The Millions

The Sex Worker Next Door

I’ve been interested in prostitution ever since a “deathbed revelation” in 1998. As my beloved maternal grandmother lay dying, my mother, an only child, cried her eyes out. She said to me: “You have no idea how much she has suffered: the famine, the Nanjing Massacre, all these political movements, and she was a working girl in the ’30s.”

A working girl? I had a hard time reconciling the image of a sex worker with my grandma, a devout Buddhist who chanted Amitabha all day long and who raised me. A strikingly beautiful woman, she had high cheekbones and almond-shaped eyes. Dimples danced on her cheeks as she talked, always softly. As a traditional woman, she insisted on wearing a Chinese-style cotton jacket with a high mandarin collar, fixed by butterfly buttons. In the morning, she plaited my hair and, in the evening, she cooked for me and the family.

My mother explained that grandmother had become an orphan as a child and was later sold into a local brothel in Yangzhou, a small town in Eastern China. She worked for 10 years until—while on the job—she met my grandfather, a small-time grain dealer.

I kept wondering what her life was like inside the brothel. How did she cope? I quizzed my mother about grandma’s former life, but she was unable to enlighten me; she said the brothel was a middle-class

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