The Side Alley

By Bryan • china, nanjing • 3 Dec 2005

Delicious street food. At least every other night I frequent a mobile dumpling/fried noodle/rice mobile snack bike owned by this couple from Anhui. Their exact location varies from night to night, but I can usually find them somewhere around the same block.

They often set up shop inside a small side alley, directly in front of a xi tou fang. The English translation is “wash hair room” but it’s a brothel. The presence of such an establishment doesn’t factor into why my favorite street food guys have chosen this site. It’s a good setting, being right off a major street and sheltered from urban wind rushes and crazy drivers.

Tonight I ate my noodles with one of the employees of the before mentioned business.

Just small talk. That is essentially all I can muster at this point. Names, origins, what do you like to do…that kind of stuff. She was from Anhui, 20 years old. This woman was absolutely gorgeous, as were her four fellow workers (one has ample view of the lobby from the noodle table). It’s about a 10-15 minute turnaround time for me to receive and eat my noodles, depending on other customers, and in that time I witnessed 3 rather grizzled looking fellows enter the massage parlour and one older man who appeared to be in his 50’s exit. This place is local, and as a Chinese friend of mine says, “common”.

I felt so awful for this woman, and her four fellow co-workers (one has an ample view of the lobby from the noodle table). They are all absolutely gorgeous. Tall, long black hair, good facial features. Very impressive physical examples. This is their life. Their existence. This is what they do. Everyday. There isn’t anything else. Life will never get better for this person. She’ll probably never get married, never have a family and never know anything better.

I kept thinking to myself about this. About how horrible it is.

The impetus for the profession is purely economic. A commonality shared worldwide, from streets of Prince George to a backwater alley way in Nanjing. Yet there is one subtle difference which, to me, makes it far more worse here. Having lived in China for over a year, I can say that for certain, that the most important thing I’ve learned is the value of choice. In Canada, one chooses their life. I do not believe that it is chosen for one. One can claim that exceptions exist in the form of one’s upbringing, social position, presence of abuse…etc. I can see this as well, yet fundamental choice exists. For instance, opportunity exists for EVERYONE to pursue some form of post-secondary education. It is merely a choice. One chooses to go, or not go. Luckily we are developed country with a well established welfare net and powerful unions and, choosing not to attend some sort of post-secondary institute doesn’t mean you will be poor. It is difficult to write this clearly without appearing like a heartless bastard, yet street workers in Canada, while I feel it is safe to state that none choose their profession, clearly have had a voice in events leading up to their situation.

In China, choice doesn’t exist for the majority of the population. One’s life is essentially determined by a combination of birth location, economics and guanxi. If one’s family doesn’t have the cash for University, one doesn’t go. If you can’t pay the hospital bills, you die. A few of my friends volunteer at an orphanage where children are routinely left on the doorstep because their families could no longer afford to keep them alive. For lower level sex workers in China…choice doesn’t exist. Not like it does in Canada. They are not in their present position because they are addicts, or fouled up somewhere in their lives.

Lower level prostitution here (there are many levels, from University students which is apparently a HUGE sector, to high class call girls) is composed largely of local massage parlors which can be found on most smaller streets in all Chinese cities. These businesses, according to my Chinese friends are staffed mostly, if not entirely, by women from the Chinese countryside.

Life in a country village in China is dreadful, especially for young women. These places are dirty, basic facilities, schools and hospitals either don’t exist or are taxed to the limit, incomes are literally a couple dollars a day, and for those without higher education (which constitutes most of a Chinese village), opportunities for advancement are almost not existent. With this surrounding environment, migration to a city is seen as the only option for a better life, not necessarily for themselves, but for their family. The life of a migrant male worker is another social problem I would rank as one of China’s most pressing, but that aside, Men have the option of finding work in the exploding construction sector, where wages, when paid, can be surprisingly high. Women, however, have no such niche.

I can not comment with certainty on whether these ladies knowingly walk into this profession or are coerced or cheated in some manner. I would suspect that it is a combination and that there are parallels with the primarily Eastern European slave business of recruiting women as ‘nurses’ or ‘nannies’ only to sell them to brothels operating around the world. There are those who may go willingly, out of desperation to generate income for an ailing family member, to pay off debts or to seek a quick and fast avenue to improve their own economic situation.

The abysmal economic conditions in the countryside have created two very large demographic forces. An extremely transient migrant male worker population as well a pool of young women for the rampant sex industry. In conjunction, these two units have the potential to create a massive AIDS epidemic. The sex industry has created nodes of disease on every street which are frequented by a migrant worker population who in turn act as a highly mobile transportation network. Sex education does not exist in this country for the upper class, let alone to a poor farm girl from Henan province or a construction worker from Gansu.

Chinese Public security sources estimate that there were in the region of four to six million sex workers in China in 2000. The major reasons for prostitution in China are economic: women from rural areas seek better incomes and migrate to big cities where many end up as sex workers. Commercial sex is illegal in China and the government has set up “re-education centres” in every province. Much emphasis in these centres is put on educating women on the “social evils” of prostitution but they usually only provide limited information about sexual health and how the sex workers can protect themselves. A study amongst sex workers in China found that only a few knew that condoms could be protective (14-30%). They all mentioned abstinence as much more protective. Very few (2-30%) perceived themselves at risk of contracting HIV.

Source: AIDS and HIV in China.

I suspect that the girl I was talking too probably will not live to see 40. I wonder what her life would have been like had she been born in Shanghai.

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One Response

  1. Lucinda

    Bryan,

    Wow, I hate to say it because of the topic itself sickens me, but I really appreciate what you have written. These are among the few reasons I’m taking myself back to graduate school, and you’ve made some great points here. I hope lots of folks read this!

    Lucinda

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