Sex workers in Taiwan have cautiously welcomed a government plan to legalise prostitution, but the scheme is being opposed by an alliance of women's groups who fear it will breed crime and violence.
A red-light area similar to Amsterdam's famed canalside sex-for-sale district has been proposed for the capital Taipei, with legal and zoning measures due in place within six months.
Prostitutes and their supporters say they see a ray of hope after many years of campaigning for legalisation to protect them from both customers and police, but some are concerned about being moved into special zones.
''I hope the government will allow us to stay where we are and give us legal protection,'' said one prostitute who wanted to be identified as Hsiao-feng. ''I don't want to move to a new place to start again.''
Hsiao-feng earns a living in Taipei's Wanhua district, which is believed to be home to thousands of sex workers plying their trade illegally even though prostitution was outlawed in the city in 1997.
''Who wants to have red-light districts near homes?'' she asks. ''The government would have to put us in the mountains but then we can't make a living because nobody wants to travel that far.''
Observers say paid-for sex remains big business and the ban has driven it underground, where brothels operate under euphemistic names such as tea houses, massage parlours, clubs and even skin-care salons.
There are also women known as ''liu ying'' or ''floating orioles'' -- a metaphor for flirtatious and seductive women -- who find patrons on the streets.
There is no official record on the scale of Taiwan's sex industry but the advocacy group Collective of Sex Workers and Supporters (COSWAS) estimates that it involves 400,000 people and is worth 60 billion Taiwan dollars (1.8 billion US) a year.
''Right now we are helpless when customers don't pay, or even rob or hurt us,'' Hsiao-feng told AFP.
''We have to watch out for the police and their informants because we can end up in prison if caught.''
Prostitutes face three days in detention or a fine of up to 30,000 Taiwan dollars if arrested, while their clients go unpunished.
''The government should protect sex workers' human rights and stop treating them like criminals,'' says COSWAS chief Chung Chun-chu. ''It should allow a blanket decriminalisation to regulate the sex trade.''
The public is divided on the issue, with 42.3 percent supporting the plan to legalise prostitution while 38.8 percent oppose it and the rest are undecided, according to a poll by the local China Times.
Arielle Su, an elementary school teacher in Taipei, says legalising the sex trade cuts both ways.
''I think it can help prevent sex crimes as some people have needs and they would prey on the general public if they are unsatisfied,'' she said. ''But as a mother and a teacher I am also concerned that it would corrupt morals.''
A dozen local women's groups have formed an alliance against legalising prostitution, warning that it would encourage crime and injustice against women.
''We oppose making prostitution a legal industry because it fosters sexual violence and exploitation of women,'' said Chi Hui-jung, head of The Garden of Hope Foundation.
Chi pointed out that the Dutch authorities were reducing the size of Amsterdam's red-light district due to concern over criminal activities such as human smuggling and money laundering.
''The government should offer welfare programmes and job incentives to women so they won't go into prostitution out of economic desperation,'' Chi said.
Hsiao-feng, a 45-year-old divorcee, says it is difficult for street walkers like her, with little education or job skills, to find regular work.
''I don't like what I do for a living but I have to raise my children and pay the bills. I don't regret becoming a sex worker. I just hope the government will protect my safety so I am not always at the mercy of others,'' she said.