Philippa Thomas Online

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Smiles for Sale – “Lotus” – a novel by Lijia Zhang

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LOTUS is the first novel of Chinese writer Lijia Zhang, who began her working life at 16 in a factory that produced intercontinental missiles, taught herself English by listening to the music of The Carpenters, and now works as a journalist and social commentator in Beijing.

I’ll be interviewing her on Monday on Impact on BBC World News (1330 BST).

“Lotus” is about prostitutes in steamy southern Shenzhen, the city just north of Hong Kong. What they are like, why they do it, and how they came to be there. Zhang says it’s a myth to think the lives of all sex workers are all misery.   At best, they can earn and live for themselves. But at worst – and what an awful worst –  they’re raped and constantly exploited. And that is how many begin.

Like Lijia Zhang’s own grandmother. The novel is rooted in a story revealed on a deathbed, the family secret of her grandmother’s past, sold to a brothel when she was just fourteen. 

“Lotus” is inspired both by the author’s own family history, and what she’s seen as a journalist exploring booming modern China and its underside. Zhang, in her acknowledgments, thanks all the working girls she’s met and interviewed in Shenzhen, Dongguan, Beihei, Tianjin and Beijing. “I know it wasn’t always easy to talk.”

And so the story of Lotus reflects the fate of many others. She’s a migrant from Mulberry Gully, a village up in the mountains, more than a thousand miles north of Shenzhen. She comes to work in a shoe factory where she feels trapped, and then frightened, after the death of her cousin in a fire. She slides into the world of sex for money, abandoning her given name of Xiangzhu or ‘Fragrant Blossom’.

From now on, she would simply be known as Lotus. ‘The lotus grows out of the mud yet remains pure and unstained’. She still remembered the lyrics from an old poem.

She becomes what’s known as a “ji”, a chicken, in other words, a prostitute. She works on East Station Road, “a generally low-class red-light district that the locals called the ‘chicken co-op’.”

Her would-be rescuer is Bing. Or Hu Binbing in full, another migrant who puts his failed marriage in Beijing and his failed business ventures in Shenzhen behind him to plunge into freelance photojournalism. Like the author, he’s pursuing a fascination with the life of China’s working girls.

As he first explains to Lotus, “Well you see, ‘ji’ is such a blurred and dirty word in people’s minds. I’d like to show my pictures to give you, all of you working girls, a human face, to show you as ordinary women”.

His role model, Bing reflects later, is the American photographer Jacob Riis, who’d documented New York’s nineteenth century slums in his book “How the Other Half Lives”.

But it’s harder for him, he says. “In the West, photographers had started to take photos of prostitutes as soon as the medium had been invented. In China, however, since prostitution was fully illegal, one simply didn’t see pictures of ‘ji’ anywhere. It was as if the country’s estimated ten million working girls didn’t exist.” I’m not sure the comparison quite works. Prostitution – and the horrible exploitation of migrant and trafficked girls – persists in the shadows all over the world. But I guess the point is that in China, it Doesn’t Exist.

Bing, again the alter ego of our author, remembers his history:

Throughout the imperial dynasties, intellectual men with money had frequently sought the company of courtesans who were trained in the arts of poetry, calligraphy and music. Since these men’s marriages were arranged, and respectable women were traditionally confined to their houses, courtesans were the only women who could provide elegant company, amusement, and even romance.

“There were no more courtesans nowadays. Commercialisation and modernity had eaten away China’s romantic edge”.

And this is how he sees Lotus: “she longed for modernity but could only struggle on the edge of the city instead of becoming part of it.” She’s become part of the world’s oldest profession, which Bing/Zhang describes in the book he’s writing – ‘Smiles for Sale’ – as “the fastest growing industry in China”, in which “a successful prostitute can earn twenty times more than a factory worker.”

The plight of the fallen woman is a literary constant and Lijia Zhang’s novel reads to me a little like a Tess of the D’Urbevilles transported across the continents and centuries. It’s also a sociological exploration of the changing nature of Chinese sex. There’s a lot of insight into the illicit workings of so-called hair salons and massage parlours, kept afloat by payoffs to corrupt officials, and kept on the edge by periodic crackdowns on vice, the “sweeping away the yellow” campaigns. Some women accept offers to get off the streets as an “ernai” or second wife, a kept woman. There are plenty of reflections on the pressures of marriage. And through all this the novel races along, peppered with plenty of explicit sex scenes. It’s an easy read that mostly wears its moralising lightly.

The setting is the harbour city of Shenzhen, now transformed from sleepy southern village to China’s City of Sins. Photographer Bing comments, it’s “the slum where even the devil wouldn’t lay eggs”.

I like Zhang’s descriptions of its seamy, sultry streets:

The Shenzhen spring lasted as long as a snap of fingers. By late July, the city felt like the inside of a bamboo steamer.”

“The sun had just rolled down behind the western hills, burning a red trail in the sky. The high-rises in the city center blocked the sea-breeze. Without wind, the soup of stale air thickened, filling with the smell of fuel, shampoo, cheap perfume, roast duck, and fried noodles.”

Shenzhen got its new lease of life – and sleaze – during the economic boom unleashed by Deng Xiaoping. Deng’s maxim “To get rich is glorious” had become a new national mantra. His policies allowed peasants like Lotus to come to the city to work and make money. In Zhang’s telling, it became a giant building site – and a giant brothel. Prostitution is illegal and thriving.

The story is dedicated, as noted above, to Lijia Zhang’s “beloved maternal grandmother, Yang Huizen, who survived her life as a ‘flower girl’ in the 1930s.”

And this book is partly about the drive of family ties, family money and family face. Lotus sends much of her money home, to fund her brother’s ambition to go to university, to get “a few drops of ink in his belly”. Her family believes – or chooses to believe – that she’s a waitress in Shenzhen doing extraordinarily well out of tips.

“No one would really know her earning power, she mused, until the day came when they learned that it was she who sent her brother to university. By then she would, once again, become the model daughter that all families aspired to have.”

Her homecoming is one of the more poignant scenes in the novel – for Lotus and many more like her, does the end justify the means?


Author: philippathomas

I've been a BBC newswoman for 30 years: reporting from around the world. Currently to be seen anchoring BBC World News TV. Main interests - politics, psychology, reading, trekking, and all things American. I began this personal blog as a 2011 Nieman Journalism Fellow at Harvard. You can also find me talking daily news on Twitter at @PhilippaBBC, coaching @positivecoachi3, and life & travel on Instagram at @philippanews. Thanks for reading!

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