Red Lights: The Lives of Sex Workers in Postsocialist China Review

Red Lights: The Lives of Sex Workers in Postsocialist China
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Red Lights: The Lives of Sex Workers in Postsocialist China ReviewThis book is an anthropological inquiry into a group of marginalized people in Northern China. These marginalized people are karaoke bar hostesses who have struggled to survive in an unfavorable institutional environment and dominant patriarchal social culture. The author adopts participant observation as a research instrument to collect in-depth data from three karaoke bars in Dalian. Research participants in this ethnographic study include a group of hostesses and their next of kin, clients (government officials and entrepreneurs), and karaoke bar owners so that a solid theoretical foundation can be built to understand sex workers in this booming economic city.
According to the author, hostesses are derivatives of state-clientelism and traditional patriarchal culture. Entrepreneurs rely on discretionary favoritism of government officials for permit procurement and resource allocation and accordingly karaoke bars become a common platform to corrupt interest-seeking behavior of government officials. More aggravating to tell is that entrepreneurs and government officials exploit hostesses to display their masculine power and sex consumption is considered the "embrace of a western-oriented model of modernity" (P.106). The essentialist view of subservience of woman to man in post-socialist China allows social status of hostesses to deteriorate.
Hostesses in Dalian have homogenous and heterogenous traits as compared with their western counterparts. They are homogenous in terms of conspicuous consumption practices and commodification of their bodies. Hostesses spent substantial amount of their income in body refashioning and ornamentation to "avoid tuqi (backward look), strive for yangqi (foreign style)" (P.186). Hostesses also take an economic view of their bodies by demanding quantified monetary gains for the sexual services they have engaged. They feign intimacy and romance with clients to obtain financial security (P.219) Hostesses in Dalian, however, demonstrate something heterogenous as compared with their western counterparts. First, the Confucian value of family patriarchalism and filiality is still ingrained in hostess' mind. Most of the hostesses under study have made significant contribution to economic well-being of their families (Chapter 5). Second, hostesses are migrant workers from rural villages but they have ambivalent and mercurial feelings about their hometowns. They do not view their hometowns as a permanent shelter due to lack of economic opportunities but working conditions in urban areas are violent, exploitative, and risky due to police's arbitrary power, widespread corruption, and chronic anti-pornography campaigns (P.65). Third, hostesses have a pure economic view to exploit resources (money and social networks) possessed by their clients but they never forgo their hope for a romantic and financially marriage while engaging with their clients.
The author has maintained that hostesses are either victims or agents of social and economic changes. They are victims because of the wide gap between the theory of socialist policy (against sex industry) and the practices of enforcement so that bar owners and government agents (polices and local government officials) continue to exercise their interest-seeking behavior and aggravate violent working conditions of hostesses. They are, however, agents because sex industry was reported to be an essential source of municipal government revenue in Dalian and hostesses take advantage of their client's resources to solidify their economic power and efface their inferior rural status. In this book, the author aptly applies different theories (i.e. game theory, economic-reductionist theory, theory of conspicuous consumption, theory of body economy) to demystify this marginalized social group and their "onstage" and "offstage" living repertoires. This book is a must read for those who are interested in understanding sex workers and the dynamic interaction of state-agent relationship in China.
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