Academic journal article Wagadu: a Journal of Transnational Women's and Gender Studies

Three: Complexity of Female Sex Workers' Collective Actions in Postsocialist China

Academic journal article Wagadu: a Journal of Transnational Women's and Gender Studies

Three: Complexity of Female Sex Workers' Collective Actions in Postsocialist China

Article excerpt

Abstract: This paper explores labor resistance amongst rural migrant karaoke bar hostesses, many of whom are sex workers, in the northeastern Chinese city of Dalian. I argue that hostesses are subject to exploitation and violence because of hostile public policy and the organization of the sex industry, both of which limit the possibilities for labor organizing based upon localistic networks. While hostesses do form alliances based upon their native place, which supplies them with financial and emotional support, these localistic networks are transient and temporary because hostesses aspire to deflect from their group as a "criminal" group and they also face high internal competitions.

Introduction

This paper is based upon my fieldwork on karaoke bar hostesses in the port city of Dalian, in Liaoning Province, China.2 The rapid growth of the city from a fishing village in the 19th century to a metropolis with a population of 6 million3 has made Dalian a magnet for labor migrants. By the year 1998, the most conservative estimate placed the number of the floating population (unregistered migrants from the countryside) in Dalian at around 300,000.4 Institutional (i.e., the household registration policy) and social discrimination force the vast majority of these migrants onto the lowest rung of the labor 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 17-23 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 the lowest of 6,000 yuan (U.S. $7505) to tens of thousands of yuan.6 It was roughly estimated that in 1991, more than 800,000 hostesses were involved in sex work (Pan, 1999, pp. 13-14).

The purpose of this paper is to explore and understand the complexity of life and resistance of rural migrant karaoke bar hostesses in the urban Chinese sex industry. I will argue that hostesses in Dalian are subject to exploitation and violence due to the hostile political policy and the organization of the sex industry. My research on hostesses both resonates with and differs from the previous research that argues that migrant women's informal ties based upon localistic networks projects the possibility for labor resistance. On the one hand, hostesses do form alliances based upon their native place, which supplies them with financial and emotional support. On the other hand, these localistic networks are transient and temporary because hostesses aspire to minimize the stigma of membership in a "criminal" group and they also face high internal competitions.

The creation of the informal networks is necessitated by the hostesses' confrontation of such overwhelming exploitation and violence. Hostesses' response to the exploitation and violence is unique in that although some basic factors discourage long-term and formal organization, they do organize informal networks. While these networks are fleeting and unstable in nature, they are critical in allowing the hostesses to survive and even flourish. This paper will illustrate the forms of exploitations and violence hostesses are confronted with and explore their tactics of resistance in their working lives. This paper unfolds in five parts. I will first briefly discuss my fieldwork in Dalian. I will then describe the political policy towards prostitution and the hierarchy of the karaoke bar industry. I will follow these two sections with an account of the kind of violence and exploitation of the hostesses as a result of such political policy and the sex industry. …

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