Understanding a Chinese city: map out its sex trade

Ethnographer Tricia Wang, whom I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing in the past, describes herself as:

an ethnographer, sociologist, and researcher. I am passionate about demystifying the ways non-elite or edge communities (i.e. migrants, rural villagers, or informal workers) make use of digital tools in everyday life.

As part of her studies of city life, she writes an intriguing post about how she maps out a new city she visits with the help of local taxi drivers. One of her first steps in getting to know a new city, in this case Wuhan, struck me as novel:

One of the ways I map the city is to quickly figure out where people go to pay for sex and have sex. In China, the sex worker industry encompasses all economic levels. It’s a bit complex to figure out which hotels and karoke bars are for high-end clients to which ones are for every day citizens.

There are several levels where people pay for sex in most first to second tier Chinese cities:

1. super high end brothel (10,000RMB and up)
2. the mayor’s brothel (based off of conversations I estimate it to be around several thousand RMB)
3. the policeman’s brothel (based off of conversations I estimate it to be around 200-1000RMB)
4. the business person’s (200-1000RMB)
5. the citizen’s brothels (5-100RMB)
6. street walkers who charge around 20-50RMB – client pays for hotel

When the police do sweeps and arrest sex workers, only those who work in what I call the “citizen’s brothels” get arrested. Street walkers can be easily arrested anytime and they are the most vulnerable because most of the time they don’t work with the protection of an overseer.

Pity the poor streetwalkers, who work under the constant threat of being arrested at any moment. The low-end brothels are also in danger of raids, as they can’t pay the big bribes the higher-end establishments can. The latter often work in cahoots with the police, and are tipped off in advance when higher officials decide to do a major raid of local sex parlors.

Tricia’s field notes about how she mapped out the city of Wuhan with the help of a taxi driver and secretly observed a prostitute in action are intense and well worth a read. (I could blockquote them here, but better to read it on her site, with all the photos.) Great work.


Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China’s sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.

The Discussion: 16 Comments

“sigh…speechless…” this is how I feel upon finishing reading this post. Has anybody ever given a thought to the question why so many poor women working in the so called sex industry? according to my research, this is because they have no means whatsoever to feed themselves, which is also the root cause for domestic violence. women have to exchange sex for survival. for thousands of years, women, especially chinese women, have been living a slave-like life, begging for a livelihood from men. if only women had a chance to earn their own living, if only women had equal access to work as men, if only women are granted a minimum amount for food, no one would sell their body just for survival. sign!

August 8, 2012 @ 12:05 pm | Comment

LC, thanks for the comment. I have thought about your question very deeply. Most women go into prostitution, now as always, to support themselves and their families. Often there seems to be no other way out, especially for older women with children to feed and put through school. Tragic, but it really IS the world’s oldest profession and it is not going away.

August 8, 2012 @ 12:11 pm | Comment

You’re right, Richard! Actually I have a cure, at least to some degree, for this problem as well as domestic violence, sweatshop work, battle with “cheng guan” etc. If everybody in China was born with a government-provided sum for basic living, life would be much easier. No one would be willing to work long hours under appalling conditions for little or no pay, no one would be willing to be a sex slave for an abusing husband, and no one would be willing to endanger their own life by fighting with the “cheng guan”…

August 8, 2012 @ 5:10 pm | Comment

I don’t know about mainland China, but in Taiwan the sex industry/dodgy kareoke business is huge.

In terms of economics, the above comments by LC and Richard are about supply. What about demand? I’m not trying to slander a whole society, but what’s so wrong with the homelives of these men that they need to go out and pay for sex?

Yes, it’s the oldest industry in the world and yes, you get it everywhere. But why in some places is this industry more widespread than in others?

August 8, 2012 @ 10:54 pm | Comment

I once planned to go to Taipei for the weekend with my then girlfriend (now my wife) and I only knew of one place, which I’d stayed in when I first went to Taiwan. I was joking about how it was a bit seedy, but clean and cheap; we were both pretty young and didn’t have a lot of money. My Chinese wasn’t very good back then, so when I tried to tell her that there were mirrors on the ceiling, I used the word jing1 zi. She looked horrified.

It turned out that jing4 zi means mirror. Jing1 zi means semen.

Those damned tones.

August 9, 2012 @ 12:38 am | Comment

If everybody in China was born with a government-provided sum for basic living, life would be much easier.

Haven’t they already tried that?

August 9, 2012 @ 12:34 pm | Comment

Forgive me if this sounds like a dumb question, but was there prostitution under communism?

August 9, 2012 @ 3:12 pm | Comment

Well, I had a Chinese teacher who insisted that prostitution was eradicated under Mao. I for one find that HIGHLY unlikely.

August 10, 2012 @ 7:14 am | Comment

The eradication of prostitution under Mao really happened — it’s one of Mao’s success stories. One by one the brothels were shut down in the early 1950s, first in Beijing and later in Shanghai. They couldn’t shut them all down too fast because there were so many prostitutes, and there was no way they could be integrated into the workforce all at once. But they were eventually integrated. Many of these women were later brutalized during the Cultural Revolution for their past work, which Mao blamed on “spiritual pollution.” All visible signs of prostitution under Mao were eradicated. Only two kinds of prostitution existed: prostitution that was completely underground and invisible — and it was not a thriving enterprise, Mao’s China was so totalitarian; and prostitution for high-level party members and visiting dignitaries. Those at the top needed their entertainment.

August 10, 2012 @ 7:56 am | Comment

I agree with MAC. Foreign visitors were – reportedly – also told in the 1970s that there was “no crime” in China. No Chinese emperor who trusted his officials’ statistics would last in his own country.

August 10, 2012 @ 2:17 pm | Comment

@Xilin – When did Mainland China stop being communist? Yes, I know what you mean, but it’s better to ask whether prostitution existed before 1979.

August 10, 2012 @ 8:45 pm | Comment

@Gil – I’ll use that wording in the future, thanks.

I met a Chinese professor the other day and he complained about the Western press always using the word ‘communist’ in relation to China. There’s just no pleasing some people.

August 10, 2012 @ 11:48 pm | Comment

@Xilin – I can understand why people prefer not to use the term, I myself usually don’t use it (“Mainland China” is good enough to distinguish it from HK/Macau/TW/insert place claimed by the PRC here), but I can’t understand objecting to people who do use the phrase. Yes I know – they’re using the term to point out that China is a dictatorship – but then that is exactly what it is. Just as important, that is how the government describes the country. Here’s the first article of the PRC constitution:

“Article 1. The People’s Republic of China is a socialist state under the people’s democratic dictatorship led by the working class and based on the alliance of workers and peasants. The socialist system is the basic system of the People’s Republic of China. Sabotage of the socialist system by any organization or individual is prohibited.”

Countries like the US which have written, codified, unitary constitutions like to quote the first article or amendment of their constitution as proof of what their country is about. The drafters of the current PRC constitution, working in 1982,decided it was important to point out to everyone that their country is communist, and that no-one was to try to change that.

August 11, 2012 @ 3:36 am | Comment

Financial demands do not entirely explain prostitution. If that was the case, how would it account for someone with a college degree, a high paying job and in some cases even a family – becoming a prostitute? The Mayflower Madam was from a wealthy family, as were the women who worked for her.

Granted, the above is not the case for most of the sex trade. Trying to explain prostitution with a one size fits all answer doesn’t work. The lower end of the business is filled with violence and drugs. These workers don’t get to keep the money they earn so earning money is not their primary motivation.

August 11, 2012 @ 10:54 am | Comment

China’s sex industry in its various guises probably accounts for 5% of GDP.

Recall, some 4/5 years ago when the Shenzhen police undertook massive raids and then publicly paraded and shamed the working girls in Futian (?). Soon after there was a noticeable drop in bank deposits, after the girls withdrew their savings and retreated to other towns until things cooled off. They also got a degree of public support ie. police seen as infringing on their right to earn a living and the shaming was viewed as a vicious slop-over from the past.

Contrast that to the public response to the Zhuhai incident involving the Japanese construction company and their hotel sex weekend on China’s National Day in either 2000 or 2001. A number of Chinese hotel staff got massive jail sentences and some Japanese businesses just about got torched. It was a wonder the PLA didn’t declare war.

Whatever, most parents are pleased to accept the remittances and tell the neighbors that their daughter runs a successful dress shop or similar.

BTW. The first Gay Pride parade was held in Hanoi last week. Small but colourful and a great step forward in a society every bit as corrupt and authoritarian as the PRC.

Maybe it is just me, but I can’t cope with the obsession to produce male heirs in order to continue the family lineage. Places awful pressures on gay men and women.

And my advice to women intending to marry the eldest son in Korea. Don’t, unless you enjoy being treated as a door mat by your future mother-in-law. (Think I got the terminology right here.)

August 11, 2012 @ 7:14 pm | Comment

Democratic dictatorship.I always think that’s such a strange term.

King Tubby,
I was reading up on this recently and I came across that story in Zhuahai aswell. It was in 2003. 400 Japanese men, 500 Chinese prostitutes.

But why is prostitution such a big industry in China? Or, rather, why is demand for prostitution so great?

August 12, 2012 @ 12:14 am | Comment

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