The Eye of the Fish

January 20, 2012

In Praise of…. a red light district

While Auckland is agonizing over the prospect of the vile Chow brothers building a 15 story high brothel in the CBD, on the site of their demolished former heritage building, Wellington (thankfully) does not seem to be such a magnet for their Chow charms. Instead, we’ve got a more modest addition to the capital’s brothel stock, with a smaller four story high building being converted to a “strip club”, coming to Wellington in 2012. Presumably, the Torture Garden / Gardening Club on the ground floor stays?

“A strip club business previously run by a former Christchurch man jailed for manufacturing drugs is planning to open a lavish four-storey club in Wellington. The Calendar Girls club, scheduled to open in March, is planned for 13 Dixon St, just a block from Courtenay Pl clubs The Mermaid and Splash Club, owned by John and Michael Chow. Plans for the club were announced by James Samson, who said it would be run by his wife, Jacqui Le Prou…. ….Samson said work would start on a multimillion-dollar refurbishment of the Dixon St building once he and Le Prou took possession on January 3. It would feature chandeliers and specially made carpets imported from Germany and Spain. Design work was still to be done, but it would include a strip club, whisky lounge and cigar room and offer strip shows, lap dances and private shows – “it won’t be sex, it’s just visual”. It would not be a brothel. “No way,” he said.”

Incidentally, just what is it about the names of people in the sex industry? Jacqui Le Prou? Really? And Brian Le Gros? Honestly??? They both seem somehow, so ….appropriate. Hmmmmmm…..

The photo below is the Christchurch branch of the Calendar Girls, seemingly one of the few buildings still standing in that stretch of street down south;

Conveniently, it will be in the centre of town, next door to a Subway food bar, so at least people will be able to Eat Fresh! right after they Get Fresh!… Is there something we should know about the positioning of Subways in the capital? After all, another Subway has just opened in Vivian St, right next to Il Bordello, in the heart of what used to be the red light district in Wellington. I say “used to be” as it seems that Vivian St has almost lost any last vestige of sexual shenanigans, apart from the tarty presentation of the Bordello, flashing its solitary red rose as an invitation to the patrons of the Comfort Hotel across the road – or perhaps as an invitation to hard-up architecture students to come over and work or play.

The sex shop Peaches and Cream, formerly on the corner of Cuba and Vivian has relocated away, down to occupy the top floor of what used to be a polychromatic wonder, and the old striptease sign up above is looking like a piece of ancient archaeological signage – in danger of getting its own heritage listing if it stays there much longer. The ancient old trannies and hookers of Marion St no longer seem to leave such a presence – I don’t hang out there regularly, so I’m not sure if they are still there at all.

With the passing of Carmen, there is definitely a little bit of a boring / straight laced nature to the old Vivian St haunts, almost a sense of nostalgia for the naughties. But why should that be? Isn’t prostitution just another typical misogynistic male activity, subjecting women to a role as subservient sex slaves, pandering to the testosterone-fueled libido of the rugby club scene? What happened to those hordes of extra hookers imported for the Rugby World Cup? Did they fulfill their destiny as receptacles for an outpouring of bravado for the boys, and were they flooding the streets with cheap sex? Were the streets of Wellington awash with women in tarty dress, showing too much leg and too much cleavage? I don’t recall seeing any change during the Cup…..

But what are Aucklanders really protesting about in relation to the Chowtime Big Fun palace? Is it that, as regional and local planning manager Penny Pirrit said, “We need to look at a range of tools,” in relation to their brothel controls. Or that, as Christopher Dempsey, a Waitemata Local Board member and planner, said: “It’s disrespectful to the memory of the Palace Hotel and to the many thousands of people who appreciated and cherished it,” and “The whole thing is appalling and smacks of downtown Wainuiomata and I invite the Chow brothers to retire there. They are not welcome in this city.” (Understandably, that hasn’t gone down well in Wainuiomata – then again, what does go down well in Wainui? apart from, perhaps, Tui, and Lion Red).

Of course, what concerns me is the quality of the architecture. So far, Clark Brown architects haven’t been that forthcoming on their designs – there is this one published picture (above), and it’s not good. Update: And another picture has been uncovered, from the Chow Brothers website, and published below:

It’s slightly horrifying to think of what goes on in 15 stories of sex, with what can only be presumed as a whole lot of Asian cock being sucked, in a steady stream of happy punters from the Casino across the road. Let’s be honest about this after all – the Auckland Casino is populated almost entirely by Asians spending their money. Would a brothel be more palatable, so to speak, if there was the equivalent of 15 stories horizontally – ie a whole district of small dwellings down Federal St? Is it that Aucklanders want a nightlife / red-light district where tourists can wander willingly, shopping for eye candy but not entering into the doorways? Is it the actual penetration of the doorway that is the issue, or more the erection of a monstrous priapric monument to unfulfilled libido that has Aucklanders in a stew? Or is the problem just: too much Chow?

While Wellington used to have a more or less separate red light area (Marion/Vivian – curious that they are both names of girls), the delights of the flesh have congregated right into the centre of it all, on Courtenay Place and Dixon St. The Wellingtonista ran an excellent article a wee while ago, where they actually sampled the wares of the strip joints, and where we found out that the Mermaid bar no longer has a decent Fish tank. There was a huge curfuffle many years ago when Wellington was headed up by the heavily eyebrowed one, whose name escapes me – the mayor-chappy who tried to get the invasion of hookers and strippers into Courtenay stopped in its tracks. I vaguely recall that a city by-law was passed, prohibiting graphic semi-porno images or advertising, but it couldn’t stop the actual strip club itself. Or rather, it couldn’t stop That Particular strip club, but could stop other strip clubs setting up in Courtenay later on. Of course, the obeying of rules regarding signage seems to have gone out the window, and it is pretty obvious what goes on in Mermaids, and the other clubs (Santa Fe, and the forth-coming Calendar Girls) have set up shop just up the road in lower Dixon St.

So, how do other cities do it – so to speak? As much as we might tut-tut and disapprove, it is as old as the hills.

We haven’t gone down the route of Amsterdam and Hamburg, where the ‘girls’ sit provocatively undressed in windows, glowing pink under the light of UV lamps. That just seems so demeaning, and so tacky in a nasty way, but then is it any more honest if the women are just hidden away inside the buildings? Paris has a whole district in MontMartre, centred around an old red windmill, and has had for the last few hundred years (have you seen Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris yet?). By day, pedlars still sell their wares, and good Christians still flock to Sacre Coeur, one of the most gorgeous cathedrals I’ve ever laid eyes on – but by night, the bars open and as the lights go down, the girls come out, and legs get unveiled.

Or is it that the decriminalization of the prostitution industry has more or less killed off the scene? Do the ‘Johns’ no longer get a frisson of excitement in doing something naughty, now that it is not illegal? Have we lost that ‘loving feeling’ ? Have we made the sex industry just too mainstream by removing that cruising scene of cars that still seems so popular in Christchurch, or have we brought the grubby backstage into the limelight so that by having our strip clubs and brothels right on the main street, at least you can’t be backwards about coming forwards? Does this story have a happy ending?

20 - 01 - 12

Hey Max… The Chow Group have had a pic of the redevelopment of the Palace on their website for months… Draw your own conclusions as to what is better…

Perhaps some discussion of just how close the practice of modern day architecture is akin to the “oldest profession” is needed as a follow up.

Great article!

20 - 01 - 12

OMG ! That is truly hideous….. somehow suitable as a corporate 1980s office block, but not suitable as a brothel at all! Where’s the romance in that soul-less thing!?!

21 - 01 - 12

Carmen Memorial capital idea – from Waatea News:

Wellington Mayor Celia Wade- Brown wants to erect a memorial in the city of legendary Maori drag Queen Carmen. Ms Wade- Brown says Carmen who started life as Trevor Rupe became a iconic character in the city at a time when most people didn’t even perhaps know what transgender was and when prostitution and homosexuality were illegal.

She says after crossing the Tasman in the 1950’s to become a sex worker on Sydney’s Kings Cross Carmen returned to Wellington in the 1960’s setting up a number of sex venues and in 1977 standing for the Wellington mayoralty with the backing of businessman Sir Robert Jones. Ms Wade – Brown says she had the pleasure of meeting Carmen a few years ago and remembers her as a very elegant stylish and almost larger than life person. She says she is open minded about the best form of memorial for Carmen who died in Sydney last week at the age of 75.

22 - 01 - 12

And an article of praise of Carmen, from notorious grouch Sean Plunkett:

OPINION: I clearly remember it was raining. I must have been about 10 years old and had come into Wellington on a Friday night to go to the movies with my brother and sister while Mum and her partner were out somewhere. I don’t remember what the movie was but I do remember the three of us being picked up afterwards and there being some whispered discussion between the grownups as to where we were going next. Instead of heading home we stopped off for a coffee at a place in Vivian Street.

It was raining hard but I remember a very warm and welcoming environment in what must have been Carmen’s coffee house. There was lots of laughter and at some stage a huge lady in a very colourful kaftan came over and introduced herself. We kids were a little surprised and maybe a touch scared at the heavy makeup and enormous hairdo that appeared before us. I was perplexed at the huskiness of the voice that introduced its owner as Carmen and graciously extended a hand to mum and her boyfriend in what I recall was a somewhat regal manner. Introductions were exchanged and we three kids were introduced by name. “Hello darlings you are very welcome,” boomed our host, as we sipped our lemonades and stared wide-eyed at the vision before us. “Who was that lady?” one of us asked in the car on the way home. “Carmen,” was the reply.

That was back in the mid-70s by which time Carmen was already a well-established and celebrated local identity. In the years after, her fame continued to grow including such madcap exploits as the “Carmen for Mayor” campaign. I have never really been part of the capital’s fringe culture but the fact that Carmen’s notoriety projected beyond her natural habitat of Vivian, Cuba and Victoria streets is testament to her remarkable character. When news of her death in Sydney at the age of 75 broke on Thursday my talkback lines were jammed with people from all walks of life who universally remembered Carmen for her one outstanding attribute, kindness. Former lawyers, policeman, hookers and shopkeepers rang to reminisce about the big-hearted, larger-than-life Madame Carmen.

Some blushingly remembered their “walk on the wild side” which consisted of a late night visit to the balcony venue in Victoria Street. One man recalled her giving an after-dinner speech at a Rotary club in Newlands for the princely sum of $50. To a man or woman or anything else they all remembered a warm and giving individual. I cannot imagine the challenges of the journey from being Trevor Rupe to Carmen. That Carmen took that journey ahead of many others and lived her unusual life in the full glare of publicity suggests courage as well as kindness was a central part of who she was. Finding the right phrase to describe her is difficult if not impossible. Drag queen, transsexual, cross gender, madame, night club proprietor … all to a greater or lesser extent are accurate and appropriate but they do not individually or collectively really tell anyone what Carmen was.

Maybe that is because people like Carmen defy description, they are not to be put in boxes and categorised by others, they are utterly and undeniably unique. They cross our boundaries, challenge our preconceptions and alter in big and small ways the way we see ourselves and the world. There are no Carmens around these days and in a modern world where “sin” seems less innocent or perhaps is more mundane than it was 30 years ago I am not sure we will ever see her like again. Like so many other Wellingtonians I will cherish my small but special memory of the lady in the big dress with the dark makeup and the husky voice.

This city should remember Carmen, too. I don’t know exactly what would be appropriate, maybe a statue (we already have a queen in bronze on Cambridge/Kent Terrace), a park or a street name but something to acknowledge her rarity and huge contribution to the culture, history and life or our city. In a place that was for a long time grey and conservative, Carmen was a bright flower pushing up through a crack in the pavement. Maybe it wasn’t meant to be there and it disrupted the perfect order of things but she certainly helped make our world a lot brighter.

Sean Plunkett

22 - 01 - 12

Your original post reminded me of this piece in BLDG BLOG:

26 - 01 - 12

Comment in the Thursday paper by Rosemary McLeod:

OPINION: Men are weird, and also lazy. That is why we have prostitution. Seduction can take weeks, you see, and cost several restaurant meals, whereas the preamble to having it off with a prostitute need only take minutes.

I remember seeing the hookers in Sydney’s King’s Cross for the first time. At a second glance you saw the needle marks in their arms, and their dirty feet with broken toenails. Yet they were busy plying their trade, and the men who used them didn’t give a damn about their dead eyes. It gave me a lasting, unpleasant impression of the men who use such women, and how they probably feel about women in general. A recent article about the trade here assured us that the line of work is hunky-dory, and female students (brains are always a selling point with these stories) are earning megabucks to pay for their degrees. Her father, one young part-timer was quoted as saying, was not at all alarmed when she told him what she was up to. I wonder what her mother said. Sex workers lament that there’s still a stigma attached to this work.

There is a reason for that. When people talk about feeling prostituted in their line of work they tend to mean they have to repress the better hopes they have for themselves, and any real talent, to earn a buck at something they rather hate. To be blunt, surely nothing could be quite as soul-destroying as performing fellatio for a living. One Wellington madam was quoted as saying, “Your daughter working as a sex worker is not what you want for her, and that will take a while to change.” Indeed. The day when mothers hand their daughters over cheerily to brothel keepers will be the day when we’ve sunk well and truly into Third-World status, and desperate poverty. Just think of the glamour of it in Thailand, or the former Soviet Union. I’ve seen desperate young Russian women in Berlin, too, touting for trade half-naked in the cold because their world had been turned upside-down by politics. They didn’t look at all thrilled about it. But men never seem to mind that.

Then there’s prostitution of a national kind, when you sell residency to foreigners for large sums of money….”

26 - 01 - 12

The comments on her article are running strongly against it, mainly from men who are are strongly supportive of prostitution… saying things like:

“Pathetic, judgemental article full of generalisations..I know a few high class escorts who have made a choice to do this for a living and enjoy it. No one is forcing them to do it, they make a lot of money, live comfortably and have professional clients who treat them well.”

“Sometimes it is hard to get inspiration to write, and the result is garbage. This is a good example. Rosemary, if you have nothing to say, best keep it that way.”

“This article is a form of prostitution. Short, slack, underwhelming and with no emotive attachment. The only difference is, its free. I feel dirty for having read this. Gummo dirty.”

versus a rare:
“A great article this; drawing several of the most unappealing parts of New Zealand into one cutting piece. Well done. We are in thrall to money in New Zealand and we will despoil what was quirky and destroy what we have been given unless we calm down, and grow up…”