Hard times in China's boom town Slump: The economy is wobbling in Shenzhen because of a crackdown on vice, corruption and easy bank loans that seemed to promise endless growth. But it still draws the ambitious and the desperate.

Sun Journal

November 12, 1995|By Ian Johnson | Ian Johnson,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

SHENZHEN, China -- Hong Kong is visible in the distance, but any trace of its cosmopolitan flair vanishes in Shenzhen's hazy night.

In the Century Hotel, Miss Shi is fighting off a drunken man. At a nondescript restaurant, Miss Jian is in the midst of a 17-hour shift that will pay $1.70.

At the Folk Culture Villages, Mr. Zhen is performing a fake folk dance where the main goal is to keep on smiling.

Shenzhen is a city of 3 million people, and perhaps best known as the laboratory for China's economic experiments. But it is also the incarnation of instant gratification, an oily meal gulped down by the harried Hong Kong businessmen who breeze through to visit their low-cost factories and their girlfriends.

Shenzhen's economy is slowing, because of a crackdown on vice, corruption and the easy bank loans that had seemed to promise endless economic growth. But it is still a magnet for the desperate and the ambitious -- including Miss Shi, Miss Jian and Mr. Zhen.

At the Century Hotel, Miss Shi eventually ditched the Hong Kong businessman, who seemed capable of little more than yanking her long black hair. A native of Guizhou, China's poorest province, she has followed the lead of thousands of other young women by making her way here in hope of finding something better than the subsistence farming back home.

Her makeup is applied crudely. Her polyester blouse and bleached jeans add to the sense of disarray. Some successful Shenzhen courtesans become second wives for Hong Kong businessmen and advise them on business deals. But Miss Shi is lucky to clear a few dollars a month.

"When it gets horrible, I just think of the money," she says over pineapple juice. "In Shenzhen, you have everything when you have money.

"Without it, you are nothing."

Her mother died 10 years ago. Her father didn't pay attention to his daughters. So Miss Shi dropped out of school at age 14 and did odd jobs until last year, when a man in her hometown was recruiting women to work in Shenzhen's factories. At 19, feeling she had nothing to lose, she signed up.

Since she lied about her credentials, a tea company hired her to do accounting. After a week of botched calculations, she was fired.

She drifted around the hotel where she was staying until another man offered her a job escorting men to karaoke bars -- which led to full-time prostitution.

Last year, business -- such as it is -- was good. This year, the river of Hong Kong businessmen has slowed, because China, in its efforts to control inflation, has caused construction projects to be canceled and real estate deals put on hold.

So Miss Shi sees little chance of saving the $250 she needs to return home.

She works out of the hotel's fifth-floor bar, where waitresses and bartenders often take a cut of the prostitutes' wages. Always dressed in black, the prostitutes conspicuously move among the businessmen, offering to sit with them and have a drink.

As a pianist tinkles out "Feelings" and the bar's three-story glass window provides a dramatic view of the city's skyscrapers, it's easy to forget that business is bad. But many of the buildings stand empty. Miss Shi now is lucky to find a client once every three days.

Businessmen stash their girls in Second Wife Village, and when Shenzhen was helping to overheat the national economy, a taxi ride there used to take a bit of doing.

All the taxis were snapped up by the prostitutes, who literally lined the street from the Hong Kong border.

The streets now yield fewer of the women dressed in black, but they are still there, picking their way among the broken slabs of pavement and open gutters, not far from Shenzhen's downtown.

The village has its share of corner restaurants, one of which is where Jian Jingxi spends her days and nights.

Like most people in Shenzhen -- a collection of villages that the government decided in the early 1980s to build into a city -- Miss Jian is from somewhere else. When a friend working in Shenzhen came back to her hometown in Henan province to celebrate the Lunar New Year, Miss Jian was impressed with the tales of the city and jumped at the chance to live and work in China's officially designated boom town.

"If I stayed at home, I wouldn't earn anything, but here at least I can earn something," she says. "But the work is tough, tougher than I ever imagined."

She's usually up at 11 a.m. to buy vegetables and meat at the market. Then come several hours of meticulous chopping and sorting so the chef can quickly stir-fry them for customers. Then it's serving tables until 4 a.m.

Miss Jian's pay works out to about 10 cents an hour.

Her bedroom is the shed where she prepares the vegetables. She shares it with another girl. In the background, a television shows a lion tamer performing his tricks to the Paul McCartney song "Live and Let Die." The chef smacks open the kitchen door and bellows that another dish is ready.

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