Category Archives: Interview

Sex Education: Self-education

It is impossible for most young women in China to talk to their parents about sex and reproduction: “do you want to tell me about sex?” a woman from Tianjin asked her parents at age 13. They threw the question right back: “do you want us to tell you about sex?” The conversation ended there, and she had to work out the rest for herself. Chinese parents are too shy to discuss the issue with their daughters. So how do Chinese women learn about sex?

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Chinese young women conduct their own sexual education to increase agency and enable personal choices

“My parents told me they found me in the street”, said Elena Cui. Another woman’s parents still maintain that they found her “in the garbage can”. Some were told “fairytale stories” about where babies come from: her parents met, fell in love, and then there was a baby. None were told the truth at any stage, and most still haven’t discussed sex or reproduction with their parents.

Amy Ma spent much of her young life confused about sex. Her parents would reach over to cover her eyes during kissing and sex scenes in romantic movies, a physical act embodying the whole family’s mutual embarrassment. Amy is one of many girls whose parents would chidingly remind their daughters not to do what they saw on screen throughout childhood. But horrifying rape scenes in war movies went uncensored at home and in school, so Amy grew up wondering why rape seemed okay if consensual sex wasn’t.

Mothers advise girls not to “do things” with boys because “it” is bad — very bad — for girls. Daughters are left to connect the dots between emotions and sex, then sex and pregnancy — links that are never stated, only implied in highly coded language. Girls are expected to understand through guesswork and implication that an unplanned pregnancy (ie. outside wedlock) would be the end of their education and careers — careers that the whole family is anticipating and working towards.

After learning how to put a condom on a banana, Elena texted her boyfriend to show off: “do you know how to use a condom?” 

Contrary to (mainly western) feminist paradigms, for Chinese women the advent of birth control is not automatically synonymous with “freedom”. Within the collective cultural memory, family planning holds the cultural weight of painful state control, as legislation to reduce family sizes in the early Maoist period was enforced through forceful means. Rather than the spectrum of possibilities opened up by various kinds of contraception, without sexual education, only a few huge choices are made apparent: choose to have a non-sexual relationship; choose not to have a relationship at all; or, risk pregnancy and (commonly) the secret abortion that would result from it. Only a curious few will make the leap to a fourth choice: contraception.

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Parents are willing to put in only minimal effort to educate their children, often neglecting opportunities due to embarrassment about the subject matter. The woman from Tianjin remembers finding condoms under her parent’s pillow when she shared their bed in the nineties, and blowing them up like balloons, much to her parent’s humiliation. They never explained what the condoms were for: she put two and two together from the images on the box.

Parents sidestep the what and how questions of sex, and schools follow suit, ignoring young peoples’ educational and sexual needs and desires to the point of danger. Undergraduate Grace Zhu told me that several girls at her middle and high schools got pregnant at age 15 or 16. Students in Grace’s school had never been given any sexual education beyond learning about genitalia and menstruation from pictures in textbooks. She had no idea contraception even existed until attending university. Grace’s sexually active classmates could not tell their teachers or parents, and rarely told their friends until after a pregnancy had been terminated. They’d go to abortion clinics alone or with their boyfriends, having raised the money to pay for it by asking school friends for cash, and then take time off school by pretending to have flu. For Grace, these stories were a warning for her to be careful.

“Privacy is a luxury. I am being responsible with my body, I want to know that I am okay, so why am I being judged?”

Women in China are working to empower themselves and one another, even if their parents and teachers are not. Elena Cui, a graduate student in Beijing, often travels to visit her boyfriend who studies in Nanjing. Before she travels, her mother will offer up a warning. “She doesn’t tell me about sex, she doesn’t say ‘you can’t have sex with your boyfriend’, she just says ‘you can’t, it’s not good for the girl’.”

Elena feels her mother is hiding something, because she repeats this vaguely threatening aphorism regularly. Elena does her own research online, and as a result she now believes that having sex is human nature, and nothing to be shy or ashamed of talking about. She talks about it with her boyfriend. Elena was surprised that her roommate (another graduate student) had never heard of condoms or other forms of contraception before the pair attended a potentially one of a kind women’s health seminar. After the meeting, in which she learned how to put a condom on a banana, Elena texted her boyfriend to show off about her newly acquired skill: “do you know how to use a condom?” she asked him.

One woman who studied abroad in the US felt reassured by the friendly staff and safe environment when she got a free STD test there. She didn’t have to make an appointment, and received her results by text message. She couldn’t believe the contrast with sexual healthcare in China. Having got an appointment with gynaecologist at a reputable Beijing hospital, she was told, “we don’t do that test here”. Reproductive health services are commonly provided only to married women; single women are not expected to be sexually active. Women often find that taking action to maintain reproductive health places them in situations in which they feel their agency is restricted or undermined.

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“Privacy is a luxury,” she says. “I am being responsible with my body, I want to know that I am okay, so why am I being judged?” In a hospital that does make sexual health checks available, she queued for several hours on two separate occasions, even after making an appointment. Once inside, she felt forced into what she calls “social pariah” territory, by sharing a waiting area with patients with infectious diseases. During her examination, other doctors and patients walked freely in and out of the consultation room, while still more patients peered around the door as they waited in line. A self-described “tough girl”, she doesn’t feel shame in seeking the healthcare she needs. But this kind of treatment would prevent the softer hearted from accessing reproductive healthcare.

“I didn’t know anything about sex before I came to university,” Jodie Mai tells me. “But I have done a lot of research, watched a lot of informational videos online, and talked to my roommates about it. Most of the time we make jokes about sex, with girls and with boys, but sometimes my roommates and I have long, serious conversations about sex and boys. They’ve helped me learn everything I need to know about sex. So now, I still don’t want to have sex before marriage, but I know that it is my choice.” There is little reason to assume that institutions are changing in regard to providing sexual health education and services. But, young women are definitely asking the questions, and some of them seem to be finding answers.

My numerous conversations with young Chinese women gave a clear picture, that most Chinese women in their late teens and twenties have never received a comprehensive sexual education from parents or teachers. Without this, young women find making decisions about sexual relationships at the most granular level is still like moving boulders.

They told me that schooling around sexual education was sparse for those born in the late eighties and nineties. Their teachers refused to discuss sex, sometimes giving students as little as five minutes to memorise scientific terms from textbook diagrams of genitalia. Reproduction was a scientific subject, far removed from real women’s bodies.

For many, the teacher’s embarrassment effectively locked students’ curiosity out of the classroom. They had to find the practical information they were really interested in via other means. Most turned to the internet as teenagers, most often finding pornography and unfiltered information on Baidu pages, but sometimes finding Youku videos presenting accurate information for this specific purpose. Some learned from their parents’ sexual habits, studying the adults’ pornography stashes and connecting the dots with what they heard and saw when sharing a bedroom with their parents early in life.

“Most of the time we make jokes about sex, with girls and with boys, but sometimes my roommates and I have long, serious conversations about sex and boys. They’ve helped me learn everything I need to know about sex.”

One woman I spoke to remembered waking up to find her parents watching porn, and later repeatedly telling them she wanted to watch “that thing” she wasn’t allowed to watch. By taking charge of their curiosity, these women have gone beyond their formal education to explore their questions about sex, relationships, contraception and their bodies. These women say they feel freer to make choices that reflect their personal values and desires. Getting past the stigma to learn about sex can be a life-changing experience for women to increase their individual agency.

Read on

Sexuality, Contraception and Challenging the Patriarchy: Lijia Zhang (Interview)

Lijia Zhang on Gender, China’s Sexual Revolution and Prostitution in Contemporary China (Interview)

Sell-by-date: Fertility and F**kability

Closer Look: Jin Xing, China’s first transgender woman 

Series: Dating in China [Part 5]

Gender Equality in China (Interview)

Can Rape Jokes Ever Be Funny? 

Pyone Thet Thet Kyaw on the State of Women’s rights in Myanmar (Interview: part 3)

Pyone Thet Thet Kyaw can be found at the British Embassy, working for the Department for International Development (DFID) in Yangon from 9-5, and leading her own dressmaking start-up, Virya Couture, on 39th Street every evening, juggling two completely different careers but pursuing one dream.

Pyone spans sectors while securing rights for her fellow women and financial stability for her family. As the founder and head designer at Virya Couture, Pyone acts as a leader to women in both private and public sectors. Through her dressmaking shop she teaches vocational skills and employs underprivileged women, helping them overcome poverty in a country rife with change.



If I am a girl and I get the same score as a boy in my class, and we both apply to the same medical university, then the entrance requirement for women is higher than for men. There are so many more women at higher education institutions than men, and they want to balance it.



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Downtown Yangon, Burma (Myanmar), January 2017 © Cas Sutherland

 

What is your favourite thing about being a woman in Myanmar today?

Favourite thing? It is that you can actually wear those very vibrant colours, you know. I think for men, there are much more limited options out there. For women it is very vibrant. You can be very fashionable, very colourful.

Also, throughout my network if you don’t mind your age, you can influence your male friends by being professional, and by being like a mother figure (even though I don’t think I am motherly).

What are the best and worst things about the state of women’s rights in Myanmar today?

Well, the privileges that women have are different depending on social status, age, and educational background. For example, I feel that our leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, can be who she is because of her family background. Because her father was the national hero, people tend to accept her more even though she married a foreigner. People are still okay with that fact.* You can talk about constitution, but that’s another matter. In terms of general social acceptance, it is okay that she married a foreigner. It doesn’t matter much for the majority of the people, they still love her, because of the family inheritance. Whereas if a normal, ordinary person, married a foreigner, then that becomes a social problem. That would be one issue. So it depends on where you come from, and your family background and social status, and so on.

There are hidden things, too. In religion, a woman can’t actually be equal to monks as a nun. Women can’t actually go up to the highest part of the pagoda. I mean, I don’t want to say that’s the worst part, but people tend to actually forget that it’s a problem. Even religion is gendered.

Education wise, I am not sure we’re in a bad position, because a lot of the young women are very hard working and they tend to do better than a lot of the young boys. But that’s the justification for previous policy-makers creating gender-biases in education too. For example, if I am a girl and I get the same score as a boy in my class, and we both apply to the same medical institution (university), then the entrance requirement for women is much higher than for men. This is because there are so many more women at higher education institutions than men, and they want to balance it.

The entry requirements for women are higher than men, because the institutions have a gender quota to adhere to?

Yes. The woman’s test scores need to be higher if she wants to qualify for entry to the same university. Still, there are a lot more women in higher education.

There are still so many areas in which women and men are unequal. For example, in the military, there are still some positions women cannot take. That’s a societal, gendered projection of where women and men can take roles.

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These machines whirr away day and night as Pyone’s team at Virya Couture churn out unique, handmade clothing in downtown Yangon, January 2017 © Cas Sutherland

What’s the best thing to have happened nationally in recent years?

Well, definitely the elections. The 2015 elections was the best thing that has ever happened. And the period following the successful election of the NLD. Because even when there was as successful election and a landslide victory in 1989-90 elections, even when the opposition party won the elections, the people in power refused to hand it over to the winning party. That created a very nerve-wracking time after the elections: “NLD won, but so what? Will they actually hand over the power?”

Well, it actually happened, and in March-April 2016, we had a new parliament, new government. Yes, there are still a lot of challenges. But still, that was the best thing ever, and there was a lot of adrenaline, a lot of energy. You could see the people really felt emotional about it. Its more than forty years of struggle since the military coup of 1962, and in that time we never had a majority civilian government. It’s not yet 100% civilian government or civilian legislature, but still it is really good.

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Renovations across downtown Yangon coincide with a newfound energy post-elections, January 2017 © Cas Sutherland

There’s a new energy everywhere. On Monday this week , Yangon regional government transformed the public transport system. If that had been done under the previous government, there would be restrictions, it would be really resented, and people would not go out on the street for fear of being arrested. It would be a completely different situation. But now, local people are really invested in this change, they really want this transition to work. So what they do is go out there and help people, make sure people get the transport they need. There are a lot of volunteers out on the street helping people use public transport. You can really feel the commitment and energy out there.

What are your major hopes for Burma (Myanmar) for the next 5 years?

I want our country to have a working government, with the ability to deliver quality services for our people, especially for our poor people in the poorer regions. That would be one thing, because I feel that our country lacks services. Not even quality, lack of services themselves in some areas. It really is bad for some people, I feel. I hope the coming round of elections go well.

Economic development, of course. I think some parts of the country will continue with the conflict if they cannot compromise with each other and with the central institutions, but still, I think that the rest of the country will go ahead with economic activities. We’re actually going through multiple transitions now: economic transitions, social transitions, political transitions, you know. We’ve got all of those things going on. So economic development must go ahead so that people get jobs and can afford to become decent individuals with confidence, jobs and ability to earn money.

 

 

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Hands-on with Pyone at Virya Couture, Yangon, January 2017 © Cas Sutherland

There will be by-elections held in April. Are the candidates going to be existing parliamentarians defending their seats? 

Yes, by-elections are coming up in about twenty townships. Some of the areas are places that the previous election did not take place because of the conflict. So with the ceasefire discussions going on, elections will happen in some parts. Other parts are holding by-elections because existing parliamentarians are now deceased, or because of ministerial appointments.

These by-elections are happening just a year and a half after the national elections. Do you think this is a positive thing?

Yes! I see this election as an opportunity for the current government in power to see and build on. For example, the Union Election Commission, can actually try and test their abilities ahead of the 2020 elections. That’s a technical point of view. But also for the NLD, to actually keep the momentum going. If, during the by-elections, they lose all the seats then that will be an alarm call for 2020. So they would at least jump and think, “ok, we’ve got to do something about this.”

November 2020 is the next national democratic elections. Here the election is always on a Sunday. There are a lot of my friends who contested for the 2015 elections, and I think a lot more will become in 2020. So, there’s a different feeling now. More competition and energy in the political system, which is great.

A lot of the foreign ministers who visit, they come and they are actually very shocked by the positivity that people have here about politics. Because we’re still very new here.


* Aung San Suu Kyi married British citizen Michael Aris in 1972, and they had two children, Kim and Alexander. This fact prevented her taking office as President of Myanmar, due to constitutional clause created by the military government in the early 1990s, stating that anyone with foreign children cannot be President.

 

Read on

Pyone Thet Thet Kyaw on Leading the Ethical Fashion Trend in Burma (Interview: Part 1), ZhendeGender

Pyone Thet Thet Kyaw on Developing her own Fashion Brand in Burma (Interview: part 2), ZhendeGender

 

 

Hedonism, Reproductive Health, and Fighting Repatriation: Lijia Zhang on her Debut Novel Lotus (Interview: Part 3)





Pyone Thet Thet Kyaw on Developing her own Fashion Brand in Burma (Interview: part 2)

Pyone Thet Thet Kyaw can be found at the British Embassy, working for the Department for International Development (DFID) in Yangon from 9-5, and leading her own dressmaking start-up, Virya Couture, on 39th Street every evening, juggling two completely different careers but pursuing one dream.

Pyone spans sectors while securing rights for her fellow women and financial stability for her family. As the founder and head designer at Virya Couture, Pyone acts as a leader to women in both private and public sectors. Through her dressmaking shop she teaches vocational skills and employs underprivileged women, helping them overcome poverty in a country rife with change.



My favourite thing about being a woman in Myanmar today is that you can wear very vibrant colours. I think for men there are much more limited options out there. For women it is very vibrant. You can be very fashionable, and very colourful.



 

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Handmade clothing on the racks at Virya Couture, Yangon, Burma, January 2017 © Cas Sutherland

How do your fashion choices reflect who you are as a woman? 

At DFID, I quite enjoy representing my country in a foreign organization. I work in a UK aid department trying to end extreme poverty, where we deal with many different organisations and partners. Whenever we go to Naypyitaw (the capital) dealing with the government agencies, or parliament, or the election commission, then I like to wear Burmese traditional dress. That feels somehow more acceptable and proper.

For the office I wear casual western style dresses and I make all my clothes myself. I am quite petite, so I like wearing soft colours because it makes me feel like I have a little bit more volume. I tend to avoid black or any dark colours, which make me feel tinier. During the daytime, I prefer cream or white colours, which are better for our weather. And it has to be locally made cotton. The sunlight is really strong here.

For daily wear, still I like the traditional cotton, but in a freer, looser style, not flared though. I think flared dresses make you look younger, and with Asian genes you already look younger than you are. At thirty-five, I don’t want to look younger anymore.

I think I am a bit more professional, I want to wear more professional style dresses. Maybe when I was younger I would be open to wearing quite short styles. Whereas now, it has a lot to do with age as well, my taste is quite different from in my twenties.

How does wearing traditional dress change the way you feel?

Oh, it makes you feel a lot more proper. And, how do you say it, a bit more timid – is that the word? You behave more like a proper traditional lady. Whereas if I wear a more Western style, then I feel a bit more free. It definitely changes your mood and your professional feeling.

My favourite thing about being a woman in Myanmar today is that you can actually wear those very vibrant colours, you know. I think for men, there are much more limited options out there. For women it is very vibrant. You can be very fashionable, very colourful.

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Everything is handmade by Pyone and her staff of three at Virya Couture, Yangon, Burma, January 2017 © Cas Sutherland

What’s the best thing to have happened to you in the past year?

Personally, in the past year, it was my decision to go ahead launching this business. I kind of thought that because of my full time job, and having to run this shop, I thought I might lose my balance. But actually it turns out that I really love this job and because it is my passion, I really never get tired. It’s now been four months, so ask me in another one or two years! For now, though, I really love it and I don’t get tired of it.



We make Burmese dresses, in several different non-traditional styles. When internationals wore my dresses, the locals began to see alternative ways of wearing Burmese clothing. So some Burmese women who have seen the dresses come to have something made too.



How did you discover the gap in the market for your designs?

There are quite a few designers already doing the same thing, but in a sense they were too creative. Some people are doing haute couture shows in big cities like Bangkok, so they tend to make big gowns and showy things. But I design for daily life. It’s all about more casual and semi-casual garments, so people really like to wear them.

At the beginning I made everything for myself. I wore things to work, people started to notice and want them too. Seeing people react to the dresses I made was my market research.

I want to imagine that the business is not personal to me. Yes, I made it in such a way that people come to the shop thinking, “oh, I want to have one of Pyone’s dresses”, but I really want to change that. I want the business to be able to run even without me. So I want to build the brand beyond me, so that it goes on without me.

What challenges do you face when you’re designing for a specific person?

Traditionally in dressmaking, you do the design first and then look for fabrics, but we’re doing it the other way around. Because we’re more about using traditional fabrics, we start with fabrics and turn them into a wearable design.

Depending on the type of fabrics and patterns, we often have to negotiate on the design. For example, with strong colours we may have to tone it down a bit, or if the customer really likes a colour, but it doesn’t suit her, I may have to convince her that an alternative might be better. So we come to a compromise, then we measure and then make the dress.

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Local handmade jewellery displayed at Virya Couture, Yangon, Burma, January 2017 © Cas Sutherland


I feel passion and adrenaline, and it is having a positive impact on my day job at DFID. It is actually true that if employers let their employees do what they are really passionate about, then they bring that energy to the day job. I feel very positive about my life and where I am now.



How does the tourist industry affect your business?

The majority of people who like my style are internationals. When internationals wear them, the locals began to see alternative ways of wearing Burmese clothing. We make Burmese dresses, in several different non-traditional styles. So I have now a few Burmese people who have seen the dresses and they come to have something made.

I think with tourists it is different. They want things quick, and they’ll usually just come one time. But there have been a few occasions when foreign tourists came in and then recommended us to a friend who was coming in, but that’s just one scenario.

We do have customers coming back constantly and recommending one person, then another person. We don’t do active marketing. Our marketing strategy now is all word of mouth. So, we had a few customers, friends of friends, family members, and the customer base is gradually building.

Did DFID have any doubts about you taking on this opportunity?

Some people actually warned me, like, “maybe you should not mention it explicitly”. But they do know that I am the founder and lead designer here. I decided to be frank and open about what I do and what I like doing. So I’m not a profit maximising person, you know, this is not to make a big profit or anything like that. I’m not doing this for money, I can actually survive without this income. So for me, this is about what I really want to do, a passion, and a hobby in a job. So there were a few people who, although they had good intentions, warned me not to tell anyone, not to tell the boss, but I did. And it is going really well so far.

I feel passion and adrenaline, and it is having a positive impact on my day job at DFID. So, I think when I read tips for entrepreneurs and things like that, I kind of thought, it might not be true. But it is actually true that if employers let people do what they are really passionate about, outside of the job, then that really makes them feel happy. And you bring that energy to the day job, which is really good. I feel very positive about my life and where I am now. That’s really great.

Is the organisation supportive of you?

Yes, very encouraging. Specifically at DFID, they really want the local staff to succeed in what they do. They look beyond their service in DFID, so if someone is really keen to become a politician, they will help them to build that capacity. It’s a really helpful way of capacity building. In the end, DFID, as an agency, will have to leave the country, and then the skill set that they give to local staff and local people, will remain in the country.

What are your wildest dreams for the coming few years?

My wildest dream is the most peaceful thing I can imagine. I always wanted to have a little compound. Well, not little, just enough for me to have a green and flower-filled garden, and an ecological wooden house and just be there. It would either be in Hsi-Paw (Shan state), Kalaw (Shan state), Putao (Kachin state), or Dawei (Tanintharyi region).

 

Read on

Pyone Thet Thet Kyaw on Leading the Ethical Fashion Trend in Burma (Interview: Part 1)

Sexuality, Contraception and Challenging the Patriarchy: Lijia Zhang on her debut novel Lotus (Interview: part 2)

Inspired by her grandmother’s deathbed confession of being sold to a brothel, Lijia Zhang injects her cutting social criticism into her first novel, Lotus. The book delves deep into the sex industry in contemporary Shenzhen, following a young migrant woman, Lotus, who is eager to escape her life as a prostitute.

 



China is going through a sexual revolution. If her husband cannot satisfy her, a woman can divorce him. These women will not stand for second best, because they don’t have to any more.



I spoke with Lijia Zhang in December 2016, just weeks before the publication of her long-awaited first novel, Lotus. In part one of this interview, we discussed her personal reasons for telling this unparalleled story, how she learned to relate to Chinese sex workers, and how her own struggle for self-improvement informed her character, Lotus.

Here, in part two, we talked about how women are faring in China’s sexual revolution, Chinese attitudes toward contraception and reproductive health, and the lengths some women go to in the fight against the patriarchy.

 

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Author Lijia Zhang © Li Qiang

Lotus struggles to align sexual desire and social norms. She’s learned that good women shouldn’t enjoy sex, yet earning money involves trying harder to please clients. How are attitudes towards women’s sexuality changing? 

I met a woman who was very empowered by earning money, and by her relative liberation since becoming a sex worker. People don’t get into the trade for sexual pleasure, but some women do find sexual pleasure with clients, which they hadn’t experienced with their husbands.

China is going through a sexual revolution. Studies show that a much higher number of people are having sex before marriage than previously. In sociologist Li Yinhe’s 1989 study, 85% of people claimed they had no sexual experience before marriage. Among the 15% who did have sexual experience, some of them were already engaged, which means by Chinese standards that they are already a couple. (According to The Report on the Health of Chinese People’s Sex Life, jointly released by Media Survey Lab and Insight China magazine, 71.4% of people were sexually active before marriage in 2012.)

There are more prostitutes, more pornography, more young people having sex before marriage, a higher rate of divorce, and now people have many different sexual partners. If her husband cannot satisfy her, a woman can divorce him. These women will not stand for second best, because they don’t have to any more.

Another woman I met felt very conflicted about one of her clients. An older colleague with more experience told her to just imagine, “The clients give us sexual pleasure and money. We use them for a service – not them using us.” She called clients dogs. She joked that a perfect job would be something that would give her both sexual pleasure and money. But she also craves respect.

Having a mistress (Ernai, or second wife) is a very common way for a man to show his money and status. This started with the Emperor and noblemen, who would have many concubines. Maoist reforms in the 50s changed that, even though Mao himself was doing all sorts of things with young women behind closed doors, disobeying his own rules. For some time prostitution was very uncommon in China but the rates are high again. Now, men have mistresses to prove they have a lot of money and a high status. Ernais are just glorified prostitutes. The relationship between a man and his Ernai is primarily about money and economic status, not love.



Abortion is not considered a danger to society. It is just a common form of birth control, and people rely on access to abortion. Most people don’t think a foetus is a human being, so it is not a problem.



Lotus accompanies her friend Mimi to an abortion clinic, where she listens to her friend’s screams from the waiting room after Mimi’s boyfriend disappears. Although this is an emotive scene, abortions are very common in China with about 16 million abortions are performed annually. Is abortion viewed as a social or political problem in China?

Abortion is quite a normal thing in China. I’ve had an abortion, my sister has had several abortions, and my mother had abortions. There is no social stigma because Chinese women don’t carry the same emotional or religious baggage about abortion as people in the West. It is not considered a danger to society. It is just a common form of birth control, and people rely on access to abortion. Women don’t get counseling after abortions like in the UK. Most people don’t think a foetus is a human being, so it is not a problem.

It is very easy to get an abortion, but it is not always safe. There are many hospitals and clinics that women can go to. There are adverts in the back seats of cabs: “quick and easy treatment at such and such a clinic.” Some women go to get very cheap backstreet abortions, and it can be very dangerous. They go to places without proper licenses and get a razor treatment or something like that and it is very harmful.

Most women don’t know about other types of contraception. The information is not really available. So they just use abortions as contraception. I think this is changing, if slowly, and more women are learning about other ways to prevent pregnancy.

What is the worst thing about the state of women’s rights in China today?

There are a lot of problems for women in China. Women still have much less power than men, and lower social standing but the wage gap is probably the worst thing. The latest official statistics suggest that the income for urban women is 67.3% of men’s income while women in the countryside make only 56% of what men make. But many women are empowered by being able to earn money. There was one sex worker I met who bought a flat for herself and her mother to live in, in a city near her village. I think moving to the city is the best possible outcome that villagers hope for.

Did you hear stories about women fighting back against patriarchy while you were researching the novel?

I know a woman who was with a client who wanted a blow job. He had not given her enough money, so she said no. He told her “stop pretending you are a noblewoman, you are a common prostitute,” but she still refused to take less money. He said, “fuck your mother”, and she replied, “leave my mother out of it.” Again, he said “fuck your mother”, so she picked up a heavy glass ashtray and she hit him in the face with it. She lost her job for that, and she lost a few thousand kuai on the deposit she had paid the massage parlour she worked at as a guarantee she would not run away. But a friend helped her get a job at a higher-class establishment instead.

I know another woman who ultimately wanted to get out of the trade. She made a deal with herself that she would get out if she could earn 10,000 kuai. So she earned 10,000 and she said, 20,000 and I will leave. When she reached 20,000 she said to herself, “now I have to save up to buy a home.” When she had bought her home she still did not give up the trade. Then she learned about the dangers of unprotected sex: she got very worried that she had contracted HIV because she had had unprotected sex. She realised she could have died by now. So she went for a test. Back then the results would be really slow, she had to wait several weeks. While she was waiting for the results, she made a deal with herself. She decided if she got through this without HIV, she would really quit the trade. Her results came back clean, so she quit.

 

Read on

Identity, Breast Implants, and Wanting More from Life: Lijia Zhang on her Debut Novel Lotus (Part I) ZhendeGender

Hedonism, Reproductive Health, and Fighting Repatriation: Lijia Zhang on her Debut Novel Lotus (Part III) ZhendeGender

Identity, Breast Implants, and Wanting More from Life: Lijia Zhang on her Debut Novel Lotus (interview: part I)

Inspired by her grandmother’s deathbed confession of being sold to a brothel, Lijia Zhang injects her cutting social criticism into her first novel, Lotus. The book delves deep into the sex industry in contemporary Shenzhen, following a young migrant woman, Lotus, who is eager to escape her life as a prostitute. A strong believer in fate, Lotus struggles against the pressures of modern city life without the requisite papers, trying desperately to raise funds for her younger brother’s university fees and maintain appearances of success for the family she left behind in the village.



Prostitutes are real people and I wanted to expose that. Most women come to prostitution through personal choice. Like any job, there are drawbacks. But their lives are not totally bleak either.



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Author Lijia Zhang

Zhang initially rose to prominence with the story of her rebellious journey from disillusioned rocket factory girl to international journalist. Her 2008 memoir Socialism is Great! A Worker’s Memoir of the New China documents her escape from a mind-numbing job testing pressure gauges at a Nanjing munitions factory into the world of English Literature.

Lotus’s story begins more ignominiously. Starting in a brothel thinly veiled as a massage parlor, she finds herself toiling to create community around her through prayer, teaching local kids and befriending her colleagues. All the while she must placate her strict boss and navigate the demands of several lovers. Intrigued by her fierce independence and beauty, Bing, a photographer mockingly nicknamed ‘the monk’ for his somewhat convenient celibacy, rescues Lotus from the local police who threaten to repatriate her to the village. Their relationship starts to turn her life around, but she is not sure he is enough to satisfy her.

Through Zhang’s storytelling, real women’s lives bubble forth in a vivid perspective previously too stark to be explored. Having spent several months as a volunteer distributing condoms to sex workers, Zhang has observed China’s grittiest quarters first hand. By literally delving into the world of southern China’s sex industry, Zhang finds a literary value from and for China’s modern day prostitution complex.

Lotus reveals the current tensions surrounding change in today’s China, allowing the reader a nuanced insight into the migrant population, women’s rights, and the chasm between urban and rural populations in contemporary China.

The author holds a mirror to the inner-workings of a young woman who wants badly to free both her mind and her body. Zhang provides the reader a glimpse at the changes Lotus must undergo in order to make peace with herself and the vastness of life around her.

Zhang is one of the few mainland Chinese writers to write in English, and the novel is peppered with the flavours of China. The strength of Zhang’s connection to her heritage comes through in every phrase. This novel is not a translation, but the unfolding of this quintessentially Chinese story draws out the very essence of China itself. Her translation of Chinese sexual euphemisms masterfully carries both the poetry and the ergonomics of the carnal act.

Zhang’s telling of Lotus fleshes out the gritty truths of prostitution, it’s effects and utility in modern Chinese society. Although Zhang admits that she still wants to expose the true lives of Chinese sex workers in her non-fiction writing, there’s something about this novel no op-ed could match. Zhang’s style is utterly her own.


I spoke with Lijia Zhang in December 2016, just weeks before the publication of her long-awaited first novel. In part 1, she tells me her personal reasons for telling this unparalleled story, how she learned to relate to Chinese sex workers, and how her own struggle for self-improvement informed her character, Lotus.


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Lijia Zhang at her Beijing home, January 2016 © Cas Sutherland

 Why did you feel that you had to tell this story about contemporary China?

I tried to find out about grandmother’s life after her deathbed confession of being a concubine, but my mother knew very little about her life. So I have always been curious about these women. Then on a trip to Shenzhen I went to a hairdresser near my hotel and asked for a haircut. There were several women there but they said they did not know how to cut hair. I looked at the floor. There wasn’t any hair on the floor. I realised these women were prostitutes.

Prostitution is an interesting window to see social changes and it touches upon some serious social issues, such as migration and women’s rights.

Why write a novel, not a non-fiction book, about prostitution in China?

I wanted to become a journalist, and I did. I wanted to have a story published in the New York Times, and I did. I had always wanted to write a novel. So I thought I would try my hand.

I started Lotus when I was in my final year of my MA at Goldsmiths. The storyline has changed little, but the style changed a great deal. For example, I experimented with the point of view. I started by writing all the dialogue in pidgin English, with direct translations of Chinese, like “Toilet is where?”

I tried writing it from the perspective of Lotus, and later from Bing’s perspective, but that meant I could not tackle social issues like women’s rights, migration the aftermath of Tiananmen. So I decided to write it in third person, alternating between different points of view, and eventually it became Lotus.

How do your personal experiences inform the characters and events in your novel?

It took a lot of work to do all the research about these women. It took months and months of research over many years. I met so many people with so many stories.

I volunteered for an NGO dedicated to help female sex workers, where my main task was distributing condoms. On day two of my time as a volunteer, I met a really colourful character. I accompanied a staff member as she went to visit a sex worker. This woman was sitting outside, which is unusual because most women would hide inside. They wear revealing clothes but they don’t want to draw attention to themselves on the street. This woman was doing embroidery on the street – she was embroidering a church onto fabric. She took us inside, and the woman I was with commented on her breasts. I was amazed how much they talked about breasts. She spoke to prostitutes in their own language, to be on their level. She was a former prostitute and knew she had to engage them using the same language. They really trusted her.

The women inside the shop commented on her breasts in return, so she explained that she herself had had surgery. They said “I’m thinking of getting implants, can I see?” So they went into the back room and everyone looked at her breasts. The breast implants had not settled well. It was a cheap procedure, and one of her nipples went sideways. She had been told that massaging them would help so she was always massaging her chest. When I got back to the NGO centre, I told the other staff what had happened. They said she was always showing people her breasts! 



My husband left me for a younger woman. That was horrible for me. I fell apart. But I used my break-up to understand Lotus’s struggle to deal with the crisis and to become independent.



Her fellow villagers call Lotus “the toad who dreams of eating swans meat”, meaning someone who dreams too big. How does your own struggle for self-improvement come through in Lotus?

Lotus wants more from her life. People often laugh at those who think or behave differently. These women send money home to their families. This is really important for them. It improves their position in the family and gives them face. They must be seen to be successful. They want to show their best side to people in the village.

My friend and I went to visit one woman’s hometown with her. On the day we travelled there, she wore very nice clothes and when we arrived in the village, she took off her trainers and changed them for a pair of leather high-heeled shoes.. On the bus there, she introduced herself, and us, to other people from her village: “hey, I am the second from the Mao family, do you remember me? This is my friend, an international writer and this is a doctor.”

It is the same for other professions, too. I met a man who was a garbage collector in the city. He usually wore very dirty clothes all the time. But when he went to his home village he wore a very smart coat, with a fur trim around the neck. He looked so smart. It is very important to appear successful to the people in the village.

They cannot really tell people the truth about their life in the city. It can be quite lonely. Telling the truth is the worst thing that they could do.

When Lotus chooses her own path for the first time, she decides to open a school instead of settling down with the father of her unborn baby. Is her choice to become a single mother a realistic one in contemporary China? What does the future look like for a woman in her position?

It is realistic. Single mothers exist and they live their lives. Many live in these villages that were once stand-alone places but have now been engulfed by the city. They are supported within that community. She may not have the correct papers for the baby but they will be ok. 

A woman like Lotus might marry the baby’s father just for the papers. Lotus is very smart and savvy. I don’t think she has decided yet. But she may not maintain the relationship with Bing, because she realised that she can’t be herself when she’s with him. He is very selfish really. He doesn’t really consider her needs. He was a more sinister character in previous versions. But Lotus has always been very strong, quite unlike the way Bing sees her.

My husband left me for a younger woman. That was horrible for me. I fell apart. But I used my break-up to understand Lotus’s struggle to deal with the crisis and to become independent.

Read on 

Sexuality, Contraception, and Challenging the Patriarchy: Lijia Zhang on her Debut Novel Lotus (Part II) ZhendeGender

Hedonism, Reproductive Health, and Fighting Repatriation: Lijia Zhang on her Debut Novel Lotus (Part III) ZhendeGender

 

Pyone Thet Thet Kyaw on Leading the Ethical Fashion Trend in Burma (Interview: Part 1)



If you have vocational skills, even when you don’t have education, you have a choice. That, for me, is a real takeaway from my life. I really want to help young women who are struggling against poverty.



Pyone Thet Thet Kyaw can be found at the British Embassy, working for the Department for International Development (DFID) in Yangon from 9-5, and leading her own dressmaking start-up, Virya Couture, on 39th Street every evening, juggling two completely different careers but pursuing one dream.

Pyone spans sectors while securing rights for her fellow women and financial stability for her family. As the founder and head designer at Virya Couture, Pyone acts as a leader to women in both private and public sectors. Through her dressmaking shop she teaches vocational skills and employs underprivileged women, helping them overcome poverty in a country rife with change.

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Minimal clutter in Pyone’s workspace at Virya Couture, Yangon, Burma, January 2017 © Cas Sutherland

Ethical fashion is all about using locally produced organic fabrics. Pyone’s vision is classy, yet contemporary: reinventing dresses from traditional fabrics representing Myanmar’s diverse ethnicities and cultural regions. The vibrantly coloured fabrics she adores line the shop walls, while her handmade clothes hang in the window. This is what couture now means in Yangon, thanks to the spirit and sensibilities of Pyone’s brand, Virya Couture.

Pyone has been making her own clothes for years. When we first met in 2016, she dreamed of seeing her designs worn by other people. A year later she invited me to her shop, where she’s been running a dressmaking business that was burgeoning by the three-month mark. Not only is her business thriving, but she’s sticking to her guns and promoting the ethics she believes in.

Fashion, like almost everything else, is gendered. The everyday realities of this haven’t escaped Pyone’s attention: “I love traditional style dresses, but the real traditional style is actually limiting the way real women behave.” Wearing traditional dress, Pyone says, makes her feel “timid. You behave more like a proper traditional lady.” But that won’t stop her empowering young women, supporting the local ethical textile businesses across the country, and challenging ideas about women’s fashion in Myanmar.

Almost symbolic of the transparency of their business model, Pyone’s shop opens right onto the busy downtown street from which passers-by will pop in for a chat with Pyone and her growing staff as they work. Pyone spoke to me in January 2017 about style, supporting local industry, and how fashion meets gender in contemporary Myanmar.



Why did you decide to start Virya Couture now?

I describe myself as somebody who always needs to be on the go. Whenever I feel like I have free time I freak out a little bit and start to question things: “am I really productive? What am I doing with my time?” I was doing the DFID job for a few years before I found it a little bit repetitive. I found the work interesting, especially with the elections, but after that I questioned myself. I wondered what I would like to do in the next five to ten years, after the international aid agenda.

All the international aid organisations will eventually leave because our country will develop. The business and politics is already getting better. So I started Virya Couture, which has been what I really wanted to do since I was fourteen, fifteen, sixteen – all my life really.

 

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Handmade clothing on the racks at Virya Couture, Yangon, Burma, January 2017 © Cas Sutherland

How can Virya Couture improve things for people in Myanmar?

The business is about the promotion of ethical fashion in Myanmar, at a very start-up level. There is a boom in the fashion industry here, which means there is a big risk of exploitation. There is a huge need for local organisations working for being ethical in the fashion industry. This is where we come in, not only in sourcing ethical fabrics and materials, but also training young women from disadvantaged backgrounds who really want to come into this field.

The skills that I got from my grandmother when I was young are very useful. My parents don’t come from well-off families, we [my parents and I] were not well-off, so I had to earn my own pocket money. Having sewing skills and a talent for dressmaking really helped me. Having vocational skills means you don’t have to rely on other people and you don’t risk getting into more dangerous professions. If young women don’t have money, they don’t have much choice and often end up as sex workers.

If you have vocational skills, even when you don’t have education, you have a choice. That, for me, is a real takeaway from my life. I really want to help young women who are struggling against poverty.

 



I love traditional style dresses, but the real traditional style is actually limiting the way real women behave. You can’t actually bend fully, and you have to act really feminine.



How do you choose the fabrics you wear and work with?

My favourite thing to wear is organically dyed fabric or something locally made. Whenever I travel, I look for local suppliers and local fabric. Local fabrics inspire to me, because and you know that the profits actually go to the local communities who made them. In Myanmar specifically, I tend to look for fabrics made by local women. It is always a good sign that it is directly profiting them if you see them weaving.

I have to say I like Rakhine fabrics best. Historically, there were all these Rakhine fabrics that were considered outdated, and no-one wanted to wear them. The patterns were beautiful, but the materials they used were not very good. Even Rakhine people did not wear them for some time. But with the booming fabrics industry here, it is really coming to life. Now the fabrics are very vibrant, full of symbols, meaning and cultural identity. I am half Rakhine, so I am a little bit biased. I also like Kachin fabric. It is quality cotton, the patterns are really lovely, and the ethnic sense is strong in Kachin.

I really like the dynamic, vibrant fabrics made in the ethnic regions. They are full of meanings and symbols. Each fabric has meaning tied to cultural identity and the region they live. The colours are really lovely. We turn them into classy, modern dresses. I love them.

 

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Everything is handmade by Pyone and her staff of three at Virya Couture, Yangon, Burma, January 2017 © Cas Sutherland

How do you handle running Virya Couture while working for DFID?

At this stage it is manageable. We don’t want to do a lot of orders, just enough to get the business going. We’re not making a huge profit, but we’re not losing money. We’re making enough to run the shop and pay the staff sufficient salary.

We only have a small team – myself and three colleagues, and someone who will come in on Friday and Saturday. We have three machines. It is very basic, so we can’t really handle a lot of orders. [Pyone laughs] I’m not in it for the money!

I tend to work on designs and patterns in the evenings, so things are ready for the team to complete the next day. I work half days on Fridays and I’m in the shop at the weekends too. To be honest, the only way I can do both and keep a clear head is by leaving my mobile phone downstairs in the shop when I go up to bed at night. Otherwise I’d never sleep!

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Two women wearing longyis walk through downtown Yangon, Burma, January 2017 © Cas Sutherland

How does clothing compound gender norms in Myanmar? Do you think traditional Longyis influence the way women are seen?

I would say that Longyis are actually good for the weather. They are quite airy, and it really suits the hot weather in Myanmar. I think that is how this style developed: the longyi for men and the longyi for women are both quite free and flowing. But in terms of the top, women’s tops tend to be a bit tighter.

Traditionally, it is supposed to be short – it should come in just under the waist. Both the tightness and the length, make you feel… awkward. And traditionally, it is not appropriate to show the skin around your belly or waist. Although in the fifties, very thin, see-through fabrics were popular. During that period it was common to see a woman’s bra through her shirt. That was seen okay during the forties and fifties. But now, it is not okay to show that skin.

In contemporary fashion, the skirt is quite tight around the bum, thighs, and hips. The normal Burmese women’s longyi is not supposed to be tight around there. It is mainly the top that is tight and restricting.

In terms of the way women behave, that top limits the way women move, and behave, and act. I feel conflicted. Yes, I love traditional style dresses, but the real traditional style is actually limiting the way real women behave. You can’t actually bend fully, and you have to act really feminine.



Read on

Pyone Thet Thet Kyaw on Developing her own Fashion Brand in Burma (Interview: part 2)