A LONE WOMAN stands on a pedestrian bridge overlooking the gleaming wet, empty boulevard below, cold December rain pelting her umbrella. The silhouette the streetlight creates tells me it's a woman--short jacket to mid thigh, knee high boots with stilted heels. It is well after midnight and I think to myself, "She must really need the money to be out in this weather." All the other “working girls” have long since gone, giving up to the rain, the chill, the empty streets. This is mainland China and the city is Guangzhou, better known as Canton to the western world.
I have to cross the bridge, it's the way home. As I reach the top of the steps I tilt my umbrella to cover my eyes, avoiding her gaze and solicitations. "Michael?" I stop walking, smiling now when I recognize the voice. "Lily!" I say, tilting back my umbrella to lean in and kiss her quickly; her cheek is ice cold. She huddles closer, our umbrellas bumping intimately. She offers me a cigarette, and though I don't usually smoke, I accept. She lights me up with Marlene Dietrich flair, touching the glowing tip of hers to mine until it lights. Lily is honest, straightforward, and sincere, which is exceptional in her world of sex, money, and danger. Unlike other hookers, she never propositioned me. The first time I met her was very similar to this night, minus the rain.
"Ni chi fan, hao bu hao ?" (Have you eaten, yes nor no?), I ask, as I shiver from the cold. She smiles and takes my arm without answering, guiding me across the bridge, intuitive to our destination. We've played these roles before. It has the surreal sense of a movie scene; a little intrigue and a little danger. Six months before it was exactly that because she saved me from being robbed and perhaps a lot worse.
CantonThe pubs in central Canton cater to a varied crowd of visiting foreign businessmen and expatriates. I have friends from nearly every corner of the world there: Germany, England, Scotland, Ireland, France, Brazil, Spain, Italy, Switzerland, Sweden, Russia--even Finland. Because of that, there was never a problem finding a drinking partner; Hemingway would have loved it. A few of us routinely made pub crawls to change things up, inevitably catching the eyes of the gi (chicken), Chinese slang for prostitute.
As a group, the street walkers can be formidable, surrounding an individual mark and purring in their broken English hopeful words of seduction. So having a friend or two in tow while changing bar venues made it a safer gambit. A buddy pushing you along, saying "She's pretty, I know! Just follow me into the pub, you'll thank me tomorrow!" makes a run through the chicken coop much easier. Most are reasonably pretty, as well as young, and nearly all come from the countryside of other provinces, driven away by their families to make money any way they can.
The Hopeful HookersThey come along with tens of millions* of migrant workers who hope to tap into the vast wealth and opportunity of the "world's factory floor" as the area surrounding Guangzhou is known. Most of the girls end up here or in one of it's many satellite factory cities: Shenzhen, Dongguan, Foshan, and Zhuhai. That's exactly why I and so many other foreigners were here; money, excitement and adventure in a foreign land.
Hookers in China are surprisingly moral. These filial daughters will send back a sizable portion of their illicit gains to their family for support. The fortunate ones can end up learning a trade, such as waitressing, or tending bar. I watched a young girl named Flower transform this way. She came into the employ of the Hill Bar when she was just 16, was naturally beautiful and always had a smile. She started helping out behind the bar and soon became a bartender. Her entire English vocabulary consisted of "Hello", "Tank you" and "Bye Bye" when she arrived. Within six months she was rather fluent, within a year she was reading as well as writing. She saved her money and began taking computer classes in her free time. For every success story like Flower though, there are tens of thousands in China less fortunate. The estimates of how many prostitutes working in China very from several hundred thousand to ten million. Big discrepancy, but big numbers to say the least.
*26.7 million migrant workers thrive in Guangdong Province, one third of the entire country's migrant work force.
Rescue In The DiscoA few months after I met Lily, I went to check out an after-hours night club I'd heard about, as it was well after 2 AM. It was typical cheesy Chinese club decor: loads of overstuffed wall sofas, high tables and chairs, go go dancers gyrating on pedestals, bartenders flipping bottles, and about forty patrons fairly well into their cups. Groups of thin Chinese men in ill-fitting clothes nervously eyeballed tables of shy, Chinese girls they would never get the courage to mingle with or talk to. A clump of well dressed Indian and Pakistani businessmen flirted with four hostess girls, whose job was to drive up their bar tab. Chinese couples flirted and laughed while drinking sangria from fruit laden pitchers and playing liar's dice. All in all an OK place to finish the night.
I ogled one of the dancing go go girls when a curvaceous woman showing ample cleavage appeared beside me. She took my arm and led me to a table with two other girls and so I sat with them. She kept smiling at me, speaking Chinese, stroking my arm, then my upper leg beneath the table, slowly working her way up higher with each pass. I soon found a drink in front of me that I didn't order. I was already half drunk when I arrived--"what the hell" I thought. Yet after two glasses I could hardly hold my head up. The girl who now squeezed my leg very near my crotch a little too enthusiastically whispered "Massagy? You, me--go!" She stood and pulled me up to unstable feet, and as I lurched around, there stood Lily before me. She wore a shiny, long sleeved dress that hugged her body like a second skin, looking like an albino python, ready to squeeze the life out of someone. Her thick and silky, blue-black hair shone in the pulsating lights. She took my arm from the girl, placing herself between us and said "We go Michael, she is ma fan! (trouble). My legs were like noodles so Lily took my arm and wrapped it around her shoulder, the other girl yelling at us as we weaved toward the door. Lily hailed a cab once outside, slipping us into the backseat together. Lily gave directions to the driver, then pulling my head over onto her shoulder, stroked my hair, whispering "We go my home..." I soon blacked out.
Lily's LairSan shi kwai--30 Yuan, Lily said to me, arousing me from my stupor. I handed her my wallet--I was in no condition to count. She paid the fare, gave me my wallet, and we slithered from the car. Lily led me through a dark and twisting stone-cobbled alleyway between shabby multi-story buildings that seemed to squeeze in closer the deeper we went. Overhead was a multitude of overhanging barred metal window enclosures where drying clothes, potted plants, and dried vegetables hung. The whole area seemed in constant decay. We stopped at a door that Lily adeptly unlocked in near total darkness. Here it smelled of rotting fruit, vegetable peelings and open sewers. A large dark shape darted past our feet, hugging the wall, "lao shu!" Lily squealed. She shivered against me, although the rat had gone. Once inside we mounted a number of staircases, startling yet a second rat that merely watched us pass, its red eyes glowing, then we were at Lily's floor. My feet were lead and I felt embarrassed that she half dragged me here so I tried to began to apologize. "Shhhh!" she scolded me, "No talk, many people sleep now!" She unlocked a series of locks on two separate doors then pulled me inside.
Lily seemed to have a large spacious apartment—the high ceiling and distant looking dark walls feeling like a gloomy cavern in my still-drunken state. She helped take off my shoes and socks while I slumped into the stiff wooden couch. She gave me rubber slippers, then disappeared into the bathroom. I soon heard water running and she returned, wearing a robe. "You clothes--off." I stood and began pulling off my shirt as she worked my trousers loose. I stepped out of my pants and underwear and she led me to the bathroom. She paused a moment to remove her robe, then she twisted her hair up in a loose knot and we stepped into the shower. I enjoyed this private moment to admire Lily's exquisite, ballerina-like figure. The shower itself was hardly big enough for us both, but I didn't mind. The near scalding hot water cascaded over me as Lily began to scrub me with a soapy wash mitten. I was feeling revived, the effect of the alcohol in my system somewhat abated. Lily kissed me softly, then ordered me out. "Go! My bed." I dried myself off and walked in my squishy slippers toward the bedroom a lot less wobbly thanks to the invigorating bath. It was the middle of June and the weather was beyond sultry, so I turned on a nearby floor fan, pulled back the sheet and moved to the far side of the bed. Lily must have taken some time in the shower, because I awoke to her cool hand on my chest. She had snuggled close to me, a towel wrapped about her mass of hair. We kissed me tenderly for a moment, then Lily whispered wan an!--good night.
Slipped A MickeyI woke up to bright light streaming into the room from the high window over me. I sat up and saw Lily in her robe, perched on a wooden chair, munching a cookie, two tea cups on the bedside table, the clock there read 10:30 AM. She took a small white porcelain teapot from the floor and filled a cup and handed it to me, kissing me lightly on the lips. As I sipped the wonderfully strong green tea, she talked while watching an old black and white Chinese drama on TV. She picked up the ubiquitous Chinese/English red pocket dictionary everyone has, referred to a bookmarked page, then said "I save you.". She looked at me smiling then returned her attention to the TV. "That girl, really ma fan! I do not like her!" She said between bites of cookie and sips of tea. "Her friend give you drink, make you stupid". Then I understood--I had been drugged! I sat there staring at nothing particular, stunned and feeling truly stupid. "How did all this happen?" I wondered.
"They take you, go a place, take you money, you phone, hit you on head, maybe kill!" I nearly spilled my tea at this. "Oh my god Lily, really? Thank you! Thank you my angel!" I then reached over to her hugged her close and began kissing her nose, her cheeks, her mouth, saying "You did save me, thank you!" I continued thanking her "I had no idea, really! I didn't see you there, where were you?" Lily gave me a devilish smile, happy with my praise, then said "I sit in back, watching ma fan girl. I know she do this many time on lo wai (foreigner), my friend tell me “Miko go to that disco” I know you drink too much pi jiu (beer). The girl see you, talk her friends, she get you." Lily paused and retrieved the pot and poured more tea. " I watch them, see if they make trouble to you." She gave me the last bit of her cookie, then leaned on my shoulder. I realized then that Lily needed the comfort of someone she genuinely cared about. We cuddled up to one another, my arms around her, my face nestled in her fragrant hair. I was finally realizing how much she cared about me. "So what did you see?" I asked, as she twisted to her side, looking up at me. She draped one smooth, slender leg over mine. "I see another girl from their table go to bar, get pi jiu, then come back. Behind you, she put drug in glass." Lily made a sign with her thumb and forefinger close together, emphasizing perhaps a pill. We kissed and spent the afternoon together being playful in bed. This was the first time I had slept with Lily and we would have several other intimate encounters through the next few years.
Before long I told her I should go home and even though she refused money from me, I discretely left her several 100 RMB notes on a table before we left together—she had saved me after all.
Confronting A ThiefSome time later she found me sitting at a table outside the Hill Bar, sipping a gin and tonic, alone. Ni Bu Kwai le? (you unhappy). I told her that I had gotten drunk the night before, taken a girl home I didn't really know and the next day, no phone no wallet and no girl. "She is gi--a hooker (literally "chicken"). I told her I didn't think so, because I met her at the pub just up the road. She asked her name, and I told her I only got her English name, and described how she looked. Lily looked at me seriously, "Michael, she is gi, no good girl will do this!"Then she got up, rummaged through her hand bag, then glanced at me. "You need money?" She smiled and pouted at the same time, "cigarettes!" I took out 50 RMB and gave it to her, she leaned over and kissed me, a quick hug, then ran off. After a few steps though, she spun and looked at me with large eyes, her mouth forming a large "O" with excitement. She ran back to me, her eyes still flaring. "Michael! I know this girl! She is new girl! I will find her, you no worry!" Then she ran off before I could say a word, her heels clicking rapidly down the walkway, her silk dress barely containing her wiggling bottom.
Several gins, a few beers, and a few shots of tequila later I was still at Hill Bar, but inside now, listening to one of the many Filipino bands that play around the city. I was drinking with a couple of German friends when someone tapped me on the shoulder; the Germans' eyes lit up and they grinned. I turned around and there was Lily, now dressed in a traditional Gi Pao, the tight, slit-at-the-thigh Chinese dresses foreigners love. She motioned me with her hand to follow. I stepped away with her, the guys making rude noises. We stood in a dark corner of the bar, and Lily reached into her clutch bag and pulled out my phone and my wallet.
"Where? How?" was all I could stammer. Lily looked up in my eyes, and put her arms about my neck. "I am you angel, yes?" I laughed and kissed her, "Yes, Lily, my angel in China!" I waved to the guys and Lily and I walked out hand in hand, heading off to our usual rendezvous, the Blue & White Cafe.