The story of her grandmother, first a prostitute, then a concubine, triggered author Zhang Lijia´s into writing her latest book Lotus: A Novel. With meticulous research she explored the life of today´s sex workers, and tells in Refinery29, how a middle-class lady explored a secret world.
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 — the same age as my grandma when she began work at a brothel in 1928. How did these women end up here? I wondered. And how did they reconcile their trade with their conservative upbringing in the village?
It was at that moment the seed for my novel, Lotus, was planted. Through the lives of these women, I could explore China’s growing gap between men and women, urban and rural — as well as the tug of war between modernity and tradition.
Because my last book was a memoir, people often wonder if I’ve penned another autobiography: I am always quick to point out that Lotus is purely a work of fiction, not based on personal experience. Keenly aware that my middle-class urban existence is so removed from that of a migrant-worker, I knew I needed serious research. And so 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 that is dedicated to helping female sex workers in a northern city in China. The main task of these volunteers is to distribute condoms to sex workers operating 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.
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