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In her book So­cial­ism is Great! A Worker’s Mem­oir of the New China, fac­tory worker-turned writer Li­jia Zhang charted her jour­ney from the assem­bly line to in­ter­na­tional writ­ers’ fes­ti­vals. This year, her de­but novel Lo­tus fol­lows the day-to-day life of a

Southeast Asia Globe - - Contents - By Paul Mil­lar Li­jia Zhang is among the au­thors who will be speak­ing at this month's Ubud Writ­ers and Read­ers Fes­ti­val. For more in­for­ma­tion visit ubud­writ­ers­fes­ti­val.com

Li­jia Zhang’s de­but novel digs be­low the sur­face of China’s boom­ing sex work scene

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was not un­til her grand­mother lay dy­ing that Li­jia Zhang learned the truth. Weep­ing at her bed­side, Zhang's mother re­vealed how the woman who had raised her had been or­phaned as a child. How she had been adopted by her aunt. Then, the rev­e­la­tion that shat­tered ev­ery­thing Zhang thought she had known about her fam­ily. How, when she was a young woman, her grand­mother had been sold into a brothel. For years, she had worked as a ji, or pros­ti­tute, be­fore catch­ing the eye of a man who would make her his con­cu­bine. That man would be­come Zhang's grand­fa­ther.

Speak­ing to South­east Asia Globe 20 years later, Zhang de­scribed her re­ac­tion as one of stunned dis­be­lief.

“I be­gan to see pros­ti­tu­tion ev­ery­where,” she said. “A few months af­ter that rev­e­la­tion, I went to Shen­zhen for a re­port­ing trip, and I in­no­cently went to a place not far from our ho­tel and said I wanted a hair­cut. And the girls were just gig­gling and said: ‘We don't know how to cut hair.' And I no­ticed there were no hair shav­ings on the ground. That's when it clicked.”

Such glimpses of China's un­der­belly drove Zhang – who will be speak­ing at the Ubud Writ­ers and Read­ers Fes­ti­val in Bali this month – to spend 12 years delv­ing into the murky world of mas­sage par­lours, karaoke joints and hair sa­lons that barely try to con­ceal the grim re­al­ity of the coun­try's fast-grow­ing sex work in­dus­try. Zhang in­ter­viewed dozens of women who had been thrust into the flesh trade by the pres­sures of mod­ern China.

“Al­most all of them had some re­ally des­per­ate story to tell,” she said. “Women who had been aban­doned by their hus­bands, some women who had run away from an abu­sive hus­band… The safety net is very thin.”

It was not un­til Zhang be­gan vol­un­teer­ing for an NGO in Tian­jin, dis­tribut­ing con­doms to the city's work­ing girls, that she was able to gain some idea of the sheer scale of the in­dus­try.

“I did some in­ter­views and started writ­ing [about] their lives, but it was not enough in the be­gin­ning, which was why I went back and did more re­search and worked at an NGO, re­ally got to know them bet­ter,” she said. “I knew

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