Like many things in China, sex work is illegal but continues to flourish behind closed doors. In many cases, escort agencies masquerade as karaoke bars, which are known as karaoke television bars, or “KTV bars” for short.
Many of these KTV bars are exactly what they claim to be—places to get drunk and sing karaoke—but a large number also allow their clients to proposition employees. For this reason police treat all venues with scepticism, and KTV bars regularly get raided. Proving that a place is actually facilitating sex work is difficult, though, so police often settle for fining managers who illegally employ foreign women—as many places do.
For two months, one such woman was Russian freelance photographer Valya Lee, who worked as a “party girl” at several Beijing clubs. She captured her experience on a camera phone to illuminate an industry the government claims doesn’t exist.
We spoke to Valya about what she saw during her two-month tenure in Beijing, and what she learned about sex work in modern China.
VICE: Hey Valya, can you tell me a bit about yourself and how this project came about?
Valya Lee: Sure. Well, as you know my name is Valya Lee. I’m 25-years-old and I’m a freelance photographer based in Russia. I was born close to the Chinese border so I’ve studied Chinese language and culture for several years, and I guess that’s why I’m interested in projects that examine relations between Russia and China.
And to capture this series you got a job in a KTV bar?
That’s right. The girls are called “hostesses” or “party girls,” although the direct translation from Chinese is “a girl who provides entertainment in the company of alcohol”. Most employees are Chinese, but a lot of girls also come from Russia or Ukraine and their main task is to get a client drunk and ensure they have a good time. No one except my friends knew I was shooting photos inside the clubs. Often managers would confiscate my phone before a shift so later I began carrying two phones: one for my manager to take, and one for me to take photos on.
This sounds pretty dicey. Did anyone ever see your camera?
No one ever saw me taking pictures. Phones are so commonplace that they’ve become completely invisible, but obviously working in a KTV bar came with its own dangers.
What was the scariest thing that happened while you worked undercover?
Probably the scariest thing happened on one of my last days. This client who was known by everyone at the club suggested I spend the night with him, but I refused. I didn’t think refusing would be a big deal, but my manager really tried to persuade me. “This is a very powerful man, a big boss," he told me. Then he started threatening me, saying “you’re not legal here and I can hand you over to the police if you don’t cooperate.” I was scared but I knew it was a bluff. When he told me he would call the police I said: "well, let's make that call together." At that point he backed off but I decided it was time to finish the project.
I’m guessing guys tried to sleep with you a lot, given you were pretending to be a “party girl.” How did you deal with this?
Yeah, the first time I was propositioned really stressed me out because the room I was in wasn’t “okay,” which is what we called the safe room. But then the proposals became more frequent and I either just ignored them or told people that I refused.
How did the club work? Can you walk us through an average night?
It all starts in the casting room where the girls wait to be chosen by a man. The more expensive the KTV is, the higher the requirements for the standards of beauty: the girls have to be tall and they need to look like models. I even worked in one club where the girls were chosen for their vocal abilities. In these rooms, men point fingers at women or they tell the madam—known as “Mami”—which girl they like. This is also when some customers inform Mami they need sexual services. In this case, before leading girls to such men, Mami usually asks the girls “are you okay?” If they nod the deal is done.
Then what happens?
Then you just hang out with your client. After some time working in the clubs, I developed a standard set of conversation topics and always kept my clients’ glasses topped up. Clients usually wanted girls to drink a lot but we quietly spilled our drinks onto the floor. The clients would then sing, either alone or with me. When they found out that I was Russian they always wanted to sing songs like Katyusha, Moscow Nights, or something from Vita’s repertoire.
Were all the girls in your club okay with having paid sex with clients?
I saw a lot of Chinese women afraid of losing their jobs, so they tried to fulfil all of their clients’ requests. Foreign women such as myself didn’t have so much pressure though, especially as we knew that half of everything we’d earn would be taken by Mami due to the risk of clients handing over foreign girls to the police as a way to avoid paying. All the girls knew this was a risk so I personally never met any foreign woman who’d slept with a client.
So given that sex work is illegal, how do these bars operate?
All of them have a good security system, so if the police arrive, they know in advance. But still, I had to hide in the locker room or in the parking lot several times. If you’re suspected to be a foreign sex worker, you are likely to face deportation and pay a large fine.
What did you learn about corruption while you were there?
I think corruption is the same everywhere: if you have money and power you can do anything, regardless of the law. But having said that, I was always surprised by the way managers kept reiterating that their venues didn't provide sexual services, only to get asked to spend a night with a client by exactly the same people the following night. This happened everywhere.
What were the clients like?
There were all completely different because different KTVs attract different crowds. You can meet highly paid specialists, teachers, and civil servants. Foreigners are very rare—at least while I was working, I never met any.
Tell us about the Chinese girls you worked with. Who were they and where were they from?
There were girls from lots of different provinces. I once met a girl who was about 19 years old, and it was obvious she was uncomfortable working but she’d always get quickly chosen. Then one day she was kicked out of a room after a client saw she had braces on her teeth. She got fired after that incident. Apparently she’d left home for Beijing where she wanted to study acting.
Many girls work in KTV bars because they don’t have enough money to pay for their studies or to repay loans. Usually no one tells their relatives where they work. Even if women hate the job, they often can’t leave because they become accustomed to the high earnings. Other work just doesn't provide the same income.
In general, what was the main thing you learned from working in KTV bars?
I remember when I used to see Russian girls working as go-go dancers, I’d judge them for not behaving properly. But now, after walking in their shoes, I decided that you really can't judge a book by its cover.
This article originally appeared on VICE ASIA.