in kothas. Madrashas who spent a lot to set up these kothas are dismayed.

Today it looks impossible to revive the two premier flesh markets in Pakistan –Heera Mandi and Napier Street–to their pristine glamour. Their earlier money-loaded foreign clients have found alternative week-end fun spots elsewhere. However these red-light markets can have some hope in moneyed Chinese who have been rolling into Pakistan in innumerable numbers in (or without) connection with CPEC projects. But the Chinese can only be a very very poor substitute for Arabs and others because they (the Chinese) are not known for generosity nor for love for fun. They are nouveau riche whose new-earned wealth has made them money-lenders who keep an eye on the pound of flesh of the borrower.

It is not know if some Chinese guests have already started patronising Heera Mandi or Napier Street. The Pakistani media does not pry into the personal matters of the Chinese like what they eat, even if it is offensive to Muslims, or what they do if living without family. The Khanewal incident came to public notice just because five Chinese engineers thrashed Pakistan policemen who tried to stop them from going to red-light area unescorted. This means it must have been the practice of the Chinese going to brothels under police security.

We also do not know if one of the by-products of the game-changer CPEC project, will be in the form of whole or part of Pakistan becoming a bower of bliss for Chinese and other fun-seekers. The development of the Gwadar region by China is said to include it. Some Pakistanis say it will be a rival to Dubai. The massage parlours run by Chinese women in Islamabad in 2007 may be an indication to what facilities Chinese want to create in Gwadar.

At present, it seems the game-changer that the CPEC is called should also change the gloomy days of Heera Mandi and the Napier Street as more and more Chinese descend on Pakistan in connection with this project, but without any respect for the local customs and sensitivity of the people. Investigative journalists, and there is no dearth of them in Pakistan, may throw light on the recent development.