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A reluctant heroine

DEEP IN THE lush green, the sun has just set behind the soaring mountains. The town of The Third Wild Fortress in Hubei province stretches like a long belt near the top of the mountain. For those who want to venture into the county town, the bus trip takes four hours. It is not a trip for the faint-hearted as the bus meanders along the narrow road embedded on the edge, descending down to the foot of the mountain.     

Over the past thirty years capitalism has swept away the madness of Mao’s Communism, together with the town’s innocence. During Mao’s time, no one dared to sell their produce for fear of being labelled a ‘running dog of the capitalists’. After Mao passed away, however, getting rich became glorious again. Money, which had once brought disaster and disgrace to the rich, suddenly became the hottest currency again.

Thirty years on, the desire for more money, especially fast money, has irreversibly changed life on the mountain. Few still care to toil on their patchy land scattered among bamboo groves. More and more men are leaving home for the big cities, joining China’s 300 million migrant workers. Working long hours, they send their sweat money home from their cramped factories and half-finished office towers while their wives and sisters become nannies of city kids, leaving their own kids and parents behind.   

For those who stay behind, Masculine Hotel, the two-storey building in the heart of the town, is where it is all happening. Within the rusty red walls the local new rich mingle with the powerful. The hotel offers everything the current ruling class needs – hotel rooms, restaurants, bars and karaoke, a hairdresser and pedicure parlour. But everyone knows what really attracts those who hold the chops and the purses in this town: the ‘special services’ the bathing centre offers.

IT IS A balmy day. Inside the Masculine Hotel, Yujiao, a 22-year-old local girl, lifts her pretty face and stretches her back briefly before moving on to another pair of feet. It has been a long day. Sitting on a small stool, her back is sore, her legs stiff. Unlike the girls in the bathing centre, as a pedicurist being tall and slim does not work in her favour. 

She has lost count of how many feet she has held in her hands the whole day. They come in all shapes and textures. Some are soft, moist, meaty; others are hard, dry and bony. After soaking them in a washing basin, she gives each foot a gentle massage before trimming the rough skin off the soles, sanding, shaping the toe nails and brushing nail polish on all of them, twice. As soon as she finishes with one pair of feet, she moves on to another one and the whole thing starts all over again.

Sitting high above Yujiao are three regular customers. The woman who sinks her body into the fake leather chair in the middle has meaty feet, a double chin and an air of authority. She is the wife of one of the town leaders. Everyone calls her Madam Su. On her left is a woman, a restaurateur, whose narrow face is dominated by her tattooed eyebrows that sit above her eyes like two silk worms. While her bony feet soak, she speaks loudly into her mobile with no thought to the people around her. No one bothers to say anything, not even Madam Su. In today’s Third Wild Fortress, the loud restaurateur commands almost as much respect as the proud Madam Su. 

Sitting on Madam Su’s right is a girl wearing a tight top and mini skirt. She blows bubble gum out of her red lips; no one pays any attention to her. No one knows where she comes from or what her real name is. ‘Call me Mimi,’ she says with a sugar coated smile to anyone who cares to ask, in the same way she tells those men with drunken eyes and lusty hands in the hot spa.  

As Yujiao massages Madam Su’s feet, Mimi’s mobile rings. ‘Aiya, Director Huang, yes, I am Mimi. I thought you’ve forgotten all about me,’ her tone curls, like the tail of a happy cat. Madam Su shoots a sharp glance towards the girl. ‘Little slut.’ Yujiao could almost hear the silent curse. 

In a way, Yujiao agrees with Madam Su. What else would you call these fallen women, some even younger than she is? Instead of making an honest living, they sell their bodies and fake smiles to any men who open their purse. Often, the purse is not even their own. Their smooth bodies are sometimes offered as gifts to the local movers and shakers as part of a business deal. In this town, everyone knows that the Masculine Hotel is where the local officials are entertained over sumptuous meals and in steamy baths. The girls who provide the special service all have fake names and come from vague places.  

‘When are you coming to see me, Director Huang?’ Mimi asks over the phone. ‘Oh, tomorrow night? You promise?’ As Mimi puts down her mobile, her sticky smile turns cold. From the corner of her eye she senses the hard stare of Madam Su. She ignores the stare and keeps playing with her phone. By now she has stopped expecting respect from anyone – not from those men she entertains, not from other women, not even from herself. What keeps her going is the dream she left home with – making RMB100,000, enough to open a small jumper shop back home. 

When she left, she had no idea she would end up becoming a Xiaojie, a ‘Miss’ – the new code name for prostitutes. Life was hard and she had to leave her rust-belt home town. At least it was one less mouth to feed for her family. Since her parent's state-owned steel works closed down, the whole family has been living on a tiny allowance. 

She soon found that being a Miss was one of the quickest ways to make a living while keeping some money aside for her small shop. Still, the world’s oldest trade has its own risks. Not that long ago a new Xiaojie was picked up by a van in a dark street. After being raped, bashed and robbed, she woke up in a ditch with the tattoo ‘No. 1 Whore’ on her forehead. No one bothered to tell the police. Despite the fact that thousands of Misses exist in China, prostitution is still illegal in the country. Before the girl could report the crime she would have to turn herself in first. She knew it and so did the crooks. This makes girls like her perfect targets. 

Mimi is not a ‘wild chick’ like that poor girl. She does not have to hide at the back of a hair salon or stand in a dark street each night. Hotels are much safer. They are usually protected by the local police through a ‘gentlemen’s agreement’. Whenever the government launches an anti-crime campaign the police round up some wild chicks, although Mimi has never heard of a police raid inside the Masculine Hotel.

Still, Mimi feels she could do better. Only yesterday, all the Misses working in the hotel farewelled a fellow Miss, Lily. Lily had found herself a sugar daddy – she was lucky. Boss Chen is a middle-aged man who owns a big toy factory somewhere down south. He has a round belly and greasy hair, and is married with a teenage daughter. He is loaded with money. Soon after they met at the bathing centre, Boss Chen showered Lily with clothes, jewellery and a trip to Hong Kong and Macau. To the envy of all the girls, he set up a big villa and asked Lily to be his Second Lady. That’s a new name for concubines, except nowadays a Second Lady does not have to live under the same roof with the First Lady.  

Holding Boss Chen’s arm and leaning on his chunky shoulder, Lily follows her sugar daddy in and out of restaurants, karaoke, mingling with his mates and their ‘little honey’ Misses and enjoying her ascendance into China’s growing army of Second Ladies. ‘If I can give him a son, then the two of us would be set for life,’ Lily told all the Misses in dreamy tones before she left.

AFTER A LONG and hard stare, Madam Su turns her double chin away from Mimi. She wonders how many men this shameless girl has corrupted. It annoys her each time she hears her husband coming to this hotel. Heaven knows what he has been up to, she thinks as her foot is massaged. Lying back in the soft chair, she lets out a sigh and closes her eyes. In the darkened world, a disturbing image creeps in: her husband is surrounded by three girls in a spa bath – two sitting on his lap, another rubbing his neck, his chest, and further down, into the bubbling water…

Madam Su opens her eyes in disgust. Her throat tightens as if she has just swallowed a fly. She can’t remember when her husband stopped showing genuine interest in her body. It must have been around the same time the Masculine Hotel opened in town. Having passed fifty, her husband’s lack of interest in her accelerated the biological changes in her own body. With her mood swings – from burning rage to cold depression – hardly a day passes without her making a scene. She tries to keep herself busy – eating, shopping, hairdressers, facials, foot massages… She entertained the idea of divorce, but quickly ruled it out. After all, everything she has – the comfortable home, the car, the money, even those smiling faces and pleasing tones around her – comes from him; not to mention the future of her precious daughter. Gradually, Madam Su stopped making fuss over her husband’s whereabouts and managed to turn a blind eye.

As her right foot is massaged, Madam Su suddenly sits up. Wait a minute, Director Huang? As she recalls what Mimi called the man on the mobile, her skin crawls. How many Director Huangs are there in town? Blood surges to her head. She feels a sudden urge to grab the girl’s handbag, take out her pink mobile and check the caller’s number. Instead, she takes a deep breath, cooling down the urge inside her, her body sinking further into the chair. 

‘OUCH! YOU IDIOT!’ Madam Su yells. Yujiao’s hand stops; she knows who this woman is, and has taken special care of her meaty feet. It is not her intention to trim the sole any further. But bending her layered belly over, Madam Su has complained that there is still some dead skin under her sole. As Yujiao hesitantly raises her small knife again, the woman screams.

‘Sorry,’ says Yujiao, raising her anxious eyes under the chair.

‘Where’s your manager? Bring me another girl,’ Madam Su demands.

‘Oh, so sorry Madam Su,’ the owner rushes over, assigning another girl. 

Under the boss’s cold gaze, Yujiao moves to Mimi, the young girl waiting on the right, and starts removing the bright red nail polish from her toe nails.    

Oh, I hate this job, she thinks to herself as the nasty smell of the nail-polish remover penetrates her nostrils. She wishes she could stand up and tell them: I hate you, you grumpy fat woman, you loud bony feet, and you, you shameless little whore! But instead she just lowers her head and keeps going. She feels a little dizzy. Night after night, she has been lying in the dark with her eyes wide open; the doctor has prescribed her an antidepressant. Although her sleep has improved a little, as the day drags on, after she has trimmed all the soles and painted all the nails, and when she faces customers like Madam Su, she feels her body is on the verge of slipping into that dark well again.

She bites her lips and carries on. When she finishes the second coat of nail polish on Mimi’s toes, she lifts her head, checking the clock hanging on the wall. The short hand is pointing to seven. Thank heavens, she tells her aching body. We’ve made it, another day!

WHILE YUJIAO FEELS dizzy on the small stool, Deng Guida, the 44-year-old government official of the township, is sitting at the best restaurant in town, surrounded by his deputy and eight business men. Local delicacies are spread out on the lazy Susan in the middle of the round table – fish from the creek up in the mountain, flavoursome meat of wild boar, fresh bamboo shoots and wild vegetables picked up that morning. To show their genuine hospitality, the host also orders shark-fin soup and Australian abalone.  

The man sitting across the table stands up. ‘Director Deng,’ he raises his liquor cup, ‘thank you for looking after us.’ He gulps the liquor down and turns the cup over, showing its bottom. ‘No problems,’ replies Deng. All eyes turns to him, as he raises his own cup, gulps it down, emptying the cup in one go. ‘Bravo,’ the men around the table applaud. Deng’s face brightens up. He enjoys all of this – the food, the liquor, the company, and the sense of respect and power he commands.

His face is slightly flushed after finishing the first bottle. Glancing over the faces around him and another two liquor bottles standing on the table, he smiles, knowing the night is still young. He has become an old hand at this, having done it for over twenty years. In a way he feels lucky that his body can handle Chinese liquor; it is an important skill for men of a certain status in China. And unlike many of his pot-bellied colleagues, no matter how many banquets he goes through in a week his belly still looks as flat as the day he started his job. 

In fact, this – spending day and night at cigarette-infused banqueting tables, eating, drinking, laughing and cursing, and moving onto special entertaining – has become the way of his life. Although most of the time he does not have to worry about the bill, he always carries a wad of money in his bag, which he tucks under his arm. Weekdays or weekends, since he became the Director of the Commercial Office of the township government, he has hardly had dinner with his wife and son at home. Sitting at the table, receiving more toasts and drinking more cups of liquor, Deng recalls what happened at home the night before…

DENG’S WIFE OPENS her sleepy eyes when her husband turns on the lounge room light. She hears him stumbling into the bathroom and follows. Her nose screws up as strong alcohol breath greets her. ‘So you still know where you live,’ she teases, ‘Never mind me, your son and your liver, you just keep drinking that cat piss,’ she grumbles as she watches her husband kneel on the floor, throwing up into the toilet bowl. She hands him a glass of water and two tablets. ‘Take them, good for your liver,’ she orders. Deng obeys.

Watching her husband swallow the tablets, Mrs Deng’s face softens a little. She hopes these tablets are as good as those loud television ads claim, and will protect her husband’s liver from the strong liquor he gulps down every day. The tablets are not cheap and they come in an elaborate golden box with an emperor’s head in the middle. The costly medicine is beyond the means of their normal salaries, but Mrs Deng knows fully well that as long as her husband is still in power money won’t be an issue. Gift boxes such as this will keep coming, sometimes hand delivered by uninvited guests.

DIRECTOR DENG’S THOUGHTS return to the banquet table. He is quietly pleased that, after emptying three bottles of liquor, his head is still clear. When the bill comes, Deng opens his leather folder. ‘No, no, how can we let you pay?’ The host pushes Deng’s hand away and grabs the bill. After all, the whole purpose of the meal is to entertain Deng, make him feel important so that he can look after the interests of the hosts.  

After dinner, Deng’s white jeep pulls up in front of the rusty red building of the Masculine Hotel.

YUJIAO’S DINNER IS much simpler – instant noodles with a poached egg again. After dinner, she stretches her sore back and puts her soiled clothes in a washing basin. Dragging her numb legs downstairs, she places the basin inside the washing trough and turns on the cold water tap. 

‘Hey Miss, come here,’ she hears a man’s voice behind her. She turns around and finds two men standing at the door. The short one has a leather folder under his arm. 

‘Ah, nice figure.’ Deng’s liquor-inflamed eyes suss Yujiao’s body up and down.

‘How about special service for me and my buddy?’ he asks seductively.   

‘No, I’m not a Xiaojie’, Yujiao replies coldly, resuming her washing.

‘What? Aren’t you all the same?’ asks Deng as he moves closer, his hand touching Yujiao’s firm bum.

‘Keep your hand off me,’ annoyed, Yujiao brushes off Deng’s hand.

‘Hey, little slut! Is it money? How much do you want?’ Deng raises his voice.

‘Who needs your stinking money?’ Yujiao flies back, her eyes burning with disgust.

‘How dare you, slut!’ Deng shouts. ‘Look, what’s this?’ He opens his bag, grabs his wad of cash. ‘I bet you’ve never seen this much money!’ Deng curses as he throws the money at Yujiao and slaps her face and head. Yujiao bends her arms above her head. ‘Yah, I’ve never seen money in my life,’ she protests, stepping backwards as each slap lands. ‘Beat me to death if you dare,’ she yells and retreats until the edge of the sofa blocks her. ‘Yeah, I’ll dump a truckload of money and squash you to death!’ Forcing his way forward, Deng keeps shouting and slapping. 

Supported by the armrest of the sofa, Yujiao pushes Deng away and rushes to the door. ‘Come back here,’ Deng grabs her T-shirt and pulls her back. Yujiao struggles to free herself and runs towards the door again. Deng grabs Yujiao and forces her onto the sofa, his liquor-infused breath blowing on her face. Disgusted, Yujiao kicks her feet in the air. With one arm forcing Yujiao’s shoulder down on the sofa, Deng unbuckles his belt, pulls down his pants and Yujiao’s jeans. As he is just about to tear down Yujiao’s underpants, Yujiao grabs a knife, holds it with both hands and frantically stabs the body in front of her, once, twice.

Blood oozes out from Deng’s stomach and his neck. Deng stumbles towards the door, but only for few steps before his body slumps to the floor. Watching blood spurting from Deng’s neck, Yujiao takes out her mobile and dials a number: ‘Mum, come quickly, I am in trouble.’ 

Yujiao’s mother rushes to the hotel. The police have arrived before her. ‘Mum, I had no choice. He is an animal.’ Yujiao’s mother hears her daughter’s desperate plea before the police take her away.

TWO DAYS LATER, one of China’s most progressive newspapers publishes Yujiao’s story. On the same day, a Chinese website sets up a special site asking people to vote if Yujiao has acted in self-defence. Within ten days, almost 100,000 people have voted, 92 per cent said yes. Ignoring the usual government directive to toe the official line, media across China follow the case. The news spreads like wildfire via the internet. Over four million posts appear on various Chinese websites. Among them, passionate poems are dedicated to Yujiao, praising her chastity, her strength and her courage. 

Overnight Yujiao becomes a national heroine, a modern female knight who has defended her dignity against the lascivious desire of a corrupt official. Using part of her name Jiao, meaning gorgeous, some even quote Mao’s poem: ‘The river and mountain are so gorgeous, the grand landscape has inspired countless heroes.’   

Women’s groups demand Yujiao’s fair treatment. In Shanghai, T-shirts with Yujiao’s portraits are given away and women march on the streets to show their support. In Beijing, a student lies on the street, wrapped in a long white sheet, her mouth sealed by tape. Around her, a sign reads ‘Anyone can be Yujiao.’ Immediately, the photo is uploaded and spread on the internet.

Yujiao becomes the heroine China desperately needs – a brave voice for the weak and the vulnerable, a courageous example of the powerless fighting against the powerful, and a woman who defies the seduction of money and the sex trade. Her defiance also brings hope to those who watch in despair the rapid decline of traditional values and the undoing of Mao’s women’s liberation.

Every day, the support for Yujiao grows across China while millions are watching and waiting. Under the mounting pressure, the government sacks Deng Guifa and his deputy and cancels their Communist Party memberships. Soon after, the provincial government issues an order, banning the use of public funds at all entertainment venues. The document stresses that party and government officials are strictly prohibited from receiving sexual services, and that those who break the rule will face severe disciplinary action.

A few weeks later, the court acquits Yujiao of all charges. Awaited by an army of journalists, Yujiiao walks out of the courtroom free. Overwhelmed, she thanks her millions of supporters across China and expresses her wish to live a normal life.

Avoiding cold glances in town, Mrs Deng wipes her teary eyes and buries her disgraced husband. Standing next to her is her son, once cocky but now ashamed.  

* This story is based on actual events which occurred in Hubei province in China in May 2009.


From Griffith Review Edition 45: The Way We Work © Copyright Griffith University & the author.

Griffith Review