mapping the city, first stop: sex workers

When doing fieldwork in a new city, one of the first things I do is try to bond with taxi drivers. They make the best informants and have such a rich sense of the city's informal and formal layers. They help me create what I call "consumption maps of the city. I buy a big street map and hang it up on my wall. Then I try to map the following onto it:

  • formal business mapping -  location of business districts
  • wholesale markets (import and export of clothing, food, and etc) - usually you find a lot of informal economy stuff around any import/export area
  • popular shopping areas - high-end to low-end
  • food areas for locals and tourists
  • music - where people go to listen to music, esp sub-culture/alternative music
  • where peopel  have sex 

One of the ways I map the city is to quickly figure out where people go to pay for sex and have sex.  In China, the sex worker industry encompasses all economic levels. It's a bit complex to figure out which hotels and karoke bars are for high-end clients to which ones are for every day citizens. 

There are several levels where people pay for sex in most first to second tier Chinese cities (conversion $1=6RMB)

  1. super high end brothel (10,000RMB and up)
  2. the mayor's brothel ( based off of conversations I estimate it to be around several thousand RMB)
  3. the policeman's brothel ( based off of conversations I estimate it  to be around 200-1000RMB)
  4. the business person (200-1000RMB)
  5. the citizen's brothels (5-100RMB) - the sex worker rents the hotel room 
  6. street walkers who charge aound 20-50RMB - client pays for hotel

When the police do sweeps and arrest sex workers, only those who work in what I call the "citizen's brothels" get arrested. Street walkers can be easily arrested anytime and they are the most vulnerable because most of the time they don't work with the protection of an overseer. 

All the other brothels pay off the police or some other department to protect themselves. The police only go to the police-protected brothels and of course the mayor's brothel is only accessible to higher up government officials. The super high end brothels are accessible for anyone who has money. Here are some fieldnotes from one of my earlier attempts to map out sex in Wuhan last year around October. 

Field notes - October 11, 2011

My research assistant and I spent the night driving around with a taxi driver who knew where all the sex workers were located. He picked us up at another bar where the owners was telling us that many of the brothels in Wuhan have moved to another city 1 hour away called Xiao Gan where the police and local government have welcomes the new industry to establish it self. 

Once I realized my driver has this knowledge and was open to sharing it, my goal was to have him drive us around so that I could do some participant observation like walking around on the street, talking to business owners, and then try out some breaching experiments.

But when we arrived at the locations, the streets were empty. The first place we went to, there was only one car parked on the street and no sex workers walking around.  My driver then realized that Hu JinTao was coming into town the next day so there must have been warnings to all the local police to do a sweep and to warn everyone to stay inside until Mr. Hu leaves town. This made sense since October was the Anniversary of The Revolution of 1911 that created the Republic of China on October 10, 2011. The military uprising against the Qing Dynasty started in Wuchang, Wuhan, so the city (Wuhan) is always a special place during the anniversary. But this year China celebrating the 100 year anniversary, so even Hu Jin Tao was coming in to Wuhan.  

But before my driver told me why the streets were dark and empty, I was actually getting worried that I was getting ourselves into a dangerous situation and may have mis-read him. I had only met him 20 minutes before he agreed to take us around looking for sex workers. When I got worried, I immediately took out my phone and called a friend who lives in the city and who I knew would still be awake at 2am. I told my friend where I was exactly and what I was doing all under the pretenses that I was really excited to share my experience him. The driver heard the entire converstaion. My friend didn't even know I was worried, he just was happy that I called.

But eventually we found a street where some restuarants were still opened. The karoke bars were all closed.

There were only two people on the steet, two males who appeared to be students. They definitely don't look like undercover cops and plus undercover cops wouldn't work that hard to arrest sex workers. If they go undercover, they go directly to the brothels because they know where they are all located. The brothels pay the police station off to leave them alone. But I don't think these two males knew that they weren't going to find any workers tonight to sleep with.

This restaurant was open but my guess is that it also doubles as a front for a brothel. I asked the driver to stop and asked my assistant to buy some oranges and water at a small store. They cashier asked her when she arrived, which is code langauge for trying to get information from my assisstant on when she started working as a sex worker. I stayed in the car to chat with the driver to find out more information about the city. 

We tried another location and still the street was empty despite being located next to a construction site, which usually is a place where sex workers can easily find clients. The only people on the street were the garbage cleaners. I told the driver to just park the car on a corner near the site. After 10 minutes, we spotted a woman. My notes for that moment:

woman on street with heels, short skirt, tight top with dangling tassels from the sleeves, light white-tish top with black skirt, hair down to back, carried purse and held cellphone in her hand and kept looking at it. she looks around and then at her cellphone. holding it with her right hand while hands are crossed, purse hanging off of her left hand. The street is totally empty, no one is walking around and not many cars, no honking. I wonder if she is new to this work. Doesn't she think it's odd that no one else is on the street working. Maybe she needs to make money really badly. Sounds of construction machinery in background. Garbage truck approaching on other side of the street. 5 minutes later, man in construction outfit walks up to her. He is wearing yellow hard hat, blue top and bottoms, he approaches her, he says something, she looks around when she is answering his questions.  Then they walk away together. Negotiations took less then 1 minute. 

After they left, I told my driver to show us around the other areas of the city known for having lots of sex workers. We drove to expensive hotels and karaoke bars.

Taxi drivers really are some of the best sources of information. I will be calling him in for fieldwork at night trips and overall help with navigating the underground life of the city.