The best books about Chinese prostitution and vice

Why am I passionate about this?

Peeking over the American fence, I found myself in China in 2004 as the nation was transitioning from its quaint 1980s/90s self into the futuristic “China 2.0” we know it today. My occupation, like many expats, was small-town English teacher. I later departed for what would become a two-year backpacking sojourn across all 33 Chinese provinces, the first foreigner on record to do so. Since then, I have published three books about China; my anthology Unsavory Elements was intended as a well-meaning tribute to the expatriate experience, however my own essay – a bawdy account of a visit to a rural brothel – was understandably demonized. The following five books expand on that illicit theme.


I edited...

Unsavory Elements: Stories of Foreigners on the Loose in China

By Tom Carter (editor),

Book cover of Unsavory Elements: Stories of Foreigners on the Loose in China

What is my book about?

Unsavory Elements is an unprecedented anthology of 28 original, true stories from some of the most celebrated foreign authors who have lived in modern China. Edited by Tom Carter, whose unfortunate contribution – a ribald tale of a boys’ night out to a house of ill repute – blights this critically acclaimed rogues gallery of Western expat writers. Unsavory Elements falls under the genre of travel writing, yet travel is just the beginning of the adventure here.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Sing-Song Girls of Shanghai

Tom Carter Why did I love this book?

Starting out as a serial in an 1890s Shanghainese magazine, yet remaining unpublished until 2005 following the discovery of its English translation among the belongings of the late Eileen Chang, The Sing-Song Girls of Shanghai is an unparalleled historical classic set in the pleasure quarters of the Qing Dynasty. Unlike the hyper-erotic writings of Li Yu and Lanling Xiaoxiao Sheng, the author, Bangqing Han, opted for a tempered realism unique for its period. Clocking in at 600 pages, and densely layered with multiple character arcs that are a bit difficult to keep track of, Sing-Song Girls may require more than one reading.

By Bangqing Han,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Sing-Song Girls of Shanghai as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Desire, virtue, courtesans (also known as sing-song girls), and the denizens of Shanghai's pleasure quarters are just some of the elements that constitute Han Bangqing's extraordinary novel of late imperial China. Han's richly textured, panoramic view of late-nineteenth-century Shanghai follows a range of characters from beautiful sing-song girls to lower-class prostitutes and from men in positions of social authority to criminals and ambitious young men recently arrived from the country. Considered one of the greatest works of Chinese fiction, The Sing-song Girls of Shanghai is now available for the first time in English. Neither sentimental nor sensationalistic in its portrayal…


Book cover of Red Lights: The Lives of Sex Workers in Postsocialist China

Tom Carter Why did I love this book?

Whilst studying in the U.S. in the early-2000s, Tiantian Zheng decided to return to her home city of Dalian, in northeast China, to embed herself for over two years with sex workers at local karaoke parlors. There, she witnessed, and at times personally endured, all manner of customer abuse, police crackdowns, government corruption, and catty relationships between hostesses, while somehow managing to keep copious secret notes for her ethnographic fieldwork (which eventually became Red Lights). It is an eye-opening but purely academic text, not a mass-market page-turner, which will primarily be of interest only to those of us researching socioeconomic conditions in China.

By Tiantian Zheng,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Red Lights as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In China today, sex work cannot be untangled from the phenomenon of rural-urban migration, the entertainment industry, and state power. In Red Lights, Tiantian Zheng highlights the urban karaoke bar as the locus at which these three factors intersect and provides a rich account of the lives of karaoke hostesses-a career whose name disguises the sex work and minimizes the surprising influence these women often have as power brokers.

Zheng embarked on two years of intensely embedded ethnographic fieldwork in her birthplace, Dalian, a large northeastern Chinese seaport of over six million people. During this time, Zheng lived and worked…


Book cover of Northern Girls: Life Goes On

Tom Carter Why did I love this book?

A post-70s generation Chinese authoress who capitalized on the big international book deals cleared for her by the commercial success of Shanghai Baby and Beijing Doll, and who likewise has developed an unsavory reputation among Communist authorities, Sheng Keyi has published many heralded (and banned) books. But her crowning achievement is 2012’s Northern Girls, about young female migrant workers who leave the countryside for the big city but fall into the trappings of prostitution. Unlike the memoirs penned by her counterparts, this is an obviously fictional story that falls under the sub-genre of “magical realism”. I’d suggest reading alongside Lijia Zhang’s Lotus (an acclaimed yet in my opinion far less fun read) also on sex workers in modern China.

By Sheng Keyi,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Northern Girls as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Qian Xiaohong is born in a sleepy Hunan village, where the new China rush toward development is a distant rumor. A buxom, naïve 16-year-old, she joins the mass migration to the boomtown of Shenzhen where she navigates dangerous encounters with ruthless bosses, jealous wives, sympathetic hookers and corrupt policemen. Moving through a grinding succession of dead end jobs, Xiaohong finds solace in her close ties with her fellow "northern girls," who quickly learn to rely on each other for humor and the enjoyment of life's simple pleasures. This coming-of-age novel explores the inner lives of a generation of young, rural…


Book cover of Whispers and Moans: Interviews with the Men and Women of Hong Kong's Sex Industry

Tom Carter Why did I love this book?

The definitive sociological examination of prostitution in contemporary Hong Kong, Yeeshan Yang spent one year – out of plain curiosity – alongside the city’s sex workers, listening to their stories of how they arrived there, how they spend their days/nights, and what becomes of them when they leave the trade. These humanizing case studies provide separate yet occasionally intersecting profiles of female streetwalkers and club hostesses, as well as male prossies and pimps, and their sometimes sad, sometimes funny, tales of the world’s oldest profession in the Orient. Whispers and Moans was also adapted (by Yang) into a 2007 film by the famed Cat-III Hong Kong director Herman Yau.

By Yeeshan Yang,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Whispers and Moans as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

With glitzy nightclubs, saunas, karaoke lounges and brothels, Hong Kong's sex business is booming. But how do local prostitutes compete with an endless supply of girls from China? To find out, Yang spent a year with the city's hookers. The result is an eye-opening book which shows the human side of sex for sale - easy money, financial ruin and hopeless relationships - and first-hand insights into the huge but hidden sex industry.


Book cover of The World of Suzie Wong

Tom Carter Why did I love this book?

This story is so sweet and funny, I must have read it a dozen times since first arriving in China. That a Western male writer conceived a female Chinese character as charming and relatable as Suzie without ever straying into offensive farce really says something about the author, Richard Mason’s, craft. His prose is old-school eloquent, and deftly includes the smallest details that bring Suzie, a naughty yet affectionate hooker with a big heart, and her 1950s Hong Kong brothel settings, to vivid life. If I had only five desert-island books, The World of Suzie Wong would be one of them.

By Richard Mason,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The World of Suzie Wong as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Penguin Books reintroduces the timeless story of the love affair between a British artist and a Chinese prostitute.

Robert is t he only resident of the Nam Kok hotel not renting his room by the hour when he meets Suzie at the bar. She becomes his muse and they fall in love. But even in Hong Kong, where many white expatriates have Chinese mistresses, their romance could jeopardize the things they each hold dear. Set in the mid-1950s, The World of Suzie Wong is a beautifully written time capsule of a novel. First published more than fifty years ago, it…


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Love, Sex, and Other Calamities: 15 Stories and a Poem by Ralph Hickok

By Ralph Hickok,

Book cover of Love, Sex, and Other Calamities: 15 Stories and a Poem by Ralph Hickok

Ralph Hickok Author Of Vagabond Halfback: The Saga of Johnny Blood McNally

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

I grew up in Green Bay and my dad was the official scorer for the Packers, so I was immersed in pro football history even as a child. During my careers as a newspaper feature writer and editor and as an advertising copywriter, I also became a sports historian. My magnum opus was “The Encyclopedia of North American Sports History,” 650,000 words. But my favorite by far is my biography of Johnny Blood. I was 12 or 13 when I decided I wanted to write it, 33 when I began working on it, 38 when I finished it, and 78 when it was finally published.

Ralph's book list on the history of pro football

What is my book about?

From Kirkus Reviews: "This debut short-story collection paints the wistful life of a newspaper journalist as seen through his sexual and romantic encounters...

Throughout, Hickok writes in an assured style, pulling readers along. The narrow sexual focus results in a distorted picture, yet other aspects of Art's life emerge at the edges—his intelligence, his career as a journalist, and even the sincerity with which he gives in to his male urges and construes sex as love... 

Subdued yet alluring; a pensive reflection on the male psyche."

Love, Sex, and Other Calamities: 15 Stories and a Poem by Ralph Hickok

By Ralph Hickok,

What is this book about?

A man arrives in a new city, hoping to start a new life, but he’s still haunted by memories of past loves…
A 12-year-old boy and an 11-year-old girl have a brief romantic encounter when their families are vacationing in neighboring lakeside cottages…
Two teenagers enjoy sexual experimentation when she babysits for her little brother while her parents are out drinking…
A high school boy has a crush on an older woman who identifies with Molly Bloom…
A college freshman falls in love with a high school freshman and is amazed at the depths of her passion…
A guy wins…


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in China, prostitution, and Shanghai?

11,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about China, prostitution, and Shanghai.

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