The karaoke bar has become a ubiquitous symbol of urban China that is often taken to represent evidence of globalization, corruption, and sexuality. Tiantian Zheng’s book Red Lights: The Lives of Sex Workers in Postsocialist China finally helps the karaoke bar and its occupants come alive. Zheng returned to her hometown of Dalian, a port city in northeastern China formerly governed under Japanese colonial rule, to conduct this institutional ethnography of the karaoke bar. Indeed, she lived with hostesses inside a karaoke bar, which resulted in a rich ethnographic experience that allows her to illustrate the true role of karaoke bars in post-Mao Chinese society as well as the roles and identities of the hostesses and clients who sustain its social position. The end product is a description of how the karaoke bar contributes to construction of a new form of entrepreneurial masculinity. In doing so Zheng demonstrates how the karaoke bar, which is antithetical to state ideals, sits at the nexus of masculinity, power, and sex work in a way that serves the goals of the state, wealthy entrepreneurs, and poor, rural migrant women.
Much of the story revolves around male and female resistance to dominant powers. In the 1930s Japanese powers tried to subjugate Chinese men in Dalian through a strict program of calisthenics. The response was the adoption of soccer as a way of establishing an enduring model of masculinity based on bodily resistance. Today, men claim their masculinity through resistance to the state. They have taken the personalization of the impersonal money transaction, necessary for sustaining a market economy under a socialist state, from the banquet hall into the karaoke bar where they use sex as a way to communicate with a previously emasculating state. Women, as Zheng shows, have not only resisted the powerful male agents who seek to control their bodies but have also taken advantage of these men to raise their own social status. In this way Zheng subverts the archetypical portrayal of sex worker as victim. In colonial Dalian, women utilized the All-Manchu Women’s Union Organization, an organization created to provide Japanese soldiers with the feminine and motherly warmth necessary for maintaining strong masculine will, to carve out a space for their own independence. Today, hostesses use their clients’ social networks to enhance their own social status and economic security.
Although the title of the book suggests a discussion of women’s lives, Red Lights focuses equally on men’s and women’s experiences in the karaoke bar. In fact, the first half of the book concentrates on the idea of entrepreneurial masculinity as a way of bringing readers through the establishment of the institution where female hostesses work.
The first chapter demonstrates how Japanese colonial rule helped to structure modern-day masculinity in Dalian. Zheng also describes the unique structure of prostitution in Dalian that was influenced by the Japanese system of comfort women. Chapter 2 introduces the reader to the structure and role of the karaoke bar in modern Dalian. Through her research Zheng discovered that the Japanese introduced the karaoke bar to Dalian as a way to open up the Chinese market. Chinese men adapted easily to this new brand of masculinity. Karaoke bars have subsequently been used by the state to stimulate local economy and promote foreign investment. They also represent an important means of supporting rural economies through financial remittances that hostesses send home. This is juxtaposed with the official forms of regulation that serve to suppress operation of the karaoke industry. Chapter 3 further focuses on the structure of the karaoke bar through a detailed description of the different tiers of bars. Here Zheng presents a hierarchical representation of high-, medium-, and low-tier bars as a way of signifying social stratification in post-Mao China. She illustrates that while the institutional organization and management as well as the clientele differ among these three levels, hostesses at all levels share very similar experiences. All are subject to similar violence and exploitation and they all develop similar types of networks to protect themselves against the inequities waged at a group that lives at the bottom of the social hierarchy. Her final discussion of men in chapter 4 focuses on the rise of the modern sexual Chinese man. This is where she demonstrates men’s resistance against the state in post-Mao China. For a long time men were not in control of their sexual self because they were emasculated by a state that sought total control over private lives as a means of building loyalty toward the state. Women were robbed of their femininity and even masculinized as a way of oppressing sexuality. Men now want to be more in control of their sexuality, and Zheng argues they are using their newfound control of women as a medium for expressing their modern sense of masculinity.
In chapter 5, Zheng turns to the lives of the rural migrant women who work as the hostesses she lived with in Dalian. She begins by discussing the dual lives of hostesses and the way they balance home (i.e., their rural hometown) and city to help them fulfill their filial obligations and maintain ties to their traditional kin network while living a successful urban lifestyle. Chapter 6 demonstrates how a hostess who lives at the margins of society, by virtue of her rural origins and chosen occupation, strives to achieve parity with her urban counterparts. Zheng describes how hostesses use the cultural symbols of consumption available to them through their occupational role, such as Western clothes, hairstyles, and skin tone to transform themselves from rural peasants to modern urbanites. Finally, in chapter 6 the reader learns about the multiple identities that hostesses must negotiate (from the unruly whore to the subservient woman to the archetypical damsel in distress) to attract clients. Assuming the right identity with particular clients provides these rural women, who start at the margins of society, with entrée into privileged social networks that grant access to the benefits of social capital, social advancement, and economic security.
Ethnographically, Red Lights is extremely rich and provides the reader with a lens into the karaoke bar that has previously not been available to outsiders. This intense focus on the karaoke bar, however, does limit the book’s analysis of the “lived experiences” it aims to capture. Although the lives of the hostesses portrayed in the book were primarily focused inside the karaoke bar where they worked and lived for this period of their lives, the men discussed live their lives for the most part outside the karaoke bar. These men, who are often referred to as “clients,” do not identify as such and their masculinity is most probably defined by events and activities that happen outside the karaoke bar. In addition, the rich ethnography can at times get in the way of critical analysis that would have helped to strengthen the book.