Prostitution in Tianjin, China — anecdotes, STD vocab, and how one group of local women is fighting back

Even an untrained, inattentive eye will notice evidence of the pervasive prostitution industry in Tianjin. If you’re clued in to the typical indicators, you’ll see that it’s a flourishing open secret, hiding in plain sight. Study some Chinese and read up on Chinese society, and it will ooze all the more out of your increasingly legible and intelligible surroundings. In the especially attuned gaze of a group of local women who are actively reaching out to the girls and trying to provide them with alternatives, prostitution in Tianjin is like an advanced form of malignant cancer, metastasized deep into the cultural and economic fabric of the city. And Tianjin is certainly not special in this regard.

Prostitution is so ubiquitous that the clueless can accidentally find themselves in very, shall we say, unintended circumstances. It needs no red light district. Walking along the nicely treed side street to our former apartment complex, with the WèiJÄ«n canal (卫津河) and ZǐJÄ«nShān Rd. (紫金山路) on your right and buildings on your left, you’ll find, in order: a first-floor window converted into a sex toy shop, a bar with prostitutes, a restaurant, a bath house with prostitutes, a karaoke club with prostitutes, a preschool, our apartment buildings, and a foot-massage parlour with prostitutes.

I’m reminded of all this because I’m reading Factory Girls and came across this bit describing the garbage-strewn side streets of a factory city in the south [p.111]:

the walls of the buildings were plastered with ads for gonorrhea and syphilis clinics; in China these flyers broke out like rashes wherever prostitution thrived.

But this actually describes our second Tianjin apartment complex, which is full of retired university professors and their families, with an elementary school across the street, and is, I want to emphasize, a normal Tianjin neighbourhood; we weren’t living in a migrant worker ghetto. And it’s saturated with these kinds of ads. There are six of them just on one side of the main gate, and we accidentally ended up broadcasting three more all over North America when we announced our second pregnancy via a photo taken outside the entrance to our stairwell, which was also plastered with them. Basically no matter where you look in our neighbourhood, if you can read Chinese you see “VENEREAL DISEASE, GONORRHEA, SYPHILIS” in big bold black font. Here’s a closer look at one ad, with a partial translation (mouseover the Chinese for pronunciation):

Venereal Disease One-shot Effectiveness
Imported Western medicine, one shot gives the desired effect, will never recur
进口西药 一针见效 永不复发
Gonorrhea (specialized outpatient service) syphilis
Inflamed glans, prostatitis, spermiduct pus, painful and difficult urination,
syphilis buds, pubic lice and itching, acute viral genital warts, vaginal odor
Acute viral genital warts (cauliflower-shaped granulation/anal warts) removed then
Chlamydia, mycoplasma, non-gonococcal urethritis
衣原体 支原体 非淋菌性尿道炎

So you can imagine how becoming partially literate in Chinese can change the feel of a place.

In the months before we temporarily left Tianjin for the second time, Jessica was volunteering with a group of women who reach out to local women in prostitution. Originally, part of the idea was to help these girls find other jobs, but it was difficult finding people willing to hire them. So the group created jobs by starting a jewelry workshop as a viable first big step out of prostitution.

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