This article originally appeared on VICE UK.
"You'll wear a party short dress. No loose dresses, please. Great if it's a V-neck without sleeves, or even half sleeves are alright. If you have a habit of wearing stockings, don't. And above all, your best high heel shoes. Not the boots kind."
"That's fine," I reply submissively to the stranger on WeChat, China's largest messaging platform. He's got me a secret side-job at a KTV (karaoke) place in town, paying 600¥ (about $100) per evening for serving drinks, flirting, and looking foreign. It doesn't sound like much money, but since one evening would be half my month's au-pair wages, I'm curious. Besides, it goes a long way in China, where instead of a load of pissed-up clubbers staggering out at sunrise to yell at minicab drivers, there's the majestic KTV.
The phenomenon covers the world's fourth biggest nation, and like its food, tastes are regional: Mando-pop in the northern coastline cities, militant revolutionary songs in the barren east, aching love ballads further south. Although KTV's a widespread leisure pursuit among elites, its employees are seen as depraved ne'er-do-wells, hence the secrecy: My wealthy host family would die of face-loss if they knew their little treasure's live-in English teacher was also a KTV hostess.
I always wondered how easily my ethical judgment could be swayed by money, and here I find myself clawing for a bit of work that's only offered to one gender, one race, and is fully conditional on one's appearance. Clicking on the ad makes me flinch in self-disgust, and WeChatting the guy I start to feel more like a commodity than a human. But reassuringly, he says the duties entail "creating a happy atmosphere… that's all. No weird stuff. There's option for weird stuff too which pay comes different." Encouraged by his honesty, I say I'll come on Saturday.
I turn up looking like a tourist, with a change of sexy clothes in my backpack. A Sri Lankan guy takes me to the third floor of the swanky multiplex, and the KTV layout is instantly recognizable: plush, snaking corridors upholstered in wine-red carpeting and numbered doors, a bit like a hotel. Behind each of those is a KTV "cabin": parlor-like, exquisitely decked with sofas, cushions, en-suite, a table garnished with fruits and cigarettes. To one side, there's a pulpit with a small screen to select your power ballad. Front-facing it all is the room's showpiece: an elephantine TV screen. All of this for upward of $4,500 per evening (hot company is extra).
The contrastingly grungy girls' changing room doubles as the treasurer's office. He's there thumbing through his stacks of paper Maos while the girls strut or lie around looking swanlike and indifferent. The Sri Lankan puts my valuables in his locker and shows me to a bathroom to get dressed in private, a privilege of not being a Chinese employee. I try to make myself look equally swanlike and indifferent, but outside the floor manager looks at me and sighs, "It'll do." After confiscating our mobile phones, she bustles me, a Nepalese, a Russian, and a Ukrainian girl in a line behind the Chinese swans who enter a cabin before us. We follow them in and stand facing a bunch of middle-aged emperors and three chosen girls. The manager whispers into the chief's ear, pointing at each of us in turn; but as he looks at his mates with a derisive expression it becomes clear that none of us are wanted.
The Ukrainian and I are escorted to an empty cabin and told we're going to have to wait for some guests who've booked us. They chose us from pictures, apparently, like garden furniture in an Argos catalogue. After waiting for an hour, chatting to the Ukrainian about life ("I don't understand why in my country there is war. We are friends with Russia!"), four youngish Chinese men arrive and cheerily greet us. One of them, an albino guy, goes straight for the mic, and tears into a couple of Mandarin songs with an unexpectedly lark-like voice. After a bit of whiskey and coercion, I join him for a duet rendition of Westlife's "You Raise Me Up." Then I light cigarettes and top up glasses, trying to simultaneously piss around in Chinese and understand things. Later, I unveil the only Chinese song I know, and, at an unholier hour, it's Britney, bitch.
Some of the Swans join us and start caressing the main guy around the face and groin while he sings badly. The albino guy cracks one about me going back to their place for fucking and we all laugh, until they realize it was a joke, and they start to leave with the more acquiescent girls. Later, the Sri Lankan gives me some "good feedback" but tells me to wear higher heels and more "party-ish clothes" next time. He hands over the cash, which feels dirty and good, and forbids me to keep contact or sleep with any of the clients, who are all inconceivably rich, otherwise we could get into deep judiciary shit, probably with some mafia with government links or something. Who knew that karaoke could be so shady?
Scootering through the city at 4 AM I get to the shabby digs arranged for me and bunk up in the cold. The next morning I hand over my keys and envisage a life of funding Chinese classes with complementary KTV hostessing, and with hopes and ambitions anew, head out to buy a pair of massive stilettos.
The following week, my KTV flesh-peddler warns me that there are no cabins and no work. Turning up anyway, I'm bustled around hastily and overhear the manager say "Quick, get the white girl in the big one." I'm pushed into the big one, and on learning I'm English, the businessmen inside roar with delight and sit me next to a paunchy bespectacled man because apparently we'll be able to chat. This turns out to be untrue. The group is a lot more lad-y than last week's—they've bought an overabundance of girls and are karaokeing communist war-chants and songs about maternal piety, maybe the equivalent of belting out "Rule Britannia" while eyeing up girls at Wetherspoons.
When the room goes black, the flaccid-faced daddies are dragged up by the snow whites who are pretending to be exciting. One works here six nights a week, juggling a boyfriend and day job as an assistant podiatrist. The frenzied room manager starts shoving couples together to everyone's palpable embarrassment, giving it all a school disco vibe. If porky hands search for my butt I artfully wiggle it over to the song selector and try to make everyone's hearts go on with some Celine Dion; they usually leave me alone after that.
Related: TOXIC: Linfen, China.
Each shift is Groundhog-esque: skimpy clothes, Lady Gaga, xenophilia, jujubes, molestation, repeat. There's not a single female guest during my service; they're all businessmen, and when I tentatively ask what they do, they breeze over a vague answer like, "Moving things. Logistics." Other highlights include seeing slender Chinese girls being told to lose weight, bitch-glares for my preferential treatment, and the sheepish managers attempting to undersell me several times, making me feel like a sucker. I'm also told to sing more crappily because otherwise clients get bored. You can't "create a happy atmosphere" without masochism.
One evening it all goes tits up. Bored myself, I take advantage of the gorgeous scotch I usually pretend to drink and snatch up the mic to massacre some Chinese tunes. There's a hairy male yelling at me to sing "Let It Go" while he claws at some poor girl's breast because his kid loves that song. The room spins and I feel barfy.
I don't remember what happens next. The following morning in my rented hovel I wake up to a WeChat group message announcing I was an "embarrassment to both staff and clients." Smelling of sick, this is the "retched" end of my debut KTV hostess career: I'm not wanted back, used as an example to the other girls of the dangers of drink-partying. I guess I done bad—quite an accomplishment at a place that cheapens female students and hard-up ambitious girls for perverse hobbyists and commercial profit. Being laid off would have more dire consequences for them. There's pressure to conform to the oversexed materialism of a new China, steeped in aesthetic and financial competitiveness, whereas for a westerner these kinds of jobs are easy pickings. Having shriveled men pay for their company is a bizarre validation of the fun-loving, baby-doll image these girls must pursue. As for the men, perhaps the best way they can flaunt their fortune is by renting girls for a singalong. Maybe the strain of "moving things" for lots of money necessitates such a change in tune from blissful married life.
Oh well. It's not the only KTV joint in town, and it's not the only town in China. Comforted that there's a dodgy backup job for when I end up dead broke, I take my glad-rags, my priceless windpipes, and my leave.