Investigation into 10-Yuan Brothel sex workers: Majority from rural areas, treat prostitution like farming
“In many of China’s hidden yet visible corners, commercialized sex is a kind of unbelievably low-cost operation. Severe punishments and police raids have not made these “10-yuan brothels” disappear, where the problems like disease and violent crime grow and fester in dark corners…”
The basement is pitch dark, there are no windows, and is more like a damp cave. The only source of light is a light bulb by the bed, which hangs overhead from a long cord.
Wu Xianfang wraps the light bulb with a puckered red plastic bag, the harsh light becomes red and soft. It’s said that a woman’s skin looks the best under this kind of light, that one’s wrinkles can’t be seen.
Wu Xianfang is 48 years old, her body plump. From behind, she has straight jet black hair, and no one can tell it is gray hair dyed. A single mattress takes up half the space of the room. All day long, she either lies or sits on the bed, waiting for customers.
In this small hostel renovated from an old arcade live thirty to forty of Wu Xianfang’s “sisters”, the oldest of them already 62 years old. Mothers from the rural countryside over the age of forty make up the bulk of these sex workers.
The locals call this kind of place a “10-yuan brothel”. The customers are usually local old men, or middle aged migrant workers from out of town.
The price of every transaction varies between 10 to 30 yuan, and with such meager income, these impoverished sex workers still face the risk of fines, disease, violence, and discrimination.
“You can tell if they have a disease or not”
The county town where Wu Xianfang lives has a population of over a million people, with three to four bathing centers, forty to fifty leisure & massage parlors, and about fifteen hostels involved in providing sexual services.
Some people in the industry have ranked sex workers into four levels: the most expensive ones are at night clubs such as “Heaven on Earth”; the “ding dong princesses” of hotels and bath centers in second; third are those in massage parlors, leisure parlors, and hair salons that charge over a hundred ; and fourth are streetwalkers costing about sixty yuan. As for sex workers at 10-yuan brothels, they are lower than low, like the ‘street-side food stalls” of the sex industry.
The hostel where Wu Xianfang works is in a long, narrow alley, behind a bustling shopping street. As soon as you enter the door, the light is gone, with the scent of smoked firewood. There are three floors in the hostel, each floor has 9 separate rooms, and each room is just a little larger than a ping-pong table, divided by wood planks, with the places for ventilation covered by glass and pornographic posters.
No ID, no deposit, just 15 yuan and a woman can book a room for business. The good-looking ones, with some luck, can receive over ten customers a day, like a production line, and making over two thousand kuai a month wouldn’t be difficult. But there are also women who receive no customers at all the entire day. In general though, business here looks good, the brothel owner even making use of the basement now, and has built a simple room on the roof.
The consensus these girls have reached is: The customers who come here are long suffering men, migrant workers, without wives, who come only after they can no longer suppress their needs and urges, and generally finish their business in about 5 minutes.
At noon on April 14th 2012, an old man wearing a white sleeveless undershirt groped for the handrail as he climbed upstairs. There were two small holes on the back of his vest, and his head was “Mediterranean sea” style [bald-headed with some hair still around]. He paced slowly with his hands behind his back, walking back and forth checking out one by one the rooms that had their doors open. A middle aged woman lying on her bed with a blowing fan seemed to his liking and the bargaining began. “How much?” “Not carrying disease, are you?”
Suddenly the brothel owner shouted: “Time to fetch your water!”
The girls who were asleep, upon hearing this, all collectively “came out of their caves” each carrying a large bucket, the corridor full of commotion. This is the noisiest time of the day. Here, there is only one bathroom on each floor, and hot water only available at certain times, twice every day, at eight or nine o‘clock in the morning, and two o’clock in the afternoon.
After the water had been provided, the brothel owner locked the faucet.
It was sticky everywhere, the walls, the floor, and the bed.
Wu Xianfang fetched the water and returned to her room, covered the mouth of the bucket with a layer of hard plastic paper, so the water could remain warm for use throughout the day. Many of the girls don’t really tidy themselves up, their hair messy. Wu Xianfang is considered one of the more tidy ones, her room neat and tidy. She can’t afford to spend the money to buy soap, so the cleaning all depends on this bucket of water and some salt mixed within — the salt held in an empty Coca-Cola Ice Dew bottle placed in a damp corner of the room, next to a Wahaha [a Chinese beverage brand] bottle holding medicinal liquor, which she drinks whenever she has a stomachache. There’s some rice in a black jar, which she says is because “mice may eat it”. She cooks for herself in the basement, by burning the lumps of wood collected from the dump next door by the brothel owner. There’s no air circulation, so once there’s a lot of coughing when the fire is started.
In order to keep their customers coming, most of these women here don’t use condoms — not to mention these things could be evidence of prostitution. Wu Xianfang sometimes uses them, and sometimes doesn’t, and in her own words, “you can tell if they have a disease or not”, her simple standard for detection being : those whose appearances are clean probably don’t carry any diseases, but must be cautious with those who in shabbier clothes.
Wu Xianfang has never had a gynecological examination. A gynecological examination costs thirty kuai, an amount she has receive three customers and risk being caught three times to earn. When her body feels unusual, she takes a bus to the country and has an infusion called “inflammation shot”, which costs over twenty kuai, is said to be penicillin, and as soon as the inflammation goes down, she immediately begins working again.
“Even if the sky collapses, our children must be brought up”
After the past five to six years, Wu Xianfang has become accustomed to this kind of life. She’s very diligent. Her “working hours” are from 8:00 in the morning to 9:30 at night and unless there’s a situation requiring her to return home, she works all year without a break. As time goes by, she’s gotten used to it, gotten numb about it, as doing this kind of work “is just like going into the fields to farm”.
Before taking up this profession, Wu Xianfang did her fair share of bitter and exhausting jobs. She was born in a remote mountain area of Guizhou, where there were only 9 families around. As a girl, she never went to school, and to this day still doesn’t know how to write her own name. Then she got married and had children, but her husband gambled, visited prostitutes, and beat her. Thoroughly hurt by men, she took her two sons and left — didn’t get a divorce, they never got a marriage certificate anyway.
In strange, foreign lands, she has fed pigs, worked in a woven bag factory, and even worked at a construction site, where she carried lime mortar on her shoulder from the first floor to the fourth, earning several hundred yuan per month, but no matter what she did she couldn’t feed her two sons enough food. In the difficult times, she had thought: If they truly can’t go one, then she’ll just jump into the river, and die together with her sons.
She survived like this until she was thirty-something. One day, a female fellow-townswoman came to Wu Xianfang, and said to her mysteriously: “Come with me, guarantee you’ll make big money.” And so, Wu Xianfang was taken into this travel-worn little county town in Guangxi. It wasn’t until she was tossed into a small hostel did she realize it was by doing this [prostitution].
At first, Wu Xianfang wouldn’t do it no matter what people said, nor would she talk to anyone, and shut herself in the room for a week. She couldn’t find a job, and she worried about the hostel and transportation expenses. It was then that a county cadre [county government official] appeared, willing to pay her a “high price” of 60 kuai on, who came everyday, and wanted only her. On the third day, Wu Xianfang gave in.
Believing they “have no other choice” is essentially the mark shared by these women:
“Longan” in room 209 rarely raises her eyes, and doesn’t talk to strangers much neither. Some say her husband is dead, some say her husband gambles and visits whores. Her daughter lives in the county town with her, is in fourth grade, and has taken care of the home since she was little. The more well-behaved her daughter becomes the more sorry “Longan” feels towards her.
Wang Juhua has three children, and her husband was a traveling doctor [no clinic, visits patients] who must serve 10 years in prison for the death of a patient in his care. Her husband in prison repeatedly exhorted her: “Even if the sky comes down [all is lost], our children must be brought up.”
Yuan Lirong is almost sixty, and business is not good, always wearing a sullen face. Her husband has fallen for someone else, won’t divorce, and still beats her viciously. Even now there’s still a scar on her left eye. She has a home she doesn’t dare return to.
This is a group of traditional but impoverished women come from the rural countryside. To them, fate is like a heavy bat: domestic violence, dead husbands, in prison…compelled by unrelenting family burdens and pressures: Children who need money to go to school, money needed to build houses in the countryside, sick family members who need money to go to the hospital.
No education, no skills, limited by age. This “profession” with almost zero requirements has admitted them.
Wu Xianfang is illiterate. Afraid of having money stolen, every so often she’ll beg a fellow-villager to deposit all her savings into her bank account to send home. Her sons are her biggest hope. In recent years, the elder one has become a driver, gotten married and moved into the bride’s home in rural Tianjin. The younger one is more worrisome, for a time asking for money daily, only later learning that he had fallen victim to a “pyramid scheme”.
She worked as usual during the days, but in her moments of free time could be found crying on the phone to her younger son, worrying so much that she couldn’t sleep at night, always a mess banging in her head, and over time, her hair began to fall out with a vengeance, until she became bald. To avoid scaring away customers, she spent over 80 kuai on medicine. She’d never thought that after eating the medicine, the hair that grew back would all be white. From then on, she began dying her hair jet black.
“It takes 150 customers to pay off the fine”
“Find a rich man” is a popular notion amongst the girls, but the meaning of which refers to those old men who are willing to spend several hundred kuai on them every month. In fact, after food and rent, 10-yuan brothel sex workers don’t make more than a few hundred kuai per month. And the rent has increased, each room now costing 13 or 15 yuan per day.
Even if they work 24 hours a day, there’s still an ever-present risk, one that threatens to take away everything they have in the blink of an eye — the police raid.
Routine inspections are okay, as its said the brothel owner has someone inside the police bureau, who will tip him off when something happens. When the time comes, the brothel owner is able to tell the girls to hide, turn off the lights and shut the doors, temporarily closing the business, reopening again after the police leave.
“What I’m most afraid of is some bad guy ‘setting a trap’,” Wu Xianfang says. Setting a trap means someone who comes pretending he’s looking for some action and gets evidence, then quickly calls the police, and when the police arrive and catch them on the scene, there’s no way to run. Offending customers, when business is too good, these could all bring trouble.
When being brought into the police station for the first time, it’s a 15 days detention. The second time, it’s reeducation through labor for a year and a notice to the family, or a fine of 3,000 yuan. 3,000 yuan, for a 10-yuan brothel sex worker means she has to receive 150 customers in order to pay it off.
One day at the end of the year of rabbit , this happened to a thirty-year-old “sister”. She had bought a six o’clock afternoon train ticket home that day, had washed her hair and gotten ready when suddenly a customer arrived. She thought she might as well take this one, only to be caught/arrested. She came out three days later, apparently having been fined 3,000 yuan. She packed up all her things and went back to her hometown, and has never been seen again.
Almost everyone has run into trouble. For these sex workers who have no money, a fine is much more terrifying than detention.
Some bite their fingers and rub blood on their underwear while some simply risk their own lives, throwing themselves against the wall trying to commit suicide. Sometimes it works — One time, Wang Juhua had been caught on the scene once, and before anyone could react, she put one foot on the third floor railing, and the police let her go that time. She’s especially afraid of her son in college finding out these things about her. She always tells him: Mom works at a candy factory, a lot of candy, I eat them and eat them, and now I’ve gotten fat.
Wu Xianfang has also been caught twice. She’s not good with words and not very daring, so she quickly paid the fine to free herself, the first 600 kuai, the second time 3,000 yuan. “I’m afraid my son can’t reach me on the phone and will worry,” treating it like two months of wasted work. She had quit before, and had gone back home in shame.
But who would have known that in a moment of desperate need for money, she would return to this life. In 2011, Wu Xianfang once again had something to worry about: Her elder son’s family had no money to build a house, and she didn’t want her son’s in-laws to look down upon them; Her younger son had gotten away from the pyramid scheme and became a driver, but as he’s reaching 2 years of age, what if he can’t find a wife because he has no money? She worried about these things over and over, and decided to come back to work.
Nowadays the competition is fierce, you need to know how to flirt and provide companionship, and knowing how to sweet talk is also a skill. Wu Xianfang says that she’s shy, too old, and not good with words, so she moved to the mine-like basement.
To make things worse, she had an argument with one of her fellow-villager, who got angry, picked up a brick and broke the middle finger of her right hand. The hospital treatment cost her 3,000 yuan. The brothel owner talked to the fellow-villager many times, but the fellow-villager refused to pay even a cent. Wu Xianfang found herself tangled in yet another situation: Let it go, and that’s yet another two months of work gone to nothing. Seek revenge, and more money would be spent going to court, and what if the police send her in jail instead?
April 2012, it’s a busy farming season for rice transplantation, so there are fewer customers. Yuan Lirong is busy cross-stitching for her soon-to-be-married son, Wang Juhua had found someone new to depend on, “Ai Qing Mai Mai” [a popular Chinese pop song] always ringing on her cell phone, urging her to go out for tea in the evening, while some of the girls are enjoying the sun in the courtyard.
Wu Xianfang is in the basement dully waiting for business. Even though she’s moved some bricks to cover up the drain, the stench still comes up. At her doorway, old men pass by from time to time, sticking their head in to take a look at the goods on offer.
Even though her right hand is permanently crippled, even though it’s unclear when she’ll be arrested and taken away again, at this moment, a smile is on Wu Xianfang’s face, telling this Southern Weekly reporter that when her daughter-in-law’s family pig gives birth this August, she’s going to go home to feed them, and never come back.
(In order to protect the people involved, the exact locations are not mentioned, and the names in this article are pseudonyms.)
Comments from iFeng:
Poor mothers. They live in shame but inside they’re great.
The truly disadvantaged and vulnerable groups truly have no one caring for them, this is our society.
This is our society, where people with money and power at work still seem like humans, but once off work become less than animals. People with money and power never care about these unfortunate people.
After reading this, my heart really aches. I’ve been to a KTV once, where I also hired girls to sing with me, but I just couldn’t bring myself to put my hands on them/do things to them. Everyone has sisters.
Shocking, isn’t this a living hell?
These people should get respect.
People who are oppressed by bandits/criminals!
And society even cracks down on them. I think it’s funny, to know that so many people, including the young, are all still suffering from hunger.
Makes people cry.