The One with the Shenzhen Chicks

Lijia Zhang, Lotus, 2017

Thanks to the publisher Henry Holt and Netgalley for sending me a review copy in exchange for an honest review.

The book is set in China’s fastest developing industrial city of the South, Shenzhen, between Canton and Hong Kong, in the early 2000s, which is exactly the time I lived there (in Hong Kong and Beijing). Shenzhen had the reputation of an eldorado, a place where fortunes could be made, a place where laws didn’t really apply. Millions of young people from the countryside, destitute and without much opportunity at home, were attracted to Shenzhen with the dream of making it in the big city, only to find themselves stuck in low-paying jobs akin to slavery (living in dorms, locked-up in dangerous, unsanitary workshops). Many young women saw in prostitution an easy way out, a way to send more money back home too. They are the infamous ji (hens/chicks).

Lotus is one of those many girls working in “massage parlors”. It’s notable that the novel bears her name as if to focus on her personal history and her character, while the Chinese government prefers turning a blind eye to these girls, whose business is strongly linked to corruption and to the “entertainment” industry, or periodically cracking down on the girls without giving them any other perspective. To male businessmen who frequent those girls, it doesn’t really matter who they are.

It is a novel full of social criticism, almost a documentary disguised as a novel, but the main characters, Lotus the prostitute and Bing, the photographer with a political conscience, are not entirely clichés. Lotus is not entirely an innocent victim, and the importance of her Buddhist faith in her trajectory is an interesting, new angle, because the rest of her background story is not fully original. Bing is a middle-aged man torn between ambition and his youth’s political idealism. Bing was in Beijing in June 1989, escaping the military crackdown only because his wife gave birth of their daughter. Bing’s wife is ambitious enough for them both, they have divorced because of her manipulative tricks and because Bing’s journalistic immersion into the world of low-class prostitutes was shocking and offensive, but now that he has won prizes and recognition for his work, she’s willing to reconnect, not only for herself but for their 12-year-old spoilt daughter. Bing’s motivation, a sort of romantic idealism without any apparent sexual attraction, is not quite explored in the book.

I was bracing for a tale of misery and a tragedy at the end, or a kind of unrealistic happy end à la Pretty Woman, but the ending was more subtle than that, even if it doesn’t tie every bow nicely. The book is rather straightforward in its writing and there are some language clichés that feel a bit annoying, but it’s worthwhile to get past these weaknesses to learn more about these women.

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