The quiet, narrow side street that hugs my apartment complex is like many hundreds in the city. Despite its semi-secluded location, it touts three roadside medical and physical therapy (massage) clinics, an Internet bar, a vegetable market, flower shop, hair salon, clothes shop, dry cleaners and even several family-run convenience stores.
This side street appears quite normal aside from a strange sprinkling of closed businesses that are interspersed between the regular stores. These one-room shops are all alike. They have a thick glass storefront with heavy curtains drawn, making it impossible to see inside. Heavy padlocks tightly secure the outside door handles shut.
In the daytime, one hardly notices them while walking down the sidewalk. But when 11 p.m. arrives, a stroll down our side street invites you into a quaint little red light district.
Prostitution is supposedly illegal in China, yet hundreds of these areas can be found throughout the city. I can only speak from familiarity with this particular area but from what I see, unlike America, our neighborhood’s red light district is a clean, well-kept place. The streets are neatly swept. Shopkeepers take pride in their businesses, despite where they happen to be, and make sure their tidy displays present a pleasant sight for passersby. Children race excitedly through on their way home from school. The elderly chatter away along the sidewalks after finishing their exercise sessions in the nearby park. Residents sit outside on stools, enjoying the cool of June before the summer heat hits hard. And safety is never an issue, even in the wee hours of the morning. Average Chinese are always present, either playing mahjong, buying snacks from the still-open convenience stores and fruit cart sellers, or partaking of midnight meals sold by tiny restaurants and street venders.
The set-up of our tiny red light district is a bit different from that in my home country. Around 8 p.m., a few call girls will appear here and there to attract customers. They emerge from the curtained, padlocked shops, opened by a man or woman standing on the curbside, and hover at the corner of the street that empties into an obscure alleyway. They dress in high heeled shoes or thigh-length boots which compliment their provocative clothing. Make-up is thick with plenty of eye shadow and eyeliner to accentuate their eyes. Their purpose is to entice drivers to partake in their business rather than a competitor’s. It’s also obvious that those cruising slowly by, all men in shiny dark cars, are here for their services and not just out for a leisurely ride around the city.
The men or women on the street are in charge of handling the payment. They have purses slung over their shoulders where the money is kept and are the ones to talk directly to the client. Once the amount is determined, the curtained storefront is unlocked and a girl comes out. Hotels just a block away can be used at a rate of $7 per 3 hours or the driver might take the girl home. Later, the girls are dropped off and rejoin their companions inside the locked store.
The interesting thing about the hotels in the area is that they are quite nice. One would think they’d be dingy, dark, sinister and filthy but that’s not the case at all. During the past weekend, I booked my Chinese friend from Inner Mongolia, “Richard” Wei, into one of these hotels for his first visit to Chengdu. It was only $10 a night for a single room, had fresh clean linens and spotless tile floors, nice furniture, came with hot water and tea and had a large color TV. The front desk ladies were very polite, the floor attendants quite attentive and nothing smelled rank or odd.
Richard thoroughly enjoyed his stay here. He did have to laugh a bit upon his late night arrivals back to his room after we’d had a full day of touring. The desk girls looked at one another, whispering something to the effect that this guy didn’t need “other” services, just a good night’s sleep.
Both of us had at one time spotted in the lobby some beautiful-figured girls in mega-short, clinging tube dresses. We figured they were there for those wishing for a bit of excitement in the night. Their eyes followed Richard when he entered the hotel but quickly dismissed him an an unlikely candidate. For Richard, touring Chengdu with his foreign girl friend was excitement enough.
The sizzling heat of the Sichuan summer has not yet reached us but when it does, these brothel storefronts will open to reveal what’s been hidden inside all year. Older teenagers to those in their twenties lounge on couches inside. While dressed in sparkly, somewhat elegant tight-fitting attire, they are rather crude in their slouching posture and mannerisms of openly yawning or picking at their teeth and nails. To pass the time, they watch TV while munching on snacks and slurping tea. Their clientele are mostly businessmen who drive up in their privately owned cars, deal with the money handler in front and then off they go with one of the girls, either to a hotel or back to the man’s apartment. From nearby business owners, I learned the cost is 50 to 200 yuan ($6.25 to $25) depending on the girl and services rendered.
My guess is that many of these women are from the countryside, uneducated and poor, who came to the city looking for work. It is a sad reminder that the world is a hard place to live in, especially for women.
Currently, the shops are closed up tight but last August, when I first arrived in Chengdu, the stifling heat had the glass doors wide open with all the girls roasting hot inside. (No air-conditioner.) Little Flower and I would take walks down that way and one particular shop took a shine to my dog. LF was always invited into the open doors and fed anything from beef noodles to potato chips to peanuts. They anxiously awaited our walks. When LF suddenly appeared in the entranceway, her tail wagging eagerly, they would call out, “Xiao Hua! Xiao Hua! Guo lai! Guo lai (Little Flower! Little Flower! Come here! Come here!)”
It was rather sweet to see their daily routine interrupted by something that brought a little heartfelt happiness into their lives.
Of course, LF was always eager to have their undivided attention. She never judged these young women, like so many of us do. If nothing else, she reminded me that whatever age we are, or appearance we have, or social status we hold, we are all equally worthy of being noticed and loved, even if the work we have is frowned upon by society.
In another month, I’ll change LF’s walking route and we’ll once again head down our quaint little red light district to visit the girls. We haven’t seen them for almost a year. Perhaps some have forgotten about the foreigner’s little dog who came to visit last summer, but I’m sure Little Flower hasn’t. She always remembers everyone, especially those who once fed her potato chips and beef noodles.
From Chengdu, here’s wishing you an evening’s “Ping An!”
REMINDER FOR AID IN BUYING TENTS, VACCINES AND NEEDED SUPPLIES FOR EARTHQUAKE DISASTER AREAS
(Yes! Money still needed for 5 million having nothing other than tents and donated supplies to live on.)
United Methodists: UMCOR Advance #982450, International Disaster Response, China Earthquake