Complexity of Life and Resistance: Informal Networks of Rural Migrant Karaoke Bar Hostesses in Urban Chinese Sex Industry

By Tiantian, Zheng | China: An International Journal, March 2008 | Go to article overview

Complexity of Life and Resistance: Informal Networks of Rural Migrant Karaoke Bar Hostesses in Urban Chinese Sex Industry


Tiantian, Zheng, China: An International Journal


This article explores the lives of rural migrant karaoke bar hostesses working in Dalian's sex industry. It both resonates with and differs from previous research that argues that migrant women's informal ties based upon localistic networks project the possibility for labour resistance. It is argued here that hostesses are subject to exploitation and violence due to hostile political policies and the organisation of the sex industry. Hostesses do form alliances based upon their native place. These provide financial and emotional support. However, these localistic networks are temporary because hostesses aspire to defect from their "criminal" group and they also face high internal competition.

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The rapid growth of the city from a fishing village in the 19th century to a metropolis with a population of six million in 2006 has made Dalian a magnet for labour migrants. By 1998, the most conservative estimate placed the size of the floating population (unregistered migrants from the countryside) at around 300,000. (1) Institutional (i.e., the household registration policy) and social discrimination force the vast majority onto the lowest rung of the labour market. Migrants commonly work as construction workers, garbage collectors, restaurant waitresses, domestic maids, factory workers and bar hostesses.

A large number of female migrants find employment in Dalian's booming sex industry. These companions, or hostesses, are referred to in Chinese as "sanpei xiaojie", literally young women who accompany men in three ways --generally understood to include varying combinations of alcohol consumption, dancing and singing, and sometimes sexual services. Mainly 17 to 23 years of age, their services typically include drinking, singing, dancing, playing games, flirting, chatting and caressing. Beyond the standard service package, some hostesses offer sexual services for an additional fee. Their monthly incomes range from 6,000 yuan (USD750) to tens of thousands of yuan. (2) It was estimated that in 1991, roughly more than 800,000 hostesses were involved in sex work. (3)

The purpose of this article is to explore and understand the complexity of the lives of rural migrant karaoke bar hostesses in China's urban sex industry. It is argued that hostesses in Dalian are subject to exploitation and violence due to the hostile political policy and the organisation of the sex industry. This resonates with and differs from previous research that contends that migrant women's informal ties based upon localistic networks project the possibility for labour resistance. On the one hand, hostesses do form alliances based upon their native place, which supply them with financial and emotional support. On the other hand, these localistic networks are transient and temporary and there is also high internal competition.

The creation of informal networks is necessitated by the hostesses' experiencing such overwhelming exploitation and violence. The hostesses' response is unique in that although some basic factors discourage long-term and formal organisation, they do organise informal networks. While these networks are fleeting and unstable in nature, they are critical in allowing the hostesses to survive and even flourish.

Living with and Working as a Xiaojie (Hostess)

This research was based on fieldwork and a research sample of approximately 200 bar hostesses from three karaoke bars in Dalian over 20 months in four segments of 1999, 2000, 2001 and 2002. Initially, I encountered a series of obstacles. First, my requests to conduct research in karaoke bars were repeatedly turned down. Second, officials were reluctant to "reveal any secret information" to me. They believed that their own political positions would be at stake were they to do so. Once, as I was singing songs with a couple of political officials in a karaoke bar, one suddenly grabbed my purse and started searching it. I was momentarily too shocked to ask what he was looking for.

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