The best books about Chinese prostitution and vice

The Books I Picked & Why

The Sing-Song Girls of Shanghai

By Bangqing Han

The Sing-Song Girls of Shanghai

Why 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Starting out as a serial in an 1890s Shanghainese magazine, yet remaining unpublished until 2005 following the discovery of its English translation among the belongings of the late Eileen Chang, The Sing-Song Girls of Shanghai is an unparalleled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.


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Red Lights: The Lives of Sex Workers in Postsocialist China

By Tiantian Zheng

Red Lights: The Lives of Sex Workers in Postsocialist China

Why 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.


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Northern Girls

By Keyi Sheng

Northern Girls

Why 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.


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

By Yeeshan Yang

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

Why 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.


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The World of Suzie Wong

By Richard Mason

The World of Suzie Wong

Why 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.


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