Lijia Zhang is a woman with a thousand stories. As well as writing about some of the most hidden areas in Chinese society, her own life is fascinating. The writer began her working life in a state missile factory, living in a heavily guarded political compound in Nanjing, an experience she says made her 'tough'. Teaching herself English against the scorn of fellow workers, she travelled to the UK in 1990 with her boyfriend, waiting tables in a Chinese restaurant and attending Oxford Union debates, sparking dreams of pursuing journalism.
Returning to China three years later and working first as a fixer for foreign journalists, then a journalist in her own right, she went on to publish an illuminating memoir, Socialism Is Great! A Worker’s Memoir of the New China and an oral history of China, China Remembers, together with Calum MacLeod (that same British boyfriend, who later became her husband).
The revelation that her grandmother had been sold to a brothel in the 1930s sparked her fascination with China’s sex trade, subject matter she explores in her first novel, Lotus. The eponymous character is a migrant worker in Shenzhen who was originally a factory worker, then a prostitute, easily out-earning all her relatives in the village and saving to support her brother’s university education.
Lotus might be a novel, but most of the characters’ experiences and details are true, based on a vast well of research. It is humorous, perceptive and sobering, following women caught in the conflict of China’s traditions and modern demands. This is a darker version of Leslie Chang’s Factory Girls, the bitter side of life for those migrant workers who fall out of the factory and into brothels.
Where did the inspiration for Lotus come from?
The idea for the book came from my maternal grandmother. At the time of her death, my mother told us that our grandmother had worked as a prostitute in the 1930s. She was an orphan when China was desperately poor. She was adopted by her aunt’s family, who treated her like a slave, then as she blossomed into a beautiful young woman, the uncle sold her into a brothel.
That’s how I first became interested. Then later, I went to Shenzhen on a reporting trip, and I went to a hair studio to get a hair cut, only for the three girls there to giggle and tell me that they didn’t know how to cut hair. I looked down, and there were no hair shavings at all on the floor; then I knew, it wasn’t a real hair studio at all but a front.
How did you research Lotus?
I began by interviewing as many girls as I could, in Shenzhen, Dongguan, Beijing. The vast majority of prostitutes operate in massage parlours and hair salons, so they enter the trade of their free will but are often obliged by circumstances. They fall for them wrong man, they are tempted by money, they are poor, running away from an abusive husband. Quite a few of them worked in a factory before, then one of their friends got a job in a 'massage parlour', and the pay is better, the life is freer, so they follow.
I heard so many stories that were heartbreaking. One woman told me that she was beaten by her husband and her family wouldn't take her back, so she ran away to her friend who was working as a prostitute in Tianjin. She told me she had never even touched a condom before that.
Is the character Lotus typical of these women’s experiences?
She’s not based on one person, but many of the small details are real. Of course, a prostitute’s life is not a fun life, but they are still three-dimensional women. Their lives are not complete misery either. There is a very famous book by Lao She called Yue Yar – the character Yue Yar is a prostitute – and oh my God, her life was totally, utterly miserable the whole time. The character was just not believable.
I spent lots of time listening to very funny anecdotes – these girls could be so much fun, and they really support each other andform strong relationships. Some of them had experienced sexual pleasure they had never had with their husbands, they received compliments and flattery they might not get elsewhere, sometimes even gifts and flowers. One woman said to me, 'Flowers! Why didn’t he just give me more money!?'. One even told me that a client wanted her to dress up like she was from The Red Detachment of Women, the ballet from the 1960s [laughs].
I think these women were able to enjoy the power brought by money. I saw some who improved their position in the family, or with their husbands, because they were bringing in their own money. They often became more assertive. And their life is not all miserable.
Do you think prostitution is growing in China?
Definitely yes. China has been repressed for quite a long time, but there is now growing wealth, a relaxing of control, and a sexual revolution. STDs are growing fastest among older men – they often feel they’ve missed out on something and want to go to prostitutes who they believe are experienced and skilful. Their wives are in their 50s or 60s, and were brought up to believe that women shouldn’t be interested in sex, so tend to be quite conservative. The men don’t have knowledge about protecting themselves either.
It’s also a cultural thing – after all, my grandfather took my grandmother as a concubine. It’s an old way for men to show their wealth and prestige, and this old mentality is coming back with the ernai among rich men. We have a saying in China: When your stomach is full, you start thinking about sex.
By Helen Roxburgh