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In our old family album, there was only one photograph of my maternal grandma in her youth, in which she looked like a film star with her silk cheongsam and permed hair. Then, at her deathbed in , I learnt that my beloved grandma had been a prostitute! As this shocking revelation sparked an intense curiosity about prostitution, I started to see prostitutes everywhere.
I decided to write a novel on prostitution in China. For a while, I volunteered with an NGO for female sex workers in Tianjin, a prosperous port city south of Beijing, where I discovered how massive the sex industry had become. This has driven some of the most vulnerable women into the flesh trade as it presents one of the few options they have. Having gained power in , the Chinese Communist Party shut down the brothels and declared the oldest human trade eradicated.
In the reform era, with growing wealth, relaxed social controls and a large mobile population, the sex industry has made a spectacular return — underground, of course, as it is still illegal.
And the market economy has also placed women at a disadvantage. In , urban women on average earned 78 per cent of what men did; the figure today has dropped to Rural women fare even worse at 65 per cent. The traditional attitude of viewing women as inferior to men, which had been repressed by Mao, has resurfaced with the economic reforms.
Some companies set much higher recruiting standards for women, while others refuse to hire women of childbearing age. Female university graduates are having a harder time finding employment whereas, in the past, the government allocated jobs to graduates regardless of their gender.