Shenzhen’s Place in China’s Long History Mixing Sex and Commerce

Shenzhen night time, from China First Capital blog post

Shenzhen is such a relentless modern city that it’s often hard to discern the influence of 3,000 years of Chinese history and culture. The skyline is so futuristic that it often resembles the home planet of a higher civilization.(See photo above, of the City Center and buildings near CFC’s office). 

But, of course, this is still a part of China, with all its embedded messages and references to a history longer and richer than any other. It just takes a little wisdom to perceive it. I can’t lay claim to any such wisdom. Luckily, though, I have a friend here who has both the historical knowledge and scholar’s temperament to properly put modern Shenzhen into a more classically Chinese context. 

This friend, Zhen Qinan, has had a exemplary career in the financial industry, first as part of the working team formed in 1990 to establish the Shenzhen Stock Exchange, and then as head of a joint venture between four Chinese financial firms and Merrill Lynch, where he worked with leading Chinese companies like Huawei and Taitai Pharmaceutical. 

These days, Qinan is semi-retired. I try to spend time with him whenever I can. He’s warm and thoughtful, and I know now from experience that he’ll offer astoundingly wise insights to even my most mundane questions. How mundane? Over a meal at one of Shenzhen’s better Sichuan places, I commented on how lucky we were to be in a city with so many good restaurants, even by Chinese standards. 

If I had to come up with reasons why, I would settle for the fact Shenzhen is richer than other cities, and has a population drawn from all parts of China. Qinan, however, offered a much richer explanation, rooted in his learning and respect for Chinese history. 

Shenzhen is part of an unbroken tradition, reaching back at least 1,200 years, of commercial centers in China having the best food and also the most beautiful women. So, in their day, the great trading cities along the Grand Canal — Hangzhou, Suzhou, Yangzhou — were particularly renowned as places with the finest and most varied cuisine, and the most desirable women. This reputation has remained largely intact in those cities, even as the commercial locus of China shifted elsewhere. 

The reason then, and the reason now, is the same: in wealthier commercial cities, there’s a heightened appreciation, as well as larger audience, for the pleasures that money can buy. Qinan is from Xian, and to drive home the point, he drew the comparison for me between Shenzhen and his home city.

Xian was always a center of learning and political power, rather than a city with vibrant trade and a large, successful merchant class. As a result, the food, though still quite delicious, has always been a little more basic, less expensive, less intricate, less subtle than that of the trading centers to the east, along the Grand Canal. There’s just not enough money around to support a thriving community of top-quality chefs and restaurants. They migrate to where the money is. 

The same logic, of course, applies to why beautiful women are more prevalent in rich commercial cities in China. Traditionally, beautiful women went to Suzhou, Hangzhou or Yangzhou to find a rich patron to take them as a subsidiary wife. They then produced better-looking children, on average, so creating a virtuous cycle. Let the process run, uninterrupted, for several centuries and the results would be that the cities gained a reputation, probably grounded in fact, for having particularly good-looking ladies. 

To this day, Chinese will always aver that Suzhou has the most beautiful women in the country. I haven’t been to Suzhou in over 25 years, so I can’t say if the reputation is deserved or not. But, I do know that most Chinese believe this to be true of Suzhou, even though, of course, few will have ever been there to see for themselves. 

While concubinage is officially no more in China, there is still a similar process at work in today’s Shenzhen. Concubines are no more. Polygamy is outlawed. Today, the term is 二奶 “er nai”, or “second lady”. It’s analogous to a mistress. Shenzhen, I’m told, has more “er nai” than any other city in China. These tend to be pretty girls in their early 20s who come to Shenzhen from all over China, and often end up clothed, housed, fed and otherwise supported financially by an older, usually married man. Nowhere else in the world (not Paris, Milan, or other centers of mistress culture) have I ever seen so many dreary older men in the company of stunningly beautiful women. 

Shenzhen has more “er nai” both because it’s the richest city in China, and also because there are a lot of men from neighboring Hong Kong who either live or work here, during the week. Part of the standard “expat package” would seem to be taking a Chinese girl as a mistress. I’m told the going rate, in terms of monthly cash stipend, is at least $1,000 a month, with apartment, car and clothing budget extra. That’s about five times more than a woman of similar age can make working in one of Shenzhen’s factories.

One other difference from the China of yore: these women will usually return to their home village with quite a nice nest-egg, marry locally and start a family. This then creates a “job opening”. The man will now find a new “er nai” and so start again the process of clothing, feeding and housing an attractive woman new to Shenzhen.   

Food and sex. They are life’s two most basic drives, as well as the fuel that has kept China’s commercial centers buzzing for well over a thousand years.



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