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Writing China: Faith and Love in a Shenzhen Brothel

Lijia Zhang drew inspiration from her grandmother, who was sold to a brothel as a teenager, when writing her debut novel “Lotus.”

Lijia Zhang drew inspiration from her grandmother, who was sold to a brothel as a teenager, when writing her debut novel “Lotus.” PHOTO: LIJIA ZHANG

May 3, 2017 5:54 pm HKT0 COMMENTS

It’s an enduring mystery for anyone who has spent significant time walking China’s streets: What world lurks in the backrooms of the ubiquitous, neon-lit hair salons conspicuously staffed by scantily clad women?

Hounded to near-extinction under Mao Zedong, prostitution came roaring back along with economic reforms in the 1980s and remains common in Chinese cities today, despite periodic crackdowns. Yet little is known about the lives of its sex workers, particularly those who serve the lower end of the market.

In her debut novel “Lotus,” writer and journalist Lijia Zhang pulls back the curtain, taking readers inside the lives of a group of women working in a brothel in the southern metropolis of Shenzhen. Drawing inspiration from her grandmother, who was sold to a brothel outside the city of Nanjing as a teenager, Ms. Zhang taps years of reporting to draw figures rooted in real life. They include the title character, a former factory girl turned sex worker, and Bing, a photographer who falls for her unwittingly.

Ms. Zhang, herself a former factory worker, recently sat down with China Real Time to discuss the lives of China’s sex workers, their thirst for religion and real affection, and the economic forces that push them into the industry. Here are edited excerpts:

You have your personal connection to this topic through your grandmother. How did you find out about her past?

I learned this at my grandmother’s deathbed. It was March 1998. My mother was crying and talking about what a hard life she’d had. She explained that my grandmother had become an orphan at six or seven, and then was adopted by her aunt. Around 13 or 14, she was sold into a brothel. Later I found out the place where she worked was called the Pavilion of Spring Fragrance. It was in Zhenjiang [a prosperous city in eastern China's Jiangsu province]. She met my grandfather on the job. He was very smitten with her, so he bought her out and installed her as a concubine. It was shocking to hear my grandma was a prostitute and then to think my grandfather—this shaky old man—had visited brothels. Despite everything she’d been through, my grandma was always kind and giving, and content. Ever since then, I’ve been really curious about what her life was like.

How did you go from learning about your grandmother to writing a book about a Buddhist prostitute?

A few months after I learned about my grandma, I went to Shenzhen on a reporting trip. I was working in TV, so I wanted to get a haircut in case I had to go on camera. I was in a hurry, so I just went into the closest hair salon, and inside there were these girls who started giggling. They said, ‘Sorry, we don’t know how to cut hair.’ The girls were wearing very low-cut clothing and there was no hair on the floor. So I chatted with them. Quite a few of them had worked on factory production lines. One of their colleagues got a job working at a “massage” hair salon. The pay was better and the job was much freer. That was the seed, and I thought, “I could write a novel about this,” because prostitution touches on so many really serious issues China is facing today: migration, the urban-rural divide, the growing income gap between men and women, the decline in morality, commercialization.

The novel takes readers inside the lives of a group of women working in a brothel in Shenzhen.

The novel takes readers inside the lives of a group of women working in a brothel in Shenzhen.

How does one do research for a novel like that?

I spent a lot of time in Shenzhen. I also interviewed a lot of girls in Dongguan and Shenyang. I tried to keep in touch with them, but it was hard. They’d disappear and change their phones. The places where they worked would disappear. I started writing about them, but their stories didn’t jump off the page. I realized I needed to understand the girls more. I went to a conference on sexuality, where I met a girl who runs an NGO for sex workers, educating them about health and how to deal with police. I worked for her as a volunteer.

The book took 12 years to complete, which suggests you’ve been thinking about this topic for a while. How has it affected your view of sex in China?

I think the market economy has undermined gender equality because women have shouldered most of the burden as China made the transition from the planned economy. In factories, women are the first to go. In the factory I worked for, all women above 45 years of age were laid off. One year I saw a woman I’d worked with selling newspapers in the street. Without government intervention, women have fewer choices.

In the novel, Lotus talks a lot about helping her brother go to college and dreams about one day returning to her village as the triumphant filial daughter. Is it common that women in China turn to sex work to help relatives?

Almost all the women I know provide financial help to their families. Of course, there’s the filial piety thing. But it also makes them feel less guilty, and gives them more power within the family. One woman told me her brother ended up in jail for some reason, so she worked as a prostitute to finance his wife and children. When the brother got out, he wanted to take his daughter out of school, but the woman said, ‘No, I pay for her. She stays in school.’ So, for some there’s empowerment.

A lot of people might assume sex workers are cynical about relationships, and yet there’s a love story at the heart of your novel. Is that a literary device, or does it have a basis in reality?

What’s interesting is that a lot of the women kept boyfriends. Of course, we all long for love, but they were more passionate about it, because they were dealing in this fake intimacy every day and were really longing for genuine affection.

Religion is also a big theme in the book, in particular Buddhism. Where did that come from?

My grandmother was a devout Buddhist, which I think must have helped her a great deal. It’s the same with the girls I talked to. Many of them go to temples to make offerings. So it’s no surprise that the main character in the book is a Buddhist prostitute. I also met girls who were Christian. I would say they are far more religious and spiritual than most people. Which makes sense, because religion is one of the things people rely on to deal with trauma and internal conflicts. It offers them a form of ritualized purification.

Relatively speaking, there isn’t a lot of violent crime in Chinese cities. Does that make it safer for women to be sex workers?

There’s violence, but most of it comes from the police. I have so many horrible stories. One woman passed out after she was beaten and the police used mustard seed to wake her up. Another woman threw up and the police made her eat her own vomit. Another was sprayed with water and then had to sit in cold air conditioning. The aim is to get them to confess.

How much of an effect has President Xi Jinping’s recent cracking down on corruption and vice had on prostitution?

The crackdown is not going to work because it doesn’t understand or address the roots of prostitution, things like inequality and the lack of a social safety net for women. One woman I know of became a prostitute after she ran away from her abusive husband. If there had been social services to help her and protect her, she might not have done that. Cracking down doesn’t resolve those issues. And of course local governments don’t really want to crack down in the end. It’s bad for business.

– Josh Chin. Follow him on Twitter @joshchin

Lijia Zhang drew inspiration from her grandmother, who was sold to a brothel as a teenager, when writing her debut novel “Lotus.”

Lijia Zhang drew inspiration from her grandmother, who was sold to a brothel as a teenager, when writing her debut novel “Lotus.” PHOTO: LIJIA ZHANG

May 3, 2017 5:54 pm HKT0 COMMENTS

It’s an enduring mystery for anyone who has spent significant time walking China’s streets: What world lurks in the backrooms of the ubiquitous, neon-lit hair salons conspicuously staffed by scantily clad women?

Hounded to near-extinction under Mao Zedong, prostitution came roaring back along with economic reforms in the 1980s and remains common in Chinese cities today, despite periodic crackdowns. Yet little is known about the lives of its sex workers, particularly those who serve the lower end of the market.

In her debut novel “Lotus,” writer and journalist Lijia Zhang pulls back the curtain, taking readers inside the lives of a group of women working in a brothel in the southern metropolis of Shenzhen. Drawing inspiration from her grandmother, who was sold to a brothel outside the city of Nanjing as a teenager, Ms. Zhang taps years of reporting to draw figures rooted in real life. They include the title character, a former factory girl turned sex worker, and Bing, a photographer who falls for her unwittingly.

Ms. Zhang, herself a former factory worker, recently sat down with China Real Time to discuss the lives of China’s sex workers, their thirst for religion and real affection, and the economic forces that push them into the industry. Here are edited excerpts:

You have your personal connection to this topic through your grandmother. How did you find out about her past?

I learned this at my grandmother’s deathbed. It was March 1998. My mother was crying and talking about what a hard life she’d had. She explained that my grandmother had become an orphan at six or seven, and then was adopted by her aunt. Around 13 or 14, she was sold into a brothel. Later I found out the place where she worked was called the Pavilion of Spring Fragrance. It was in Zhenjiang [a prosperous city in eastern China's Jiangsu province]. She met my grandfather on the job. He was very smitten with her, so he bought her out and installed her as a concubine. It was shocking to hear my grandma was a prostitute and then to think my grandfather—this shaky old man—had visited brothels. Despite everything she’d been through, my grandma was always kind and giving, and content. Ever since then, I’ve been really curious about what her life was like.

How did you go from learning about your grandmother to writing a book about a Buddhist prostitute?

A few months after I learned about my grandma, I went to Shenzhen on a reporting trip. I was working in TV, so I wanted to get a haircut in case I had to go on camera. I was in a hurry, so I just went into the closest hair salon, and inside there were these girls who started giggling. They said, ‘Sorry, we don’t know how to cut hair.’ The girls were wearing very low-cut clothing and there was no hair on the floor. So I chatted with them. Quite a few of them had worked on factory production lines. One of their colleagues got a job working at a “massage” hair salon. The pay was better and the job was much freer. That was the seed, and I thought, “I could write a novel about this,” because prostitution touches on so many really serious issues China is facing today: migration, the urban-rural divide, the growing income gap between men and women, the decline in morality, commercialization.

The novel takes readers inside the lives of a group of women working in a brothel in Shenzhen.

The novel takes readers inside the lives of a group of women working in a brothel in Shenzhen.

How does one do research for a novel like that?

I spent a lot of time in Shenzhen. I also interviewed a lot of girls in Dongguan and Shenyang. I tried to keep in touch with them, but it was hard. They’d disappear and change their phones. The places where they worked would disappear. I started writing about them, but their stories didn’t jump off the page. I realized I needed to understand the girls more. I went to a conference on sexuality, where I met a girl who runs an NGO for sex workers, educating them about health and how to deal with police. I worked for her as a volunteer.

The book took 12 years to complete, which suggests you’ve been thinking about this topic for a while. How has it affected your view of sex in China?

I think the market economy has undermined gender equality because women have shouldered most of the burden as China made the transition from the planned economy. In factories, women are the first to go. In the factory I worked for, all women above 45 years of age were laid off. One year I saw a woman I’d worked with selling newspapers in the street. Without government intervention, women have fewer choices.

In the novel, Lotus talks a lot about helping her brother go to college and dreams about one day returning to her village as the triumphant filial daughter. Is it common that women in China turn to sex work to help relatives?

Almost all the women I know provide financial help to their families. Of course, there’s the filial piety thing. But it also makes them feel less guilty, and gives them more power within the family. One woman told me her brother ended up in jail for some reason, so she worked as a prostitute to finance his wife and children. When the brother got out, he wanted to take his daughter out of school, but the woman said, ‘No, I pay for her. She stays in school.’ So, for some there’s empowerment.

A lot of people might assume sex workers are cynical about relationships, and yet there’s a love story at the heart of your novel. Is that a literary device, or does it have a basis in reality?

What’s interesting is that a lot of the women kept boyfriends. Of course, we all long for love, but they were more passionate about it, because they were dealing in this fake intimacy every day and were really longing for genuine affection.

Religion is also a big theme in the book, in particular Buddhism. Where did that come from?

My grandmother was a devout Buddhist, which I think must have helped her a great deal. It’s the same with the girls I talked to. Many of them go to temples to make offerings. So it’s no surprise that the main character in the book is a Buddhist prostitute. I also met girls who were Christian. I would say they are far more religious and spiritual than most people. Which makes sense, because religion is one of the things people rely on to deal with trauma and internal conflicts. It offers them a form of ritualized purification.

Relatively speaking, there isn’t a lot of violent crime in Chinese cities. Does that make it safer for women to be sex workers?

There’s violence, but most of it comes from the police. I have so many horrible stories. One woman passed out after she was beaten and the police used mustard seed to wake her up. Another woman threw up and the police made her eat her own vomit. Another was sprayed with water and then had to sit in cold air conditioning. The aim is to get them to confess.

How much of an effect has President Xi Jinping’s recent cracking down on corruption and vice had on prostitution?

The crackdown is not going to work because it doesn’t understand or address the roots of prostitution, things like inequality and the lack of a social safety net for women. One woman I know of became a prostitute after she ran away from her abusive husband. If there had been social services to help her and protect her, she might not have done that. Cracking down doesn’t resolve those issues. And of course local governments don’t really want to crack down in the end. It’s bad for business.

– Josh Chin. Follow him on Twitter @joshchin

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