The Obituary of Li Jun, Leader of Taiwanese Sex Workers' Movement

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Photo: Li Jun, Pioneer of the Sex Workers’ Movement 

NSWP joins the sex worker rights movement in mourning the passing of a pioneer in the Taiwanese sex worker rights movement. Below is a obituary honouring the life and work of Li Jun published by COSWAS.

The day LI Jun left us (30 July, 2014), a beautiful black butterfly flew into COSWAS office and danced around into the night. Perhaps she came to bring LI Jun away. LI Jun passed away at 8pm that day. Our dearest LI Jun died peacefully in Wen Mong Lou, both her sons and two grandsons, as well as friends, comrades and supporters of the Taiwan sex workers’ movement were by her side.

She was a pioneer and a fighter of Taiwanese Sex Workers’ Movement from the beginning in September, 1997 until her very last breath. Despite her illness, she insisted on staying in Wen Mong-Lou, the brothel/museum on Gui Shui Street, Da-tong District in Taipei; a designated historical site by the Bureau of Culture since 2006. LI Jun while battling cancer, which eventually took her life, had declared that she would protect the site with her body and spirit, so that profiteering developers cannot take it away from sex workers for their personal gains.

LI Jun, who had spent 75 years on earth (1940-2014), lived a meaningful life that was at the same time, difficult but she was never defeated. In her younger days, she worked hard to support her family which was poor. She single-handedly brought up her two sons through sex work. For 17 years, she courageously spoke up for sex workers and a nascent social movement that is seldom understood.

Born into a poor peasant family in 1940, LI Jun spent her childhood in the mountainous area of Wu-ku of Taipei County. Her mother passed away when she was only four. By the time she turned eight; Li Jun was already taking care of her younger siblings and doing all the housework. At 16, she migrated to the city. She first worked as a housemaid. Then she did other menial work too. She also sold cooked noodles as a street hawker at one point. But it was licensed prostitution that was to be her long-term and last job before she retired.

Pioneer of Asian and Taiwanese Sex Workers’ Movement - fighting for sex work rights and de-stigmatization of sex workers  

In 1997, the then Mayor of Taipei City, who later became the President of Taiwan, abolished the Licensed Prostitution system. The licensed prostitutes of Taipei, out of sheer desperation, courageously came out to demand for their right to remain in sex work. Just as the movement was gaining momentum, a sex worker committed suicide because of the social pressure, stigma and financial deprivation brought on by the illegalisation of their work. LI Jun, in spite of the personal backlash she would encounter because of her action, volunteered to speak to the mass media as a sex worker; to explain the reasons of their protests and their demands to the government. She wanted the Taiwanese society to understand the harsh realities faced by sex workers. Consequently, she was elected as the Vice-President of the Taipei Licensed Prostitutes Self-Help Association (TALPS). Since then, Li Jun had always remained at the frontline of the sex work rights’ movement, be it protests, rallies, media interviews, international conferences, seminars or workshops. As a spokesperson of a controversial social movement that is fighting for the rights of a marginalised community that has long been ignored, looked down upon and discriminated against, Li Jun’s public appearance on behalf of sex workers meant that she had to shoulder a great deal of  public pressure. In spite of these, LI Jun had never wavered in her belief and conviction. She waited till the licensed prostitutes had won a two-year suspension of the said abolishment before attending medical check-ups to confirm she had breast cancer.

When the abolishment came into effect in 2001, COSWAS as the only sex workers’ movement in Taiwan faced many challenges in continuing the struggle. However, LI Jun did not choose to retire from the struggle despite her illness. Instead, she devoted herself to the movement with its uncertain future and all the formidable challenges ahead. As a result of her tenacity, commitment and unfailing resistance, she was nominated and selected among more than 150 countries and regions globally, as one of the 1000 women for the Nobel Peace Prize, as promoted by the Peace Foundation of Switzerland in 2005. She wanted to continue her work for as long as COSWAS exists. For the past 14 years, despite her age and deteriorating health, she did not miss any opportunity where she could speak for the sex workers, through her songs and as a host of the brothel/museum where she would tirelessly explain the significance of the heritage site. Many people who came to COSWAS and Wen Mong-Lou were touched by her warmth, cheerful and bubbly self. Those who had interacted with LI Jun would agree that they were inspired by her courage and zest for life. They in turn, grew in their understanding of sex work and became staunch supporters of COSWAS – LI Jun personified the essence of the Taiwanese sex work rights movement through her activism.

The Spirit of Licensed Prostitutes - Protecting Wen Mong-Lou with her body

LI Jun decided to live into the Heritage Site in 2011

As the epic-centre of actions, the movement against the abolishment of licensed prostitution in Taipei was headquartered in Wen Mong-Lou, then a licensed brothel and later designated by the Bureau of Culture as a heritage site for the Taipei city. However in 2011, its future became uncertain because of the threat of urban regeneration rolled out by the private construction company. Under the plan, the street where the brothel/museum stands will be pulled down and rebuilt, to make way for luxurious residential apartments which the existing community cannot afford. Although as a heritage site, Wen Mong-Lou itself won’t be torn down; however, COSWAS is facing the eviction from the speculator who bought Wen Mong-Lou secretly with the intention of profiteering from the prospected urban renewal plan, in anticipation of obtaining vast profits. The new “owner” of Wen Mong-Lou wasted no time to take legal action on COSWAS, attempting to evict sex workers from the history they’ve created and to separate the soul from the heritage site. The speculator is never regarded as legitimate “owner” since her eviction is self-explanatory that she has no interest in keeping the site alive and she’s nothing more than a speculator. COSWAS has been resisting and protesting against the eviction. From that point on, LI Jun had decided to move into Wen Mong-Lou and vowed to protect it from speculators and profiteers with her body and life. Wen Mong-Lou is where the resistance began, it is also the site of struggles where LI Jun and her fellow sex workers and supporters spent days and nights together; organising and mobilising. It is where they interacted with the media and where they could still work legally and safely for their livelihood until the abolishment took effect.

Three years ago, LI Jun discovered that her cancer cells had spread. By 18th July this year, her health rapidly deteriorated. She could no longer walk, talk and had difficulty swallowing. COSWAS had to face the fact that she was on her last stretch of journey in life. LI Jun had chosen not to stay in the hospital or her home as tradition and customs would dictate. Instead, she remained in Wen Mong-Lou to fulfil her wish to die in this symbolic site, where she had worked and lived for a long time. COSWAS organised a dedicated team of volunteers, mainly young people and students to care for her round the clock. Many friends, comrades and supporters also visited her. International friends and networks wrote to express their support and respect for her. The process right up to the moment of her death was very social, activist and meaningful.

At this critical juncture of COSWAS’ fight to retain Wen Mong-Lou as our heritage site, LI Jun’s last words were:

“The Licensed Prostitutes have won, we did not lose”

“Sex Workers want to be treated equally and fairly, we do not want to be discriminated”

“The Culture of Bureau must retain and preserve Wen Mong-Lou as a public property under their care”

The Licensed Prostitutes’ Struggle, which began in 1997, fought the first step towards sex and sexual emancipation, as well as the emancipation of workers and sexual minorities. It is a movement that has succeeded in forging a progressive, liberating step even at the global level. LI Jun as a pioneer of this movement, had transformed herself from a woman despised by many into an activist who won approval and respect through her struggles. She had not wavered in her cause even till the last moment of her life. LI Jun had also shown that it is important to take charge of her life by deciding how and where she would die. Her family members understood and accepted her decision. It is LI Jun’s way of reminding the Taiwanese society that in life and death, Wen Mong-Lou belongs to the licensed prostitutes. It is not for profiteering or private gains. It is a site of our collective struggle, memories and common heritage. It must always remain a public property to be enjoyed by all. It is a site that symbolises the determination of the weak and the powerless, the have-nots and the discriminated, of their strength and ability to overcome adversity, to resist domination, oppression and exploitation. It is where the uncompromising power of the movement will radiate and reach out to more people. LI Jun and her Wen Mong-Lou will remain the guardian angel of the weak.

Obituary text courtesy of COSWAS