After 30 years of economic progress unparalleled in human history, China can rewrite the rules on which leading economic indicators are most important to track. I want to nominate a new one: the rate at which brothels are converted to beauty parlors.
At least in my Shenzhen neighborhood, this indicator is certainly at an all-time high. In the last four months, two rather seedy massage and KTV parlors have undergone very lavish renovation and reopened as large, expensive, multi-floored hair-dressing salons.
The clear implication: you can make more money in China these days selling perms and dye jobs than selling sex. This is an economic change in China of historic, if under-appreciated, importance.
Shenzhen has long had a reputation as one of the red light capitals of China. Some of the reasons: proximity to Hong Kong, a transient population made up largely of economic migrants, a local government with more of a laissez-faire attitude than elsewhere in China.
I can’t imagine anyone but the local police are keeping count, but I’d guess there must be thousands of places in the city offering sex for cash. These range from tiny storefronts with five to ten girls in folding chairs, to all manner of sauna, massage and KTV joints, most, but not all of which, augment their more legitimate offerings with the paid option to take one of the hostesses home with you, or do a little groping on the premises.
Or so I’m told. I know it may sound either prudish or disingenuous, but I’ve never been a customer of one of these places. I do, however, marvel at the variety and number of places selling sex here. The five-minute walk from my house to the local supermarket takes me past two big neon-lit places, called 会所, or “clubs” with touts out front and some heavily made-up ladies within. Down two smaller alleys are small storefront brothels.
In the building where I live, one of the fancier ones in my neighborhood, business cards are slipped under my door most every night offering “home delivery services”. They stress the a variety of women available, including nurses, college students, migrants, mistresses, foreigners.
This is the part of Shenzhen’s sex trade I most deeply object to. The cards are put under every door. The photos on the card are of naked women. My next-door neighbors include Chinese families with young kids. It’s unseemly, and I’ve complained numerous times to the doormen, but they claim not to know who is responsible for distributing the cards. My guess is they are paid to look the other way.
The economics of hair-dressing are certainly more favorable than the economics of prostitution. It’s not unusual for a woman to spend Rmb200-300 or more on a haircut and shampoo. Get your hair colored and the price can double. Though there are already dozens of hair salons in my neighborhood, they all seem to be jam-packed at all hours of the day. That never looks to be the case of the places selling sex. They always seem empty, over-staffed and under-patronized.
One thing hairdressers and brothels have in common, the busiest time is 9pm-1am. Hairdressers, most of whom are men, earn a pretty good living, making around USD$1,000 a month. But, they work long hours, usually 12 hours a day. Most of the customers are women, but these places also cater to men. I pay Rmb 50 for a haircut and no shampoo. That’s a little less than the cost of a haircut at the joint I used to go to in LA’s Koreatown.
Every new beauty parlor that opens is confirmation of some larger economic trends in China. Women have more disposable income, and more of an inclination to spend it on fashion, cosmetics, or a new hairstyle. Prices are quickly reaching levels similar to those in the US. In Shenzhen, a young woman can now easily earn as much every month sitting at a desk in an office as sitting in a storefront brothel. That is probably a change from a few years ago.
China’s economy is changing quickly from export-dependence to a reliance on the domestic market, from dominance of manufacturing to the rise of the service sector. In my part of Shenzhen, what’s changing most quickly: who is serving what to whom for how much.