Turf war between sex industry bosses

Sex industry bosses battled each other in court this week as Calendar Girls owner Jacqui Le Prou tried to stop Wellington brothel kings the Chow brothers moving into Auckland. Brendan Manning of APNZ listened in for a rare behind-the-scenes look at the local sex industry

James Samson and his wife Jacqui Le Prou are taking the Chow brothers to task in court. Photos / Chris Gorman
James Samson and his wife Jacqui Le Prou are taking the Chow brothers to task in court. Photos / Chris Gorman

With her long, straight platinum blonde hair, 10cm heels, miniskirt and bronzed skin, the woman was a striking presence as she made her way to the witnesses' chair.

"I am a professional dancer and have worked in New Zealand, Australia and the United States for approximately 10 years," she began.

"In the United States, I have worked at full nude strip clubs where they are not permitted to sell alcohol by law and I have worked at what they refer to as 'go-go' bars which are topless and can serve alcohol.

"Michael and John allow far higher intoxication levels than I have seen in any other premises in New Zealand, Australia and the United States."

Called into the courtroom by her stage name, the woman was one of six former female employees who gave evidence against adult entertainment barons Michael and John Chow.

The allegations were made at a hearing into two liquor licence applications for premises in central Auckland before the city's Alcohol Regulatory and Licensing Authority.

One was to renew the licence for the brothers' Gore St strip bar the Penthouse Club and adjoining brothel Galaxy Club. The other was for a new licence, combining separate temporary licences for their Karangahape Road strip bar Mermaids and adjoining brothel Splash Club.

The police haven't opposed the applications. Neither has the Auckland Medical Officer of Health.

The only objection came from the company that operates Calendar Girls, their closest rivals. Over two days this week the evidence presented gave a sometimes disturbing account of the rivalries and alleged working practices of the local sex industry.

The Chows' lawyer Alastair Sherriff told the hearing all six women who gave evidence against his clients' applications were linked to Calendar Girls' owner Jackie Le Prou. She had paid for them to come to the hearing.

Last year Ms Le Prou told the Herald on Sunday that Auckland didn't need any more strip clubs.

"I know of clubs that are struggling," she said. "The Chows are playing Monopoly - whether it's pulling a building down or stopping someone from getting a licence, they will take over. So look out Auckland, look out Hamilton."

The witnesses had plenty to say about their time working for the Chows, painting a picture of premises awash with alcohol where staff came second to customers - provided they kept buying booze. Women were attacked, staff got drunk just to get through their shifts and the Chow brothers either didn't know or didn't care, the hearing was told.

Given the industry, claim and counterclaim were, perhaps, predictably tawdry. But the parties have been here before, albeit on different sides.

In 2012 the Chows, like the police, opposed an application for renewal of the alcohol licence at Calendar Girls in Wellington. The objections were successful.

The application was rejected by the High Court. Ms Le Prou can now only sell her Wellington patrons nothing stronger to drink than beer with an alcohol level of 1 per cent.

The Chows' primary objection concerned the involvement of Ms Le Prou's husband, James Samson. In 2004 he was sentenced to five years on charges relating to a methamphetamine operation, with a year added for attempting to pervert the course of justice and bribery.

Witnesses called by Ms Le Prou's company, Casino Bar No 2, cannot be named for legal reasons.

Their professions ranged from waitress to prostitute and their evidence featured common themes.

The excessive intoxication of patrons was encouraged, clients were intentionally overcharged and sexual assaults against staff went unreported, the women alleged.

Ms Le Prou's lawyer Steven Rollo told the hearing the brothers were either complicit in or naive to liquor licence breaches at their businesses.

However, Mr Sherriff said that of more than 1000 former employees only six were giving evidence and none had gone to police or liquor licensing authorities with concerns.

The incidents were historic and the businesses the Chow brothers wanted licences for were already operating without problems, he said.

"No one is challenging that (Ms Le Prou) is funding this opposition."

That opposition was comprehensive. A former waitress and dancer from Mermaids in Wellington, said the bar was an uncomfortable environment to work in, with a culture of heavy drinking.

"When John and Michael came into the premises they were very sleazy and would often be intoxicated and that was the tone of the entire place. As waitresses, we were pressured to sell shots every night or we would be warned that we would be getting less shifts," she said.

"I can recall being told at a staff meeting that basically unless the person was falling off the chair, we were to try and sell them shots."

Staff were told that the drunker the patrons were, the looser their inhibitions, and the more they would spend more on alcohol, lap dances and tips, she said.

"As people became more intoxicated we would also give them higher denomination tip notes as directed by Michael and John."

The authority hearing heard waitresses would walk the floor at Mermaids, selling trays of the pre-mixed $10 shots.

The shots were targeted to patrons who were already intoxicated, in an attempt to meet the minimum quota of 250 shots per week, the women alleged. When Mr Samson was called to give evidence, he said that when he visited the club while Calendar Girls was being built he gave a waitress $100 to "leave us alone" and stop trying to sell them shots.

The dancers would also used to drink to intoxication, one of the former waitresses said. "A lot of us used to drink heavily to get through the night's work. Because so many of the patrons were so heavily intoxicated we used to get drunk as well so we could tolerate them.

It was not uncommon for girls to be throwing up in the changing rooms, another dancer told the tribunal. "One time Michael Chow walked into the changing rooms at the end of the night and one of the girls was throwing up in the changing room and he just turned around and walked out without saying anything."

Girls and customers would throw up in the spa pools in the brothel above the club, she said.

The spa rooms were where the drunkest patrons could be found, a waitress said in her evidence.

"There were no checks on the clients or the dancers during bookings and if the client kept extending the booking then the staff did not care what was going on."

Intoxicated patrons were generally tolerated at the club, however during police visits staff were encouraged to take them into lap dance rooms or the brothel upstairs where they would be out of sight, the women alleged. "Basically, get them off Mermaids floor, get them anywhere the police would not see them if they made a check."

The police made active checks at least once a week, however they checked only the main floor, and by that stage the grossly intoxicated people were always hidden away, a waitress said in her evidence.

"I have seen the security staff helping people walk up to the brothel who were too drunk to walk up there by themselves."

Another dancer said staff were forewarned of nights when there would be a police visit.

On such nights the doormen and bouncers would "go into overdrive" trying to get the highly intoxicated people out of the club and into lap dances or upstairs, she alleged.

The drunk patrons were a constant danger to the women at the club, the witnesses alleged. A dancer told the hearing that intoxicated patrons would grab staff, inappropriately touch them and try to lick them. "Basically, people would try anything you can imagine in there."

When the women complained nothing would be done, she said. Another dancer said they would be sent back into the lap dancing rooms if they dared complain.

"In lap dance rooms some of the guys would get the idea that they were the boss and it could be quite scary."

A dancer told the authority about a scenario where a stripper was bitten near her nipple during a lap dance, drawing blood.

When a bouncer was told about the incident, they determined the customer "looked okay" and they were allowed to stay.

Mr Sherriff told the hearing was a mixture of "fact and fiction".

"You must carefully weigh that factual material and the clarity with which (the witnesses) gave it to you."

The Chows ran a good, tight ship, he said, pointing out that the New Zealand Prostitutes Collective was backing the brothers publicly and in writing.

Giving evidence, John Chow said he and his brother Michael took their host responsibility seriously and staff who breached their licensing conditions had been dismissed in the past.

"We have operated under adult-entertainment on-licences for our Wellington premises for over 12 years now and, with only one exception, this has been without incident."

The incident occurred in 2012 when a man fell into a drain and died after attending Mermaids and Splash Club, he said.

It was a wake-up call and the duty manager working that night was no longer employed by them, he said.

Mr Chow said both he and his brother took active roles in their local communities. "The ex-mayor of Wellington Kerry Prendergast has also confirmed her support for both Michael and myself, calling us 'great Wellingtonians'," he said.

The hearing reserved its decision.


Who are the Chows?

John Chow leaving the Auckland District Court on Wednesday. Photo / Dean Purcell
John Chow leaving the Auckland District Court on Wednesday. Photo / Dean Purcell

• Michael and John emigrated from Hong Kong in 1984

• Educated at Naenae College

• Own 70 per cent of sex trade businesses in Wellington

• Expanding in Auckland, owning stripclubs and brothels on Gore St and Karangahape Rd and securing resource consent for a 15-storey brothel opposite SkyCity

• John Chow was granted diversion last year after a charge of threatening to injure another man was downgraded to disorderly behaviour.

• Having achieved an estimated worth of $50 million each, the Chow brothers were included on the NBR Rich List for the first time last year.

• John runs the Auckland operation from an office on Queen St while Michael remains in Wellington. He lives in a $6.65 million mansion in Orakei, has a wife and two children.

- NZ Herald

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