20080226-Prostitute in Tibet, AFP Frederic J.jpg
Prostitute in Tibet
Prostitution is illegal but practiced openly. Prostitutes work out of five-star hotels, karaokes, entertainment centers, dance halls, boxing clubs, beauty parlors, hairdressers, barbershops, saunas, bathhouses, massage parlors, nightclubs and on the streets. Prostitutes operate openly in almost every major hotel in China. In one survey, 10 percent of sexually-active men admitted having paid for sex with a prostitute. Single foreign men often receive phone calls from prostitutes in their hotel rooms.

Estimates of the numbers of prostitutes in China range from 3 million according to officials estimates by the government to 10 million by the U.S. State Department to 20 million by one Chinese economist. By one count there around 1 million full-time prostitutes in China and perhaps 8 to 10 million more that sometimes accept money and gifts for sex. One marker of the booming sex industry in Shenzhen — both in terms of prostitutes and misstresses — is the high number of children born out-of-wedlock.

Chinese economist Yang Fan has estimated that up to 20 million people are engaged in some form of sex work. They includes mistresses in private apartments, “money boys” in high-end clubs and street-based workers. Massage parlors, karaoke clubs, mahjong game rooms, and hair salons are all offer sex for money. [Source: Qian Jinghua, Sixth Tone, May 23, 2017]

Edward Wong wrote in the New York Times, “Prostitution is common across China, where many hotels offer sex for pay, and hair salons and massage parlors often serve as fronts for brothels.When police officers do round up prostitutes, they might detain them for long periods in systems of extralegal punishment, including one called “custody and education,” in which those held are forced to do labor. [Source: Edward Wong, New York Times, February 17, 2014 /*/]

Describing an encounter with a prostitute in a Qingdao hotel, a writer in Lonely Plant wrote: "After more than two months of traveling in China, I was never approached by prostitutes — that is until I got to Qingdao. No sooner had I check into my room at the Beihai Hotel than there was a knock on my door. I opened it to find a miniskirted young woman offering her 'massage' services for sale. I turned down her offer, then headed out to see the sights of the city. Less than an hour later, I was approached by another prostitute."

Websites and Sources: USA Today piece ; Sex Incidents in China ; Sex Industry ; Chinese sex toy maker lacyshaki.en ; Books: “Sexual Life of Ancient China”, written by Robert van Gulik in the 1920s; “The Illustrated Handbook of Chinese Sex History” by Professor Liu Dalin and “Sex China Studies in Sexology in Chinese Culture” by Fang-ju Juan, The Sexology Research Institute of China is at People's University in Beijing. Sex History and Literature Ancient Sex Culture ; Chinese Sex Literature ; Sex in Ancient China Book Review Prostitution in China : Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Shanghaiist blog ; Homosexuality in China History of Gay life in China

Where Prostitution Can Be Found in China

Brothels are often disguised as hair salons or operate out of working hair salons. They are common sights in cities and towns of all sizes and operate for the most part without any interference. Describing the commercial sex scene in a typical Chinese town , Lily Kuo wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “Down the street are two barbershops with scantily-clad women waiting for customers and looking bored. In the same neighborhood, adult stores don’t bother with euphemisms to conceal what they sell. Their signs read simply, “Sex Shop”...This is not out of the ordinary in Beijing. Brothels and kinky toy shops are mixed into residential neighborhoods everywhere.”

Prostitutes work at all levels of society from the grandest hotels to the poorest neighborhoods and lowliest villages. Prostitutes with beepers and mobile phones openly solicit sex at truck stops on the main highways. Movie houses have girls who charge $12 for petting and more for after movie entertainment. The beaches on Hainan have "swimming escorts" and the economic free-zones near Hong Kong have "concubine villages."

Southern cities like Shenzhen and Dongguan have a reputation for being particularly seedy. Nick Frisch of wrote, “Dongguan's reputation precedes it. Last year in a Shenzhen gym, my buddy’s albino muscle-bound fifty-something workout pal lumbered over. "Yo man, I was in Dongguan last week, it was fucking crazy, they bring out fucking fifty girls and you can fuck whichever ones you want. Fuck, man. Fuck." "I don't normally hang out with that guy," insisted the friend. "But Dongguan is definitely a den of evil. Once, one of my company's field offices there was besieged by Triads. Nothing but factories, gangsters, fat officials, and whores. Fucking Dongguan." He forgot hideous, speculative real-estate developments.

Leo Lewis wrote in The Times of London, “Rmb460.” or $70, is the special student price for the “full service” on offer in the massage parlour at the five-star Guangxin International Hotel in Wuhan — a price that conveniently includes the hourly hire of a room and a courtesy cab home for the masseuse. [Source: Leo Lewis, The Times of London, October 28, 2014]

Nanyang Siang Pau wrote in The Star, a Beijing newspaper "reported that university students were available as mistresses in China for a “fee”. The annual fee is between 20,000 yuan (RM9,341) and 50,000 yuan (RM23,352) depending on which university they are studying at. The service was exposed after Beijing police busted a syndicate believed to be acting as the students' agent.A man identified as a teacher called Chen was arrested in the operation. Initial investigations showed that the syndicate had posted the students' photographs, details and fees online for customers to view and choose." [Source: Nanyang Siang Pau, The Star, May 17, 2011]

Rise of Prostitution and Sex Industry in China

The sex industry is growing rapidly. Even small cities have their own entertainment districts with prostitutes. In the early 2000s China had an estimated three million female commercial sex workers, according to a personal communiqué from Hongling Wei, editor of Ren Zhi Chu. China had roughly 4 million to 6 million sex workers in the late 2000s, according to a 2010 World Health Organization paper, and they could be found in every city, working out of hair salons, karaoke bars, hotels, massage parlors, bars, barber shops and on the street. William Wan wrote in the Washington Post, “For decades after the Communist Party took control in 1949, prostitution was virtually nonexistent, banned by leader Mao Zedong and stamped out as a symptom of capitalism unfit for the new utopian proletarian state. But during the past three decades of breakneck economic growth, prostitution has reemerged as part of the dark and little-discussed flip side of China’s economic miracle. As millions of rural men moved to China’s cities for work, prostitution became commonplace in the crowded shantytowns where they lived, experts say. Demand also has been driven by a gender imbalance, with the strict one-child policy resulting in higher numbers of men than women. In addition, gender inequality, which limits education and economic opportunities for women, has pushed more of them into the sex trade, the study says. [Source: William Wan, Washington Post, May 13, 2013]

Prostitutes used to be found mostly in well known bars and karaokes in the major cities. Now they are found everywhere: on university campuses, in residential neighborhoods and even at Wal-art stores in almost every town in every province Customers are often secured through cell phone and Internet services. These days there are so many prostitutes that an oversupply has forced prices down. Workers that earned $30 a trick in 2005, could only make $20 in 2006 and were earning only $13 a trick in 2007. There are some prostitutes that are so desperate they service scores of migrant workers for $1 a piece under bridges and overpasses.One 22-year-old prostitute told the Washington Post, “Though the price has gone down, the number of customers is up. I used to receive two visitors before, and now I have to do three to four a day. My income is the same. I just have to work a little harder.”

The rise in prostitution is more a manifestation of a lack of well-paying jobs than a loss morality. Many prostitutes send a large portion of their income to their families and to their hometowns. One prostitute who worked in a textile factory and as a dishwater in a hotel before turning tricks told the Washington Post, “There was a karaoke parlor in the hotel.. .And all the girls didn’t have to work at all. Yet they made big money. I worked all day and made 400 yuan [$53] a month. it’s because of money that I became “bad,” and joined the business.”

Early History of Prostitution in China

The origins of the selling sex China are vague, but by at least the 7th century B.C., there were hundreds of women living and working in palaces and government-owned markets. China’s first brothels were likely established in the Spring-and-Autumn period (770 B.C. to 476 B.C.) by the famous statesman and philosopher Guan Zhong (? to 645 B.C.), who used them as a means of increasing the state’s income.

Government-run prostitution reached its peak in terms of coordination and sophistication in the Tang (A.D. 618 to 905) and Sung (A.D. 960 to 1279) Dynasties. In the 14th century brothels were registered and courtesans paid taxes. Male prostitution was banned during the Song, which hardly curtailed the ordered systems in major cities. During the Ming and Qing Dynasties, private male and female commercial prostitution was widespread, even during periods when the practice was ostensibly outlawed. [Source: Joshua Wickerham, “Encyclopedia of Sex and Gender: Culture Society History”, Thomson Gale, 2007; Zhonghua Renmin Gonghe Guo, Fang-fu Ruan, M.D., Ph.D., and M.P. Lau, M.D. Encyclopedia of Sexuality =]

In ancient China, where most women had no opportunity to acquire an education, and formal contact between men and women was frowned upon, it was the role of the courtesan to entertain a man and be his friend. Every prominent official, writer, artist, or merchant customarily left his wife at home when he traveled; instead he was accompanied by women skilled in making men feel comfortable. Courtesans with literary, musical, or dancing ability were especially desirable companions, and many became famous historical figures. However, the prostitutes working in privately owned brothels mainly provided sexual services.

From the Sung to the Ming Dynasties, government-run and privately owned prostitution existed side by side in China. Early in the GQng Dynasty, from A.D. 1651 to 1673, the Manchu Emperors Shun-chih and Kangxi gradually abolished both local and imperial governmental involvement in operating prostitution. Thus, for most of the Qing Dynasty, prostitution in China was a private enterprise. For most of the Republican period in mainland China (1912 to 1949), some prostitutes were registered while others plied their trade illegally. =

Sing Song Girls and Flower Girls

Sing-song girls and flower girls were English terms for the courtesans in China during the 19th century. They were closer to a modern bar hostess in China, Korea and Japan than to a prostitute. In some ways they were like Japanese geisha. Sing-song girls were trained from childhood to entertain wealthy male clients through companionship, singing and dancing in special sing-song houses. Not all performed sexual services, but many did. They generally saw themselves as lovers and not prostitutes. Sing-song girls did not have distinctive costumes or make-up but many wore Shanghai cheongsam as upper-class Chinese women did. Sing-song girls often performed amateur versions of Chinese opera for clients and often wore the traditional Chinese opera costume for small group performance. The girls had one or several male sponsors who might or might not be married and relied on these sponsors to pay off family or personal debts or to sustain their high standard of living. Many sing-song girls married their sponsors to start a free life. [Source: Wikipedia]

Li Jia Zhang wrote in Refinery29: “I was standing in front of my grandmother’s deathbed when my mother revealed the long kept family secret: Grandma, or Na, as we called her, had been a “flower girl” in her youth. “The revelation came as a shock. My beloved Na — the woman who had fed us rice and brought us up — a prostitute? That’s when my mother finally told me Na’s story. My grandmother had been orphaned at six before being adopted by her aunt. When she blossomed into a beautiful young woman at 14, the aunt’s husband sold her to a brothel. In the twenty years since I heard this story, I’ve often wondered how Na, a devout Buddhist, endured life inside a brothel called Spring Fragrance Pavilion, its front always lit up by red lanterns. [Source: Li Jia Zhang, Refinery29, January 11, 2017]

“My grandma’s fate was a common one for orphans at that time when women were treated as a commodity to be bought, sold, and traded....She began work at a brothel in 1928" when she was a teen. “As soon as the Chinese Communists took power in 1949, they shut down all the brothels and reformed the prostitutes.

Prostitution in China in the Mao Era

When the Chinese Communists took power, one of the first social changes they introduced was the abolition of prostitution. As soon as the Communists took power in 1949, they shut down all the brothels and reformed the prostitutes. Only one month after the Communist army took control of Beijing (Peking) on February 3, 1949, the new municipal government announced a policy of limiting and controlling the brothels. Less that eight weeks after the founding of the People’s Republic of China on October 1,1949, more than 2,000 Beijing policemen raided and closed all 224 of the city’s brothels, arresting 1,286 prostitutes and 424 owners, procurers, and pimps. Other cities soon followed suit. In Shanghai, China’s most populous city, there were 5,333 arrests of prostitutes between 1950 and 1955. [Source: Zhonghua Renmin Gonghe Guo, Fang-fu Ruan, M.D., Ph.D., and M.P. Lau, M.D. Encyclopedia of Sexuality =]

Liana Zhou and Joshua Wickerham wrote in the “Encyclopedia of Sex and Gender: Culture Society History”: When the CCP took political power in 1949, it abolished prostitution. In 1949 the Beijing municipal government enacted a series of policies designed to close all city brothels and to arrest prostitutes and brothel owners, procurers, and pimps. Other cities, such as Shanghai and Tanjing, followed suit. Thousands of prostitutes were jailed or sent to reform camps. In 1957, during the first National People's Congress, the Rules on the Control of and Punishment Concerning Public Security of the PRC were passed. The new laws effectively banned prostitution. [Source: Liana Zhou and Joshua Wickerham, “Encyclopedia of Sex and Gender: Culture Society History”, Thomson Gale, 2007]

In October 1957, in a new attempt to maintain order, the 81st Session of the Standing Committee of the First National People’s Congress adopted a new law entitled Rules on the Control of and Punishment Concerning Public Security of the People’s Republic of China. The legislation announced the policy on banning prostitution. In 1979, at its Second Session, the Fifth National People’s Congress adopted the first criminal law in the PRC, The Criminal Law of the People’s Republic of China, which took effect January 1, 1980. Under this Law, the punishment for coercing prostitution was more severe: “Article 140: Whoever forces a female to engage in prostitution shall be sentenced to a fixed term of imprisonment of 3 to 10 years.” =

Prostitution In Post-Mao Era

Li Jia Zhang wrote in Refinery29: In the reform era that followed Mao's death in 1976relaxed social control and growing wealth led to a spectacular resurgence in the sex trade, especially along more developed coastal areas. Working girls were hired to lubricate the wheels of business negations — or used as bribes in the trade between power and money. Since then, the sex industry has become the fastest growing industry in China, staffed by some ten million girls. [Source: Li Jia Zhang, Refinery29, January 11, 2017]

Liana Zhou and Joshua Wickerham wrote in the “Encyclopedia of Sex and Gender: Culture Society History”: In 1979, again during the National People's Congress, the first criminal law against prostitution was enacted. The penalty for forcing a female to engage in prostitution was a term of imprisonment of three to ten years. “However, despite the law and the severe punishment possible, prostitution persisted. Since the end of the Cultural Revolution, the incidence of prostitution in economically prosperous cities such as Shanghai, Canton, Shenzhen, and Chengdu has risen dramatically. In 1986 the government demanded the eradication of prostitution in an attempt to curtail STDs. According to police reports, in 1987 the average number of prostitution arrests in Canton alone was 11,000. [Source: Liana Zhou and Joshua Wickerham, “Encyclopedia of Sex and Gender: Culture Society History”, Thomson Gale, 2007]

“While brothels were illegal, prostitutes still worked in entertainment and service establishments such as hotels and hair salons. The increasing number of prostitution arrests resulted in the expansion of prison camps. In 1987 sixty-two new prison camps were built in Canton. Many prostitutes in labor camps were reeducated and eventually released, but pimps or human traffickers sometimes received death sentences.

Growth of Prostitution in China in the 1980s and 90s

The severe repression of prostitution did not prevent its accelerated revival in the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s and 1990s. The first official report of the recurrence and development of prostitution in mainland China appeared in March 1983. It reported that According to the incomplete statistics from the three largest cities, Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin, and four provinces, Guangdong, Fujian, Zhejiang and Liaoning, from January, 1982 to November, 1982, more than 11,500 persons were discovered to be involved in prostitution. More than 1,200 persons were owners and pimps of underground brothels; more than 4,200 women were prostitutes; and 1,800 persons, including 223 visitors from foreign countries, Hong Kong and Macao, were customers of prostitutes. Fifteen hundred people were fined, 790 were detained, 691 were arrested, and 662 were sent to labor camps. More than 900 underground brothels were banned and closed. [Source: Zhonghua Renmin Gonghe Guo, Fang-fu Ruan, M.D., Ph.D., and M.P. Lau, M.D. Encyclopedia of Sexuality =]

The growth of prostitution in Guangzhou (Canton) alone was amazing. In 1979, only 49 pimps, prostitutes, and customers were caught. In 1985, this number had increased to approximately 2,000. In one month of 1987, 11,946 people were arrested for involvement in prostitution, and in both the preceding and following months the figures rose to more than 13,000. Prostitutes and their customers appeared everywhere, in hotels, inns, hair salons, single-family homes, apartments, dormitories, underground brothels, and taxis, in every city and every province. Between January 1986 and July 1987, eighteen prison camps for prostitutes were opened, and by December the number of camps had more than tripled to sixty-two. =

Statistics collected in 1986 in the city of Guangzhou (Canton), in Guangdong province, supply some information about the men who patronize prostitutes. In 1986, of the 1,580 customers who were caught, 41 percent were from the city, 34.5 percent from other parts of the province, 15.3 percent from other provinces, 6.1 percent from Hong Kong and Macao, and 3.7 percent from other countries. Fully two thirds of the customers were Communist party members and county officials. There is no doubt that economic motives fueled the rapid growth of prostitution in mainland China. The possibility of earning as much as 10,000 Yuan new income in only two or three months versus the average Chinese income of only about 100 Yuan per month is a powerful incentive. =

Prostitutes in China


Prostitutes are called "xiaohie," or “miss.” In Beijing there are sometimes called chicken girls." In parts of southern China they are known as "cows." Popular brothels often shuffle in new girls every week to attract repeat business. Many prostitutes are migrants from rural areas to the cities. Many willingly chose to work as prostitutes for $50 per trick rather than work for $50 a month in a factory.

A survey of 3,376 Chinese conducted by the magazine Insight China in 2009 found that prostitutes were considered more trustworthy than government officials. Overall prostitutes ranked third on the list of professions behind farmers and religious workers.

A study of the sex industry in rural China found — a lot of young girls want to get rich so badly and want to make use of their beauty before it slips away. They consider working hard a waste of time and feel their looks are a waste if they don’t take advantage of them immediately.”

Police say that many prostitutes are from Inner Mongolia. Prostitutes from northern China earn $25 a trick working out of the backroom of beauty parlors near the Burmese border in Yunnan. In Shenzhen you can dance three songs and “touch me anywhere you want” for $1.20 or have a female factory worker visit your hotel room for $25. In the Golden Star neighborhood of Kunming the girls walk the streets and patronize men that cruise by in taxis. The girls usually charge around $20.

In industrial towns many of the prostitutes, hostess and dance hall girls are women who have been laid off from factory jobs. A 20-year-old women in Shenzhen who works out of a back-alley. two-room massage parlor and has sex with four or five men a day told the New York Times she took up prostitution after she lost her factory job and was unable to get a new job unless she paid a bribe she couldn’t afford because she lost her identity card. “I was really terrified at first, and I was really embarrassed and didn’t even know how to use a condom. I didn’t have any choice, though. Little by little you get used to it.”

One prostitute told Time, “I’m always a little scared. Sometimes men beat me up or they’ll refuse to pay after we have sex.” The goal that many prostitutes have is find a sugar daddy and get off the street and become a concubine.

Sometimes Chinese girls don’t like foreigners. One American man told Theroux that a Chinese pimp had told him, Americans "are too big in their penis. The girl is Chinese. She is very small. It will hurt her too much."

Profile of a Chinese Prostitute in 1990

The typical incarcerated female prostitute in the survey was 20 years old and came from a rural family, financially “average” or “above average.” She was discontented with her lot and inclined to seek more money, pleasure, or adventure. She left school early and may have retained some part-time manual work. She may have been betrothed or married, with an “average” or discordant relationship, but a sex life that has been mostly satisfactory. Although emphasizing feelings as an important element in human relationship, she was cynical about romantic love, and may have become bitter and vindictive after she had been cheated or abused. She was ambivalent towards traditional feminine roles, chastity, and sexual restraint, but still viewed them as ideals and wished that she could conform. [Source: “1989-1990 Survey of Sexual Behavior in Modern China: A Report of the Nationwide “Sex Civilization” Survey on 20,000 Subjects in China: by M.P. Lau’, Continuum (New York) in 1997, Transcultural Psychiatric Research Review (1995, volume 32, pp. 137-156), Encyclopedia of Sexuality ++]

She first ran afoul of the law after age 15. She was often seen as a victim of circumstances as well as an offender, and evoked sympathy from public officials, who would subject her to criticism, warning, “education,” and “administrative discipline,” before instituting legal penal measures, such as labor reform, and “thought reform.” While incarcerated, she would indulge in daydreaming or in artistic diversions to sublimate her libido. ++

The number of prostitutes, pimps, and their patrons known to the law has been increasing rapidly in China, especially in Shanghai and Guangzhou. Prostitutes make up most of the nation’s female sex offenders. The survey data and clinical observation show that prostitutes tend to be young and immature, vain and “insatiable,” given to pleasure-seeking rather than to toil and tedium, vulnerable to temptation, and deficient in self-restraint. Also noteworthy are the contributing social factors of inequality of gender status, lack of emotional nurturing and support for dependency needs in parental and marital homes, and the prevalence of opportunities for deviant outlets. The survey also uncovered the “low quality” or “poor civilization” of the parents and other family members, in the forms of less education, ignorance, narrow world views, weakness of bonding, and lack of moral guidelines. These social forces need to be considered in any plans for prevention. After release from jail, 20 to 30 percent of female sex offenders released in Shanghai relapse. Relapse rates depend on the intensity of rehabilitation. ++

Women Willingly Seeking Work as Prostitutes in China

The Chinese writer Lijia Zhang wrote in The Guardian, “For a novel I am writing on prostitution, I have interviewed many prostitutes... Many see their profession as a way to gather wealth quickly, feeling few moral qualms.” [Source: Lijia Zhang, The Guardian, October 22, 2011]

An increasing number of young women in Yunnan Province are willingly going to Thailand and Malaysia to work as prostitutes or are being ordered by their families to work in brothels in these countries because the money is good. Girls from the Dai minority are particularly sought after in Thailand because they are regarded as beautiful and their language is similar to Thai.

One 20-year-old woman in the Mekong River village of Langle told the New York Times, “If you can’t go to Thailand and you are a young woman here, what can you do? You plant and you harvest. But in Thailand and Malaysia I heard it was pretty easy to earn money so I went....All the girls would like to go, but some have to take care of their parents.”

The girls work in bars and most of the money they take in tricks goes to their pimp or brothel owner. The money they earn comes from “tips” by customers. Many make their way across the border hidden in the baggage compartment of buses and hope to get lucky and meet and marry an overseas Chinese or at least bring enough money back for a better life for themselves and their families.

Many are unable to save much even after a couple of years. Some do quite well and this is often reflected by the nice homes — with satellite television, air conditioning, generators and tile designs — owned by their parents. Some families with several daughters live in chateau-like homes with chandeliers, leather-covered sofas, golden Buddhist altars and fancy home entertainment centers. Dai boys often don’t like the set up because the girls who return from Malaysia and Thailand come back snobby and don’t want to have anything to do with them.

Sex Workers in China in the 2010s

Li Jia Zhang wrote in Refinery29: “Although illegal in China, prostitution is difficult to avoid even now. Once, during a reporting trip to Shenzhen, I walked into a salon, hoping for a haircut. One of the three giggling girls, her full chest threatening to spill out of her tiny top, told me that they didn’t really know how to cut hair. I looked down and spotted no shavings on the floor; it dawned on me what kind of establishment I had actually entered. Perhaps I should have known: After all, we were in Shenzhen, referred to by some as China’s Capital of Sins. [Source: Li Jia Zhang, Refinery29, January 11, 2017]

“I chatted with the salon girls and learned that they were migrants from the impoverished countryside. All three were poorly educated and unskilled: The youngest was in her early teens. How did these women end up here? I wondered. And how did they reconcile their trade with their conservative upbringing in the village? I interviewed sex workers in Shenzhen, Dongguang, a neighboring city, Beijing, and other cities. I tried to make friends with these sources, but it proved to be a very challenging task: Their lives are so transient, as they change from one massage parlor to another, from one city to another. They change their mobile numbers — or they simply vanish.

“My breakthrough came after I managed to gain work as a volunteer for a non-governmental organization NGO helping female sex workers at massage parlors and hair salons — all fronts for brothels — in an outskirt of Tianjin. They are mostly low-class establishments, and I usually went out with a staff member from the organization, Little Y — a former sex worker herself, who is very skilled in her NGO role. She would sit down and chat over a cup of weak jasmine tea; she would always find something flattering to say. “Wow, what a pair of heavy melons!” Little Y would say, pointing at one woman’s robust chest. “Are they real?” She would volunteer that she had had implants herself; on several occasions, she lifted up her top and compared herself to other women who also had breasts enlargement. Little Y’s augmentation was done in a back-alley clinic, and resulted in one of her nipples pointing westward.

“Her language and approach made the girls feel she was one of them: They would tell her about the problems they had with their boyfriends, or some funny anecdotes about their clients, or just vent about the injustices they suffered at the hands of the police. One woman told us how she’d been arrested during a police raid: At a police station, they beat her up. To avoid being sent to a labour camp, she had to pay a bribe of 3000 yuan (almost $500 at the time) to a policeman and provide her services to him for free. Upon being released, she returned to her parlor. A laid-off worker with two children to support, she needed the money.

“Little Y would offer advice how to dodge police in case their parlors were raided. When she handed out condoms, she would urge women to use one for each transaction and warn them about the dangers of unprotected sex. At night, I stayed at NGO’s office. There, I would furiously write down the details of our conversations and the stories the girls had shared with me. Quite a few of them had experienced traumas, like losing their jobs or being deserted by their husbands. Other made a choice to become sex workers, because their other professional options were extremely limited.

“The story of one massage parlor girl, Xiaohua, was typical: Lured by the bright lights of the city, she left her village of Sichuan, in China’s hinterland, and joined a shoe factory in Dongguang. One of her friends found a job at a massage parlor in Shenzhen, which would not only earn her more income but also spare her the grueling tasks of production line; she decided to to take the job after her family wrote her a letter, asking for money. Xiaohua took the job and sent the requested funds to Sichuan: Almost all girls I know provided financial support to their homes back in their villages.

Prostitutes, Barber Shops and Karaokes in China

20080226-Sex worker in Beauty Salon NPR Rob Gifford.jpg
Sex worker in
a beauty salon

Many brothels are fronted by saunas or karaoke bars and many massage parlors are located in barber shops or beauty salons. A reporter for the Washington Post walked by a beauty salon and was told by a tout, "Hey, foreigners. I've got the best you can imagine — virgins, experienced pros, cheap and they are ready for you. Come try one." Pimps outside barber shops boast that their girls are cheap, beautiful and “da pao” ("set off a bang"). The usual charge is around $25.

Prostitution and karaoke often go hand and hand. By one count there are over a thousand karaokes in the Guangzhou-Shenzen area that offer the sexual service of 300,000 women, most of them migrants from Sichuan. The Enjoy Business Club karaoke parlors in Shenzhen have singing rooms in the downstairs rooms and sex upstairs in private rooms.

Prostitutes work places that cater to all kinds of clients: businessmen, foreigners, professionals. The owner of one massage parlor told the Washington Post he makes about $2,000 a month and is supported by local officials who take a cut of his profits.

If love hotels or back rooms of a karaoke are not available there is always the local park. One man asked Theroux if he wanted a girl and then told him "I can get you a very dark and private corner in the park, so you can be alone with her." Theorux said he was told about one brothel run by public security police where "customers can feel safe that they won't be raided."

Freelance prostitutes, who work out of beauty parlors, often meet different clients at different places, taking calls from different salon managers on their cell phones. Pimps sometimes solicit foreign customers in the sock department of Wal-Mart in Shenzhen, at first asking for $150 a night for girls displayed on their cell phones and then dropping the price to $80 a night.

Hostess Bars, Hooters and Three-Accompany Girls in China

In China, there are many hostess bars, places where young ladies entertain, chat up, flatter and pander to male customers by lighting their cigarettes and pouring their drinks. The women generally don't have sex with the male customers. Hostesses are generally prohibited by their employees from dating their customers after they get off work. Women who work at nightclubs, hostess bars and karaokes are often called "san pei xiaojie" (literally "three accompaniment girls," meaning drinking, singing and dancing). They “accompany” men as they drink, dance and sing karaoke. Although many limit themselves to serving drinks, singing and dancing others will do more if the price is right.

According to survey there are 100,000 san pei girls in the city of Shenyang alone. Even if only a small number of them are actually prostitutes, they add up to a large number. San pei girls are often victims of robberies and AIDS. Describing the Golden Age Mistress Bar in Shanghai George Wehrfritz wrote: "hostesses in white satin dresses sit and drink with the clientele, toasts radiate with mildly risqué pre-revolution showgirl revues...a dance troupe wearing bustiers and exotic shrubbery wiggled to a pair of disco songs extolling the virtues of oral sex."

Hooters had a branch in Beijing and two other locations in China as of 2010. As is true with branches in the United States, the girls there dress in orange track shorts, pantyhose and shrunken white tank tops. Sometimes they yelp and dance in a line. A sign hanging over the bathroom reads: “Caution. Blondes Thinking.” James Farrer, a professor at Tokyo’s Sophia University who studies sex in China, told the Los Angeles Times, “In terms of sex, China has these really competing views, socially and personally. What Hooters does is give a new model...It’s a almost family-style restaurant. It’s clean. It’s very far removed from the salacious commercial sex that is rampant in China.” Many of the Hooters customers are expats. Among the Chinese that go there are couples and even groups of women. Many of the girls that work there are university students. They earn between $500 and $900 a month, a decent wage for a young college graduate in China. [Source: Lily Kuo, Los Angeles Times, May 2010]

Lives of Hostesses and Sex Workers in China

“Red Lights: The Lives of Sex Workers in Postsocialist China” by Tiantian Zheng is a study of the bar girl scene in the northeast coastal town of Dalian. In his review of the book in the Asian Times, David Wilson wrote: “Zheng did her best to fit in more and learn, embedding herself in a karaoke bar in her birthplace, Dalian... Over the course of her two-year research stint, Zheng faced many of the dangers the hostesses did and went on an emotional rollercoaster, discovering much about the whole Dalian bar girl scene...If only the author, who has a PhD from Yale, had concentrated more on telling the story instead of freighting it with cerebral baggage. Some of the prose in Red Lights is so turgid that it borders on unreadable.” [Source: David Wilson, Asia Times, May 9 2009, David Wilson is an Anglo-Australian recovering print journalist with a special interest in Asia. His work has previously appeared everywhere from the Malaysia Star to the Times Literary Supplement and International Herald Tribune]

“Despite the pretension, Zheng deserves huge credit for truly riding a tiger. Her intimate research could be deeply disturbing. Often, she had to witness shocking scenes, not least of which was vomiting hostesses unable to cope with the amount of alcohol they were obliged to drink to keep pace with the procession of clients. Zheng shows what a truly unglamorous job hostessing is.”

Hostessing is also far more risky than the fixed smiles might suggest. During one police raid, like her quasi-colleagues, Zheng had to run and cower under a bed to escape detection. During a gangster raid, she had her arm grabbed by one felon who started dragging her upstairs toward a private room where women were sometimes raped. The doorman and the manager stopped the thug in his tracks by telling him that Zheng was their friend. “This saved me from imminent danger, but the fear remained,” she writes.

The degree of degradation that the hostesses undergo may be even worse than the darkest scenarios imputed by a reasonably informed observer. The hostesses cannot trust each other or their appointed guardians. Imagine having to work in the shadow of Bing the bouncer. So unlike his benign famous namesake, the Academy Award-winning American popular singer, Bing works at a filthy “low-tier” karaoke bar called Romantic Dream. During Zheng's bizarre fieldwork, she witnessed countless bloody fights between the Romantic Dream hard man and gangsters, clients and passersby. “I saw Bing and bar waiters throw heavy stones and chairs at clients and some passersby until blood streamed down their faces,” Zheng recounts.
For killing and severely injuring many men, Bing was once sentenced to death but saved by the bar owner who paid a mint for him to be freed from prison. Without Bing, the bar would be bedlam, forcing the hostesses to run for their lives. On the one hand, Bing is their knight in shining armor. On the other, he is an ogre, happy to maul and rape them when the mood takes him.

But if the men exposed in Red Lights appear monstrous, the hostesses appear little better. Although impressively talented at acting and so stylish that they set trends, they seem charmless - ice queens fixated on status and money. In the coterie of the hostesses, according to Zheng, conversation centers on how to extract the most and expend the least. Talking about emotional involvement without compensation is a taboo enforced by ostracizing.

With very few exceptions, the hostesses seem severely in need of tender loving care - or just a trickle of warmth. True, the money they make is the envy of many a toiling male peasant. Still, the income hardly seems to compensate for the abuse best summed up by poor hostess Min. Raped by a client, Min relates one of the most telling stories in this distressing book that offers scant hope - very few hostesses break out, move on and make it.

After the rape, Min recounts, she became pregnant and considered herself to be his. She believed him when he promised her that he would marry her. Wildly in love, she yearned for the wedding. “Until one day the rosy bubbles built up in my dream were crumbled and collapsed. That day, I was carrying a dish from the kitchen upstairs to attend to the guests. The moment I stepped on the upper level, I caught mylover sitting at a table with a woman on his lap flirting and laughing. I could not believe my eyes: is this the man who says to me every day that he loves me and he cannot wait to marry me? I felt the whole world turning in a whirl in front of me. I did not know when I dropped the plates and fainted onto the floor. That accident killed the baby in my belly and, with it, my romantic dreams.”

Book: “Red Lights: The Lives of Sex Workers in Postsocialist China” by Tiantian Zheng (University of Minnesota Press, 2009)

Sex Tourism in China

Sex tourism is a big business in China. Almost every five-star hotel has a group of women hanging around that offer a variety of services for male travelers. Many hotels, including state-owned ones, employ the prostitutes themselves.

A Japanese restaurant in Kunming, Yunnan Province used to serves sushi and sashimi on the bodies of scantily clothed women Young attractive grills were hired for the job. They reportedly showed up for 30 minutes and had their body chilled in an ice room before lying on a table to have food served on them.

In September 2003, Japan got a lot of bad press when reports emerged of 380 Japanese businessmen with a construction company running around with 400 Chinese prostitutes in hotel in Zhuhai, China. One of the prostitutes told the Washington Post she was with three of four Japanese men. “They had a big party. On my floor, at least, they had girls in every room.”

The Japanese businessmen arranged for prostitutes through the hotel’s Japanese marketing department, paying $145 for each woman according to the Beijing Youth Daily. The incident drew more publicity than it otherwise might of because it occurred on the anniversary of the beginning of the Japanese occupation of Manchuria in 1931. The hotel was closed temporarily. Several hotel workers were arrested and forced to take “emergency study sessions.” The Japanese government conducted an investigation.

Foreigners caught hiring prostitutes are usually fined and released.

Prostitutes Blamed for Property Bulge in Beijing

In Beijing, there are reportedly so many “xiaojie” (mistresses) that state media claim their numbers have driven up housing prices. An editorial in the Beijing Evening News, argued that a (downward) turning point in Beijing's property market could be achieved if prostitutes were driven out of the city. [Source: Wu Zhong, China Editor, Asia Times, May 26, 2010]

The editorial, entitled “Turning point will come when all mistresses are driven out of Beijing”, estimated that there were 200,000 “xiaojie” or “mistresses” in Beijing.”Xiaojie” is a face-saving term for prostitutes as the trade is illegal. The article argues that if Beijing police kept up their “strike hard” crackdown [launched in April 2010], these mistresses could be forced out of the capital within three months. As a result, an extra 200,000 rental flats would be added to the property market. With the sharp increase in supply, “a genuine turning point” would be seen in housing prices.

The article's first confusing premise is that the “more than 200,000 mistresses” working in Beijing could be cleared out of the city within three months. (The assumption that each xiaojie rents a flat is already problematic, since most likely share flats to reduce living costs.)

Since the start of “Operation 4.11', Beijing police have smashed about 400 small prostitution rings, usually working out of hair salons, with some 1,100 suspects detained, according to local media. The operation has been hailed as a “great success”, with even high-class night clubs raided, such as “Tianshang Renjian.” or Paradise on Earth, which is rumored to be owned by a Hong Kong tycoon and senior Chinese officials...However, if after a month such a high-profile crackdown has only been able to net some 1,000 working girls, then it would take 20 years to clear Beijing of 200,000 mistresses.

Most prostitutes in Beijing come from poor rural areas and use their income to support families at home, they are unlikely to be involved in the sector that has seen the greatest price hikes - luxury housing. While the average price of an apartment in Beijing within the city's Third Ring highway is around 30,000 yuan per square meter, luxury downtown apartments sell at 70,000 yuan per square meter. The average per capita monthly income is only 2,000 yuan. It is difficult to see how removing prostitutes from Beijing would affect the property market. Moreover, if the owners of flats who rented to “mistresses” wanted to sell their property for profit, they could do so at any time. Why would they wait for the police to scare away their tenants?

Image Sources: 1) AFP; 2) New York magazine; 3) NPR Rob Gifford; 4) Parade of shame, AP

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated October 2021

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been authorized by the copyright owner. Such material is made available in an effort to advance understanding of country or topic discussed in the article. This constitutes 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. If you are the copyright owner and would like this content removed from, please contact me.