Editor’s note: The following article was first published by World Journal, a Chinese-language newspaper based out of North America. The article introduces Shenzhen’s infamous "Mistress Villages" and discusses how China’s continuing economic development may be changing the mistresses’ motivations from economic to emotion.
For years, an age-old "social arrangement" between the two sexes has occurred in the city of Shenzhen: young girls, from all over the poor, rural parts of China came to the city, no doubt looking for work, while affluent (and married) businessmen stopped in the city looking for a quick bit of "R and R" whilst travelling about China. Suffice it to say, these two groups soon found common ground, which quickly developed an entire ernai (二奶) or mistress subculture in Shenzhen. More unusually – but not really all that surprising in hindsight –these ernai lived in a few concentrated communities all located near the Shenzhen-Hong Kong border.
Hongkongese businessmen mixing business with pleasure
Since the mid-eighties, many Hongkongese businessmen, white-collar workers and even truck drivers, who frequently travelled between Hong Kong and Mainland China have kept their own ernai in Shenzhen (later on, Taiwanese businessmen got into the ernai game too). For the businessmen, the residences near Luohu District's Wenjin Checkpoint (文锦渡口岸) were preferable, while for truck drivers, the residences near the Huanggang Checkpoint (皇岗口岸) were considered most convenient – after crossing the border, drivers could quickly pull off the road, visit their ernai, and get back on the road, all without being late for a single delivery. Witty locals took to referring to these communities as Shenzhen’s "Mistress Villages" (二奶村). Shenzhen’s ernai subculture became so prevalent that the rail line between Hong Kong and Guangdong became known as the "Concubine Express", and it is said that in Hong Kong, if one is so inclined, you can even purchase a guidebook that provides tips on where to find attractive potential mistresses in Shenzhen.
Life as an ernai: all play and no work?
According to a girl named "Adi", after arriving in Shenzhen from her hometown in rural Hubei Province, she quickly found work as an ernai, and was making 8,000 RMB per month right off the bat. Later on, as a more "experienced" ernai, she began making over 20,000 RMB per month. What does an ernai do to earn so much money? Well, apparently a typical day for Adi is as follows: she wakes up, dresses in something fashionable and expensive, gets a manicure at one of the city’s high-class nail salons, enjoys afternoon tea while playing Mah-Jong with some of the other ernai that live in her community, watches a DVD or chats online with friends at night, and then goes to bed in the apartment that is rented for her. Her actual job is quite simple: she keeps her Hongkongese boyfriend company four or five nights each month. She’s often given a new bag, shoes, cosmetics or other small gifts each time he visits as well. For a girl from rural Hubei Province who didn't even graduate from middle school, and has no professional skills to speak of, what could be wrong with living this kind of life?
Shenzhen fights back against its ernai notoriety
In the past, Shenzhen’s most well-known Mistress Villages were referred to as "the three sands and one water" – Shangsha Village (上沙村), Xiasha Village (下沙村), Shazui Village (沙嘴村) and Shuiwei Village (水围村) – and you couldn’t walk five steps without seeing some sleepy-looking young girl, still dressed in pyjamas and a bright yellow jacket, running down the street to buy some take-out food for her Hongkongese boyfriend who had just arrived in Shenzhen unannounced. But as the city cracked down on prostitution, during a three-month campaign to "improve Shenzhen’s social order and to reform villages such as Shazui," many of these Mistress Villages were torn down, and the ernai relocated to different communities across the city. However, no such local reform could stop the supply and demand for something like ernai in Shenzhen, right?
Add emotions to the equation = a recipe for violence
Perhaps, local reforms are not necessary to alter the demand for ernai companionship in Shenzhen. Simply put, as China itself has changed from its rapid economic development, so too has the ernai trade. In the past, neither the Hongkongese businessmen nor the ernai were very emotionally attached to each other. The girls were not very emotionally attached to their boyfriends, as they saw the arrangement in terms of economic factors (men want sex, women want money).
However, in recent years, despite the economic crisis that set most of the world back a decade financially, China's economy has continued growing, and so too have the costs of keeping an ernai– rising tides lift all boats after all (水涨船高). Nowadays, with anything less than 20,000-30,000 RMB, it has become very difficult to find a girl willing to "keep an empty bedroom" (独守空闺) as an ernai, and the simplicity of the former economic factors has decreased, while at the same time, a new set of "emotional" factors has taken its place, and with it the ernai has been replaced by the xiaosan (小三) – somebody who is romantically involved with somebody already in a committed relationship – which has more or less the same connotation, but with an implied emotional depth. To deal with these new "rules to the game", many of the men (who can still afford it) try to use their money to keep the emotional demands of their ernai/xiaosan in check. But in some cases, not even money can solve these problems, and when arguments inevitably turn into demands to "leave your wife or I’ll tell her about us", nothing good can come of it. Violence often ensues, families (of cheating husbands) are broken, and it all ends in common ruins. It’s no small wonder that in recent years, Shenzhen has witnessed a spike in so-called "crimes of passion".
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Keywords: Shenzhen Mistress Villages Shenzhen ernai Hong Kong businessmen with Mainland Chinese mistresses Shenzhen prostitution mistress subculture China
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