China is said to have over 4 million prostitutes and the number is rising. Most of these prostitutes are impoverished woman from poor rural areas who have minimum education and oftentimes suffer from domestic violence. Without proper skills and desperately in need of money, these women look to China’s more developed cities for opportunities and take up the only job they can do – sell sex. And the saddest thing is that not all prostitutes are equal. According to Sex Work in China, there are 7 hierarchies of sex workers in China:
- ‘second wives’ have the superficial identity of concubines. However, second wives charge by time, usually per month, providing sexual services without the emotional and family elements which usually accompany the concubine’s role;
- ’packaged women’ work similarly to second wives but they do not live with the client, only ‘packaged’ for a business trip;
- ‘female companions’ are active in cabarets, dance halls and restaurants charge by the hour. This service varies between merely accompanying a client while he visits the venue, to the ‘quickie’, to the ‘overnight package’;
- ‘ding dong girls’ (‘ding dong’ refers to the doorbell) rent their own room and call clients by telephone after initial contact by another worker in the same establishment;
- ‘hair salon’ or ‘massage parlour’ girls who on the surface wash hair or feet, or massage clients, but they also “do the business” in the establishment. They have less opportunity to ‘go out’ with clients or provide the ‘overnight package’;
- ‘street girls’ usually hang around motels, cinemas etc. and perform ‘quickies’ elsewhere once a client is interested. Some accompany clients to the cinema, but they are actually providing a fondling service.
- ‘underclass women’ generally service migrant workers, living in urban slum dwellings on construction sites. For some this is occasional or part time work, but others live with workers. They represent the lowest stratum of sex work, some doing it for basic food.
[Source: QQ News]
It’s a dark basement without any windows and as humid as a cave. The only source of light is a bedside light bulb with trailing wires hanging over from the ceiling.
Wu Xianfang wrapped the bulb with a crumpled red plastic bag. The room is then coated with soft red light. It’s said that a woman’s skin looks the best under such lighting – winkles gone unnoticeable.
Wu Xianfanf is 48 years old, a bit bulky, and has long straight black hair. But no one notices that she has to dye her white hair black every now and then. A twin bed, which takes up nearly half of the space in her room, is where she spends most of her days on, sitting, lying or waiting for “customers.”
Wu lives in a hostel renovated from an old arcade building. The hostel is home to thirty to forty prostitutes like Wu, the oldest of whom is already 62 years old. Most of these sex workers are middle-aged moms from rural China. Local people call places like this “the 10-yuan brothel.” Most visitors are local elderly males or middle-aged migrant workers. Service cost ranges from 10 yuan to 30 yuan per transaction. But worse than low income are fines by the police, illness, violence and discrimination.
“You can tell whether they [customers] carry STD or not.”
The town where Wu works, with a population of over one million, has about 4 bath centers, 50 massage salons and 15 brothels that offer sex services. People categorize sex workers at these places into 4 categories: most expensive ones like nightclub Tian Shang Ren Jian (translated as Heaven on Earth, a national chain famous for high-quality sex workers); second tier ones like hotels and bath centers; third tier ones like massage houses and hair salons where it costs about 100 yuan per visit; forth tiers ones like street girls who usually ask for about 60 yuan per transaction; and the lowest in the chain – 10-yuan brothels, as cheap as street side snack booth.
The brothel Wu works at is located in a narrow passageway at the back of a bustling commercial distrct. The building is utterly dark from doorway in and has a heavy smoke smell. It has 9 floors, each with 9 rooms separated by wood boards. The rooms are barely larger than a ping-pong table, and gaps are covered up with pornography posters.
No need for IDs or deposits, with 15 yuan, a woman can open her “business” in one of the rooms. There are the better-looking ones who usually work like a sex assembly line and take more than ten customers per day. They can earn as much as 2000 yuan per month. There are, however, those who can’t get one single customer in a whole day. All in all, the business seems good. The owner of the brothel renovated the basement for more rooms and even built temporary rooms on the roof.
The consensus in the building is that most of the customers are migrant workers who has long been sexually repressed and live alone without a wife. They usually finish their business in 5 minutes.
On the afternoon of April 14, a bold elderly men in a white tank slowly rambles upstairs. He peeks into the rooms one by one and eventually seems to decide on a middle-aged woman relaxing in her bed. The bargain then starts, “How much?” ” You don’t have any STD, don’t you?”
Brothel owner, “Get your water, girls!”
Each floor has only one restroom. Hot water is only available twice a day, at 8 am in the morning and at 2 pm in the afternoon. Outside of these hours, the brothel owner will lock up the hot water tap.
The walls, the floor, the bed, everywhere feels sticky.
The women working here never use condoms, partly to keep their customers happy, partly because that condoms are direct evidence of prostitution. Wu uses condoms only occasionally because, for her, ”it’s easy to tell who has STD and who doesn’t.” Her method is simple – those who look neat and clean are OK, and those who are in worn-out clothes are to be careful about.
She never went to any gynecological examination. Why? The most basic check-up costs about 30 yuan. Not only does she need to take the rick of being seized by the police, she also needs to take 3 more customers to cover the medical cost. Her daily safeguard is to wash with salty water. And whenever she feels something wrong, she’d buy a kind of antibiotic drip from a nearby town which is said to be penicillin and costs about 20 yuan. She goes back to work as soon as the inflammation gets better.
“I have to raise my kids even if the sky falls.”
Five to six years have passed and Wu is very used to the life of a sex worker. She is diligent, working from 8 am to 9:30 pm. She works all year round without a holiday unless there is an emergency at home. As time goes by, she gets numb about her work. To do prostitution, according to her, “is just like farming in the fields.”
Before getting into prostitution, Wu did many hard-labor jobs. She was born in a remote mountain town with only 9 households in Guizhou Province . Girls weren’t allowed to go to school there and Wu still cannot write her name until today. Then she got married and had sons, but her husband gambled, visited brothels and beat her. Deeply hurt by men, she left with her two sons – no devoice because she and her husband didn’t register a marriage certificate in the first place.
During years in foreign lands, she used to feed pigs, work at a woven bag factory and even work as a construction worker, carrying lime slurry from the first floor up to the forth. During extremely difficult times, she even thought of jumping into a river and committing suicide together with her sons.
But she weathered through and reached her 30s. One day, a fellow villager came to her and secretly told her, “Come with me. Big money guaranteed.” Then Wu was brought where she is now, a small town in Guangxi Province. It wasn’t until she was put into this little brothel did she realize that “big money” means prostitution.
At first, Wu said no. She refused to talk to anyone and locked herself up in her room for a whole week. She wasn’t able to find another job, yet she thought it was a waste of transportation and lodging money if she simply went back home. Then a local cadre came, willing to pay her a price as “high” as 60 yuan. He came to woo her every day, and on the third day, she gave in.
The feeling of “nowhere else to go” is shared among sex workers at the brothel.
Guiyuan in room 209 seldom talks to other people. Some say her husband is dead and some say her husband gambles and visites prostitutes. Her daughter lives with her in town, is in fourth grade, and takes care of herself from an early age. The better her daughter behaviors, the more sorry Guiyuan feels.
Wang Juhua has three kids. Her husband was an unlicensed doctor and needs to serve 10 years in prison for a death due to his malpractice. Her husband told her, “You have to raise our kids even if the sky falls.”
Yuan Lirong is nearly 60 years old and barely has any customer. She always looks bitter. Her husband hooked up with another woman, but didn’t want a divorce. He beats her so hard that she still has scars on her left eye. She has a home, but it’s one that she doesn’t dare to go back.
They are a group of traditional and impoverished women from rural China. To them, life is like a beating club: domestic violence, deceased husbands, imprisonment. They are overwhelmed by the pressures of making a living: kids need money for school, family needs money for new houses and family members need money for medical care.
No education, no skills, plus age limitations, they aren’t able to get into any other profession expect for prostitution that has no additional requirements.
Wu is illiterate. Out of fear of theft, she asks a fellow villager to deposit her savings to a bank account and then send back home from now and then. Her sons are her biggest hope in life. Her older son works as a driver, got married a few years ago and moved to the bride’s home in small town near Tianjin. Her younger son has more troubles. For a time, he’d ask for money every day. She only found out later that he was involved in a pyramid scheme.
At that time, She worked during the day and cried to her younger son on the phone whenever she had some down time. She worried so much that her hair started to fall, and soon she became bold. Not wanting to scare away customers, she spent 80 yuan for some medicine. The medicines worked but all the hair that grew out were white. Ever since then, she started to dye her hair black.
“To pay off fines, I need to provide service to 150 men.”
It is popular in their sisterhood to “find a rich man,” that is, some old guy who is willing to spend more than a few hundreds on them each month. In reality, subtracting food and rent, 10-yuan sex workers can have only few hundreds yuan left each month. Plus, the rent has increased to 13-15 yuan per room.
Even they work 24/7, there is a constant risk that can potentially cost everything they have: Sao Huang, anti-prostitution raid by the government.
Routine raids are generally not too bad because the brothel owner knows someone in the police department and is able to alarm these 10-yuan sex workers beforehand. Before a raid, the owner usually tells these women to hide away and closes the entire business until the police are gone.
“The worst is ‘snapping’,” said Wu. Snapping is a trap set up by someone undercover who collects evidence as a customer and calls the police immediately afterwards. When the police come, they arrest involved parties on the spot. There is no way to avoid snapping. Too much business or unhappy customers can all cause this kind of trouble.
It’s a 15-day detention for the first time caught. For the second time caught, it’s labor camp plus notice to family. Or you can pay a fine of 3000 yuan, which means service to 150 men.
At the end of 2011, a woman in her 30s at the brothel fell victim to snapping. She was planning to take a 6 pm train home. After washing her hair to get ready for the trip, she got a client. She thought she might as well just take this one last client, but unfortunately it was snapping. She was released three days later and was said to pay a 3000-yuan fine. She packed everything, went back home, and never appeared again.
Almost everyone has run into similar troubles. To these poor sex workers, fine is far worse than detention.
Some would bite their fingers to rub their underwear with blood, and some would even risk their lives, banging against the wall to commit suicide. Sometimes it works – At one time, Wang Juhua was caught on the scene. She rushed to step on the third-floor railing. The police let her go. She was very afraid that her son studying at a college would know about what she does. She always tells him: “Mom works at a candy factory. There are many, many candies, and I eat so many of them that I got fat.”
Wu has been caught twice too. She was shy and timid. Therefore, she always chooses fine over detention. The first time was 600 yuan, and the second time was 3000 yuan. ”I am afraid that my son may not get his call through and he would worry about me.” She comforts herself by seeing the fine as working for free for two months. She had quit once and gone back home in shame.
But life has its own will, especially during desperate moments for money. In 2011, Wu Yangfan had new worries. Her older son had no money to build a new house, and always feared that his girlfriend’s family would look down upon him. Her younger son left the pyramid scheme and became a driver. However, he was almost 21 years old and didn’t have any money to find a wife. She worried about these things over and over again, and decided to go back to prostitution.
The competition is more fierce after she comes back. One has to know how to flirt and how to sweet-talk. Wu said that she is too shy, too old and not good at talking at all. So she had to move to a mine-like basement.
What’s worse, she had a quarrel with a fellow villager. The guy was agitated and broke her middle finger with a rock. The medical expense was over 3000 yuan. The brothel owner tried to negotiate on her behalf but the fellow villager refused to pay anything. Wu had to make a tough decision: let go, seeing it as another two months of free work; or revenge, but court hearing is expensive, besides, what if the police get her instead?
In April 2012, it’s busy farming reason and very limited number of customers come. Yuan Lirong is busy cross- stitching for her broom-soon-to-be son. Wang Juhua finds a new hookup. Her cell phone often rings with Ai Qing Mai Mai (translated as Trade of Love, a hit Chinese song), it’s her friends asking her out for tea at night. Some other women at the brothel enjoy the sun in the yard.
Wu waits for business in her basement quietly. Even though she blocked the drain with some bricks, the disgusting smell still comes out. Sometimes, some old men walk pass by and peep to see what is available.
Even though Wu’s right hand is permanently disabled, and even though it’s hard to tell when she will be arrested, right now at this moment, she is full of smile. She tells the journalist from Southern Weekly that if the pig at her daughter-in-law’s family gives birth in August, she will go back home to feed the piglets and never come back again, never.