This kind of venues you can find in any big city of China. Located near a train or subway station they can be recognized by characteristic pink lighting, a sign in English saying “massage” and several scantily dressed and visibly bored girls sitting inside.
Though often presented as barber shops, if you notice more bare legs than anything else, you can be sure that customers go there not for a hair cut.
Among different kinds of brothels barber shops (or simply BBS) and massage parlors are maybe the easiest to recognize as such. But they are not the only nests of prostitution in China. Prostitutes work at all levels: from poorest villages to most exquisite hotels, and from openly soliciting clients in the street to being given as a gift to business partners.
In 1996 Shanghai police defined 7 distinct tiers of prostitution in China. Though it does not cover all spectrum of sex trade in the country, this classification has been widely adopted not only by law-enforcement bodies but also by sociologists and other researchers of prostitution. In this post (which will be the first part from the series of articles on prostitution in China) I will describe these tiers basing on the Master’s Thesis of Nick Doherty.
Second wives (ernai)
The top tier comprises mistresses or “second wives” (èrnăi, 二奶), though some could argue whether they should be classified as prostitutes. To make the distinction more clear it’s important to underline that I am talking about contracted mistresses who get a monthly fee from steady clients in exchange of sex and guarantee of exclusivity. The “contract” doesn’t include romance or family life although some of these mistresses dream of a day when they could become a real concubine or even wife in which case they might ask for no financial rewards.
Contracted wives (baopo)
Second tier refers to women who are hired to accompany business partners or other influential guests during their business trips or other activities. They offer similar service as er nai, but for a shorter period of time. It’s this kind of prostitution that was linked to bribes and corruption in China.
Escort girls (peinu)
Escort girls and KTV hostesses are what the third tier is about. They are quite popular in metropolitan cities like Shanghai and Beijing where one can find rich businessmen ready to pay hundreds and even thousands RMB just to have a chat with sexy woman. Actually, the owners of KTVs and bars do not require from their female employees to provide sexual services to clientele. The only requirement is to make the customers order expensive drinks / snacks and keep them happy so that they would want to come back again. In many cases, however, if man is interested in sex and flashes the cash, KTV girl will go to his place.
KTV “xiaojie” (literally “miss” in Chinese) are usually classy girls: young, attractive, having some singing abilities and able to engage in light conversation. They are often called “san pei xiaojie” – “three accompaniment girls” – meaning that the accompany men drinking, dancing and singing.
Hotel girls (dingdong xiaojie)
Fourth tier consists of dingdong girls (dingdong xiaojie, 叮咚小姐) who rent themselves rooms in hotels and through internal hotel telephone seek for potential clients among male guests. If man shows interest, the girl will come to his room and knock on door or press the doorbell (and this is the reason for “dingdong” name).
This niche is often occupied by university female students.
Barbershop girls (falangmei)
Barbershop girls and their “colleagues” from massage parlors, saunas and similar establishments constitute the fifth tier of prostitution. Even in the venues that serve as the cover for prostitution some of the girls combine sex trade with non-sexual services, like washing hair, washing feet and giving massage. As mentioned above, these are the most visible prostitutes in China. Most of them are coming from countryside and are totally dependent on their employers. Usually they are paid some low basic salary and their income directly depends on the number of clients served during day. Probably, they make most money in this industry but are also required to do the most tiring and degrading things.
And now we come down to the two lowest tiers.
Street hookers (jienu)
The sixth layer is all about street girls, or streetwalkers who solicit their customers outside of hotels, bars and other recreational places. Unlike in Western countries, Chinese streetwalkers usually work without pimps . Most of these girls in the past had been working in the upper tiers but after being dejected from other establishments try to earn money themselves. Often they combine prostitution with a regular daytime job.
Down the work shack (xiagongpeng)
In the last tier one can find “women who live in a shed”. These are women who offer their services to poor migrant workers. Due to different reasons (like old age) they cannot attract other men and are ready to make a deal for as little as a bowl of soup. In certain sense they are a “socially necessary phenomenon” filling the sexual void for millions of males who left their wives in home villages and not being able to endure the loneliness turn to prostitutes. Sometimes they function as public wives in a small community of migrant workers co-working with them in the daytime and sharing bed at nights.
In the next part of this series I will write about the magnitude of prostitution in China and its role in Chinese economics.