Undercover in Beijing’s illegal karaoke brothels
Like so many other things, sex work in China is illegal. But that does not mean that this business does not flourish behind closed doors. Escort agencies often operate behind the facades of karaoke bars.
In many of these karaoke bars you can do exactly what the name promises – i.e. singing various evergreens while drunk – but at the same time guests can also pay female employees for further services. That is why the police regularly carry out raids. However, it is difficult to prove that sex work really happens in bars. For example, the officials are often satisfied with imposing a fine on the bar managers for hiring foreign women.
For two months, one of these foreign women was the Russian photographer Valya Lee, who worked undercover as a “party girl” in several Beijing karaoke bars. The 25-year-old captured her everyday life with a cell phone camera to show a trade that, according to the Chinese government, should not even exist.
We spoke to Lee about her two-month stay in Beijing and about sex work in modern China.
How did you come up with this project?
Valya Lee: I was born near the border between Russia and China. That’s why I studied Chinese language and culture for several years. I am interested in work dealing with the relationship between Russia and China.
You got yourself a job in a Beijing karaoke bar for your photo series.
Exactly. The women who work there are called “hostesses” or “party girls”. The direct translation from Chinese means something like “woman who provides entertainment in the presence of alcohol”. Most of the employees are Chinese, but some also come from Russia or Ukraine. Your job is to look after and fill certain guests throughout the evening. Only my friends knew I was taking photos in the bars. The bosses often confiscated my cell phone in front of my shifts. So I got a second one. I then handed in a smartphone and took pictures with the other.
That sounds risky. Have you ever been caught?
Nobody noticed that I was taking pictures. Nowadays smartphones are so common that nobody notices them. There were completely different dangers in the karaoke bars.
Which situation was particularly dangerous?
That was one of my last days. A well-known guest in the bar wanted me to spend the night with him. I refused because I thought it wasn’t a big deal. Then my boss tried to change my mind: “This is a powerful man,” he said. Finally he threatened to hand me over to the police if I didn’t take part. I’m employed illegally. At that moment I got really scared, but also recognized the bluff. I said, “OK, then let’s call the police together!” Then my boss left me alone. But I also knew that I should end my project.
The guests certainly wanted to sleep with you often because you were employed as a party girl. How did you deal with it?
When I was asked the first time, I was very uncomfortable – especially because we weren’t in the room where we were asked questions like this, the so-called “Safe Room”. Then the requests became more frequent and I simply ignored them or refused them.
What does a normal evening look like in one of these karaoke bars?
The evening begins in the casting room, where the women are waiting for the guests to choose them. The more expensive the karaoke bar, the higher the beauty standards – for example, the hostesses are taller or look like models. The men then either point to the woman they want or they tell the “Mommy”, a kind of landlady. They also tell mommy if they want to have sex. Then Mommy asks the selected woman if she agrees. With a nod, everything is clear.
How is this continuing?
Then the women take care of the guests, talk to them and give them alcohol throughout the evening. Over time, I knew what topics to talk about and how I could skillfully refill the glass over and over again. Usually, the guests want the hostesses to drink, but then they secretly pour their drinks away. Of course, people also sing, either alone or together with the women. Whenever the guests found out that I came from Russia, they always wanted to sing something Russian.
Did all your colleagues think it was OK to sleep with the guests?
I met many Chinese employees who were afraid for their jobs and therefore fulfilled all of the guests’ wishes. Foreign women like me didn’t feel that much pressure. With us it was also the case that the guests did not pay us directly, but that we later got our money from Mommy. Still, there was always a risk that guests would report us to the police when we were having sex with them. Then fines and deportation threatened. That’s why I didn’t meet any foreign hostesses in the karaoke bars who took part.
Sex work is officially illegal in China. How do the karaoke bars not get caught?
All establishments have well-functioning security systems. So you know in advance when the police come. I always had to hide in the locker room or in the parking lot. Corruption is of course also an issue.
How do you imagine the guests in the karaoke bars?
The clientele there is totally different because there are different classes of karaoke bars. In the luxurious establishments you will meet rich managers and specialists, while in the more normal ones you are more likely to deal with teachers or officials. Foreigners are quite rare. At least I haven’t met a single person in the two months.
Where do the Chinese women who work in the karaoke bars come from?
From all possible provinces in the country. One was only around 19 years old. Apparently she had come to Beijing to study acting. Working in the bar was obviously uncomfortable for her. Nevertheless, it was always selected very quickly. One day a guest kicked her out of the room when he noticed that she was still wearing braces. After that incident, she was fired.
Many young women start out in karaoke bars because they want to finance their studies or have to pay back loans. Usually their families don’t know where they work. And even if they hate the job, they often go on because they really earn a lot compared to other jobs.
What conclusion did you draw at the end of your undercover project?
I still remember how I once condemned Russian go-go dancers only because of their work. Now I have slipped into her role. So it became clear to me that you shouldn’t judge anything from the outside.