Red Lights: The Lives of Sex Workers in Postsocialist China
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In China today, sex work cannot be untangled from the phenomenon of ruralOCourban migration, the entertainment industry, and state power. In Red Lights, Tiantian Zheng highlights the urban karaoke bar as the locus at which these three factors intersect and provides a rich account of the lives of karaoke hostessesOCoa career whose name disguises the sex work and minimizes the surprising influence these women often have as power brokers. Zheng embarked on two years of intensely embedded ethnographic fieldwork in her birthplace, Dalian, a large northeastern Chinese seaport of over six million people. During this time, Zheng lived and worked with a group of hostesses in a karaoke bar, facing many of the same dangers that they did and forming strong, intimate bonds with them. The result is an especially engaging, moving story of young, rural women struggling to find meaning, develop a modern and autonomous identity, and, ultimately, survive within an oppressively patriarchal state system. Moving from her case studies to broader theories of sex, gender, and power, Zheng connects a growth in capitalist entrepreneurialism to the emergence of an urban sex industry, brilliantly illuminating the ways in which hostesses, their clients, and the state are mutually created in postsocialist China. "
hostess. His refusal to pay was thus construed as an assault on the very system of operation. The bar manager and several male servers (all experienced criminals and street ﬁghters) blocked him at the entrance to the bar. This show of muscle was enough to scare the customer into handing over the tip. However, as he exited, he left several threatening remarks: “Just you wait. I’ll be back for you!” Quite scared, I asked the hostesses to warn me of his presence in the bar so that I could escape his
owner told me: Only those who have earned a little money and have no idea how to squander it will go there to show oﬀ. They are the least educated men in the city. Some are even blue-collar workers. Hostesses there are of the lowest class. They are dirty and ugly. If clients here mention that they have visited that area, they will immediately be mocked and despised. People will think that they belong to the lowest class! The spending level there is really low. Here, if a client comes in inquiring
working on his skills and charm on the hostess. As Client Peng said in an interview, “We love to show oﬀ our beautiful hostesses before our male friends. I always get carried away when my beautiful hostess compliments my singing and my looks. They said I was like a Hong Kong star singer. It really gives me a lot of face before the other guys. We want admiration from beautiful hostesses. It deﬁnitely satisﬁes our psychological needs before our peers. We don’t go for sex at all.” Client Shi, in his
money. Most times, however, they acquiesced in her dominance, since all that they wore came from her. Still there was conﬂict over things like clothes. Dee lectured Wu on not wasting money on more clothes, insisting that she had bought her enough. She also criticized Wu’s conservative tastes. Wu responded, “You are shameless and brazen [buyaolian de]. Do you think I am the same as you?” On this occasion I was surprised to see that Wu had gotten through her hard armor and had hurt her. Dee’s
an opportunity to talk with the people whose image they saw reproduced in the experiment. While this state of silence or noncommunication may be true of a majority of interpretive encounters (we do not always have the opportunity to discuss our clothes with everyone who happens to see us), there are also important exceptions. As this chapter explores, hostesses’ clothing does not always have to “speak” for itself; hostesses often speak for their clothing and through their clothing. The public