Zhang Lijia has moved from fact to fiction. After her 2008 “Socialism is Great!”: A Worker’s Memoir of the New China mapping her late blooming from monolingual wilful factory worker to bilingual provocateur, we have in Lotus a first novel detailing the life and loves, trials and tribulations of a group of young migrant women sucked into South China’s sex industry.
The distance traveled between the two books is less than might appear. “Socialism is Great!” —the exclamation mark is crucial—was an autobiographical account of the author’s “coming of age” yet Lotus retains strong biographical threads. A deathbed admission revealed a grandmother sold to a brothel as a young prostitute in the 1930s served as the germ for the novel.
Zhang’s Lotus is no reprise of Richard Mason’s The World of Suzie Wong.
Zhang’s foundation was the academic work of two US feminists on the new China sex trade, built on by meeting Lanlan, a former prostitute and then NGO worker. Zhang volunteered herself for the same NGO, Tianjin Xingai House, distributing condoms to working girls in the City’s massage parlors and hair saloons. Lanolin is part of Lotus. But the whole novel is peopled with spirits from the author’s past. Hu Binbing, the failed and divorced businessman of the book, who has turned to photojournalism, is the alter ego of the late Zhao Tielin, a photographer who embedded himself amongst the prostitutes of the Hainan slums. The transformation of autodidact village boy to urban intellectual recapitulates the metamorphosis of Zhang’s rocket factory mentor almost two generations earlier. These characters provide a depth to the novel.
For breadth, there is the gamut of China’s social concerns, internal immigration and corruption, materialism and the collapse of community. Lotus—and her friend Little Red—are enticed away from the their rural fastness by Hua, one of the first village girls to flea country for Shenzhen’s urban maw. The two young girls succumb to a seductive vision far from the realities of the mind-numbing robotic work they find in Workshop’s 7 and 6 of their shoe factory. Little Red’s dream is extinguished after she and her fellow workers in Workshop 6 are burnt to death behind its padlocked doors. Company cash arrests justice.
Lotus isn’t “forced” into prostitution. It becomes her only remaining choice. Unwilling to return to her village carrying the stigma of Little Red’s death and her own failure, blacklisted from and tedious of factory work that kills spirit and body she follows the economic logic. The job of a ji—prostitute—pays more than twenty times that of a factory worker, allowing her to start to deliver on her promise to fund her younger brother Shadan as the first of her village to go through University.
Yet Lotus’ enthusiasm for Shadan to study computing so he will become rich clashes with his own preference to study law so he can help fight the exploitation of the villagers by the cronies of the local political establishment.
Lotus graduates to the Moonflower massage parlor with Xia, Little Jade and Mimi where life is sex and soaps. The clients constitute the good, the bad and the ugly. Some turn to violence before the wallet, others to company money, yet most are marginalized migrant workers with families from remote villages like their own paying for what distance denies. The only upward career steps for a ji is ernai moving from prostitute to mistress and for the lucky few onto wife.
Mimi’s boyfriend exploits her more than her clients, taking her money and forcing serial abortions. In contrast, Lotus meets with photographer Binbing shooting a photo-essay on prostitutes. She has just been asked to become a client’s ernai and distrusts Binbing’s motives. Her initial reticence is overcome after her rescues her from the police. Consequently she has the starring role in his award winning article. A follow up piece with Lotus back in her own village throws the two together. The resulting publication attracting the attention both of state-run Photography magazines, interested in recruiting a conformist Binbing, and his ex-wife Mai, who dropped him when his earlier business failed, but who now wants to come along to ride on his success. All the hard choices seem to rest with Binbing.
Zhang’s Lotus is no reprise of Richard Mason’s The World of Suzie Wong. It stands as a well-crafted and written story—even with the rare clunky phrase—with some characters you can empathize with and others to hate.
In the end the women are stronger than the men. While some drawn to Lotus by its racy backdrop may be disappointed, for most others any lack of titillation is more than recompensed by the didactic role of a backdrop that sketches China’s emerging social crises— rather better than any “Report” by a myriad of think tanks—and where an interesting cast of characters play out their roles.