Academic journal article China: An International Journal

The Other Side of Nightlife: Family and Community in the Life of a Dance Hall Hostess

Academic journal article China: An International Journal

The Other Side of Nightlife: Family and Community in the Life of a Dance Hall Hostess

Article excerpt

The usual depiction of Chinese dance ball hostesses is that of young, initially inexperienced women from poor, rural areas who are seduced by the material possibilities of urban living and who often lie to family and friends about the type of work they do. The case study of Chang Meihong indicates that this characterisation is incomplete. A dance hall position may in fact allow a married woman a large measure of power and independence vis-a-vis her husband and her female counterparts in the community. However, there is a complex set of social costs and benefits to the profession that such women have chosen.

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In 1995, while conducting research on the lives of villagers in rural north China, I met a woman named Chang Meihong. Although at the time I was not researching the topic of nightlife, I later came to realise how useful Meihong's story might be for those who wish to see the other side of nightlife in China. Meihong's position in her village community was a precarious one, owing to her job as a hostess in a local dance hall, where she catered to the desires of powerful local men. (1) Because of the sensitive nature of her job and my own interests as a researcher, I did not accompany her to the dance hall, nor did I seek to learn the intimate details of her job and her relations with her clients. Nevertheless, the notes that I gathered about her life, her relationship to her family and to her community shed light on the life and work of countless women who serve as hostesses in China's burgeoning nightlife industry.

While most studies of nightlife, including those in this issue, tend to focus on the experiences of nightlife patrons, this article takes a different approach, concentrating instead on the broader implications of hostessing for women, gender, family and community, using Chang as a case study. Rather than focus on the urban scene as most studies of nightlife tend to do, this article looks instead at a 30-something, rural, married woman who works in the "sex trade" and the consequences of this profession for her personal, familial and community life. (2)

Chang was born and raised in rural China. She is a wife and mother, and has a husband who also works. Yet everyday of her working life, Chang defies community standards for a good wife spending most of her working time as a hostess in a rural dance hall taking care of the needs and desires of powerful local men.

Chang's life and work challenge simple stereotypes about dancehall hostesses in China. To make sense of this one woman's distinctive social situation, I conceptualise the relative social status of women in rural China at three different levels--macro (national), meso (community) and micro (family). Conceiving a woman's social status as variable at each separate level highlights her relative social status: are we interested in her status relative to her husband, to urban women, to a mother-in-law? The answer is all of the above. Comparing female social status to males in a given society is a macro-level analysis; comparisons with both women and men in the local community are at the meso-level and comparisons to the men and women in one's own household are a micro-level phenomenon. Understanding the different constraints and opportunities provided at each level provides a flexible framework for considering the trade-offs that Chinese women (and men) can and do make every day.

Chang Meihong

Chang lives in Cuitai Village, one of 23 villages in the small township of Ganglong on the Tianjin-Hebei border about four hours by train south of Beijing. (3) The area is prosperous relative to other rural areas further west and north, but economically Ganglong Township is only slightly better off than average compared to most others in rural north China, and well below the living standard of prosperous villages in either the Yangtze or Pearl River Deltas.

When she is not staying at the dance hall which is about ten miles away, Chang lives in seeming conjugal happiness--albeit in poverty--with her husband and two school-aged children in a rented three-room house made of mud and straw in Cuitai Village. …

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