Society for East Asian Anthropology
Oral Presentation Session
During ethnographic fieldwork that spanned over two years in red-light districts in China (Hainan, Shanghai, and Beijing), I regulalry encountered female migrants in the sex trade who drew a clear line between sexual exchange and love. Within the community discourse of Chinese sex workers, relationships with clients – even lover-type clients (“old fellows” or laotou) – were unanimously asserted to be purely transactional. However, their actions and personal interviews suggested that the dichotomy between love (ai) and transaction (jiaoyi) became blurred in their daily lives. This paper explores how, why, and to what extent these women shape but simultaneously undermine the seemingly concrete social construction of the binary concepts as they struggle to survive and prosper in both rural and urban China. Building upon feminist ethnographies of love and sex work, I examine how intimacy is performed and interpreted through the migration process in which the women make themselves significant urban community members in post-socialist China.