bitao alley—the morning after

i love you
Originally uploaded by mary ann odonnell.

The school I work for is currently going international. Consequently, I’ve been going to an international school in Shekou to meet with administrators and teachers in order to figure out what to do. The school is located right next to the infamous Bitao Alley, where sex and money get mixed up in soul-chilling ways. Bitao Alley is lined by bars that cater to the many single Western men, who live and work in Shekou. At night, music blares and there’s a sense that people are trying to forget where they are, or rather trying to get someplace else through each other. Most of the Chinese women have come from poorer areas in China’s underdeveloped rural areas and are looking for boyfriends or husbands, while the Western men seem determined to pretend they aren’t in China and haven’t bothered to learn even enough Chinese to give a taxi driver their address. So it’s never clear who’s using who, and a desperate insecurity infuses the relationships that litter Bitao. One morning I was in a Seaworld coffee shop eating brunch, when I overheard the following conversation:

He: “You’re a liar…”
She: “We just met for coffee.”
He: “A liar. You lie about everything.”
She: “You don’t understand.”
He: “You told me you were staying at home. And then you went out for coffee.”
She: “My friend called…”
He, throwing hot coffee at her: “Liar.”

She wiped the coffee up and started read a newspaper, while he continued yelling at her. I turned around to ask her if she need help and she said no. I then asked him to tone it down, but by then, most of the other English speakers had left the coffee shop. Distressed, I also paid and left the two of them there.

The political-economic background to this scene is common to most ports, where the sudden influx of capital usually means the arrival of single men, who are overpaid relative to the local economy and hookup with local women as a strategy for negotiating their very real loneliness and cultural incompetence. Bitao Alley is located in center of Shekou, which was the first area in Shenzhen opened to foreign capital. Even before Shenzhen had been established, the Shekou Industrial Zone was open for business. Until municipal restructuring in the early 1990s, Shekou was independent from the municipal government. So important was Shekou to Deng’s image of Reform and Opening that in 1984 during the meetings to discuss opening the fourteen coastal cities, Yuan Kang, Shekou’s head officer, rather than Liang Xiang, the city’s mayor, represented Shenzhen in the discussions.

Like Overseas Chinese Town, Shekou has been administered by a governmental ministry for economic ends. China Merchants was a branch of the government responsible for overseas trade. This model represents an expansion of a similar pattern in downtown Shenzhen, where different ministries and provincial governments were allotted land to pursue economic projects. Overseas Chinese Town and Shekou, however, are much larger and unlike Overseas Chinese Town, Shekou’s initial political independence continues to shape local politics and investment patterns. Indeed, China Merchants, the Ministry that ran Shekou is now one of the largest enterprises in the country, with interests ranging from financial services, shipping, and real estate to manufacturing and new technologies. For a sense of the scope and range of the company’s investments, visit China Merchants Group, where Shekou is only one of many projects.

Importantly, Shekou is also the headquarters for Chinese oil exploration in the South China Sea, where sovereignty debates continue to vex development. Seven countries have diverse claims to the region: Brunei, China, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam. Not unexpectedly, representatives from the Seven Sisters oil companies (Exxon, Shell, BP, Mobil, Chevron, Gulf, Texaco) are based in Shekou. For a dated but relevant synopsis and map of the claims and disputes please visit the Department of Energy’s briefSouth China Sea Tables and Maps. I’ve heard, but not confirmed that the foreign companies shoulder all exploration expenses and then when oil is discovered split profits with the Chinese government. I’m sure there are more complicated negotiations that go into dividing up tracts, especially given the international sovereignty debates. You can also check out China Merchants petro-businesses on their website.

What is interesting about all this, is that for many Chinese, Bitao Alley both actualizes and provides a working metaphor for all that is wrong with the way that Shenzhen has reformed and opened. So pervasive is this sense, that in everyday conversation, the expression “开放”, which means to open, also means to be sexually liberated tending toward the promiscuous. In contrast, “改革”, which means to reform has retained its political meaning. On the one hand, it is considered inevitable that bars, which traffic in sex came to mediate the relationships between relatively wealthy white businessmen and relatively poor Chinese women. After all, as a popular expression has it, “men go bad once they have money, while women are only bad when they’re poor (男人有钱就坏,女人没有钱才坏)”. In Shenzhen, not just white men, but men in general—men from the Mainland, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Korean, Japan, and Singapore—have taken advantage of relative privilege to indulge in relationships that they might not have been able to pursue at home. On the other hand, the white man-Chinese woman relationship often stands for the feminization of China with respect to the West. Suddenly the problem seems not one of gender inequality, but racial/national inequality in which local women’s issues get subordinated to national goals.

Speakers who invoke the white man-Chinese woman metaphor to illustrate what’s wrong with globalization rarely question the fact that throughout Shenzhen women work in jobs that pay less and carry fewer benefits than do “masculine” jobs. Instead, what is lamented is the imperiled status of China’s masculinity. China’s men, it seems, aren’t manly enough. If they were, the argument proceeds, then Chinese women wouldn’t have to work in Bitao Alley bars. The corollary—that a wealthy Chinese man could import or go abroad to use white sex workers—remains unmentioned. Nevertheless, a desire for China to fuck the world seems to hum beneath the surface of such conversations. At the level of popular culture, this desire takes the form of scantily clothed Russian dancers performing in Las Vegas-style numbers at Shenzhen’s popular resort, Window to the World, while some Chinese men do go to Thailand on less than savory tours. This topic has received both popular and scholarly attention. In China Pop, Jianying Zha reports on this phenomenon, while Xueping Zhong provides a more theoretical version of this story in Masculinity Besieged? In the spirit of fair disclosure, I should also mention that I provided my husband with the material to write an award-winning skit about what it means to be a white woman in China. The translation of “Neither Type Nor Category” was published in TheatreForum, Issue 27, Summer/Fall 2005.

For a sense of the gendered despair that radical inequality between nations produces, you could do worse than visit Bitao Alley.

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