Mistressville

Article excerpt

Byline: Mark Ellwood

Shanghai's raciest neighborhood.

Ambitious and energetic, Shanghai more than merits the nickname Shang Kong. But the mainland city is co-opting more than just the colonial hub's commercial savvy. Businessmen here are aping their Cantonese counterparts by keeping a bevy of on-demand girlfriends and paying their bills in exchange for their love and loyalty. Welcome to Shanghai's newest neighborhood: Mistressville.

These girlfriends--known as ernai, or "little second wives"--were an imperial-era tradition outlawed by the communists; in British-held Hong Kong, the practice persisted. Today, though still technically illegal, "the expression is as common as hello, and everybody in China knows what ernai means," explains Foreign Babes in Beijing author Rachel DeWoskin. In her research for her screenplay about this phenomenon, American Concubine, she unearthed countless contracts between mistress and master. "One of the main rules I always found was this: the ernai was not to get fat, and the master was to provide name-brand clothing and accessories, no fakes." There was one other telling detail. "When you turn 30, you're likely to get dumped."

In less cosmopolitan cities, such women are installed in ernai cun, or mistress villages--concrete jungles dotted with karaoke clubs and beauty parlors conveniently close to the airport for commuting entrepreneurs. But in Shanghai they have commandeered a chunk of the former French Concession, the toniest part of downtown. …