The Sex Worker Next Door


I’ve been interested in prostitution ever since a “deathbed revelation” in 1998. As my beloved maternal grandmother lay dying, my mother, an only child, cried her eyes out. She said to me: “You have no idea how much she has suffered: the famine, the Nanjing Massacre, all these political movements, and she was a working girl in the ’30s.”

A working girl? I had a hard time reconciling the image of a sex worker with my grandma, a devout Buddhist who chanted Amitabha all day long and who raised me. A strikingly beautiful woman, she had high cheekbones and almond-shaped eyes. Dimples danced on her cheeks as she talked, always softly. As a traditional woman, she insisted on wearing a Chinese-style cotton jacket with a high mandarin collar, fixed by butterfly buttons. In the morning, she plaited my hair and, in the evening, she cooked for me and the family.

My mother explained that grandmother had become an orphan as a child and was later sold into a local brothel in Yangzhou, a small town in Eastern China. She worked for 10 years until—while on the job—she met my grandfather, a small-time grain dealer.

I kept wondering what her life was like inside the brothel. How did she cope? I quizzed my mother about grandma’s former life, but she was unable to enlighten me; she said the brothel was a middle-class establishment set in a traditional courtyard house named Pavilion of Spring Fragrance, its front always lit up by bright red lanterns. My grandma had never liked to talk about herself.

I keenly read books, both fiction and nonfiction, on prostitution in China. I became fascinated with the subject. In China, the oldest human profession was wiped out after the Communists took power in 1949. Prostitution, in their view, was the vice produced by evil capitalism. In the reform era, however, it has made a spectacular return due to growing wealth, relaxed social control, and a large and mobile population. Although illegal, in every city in this vast country, there’s at least one “red light district” where working girls operate from massage parlors, hair salons, or bathing centers—all of them fronts for brothels

As it happens, months after the passing of my grandma, I successful pitched a story on the so-called ernai— meaning “the second wife” in Chinese, the term refers to women who are kept by rich men as mistresses or modern-day concubines—to a British magazine. There are a large number of such girls in Shenzhen, a manufacturing base and prosperous city across the border from Hong Kong. Several ernai I interviewed came from poor hinterlands in China and had slaved on production lines before being snatched up by married men. For me, ernai fall into the category of sex worker, as the base of the union is money instead of emotional needs.

I decided to write a novel exploring prostitution because it touches upon some serious issues that China is facing today: modernization, migration, the rural-urban divide, growing gender inequality, and the tug-of-war between tradition and modernity.

As part of my research for Lotus, I interviewed many sex workers in Shenzhen; Dongguan, a neighboring city; and Shenyang, up in the north—all of them situated in China’s industrial rustbelt where many women took up the “flesh trade” after being laid off from ailing state-owned enterprises.

Knowing the broad strokes of the girls’ lives wasn’t good enough. I needed to know every little detail: the first thing they did after sleeping with a man for money; what they thought about when they opened the eyes in the morning; what food they craved. I tried to make friends with the working girls but it was difficult because their lives were transient. So I signed up as a volunteer for a NGO devoted to helping female sex workers in Tianjin, a well-developed port city just south of Beijing where I am based. The NGO is one of the few such organizations like it in the country.

My main task was to visit the working women and distribute free condoms. On a sticky hot afternoon in the summer 2012, I set out for the first time with a staff member named Sanjie, to a street packed with half a dozen massage parlors and hair salons. I briskly walked beside Sanjie, excited to take a peek into a secret world that had eluded me.

The women usually wait by the front doors of their establishments, smiling their red smiles at every passing man. They have to be discreet because the police raid their places randomly, like some odd summer storm. On my first day, I met Little Flower, a spirited woman in her 30s who dared to sit openly on a stool outside her massage parlor. When we approached, her twig-like body, clad in a tiny low-cut black satin dress, was bent over a piece of stitch work—an image of a European church. Her frizzy hair was piled up dramatically, decorated with a pink silk butterfly.

I asked her if she deliberately picked this pattern to work on. Yes, she said, explaining that looking at the church somehow brought a sense of peace to her mind. Little Flower then led us to her parlor in the basement of the building. A moldy smell hit us as we entered the dimly lit room, furnished with two massage beds. On the cracked whitewashed wall, a large glossy picture of a semi-naked blond girl looked down flirtatiously.

Looking around the shabby parlor, I remembered a poem by 19th-century poet Yu Qingzeng about his love affair with a courtesan:
A brush of evening clouds.

The perfume of flowers in the darkness.

A harp melody

Accompanies the chanting of poetry.

Smoke rises from the incense clock’s seal characters.

We lock the silk sliding doors.

And let down the curtains of the bed.
The difference between the poem’s fantasy world and Little Flower’s was like the difference between heaven and earth.

Over a cup of jasmine tea, Little Flower, in a matter-of-fact tone, told us how after her husband deserted the family, she left her two children under the care of her parents and ventured out on her own. She sent them money every month but the teenage children often asked for more, thinking their mother had a lucrative sales job in the city.

As Sanjie handed out dozens of condoms, she urged Little Flower to be careful.

“Absolutely,” Little Flower said in a loud voice, nodding repeatedly. “Ever since you told me about the danger of unprotected sex, I’ve used one for each transaction.” She disclosed that just the other day she had kicked out a cheeky client who offered more money for unprotected sex. When we left, Little Flower returned to her stool in the street, her face almost buried in the stitched church.

Like my grandma, the lead character of Lotus is a Buddhist. I met quite a few women during my research that frequently visited temples and churches. My interviews found that many sex workers are religious. This makes sense because religion is one of the things people rely on to deal with internal conflicts and trauma. Also, it offers a ritualized cleansing. I believed that Buddhism helped my grandma swallow the bitterness of her life.

My grandma was sold into prostitution, like a common commodity. In today’s China, apart from rare cases in which women are trafficked and sold into prostitution, the vast majority of the working girls enter the trade of their own free will. Few are controlled by pimps. But women who go down that slippery road often have few other options, as in the case of Little Flower.

Another typical story is that of middle-aged Dajie, or “Big Sister,” as she was known among her colleagues at the NGO. She told me that some 15 years ago, when she’d gathered enough courage to leave her abusive husband, her own conservative family refused to take her in. Dragging her young daughter with her, she escaped to Tianjin where she had only one friend. Big Sister, originally from a conservative rural community, was unpleasantly surprised by the nature of her friend’s work, but she had to support herself and her daughter. As Big Sister recalled those early days, an expression of self-loathing and disgust contorted her wrinkled face.

From the women I met, who mostly come from impoverished rural areas in China, I heard plenty of stories of misery and suffering inflicted by bitter fate as well as by clients and policemen. But their lives are not filled with total bleakness. While waiting for clients, they would chat, crack sunflower seeds, and joke; usually at the expense of their clients, about their good fortune in having a “Mr. One Minute” the night before. Some learned to appreciate what the city could offer, enjoying milk and jam on toast, the sort of foreign food they could only dream of as village girls. Some found sexual pleasure they didn’t experience with their husbands.

I courted the friendship of Lanlan, the founder of the NGO, a perceptive and articulate woman who had received limited education. Over time, she revealed to me her own past.

In 1997, a chance meeting with a massage parlor owner on a crowded train changed the track of Lanlan’s life. Twenty years old and unmarried at the time, she had just left her four-month-old daughter with her mother in their village in the far northeast, and was on her way to take a factory job. Clicking her tongue in disproval, the fellow passenger declared that factory life would be poorly-paid, too hard, and too boring for such a pretty young thing.

The prediction proved to be true. Lanlan quit her job from the production line after a few months and turned to the parlor owner. After a brief training, she started to massage clients, mostly men. For a one-hour session, she earned 60 yuan, enough for a meal at a semi-decent restaurant.

Before long, Lanlan slipped into full-sex service, pocketing 600 yuan per hour, which had been her monthly salary as a factory worker. With each client, she told herself that she was doing this work for her daughter, to give her a better future. Yet, at quiet moments, questions would nag her consciousness: Would my daughter survive without my flesh trade? What kind of person am I?

My grandma wouldn’t have been able to leave her brothel of her own free will, whereas today’s working girls often have the freedom to do just that.. Lanlan did. Having received a pamphlet handed to her by a staff from an AIDS NGO in 2008, she realized the danger of her profession and saw more clearly than ever the ugly side of the trade. She decided to wash her hands of it and, one year later, she set up her own NGO to help her sisters.

By then, she had saved enough money to buy a flat for her mother and daughter in the town close to their ancestral village. It was a struggle for Lanlan to launch an NGO, and she had to learn to apply for funding from international organizations to keep the organization going. Although she missed the income, she says she was happy that she could finally look at herself in the mirror.

When writing my novel, I made use of this mirror detail: a potent symbol of self-image and internal conflicts. One day, when Lotus is putting on make-up in front of her mirror, she sees the reflection of the Guanyin Buddha portrait on the wall. And then, she quickly shifts the mirror.

Sex workers in China are commonly referred to as ji—meaning “chicken”—a degrading homonym for the word prostitute. It speaks volumes about how sex workers are stigmatized in society, about how it is presumed they are immoral women who only care about money.

My experience of working with those vulnerable women allowed me to glimpse into their lives. It made me appreciate more the hardship my grandma suffered as a sex worker.

Once, Little Flower invited me to stay for dinner. Her slender hands expertly turned each dumpling, a specialty of her region, into a perfect flour flower. She was still wearing a black georgette dress, as thin as cicadas’ wings and her frizzy hair was piled up as usual. She then boiled the dumplings over an electric stove. Sitting around a low table in her damp basement, we ate them. When I complemented how delicious they were, a smile blossomed on Little Flower’s face: “Both my son and my daughter love my dumplings, too!” She said she wished she could make them food every week instead of once every year when she visited home. But, she took comfort in the fact that the money she sent home was providing them with a decent education.

Eating dumplings with a working girl again turned my thoughts to my grandma, who used to make dumplings for us at Chinese New Year. These days ready-made dumpling are available everywhere, but grandma had to prepare everything from scratch. My tiny grandma would mince pork with a large chopper in each hand, crashing out a rhythm on the chopping board. Bang. Bang. The New Year’s Eve dinner was the only time she’d allow herself to sit with the family. Ordinarily she would sit on a low stool in the kitchen, as if she were a servant.

From my mother, I understood that grandma never managed to escape the shadow of her past. She had a very low opinion of herself and a sense of shame haunted her until her death. Grandma treated people with extreme kindness, out of her goodness, as a principle of her Buddhist faith—and, perhaps this was her attempt to redeem herself.

Image credit: Unsplash/Olha Zaika.