Category Archives: Life lessons

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.

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.


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.


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!

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)

How did gender, culture and politics balance out in 2016?

2016 was characterized by sexism across the board, from President-elect Trump and Duterte to the Olympics and the music industry. We’ve lost a bunch of significant icons for women’s and LGBTQ+ rights. I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one who’d would rather forget all about it, for one night at least.

But the world has made some serious strides towards equality and liberation in 2016, with female heads of state taking power worldwide, and women standing strong together in the face of adversity. Here we take stock of the year to recognise how we’ve continued to move forward.


Taiwan elected their first female President, Tsai Ingwen, who is leader of the Democratic Progressive Party. Tsai has since vowed to reduce Taiwan’s dependence on mainland China, which considers the independently-governed island as a Chinese territory, desiring eventual reunion.

English musician David Bowie, who consistently challenged social norms of gender and sexuality with his androgynous appearance, music and performance, died of liver cancer. After his death, he was remembered as a unifying force: “a human bridge between the queer and the hetero-normative.”


American musician Kesha sued Dr. Luke, her music producer, for over a decade of sexual abuse which “put her life at risk”, including drugging and raping her. Sony refused to release her from her six-album recording contract, signed in 2005.

During proceedings, talk-show host Wendy Williams victim-blamed Kesha for not simply filming the abuse, stating: “business is business, and it sounds like it’s fair. If everybody complained because somebody allegedly sexually abused them … contracts would be broken all the time.”

Female stars, including Taylor Swift, Ariana Grande, Miley Cyrus and Lady Gaga, stood in sisterly solidarity with Kesha, with Swift donating $250,000 toward legal efforts to #FreeKesha


The Feminist Five (top left to bottom right): Li Tingting, Wei Tingting, Wang Man, Wu Rongrong and Zheng Churan | image from: NYT

Police removed bail conditions on China’s Feminist Five who were arrested and detained last March for planning a protest against sexual harassment on public transport. One condition of the lifted bail was no travel outside their legal place of residence. However, police have not dropped the case and these young women could remain suspects indefinitely, despite committing no crime.


Aung San Suu Kyi took office as the first female political leader of Myanmar, after her National League for Democracy won a majority in the November Elections. The Lady became Myanmar’s first State Counsellor – the de facto head of government – a role created to counteract a constitutional clause preventing her taking office.

The death of American musician Prince, who famously defied categorization of race, gender and sexuality, shook fans worldwide. The Los Angeles Times called Prince “our first post-everything pop star, defying easy categories of race, genre and commercial appeal.”

Female Judge in New York, Judge Shirley Kornreich, ruled against Kesha’s motion to end her contract with Sony, even after attorneys argued that it was “slavery” to force her to work with companies associated with her rapist and former producer, Dr. Luke. Kesha stated: “All I ever wanted was to be able to make music without being afraid, scared or abused.”

Kesha Makes An Appearance At New York State Supreme Court


Tsai Ingwen became the “most powerful woman in the Chinese-speaking world” when sworn in as President of Taiwan, when she vowed to promote democracy and freedom, and refused the idea Taiwan was part of “one China”.

Philippine citizens elected “proud womanizer”, Roderigo Duterte, in the Presidential election. He began as he meant to continue: by wolf-whistling and serenading a female journalist in a nationally televised press conference before taking office. Since his election, he has pursued the brutal execution of drug dealers, with a death toll of 6,000 in six months.


Despite all hopes (and votes) of the British youth, the island nation voted to leave the European Union in the national referendum. Brexit voters, many of whom were among the elderly population, were disappointed to learn they’d been lied to during the long campaign. The promise to re-route large sums of money into the National Health Service was immediately refuted by UKIP party leader and leave-campaigner Nigel Farage, who promptly resigned. Conservative Prime Minister, David Cameron, also resigned, leaving the country to wonder why he’d proposed this referendum in the first place.


Amid the post-Brexit chaos, Britain’s second female Prime Minister, Teresa May took office after all the male contenders played themselves out. British media ironically embraced sexism by reporting on the PM’s husband’s attire on the day they moved into Number 10.

Hillary Rodham Clinton won the Democratic nomination, making her the first female Presidential nominee of a major party in US history. Her opposition, Bernie Sanders, called for a unanimous nomination, and civil rights leader John Lewis said: “Tonight we will shatter that glass ceiling again.”

China’s reclamation project | image from: NYT

China overstepped it’s bounds in the South China Sea, by creating artificial islands with military runways on reefs in territories claimed by other countries, inviting major international dispute with the Philippines. The issue came to a head when an international tribunal favoured claims from the Philippines and China refused to acknowledge the ruling. In an October visit to Beijing, Filipino President Duterte had seemingly brushed the matter aside, stating a realignment with mainland China’s vision, snubbing long-term ally the United States.

A UK police force made strides towards fair reporting of sex crimes, in a decision to record misogyny as hate crime. Panic ensued, but, as Laura Bates stated: “fears of innocent men being locked up for compliments were proved misplaced when women instead reported abuse and assault.”


Tokyo’s first female governor, Yuriko Koike, took office after winning a landside in the July election. To the displeasure of many politicians it seems – one politician implied her leadership abilities are compromised because she’s “a woman past her prime in thick makeup.” Comparing her battle for office to Hillary Clinton’s, Koike once said: “Hillary used the phrase ‘glass ceiling.’ It’s often a sheet of steel in Japan.”

French police made a woman remove her clothing | image from: Guardian

A woman in France was forced by a group of policemen to remove her clothing on a public beach in Nice after France banned the burkini citing concerns about terrorism related to religious clothing. Images show at least four policemen surrounding the woman, who sat on the beach with her family wearing leggings, a tunic, and a headscarf.

Female athletes suffered as Olympic Games commentators seemed to compete for the “most sexist” award.


Hong Kong held its legislative elections, with the highest turnout of voters in the territory’s history.

Wage Gap is a Chasm for Women of Colour | image from: Think Progress (2014)

New statistics about the gender pay gap show how factors like race, age and education also affect the chasm between men and women’s earnings over their lifetimes. In the US, there’s a negative correlation between education and earning power. Similarly, earnings decrease with age: the older a woman is, the smaller percentage of a man’s wage she earns. As a result of gender- and race-based wage gaps, student debt is all the more crippling for women of colour.

North Korea tested nuclear warheads for the second time this year, in the most powerful detonation unleashed in a North Korean nuclear test so far.

New data displayed a significant rise in the birth rate of babies born to women over 45 in the UK. There were 1,578 babies born to mothers aged 45 and over in England in 2009, but in 2015 there were 2,119.


Women the world over were not all that shocked by the release of an audio recording of Donald Trump telling a reporter how he likes to pick up women: “Grab her by the pussy”, is a statement he brushed off as “locker-room talk”. In a moment of solidarity against the oligarch, women across America revealed stories of sexual harassment and abuse by Donald Trump, which he consistently denied.

The more allegations emerged, the more Hillary Clinton seemed the obvious champion for women’s rights across America. The majority of people using the early-voting system were reportedly Republican women whose husbands wanted them to vote for Trump. Predictions showed Clinton to be the next President.

Xi Jinping was announced “core leader” of China, an honour only three previous leaders (Jiang Zemin, Deng Xiaoping, and Chairman Mao) have been given. The new title is a sign that, “willingly or not, senior Communist Party officials have bowed to his dominance.”

Hong Kong and mainland China clashed over the chaotic swearing-in of young Pro-Democracy politicians, several of whom referred to the mainland by a racial slur, ‘Shina’, and one called it the “People’s ref**king of Shina”. Protests erupted in the streets of Hong Kong as a result of Beijing’s interference in legal proceedings.


Women mourned the reinforcement of the glass ceiling as Donald Trump won the US Presidential Elections, despite losing the popular vote to Hillary Rodham Clinton, who was infinitely more qualified for the job. Protests ensued across the United States and further afield. Many were upset to learn that no, allegations of rape and sexual abuse do not ruin a man’s career.

Covering the bruises is hardly the stride toward equality we had in mind | image from: Guardian

Moroccan TV normalised domestic violence with it’s make-up tutorial showing how to cover bruises.


Protests that broke out on the streets of the South Korean capital in November came to a head as the people called for President Park Geun-Hye to resign amid allegations of corruption. Park, the first female President and daughter of President Park Chung-Hee (in office 1961-1979), was suspended from office on 9th December to wait out impeachment hearings.

Protesters in central Seoul carry candles | image from: Guardian

I turned 27, which puts me at risk of becoming a “leftover woman” – a shameful term invented by the government affiliated All China Women’s Federation to guilt unmarried women.

British musician George Michael was found dead on Christmas morning. George Michael was half of the first western act to play in the People’s Republic of China. Wham! toured China in April 1986. After Wham! separated Michael came out as gay, thus challenging notions of masculinity and sexuality, while remaining a sex symbol for the majority of his life.

Mother-daughter actresses Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher died 24 hours apart in the last week of the year. Debbie Reynolds was known for her wonderful singing voice, heard alongside Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connell in Singin’ In The Rain (1952). Carrie Fisher was best known for her portrayal of Sci-Fi’s earliest strong female character, Princess Leia. The Star Wars character runs an empire on her own after both her brother and lover disappear with no explanation.

Read on:

Check out my references for this piece.


Dating in China [part 5]

Date says more attractive with clothes on. Does an open relationship translate to open dates? Getting an I.O.U. for accepting a drink. Women tell true stories of their dating experiences in China.

Naked couple sitting on couch, woman knitting, portraitCreativ
image from: metro


It took a couple of lonely months in Beijing, only knowing my colleagues, before I looked to Tinder as a remedy for my tiny social circle. It felt like a last resort. After a disastrously embarrassing first date, and a three-week fling that took me nowhere, I made up my mind to be pickier. I needed to be really into the guy to go out on a date. So I began my search.

On Christmas Eve I got chatting to a handsome man who claimed he’d arrived in Beijing that week. Encouraged by our lively conversation, my generosity warmed by his apparent loneliness in a new place, so I invited him to a Christmas party I was throwing. I figured it would be a safe place to scope him out. He accepted the offer; I got very excited.

He never showed, cancelling at the last minute. I was disappointed but forgave him. He was new here, and it was Christmas. That can be tough. Plus, he said he would make it up to me.

Six weeks later, I was still waiting for that first date. We’d chatted every day, bantering and joking, back and forth. Several times, we set up a date and then he cancelled last minute. I was getting irritated, not sure he was worth it, but I kept hanging on. Friends at parties asked me, “do you understand how Tinder works?” They were shocked anyone would wait six weeks for a Tinder date.

In some way, I was proud of the long courtship. I hoped that this would make “us” different. The waiting had certainly worked. He’d got me hooked. I’d made up my mind to like him before I had even met him.

In the winter holiday, just days before Valentine’s, he finally found time for little old me. On a cold, windy night we had dinner, drinks, and more drinks. He was taller and more handsome in person than I had imagined. He was funny and attentive. The reality was better than his online personality, which rarely happens. We were both super talkative. He complimented my appearance. I could hardly believe how well we were getting on. We moved on to a bar where he smoked and shared the odd cigarette with me. I wasn’t sure whether I was lightheaded because of the smoke or his smile.

Very, very late, after all the bars had closed, he invited me to his place. There was no way I was saying no after the time I’d waited. I’d already decided it would be worth it. To be honest, it was disappointing. He certainly enjoyed it. He was selfish both that night and the next morning, but I barely noticed, so awestruck was I by his body.

In the morning he made me breakfast, told me stories about an old friend he said he wanted me to meet, and walked me to the subway. I drifted home on a cloud and wrote down all the wonderful moments that had made our night special.

We continued to talk day after day. Throughout my short winter vacation I kept wishing myself back in Beijing, imagining spending every night of his lonely week-long break with him. I’d even offered to turn around and go back before my train left the station. I was hopelessly devoted.

Six weeks later, I was back at work and still hadn’t seen him again. We’d set up several more dates and he’d cancelled every time. I was angry and frustrated; worried I’d scared him off by being too keen. It gradually became clear he wasn’t interested in a relationship, or even casual sex. I asked him for an honest reason, and was astounded by his response. I finally felt the sting of that dreaded situation: he thought I was more attractive with my clothes on than nude! He found my body hair so repulsive that he didn’t enjoy sex:

“I found your leg hair distracting. I really had to concentrate to finish.”

My immediate impulse was to fight my corner, argue that women make choices about their appearance for themselves, not for men, and tell him that his opinion didn’t matter.

But I didn’t rant at him. Instead I left him alone in his small-mindedness and got on with my life. I’d blown my chance with him, which bothered me because it was over such a small thing. But what really stung was I’d been on the brink of falling for someone who allowed something so minor to affect our entire relationship. I will never make that mistake again.

– United Kingdom, 26


image from: sheknows


Dating is hard, especially if you aren’t really dating. Let me explain.

One fall, I met a guy the day after my birthday. He was my coworker, and younger than me by a couple of years. After spending a little time together we ended up making out one night.

The next day as he asked, “what exactly are you looking for?” I was honest, I didn’t see him as a long term thing. Both of us were planning on leaving Beijing that summer. I just wanted fun, with stipulations on privacy. “Ah ok,” he said. “I just wanted to let you know, before we went any further, that I have a girlfriend. Not all girls are cool with that.”

That knocked the breath out of me. At first I was too stunned to reply, curse words forming in my head. But I reacted calmly: “does your girlfriend know?”

“Oh yeah, it was actually her idea. Do you want to talk to her?”

So I took the risk of being in an open relationship. It was weird. Having a guy over two to three times a week cooking, watching movies, having sex, all while knowing I couldn’t f**k it up. My plan was impenetrable. Or so I thought.

Six months in, we went on our first outside date. While out at a fun bar party a cute British girl approached him. After flirting with him, and letting him know she was interested, she asked if we were together. “No” we both responded. She continued to flirt, and I found a way to extract myself. I had a drink by myself at a table in other room but could see them talking at the bar. I played with my phone for a bit.

“Hey,” he was standing next to me, looking down, a little concerned. “Do you want to come hang out with us?”

“Nah,” I told him. “I think she’s pretty interested in you though.”

He brightens. “Yeah! I think she is. You don’t mind, do you?”

OF COURSE I MIND! WE CAME HERE ON A— I caught myself before I yelled.

What were we on? Was it a date? Does it count as a date if you obviously aren’t planning a future together? Did him agreeing to accompany me out contractually bind him to me for the night? I wanted to be cool. Chill. He didn’t owe me anything.

“Nah. Go for it. I’m going to go meet up with some other friends. Have fun, be safe,” I said as lightheartedly as possible. Then, without meeting his eyes, I left.

A long walk on a chilly night is terribly symbolic when you feel alone. I wish I could say I went home and composed this balanced rational story. That would be a lie. I got drunk. I cried. Not because I was in love. But because I just wanted a real date, at which I was the center of a guy’s attention. Through much contemplation (and water) for the next two days, I decided to stop my destructive behavior. Maybe it works for others, but while I could handle and open relationship, I couldn’t handle an open date.

– United States of America, 20s


image from: independent


Thanks to the ever-popular Tinder app, I met a number of guys online. With some, we moved discussions over to WeChat – a platform not stymied by VPN restrictions. We would chat, occasionally meet up, and often that was it. My schedule left a lot to be desired, and made meeting for dates a large commitment on my part. Unless I was particularly interested in our conversation, it was rare I put in the effort.

But I was starting to realize how little I was actually getting out there, with dating or even just engagements with friends. So I started to say, “yes,” to a few dates. To drinks or a quick bite to eat – something to get a better feel for these fellas.

One such man had been quick with the wit and as engaging as anyone can be over WeChat. I was enjoying myself, and figured odds were high that that would translate to an in-person meeting. We picked a subway station, and I took off after work looking forward to a night out.

As it were, it actually took me a moment to find him. Unsurprisingly, it’s common for folks to use vague photos on dating app profiles, leaving the one you’re meeting unaware of what you *actually* look like.

In this case, there was little to no resemblance.

Already off to a poor start, we walked around, making our way through the typical chit-chat. He presented me with a kitschy gift – something he thought I’d like – in the form of a children’s toy. Unsure what to think, I smiled and accepted it, sliding it into my purse. Thrilled, he launched into a story about himself – one of many that evening. Though we didn’t have any plan, it soon became clear he had an idea what we’d be doing. Soon we were inside a bookstore. “You like books, right?”

“Well, yes, of course, but …”

“Yes, I thought so! See how much I already know about you?”

And off he went, directing me to section after section of all those topics he was oh-so-knowledgable about. Art, art history, architecture, Chinese culture – was there anything he didn’t know? Was there any book that his great and glorious mind hadn’t absorbed?

After nearly two hours of this, it was off to a bar nearby, where his friend was hosting her farewell party. I was soon sidled next to a few of his friends, and he was absorbed in a conversation with the other end of the table. I did my best to keep up, but their in-depth discussions on Japanese art and complex photography techniques weren’t easy topics to engage in. So I sipped my drink and listened politely.

“Want to split some food?” my date asked, remembering I was there. “Uh, no I’m OK. I’ll just stick with this drink.” “Well OK. Don’t worry, by the way. Drink’s on me.”

None of my protests and insistence that I pick up my own drink worked, so I finally accepted and thanked him profusely. Another hour passed, and I made my way to the subway. He hugged me goodbye. I told him it was nice to meet him. For me, well, it wasn’t a great evening, but he was nice and had been kind in treating me to a drink. I appreciated it, and went home happy to have given it a go.

Days passed and we didn’t say much. Then suddenly, there was his name. “Long time no chat, pretty lady!” We exchanged the pleasantries, and there it was. The inquiry for a second date, but in a way I’d never been asked before.

“So since I picked up your drink the other night, it looks like you owe me!”

“Uh, yea… lol Thanks again for that.”

“No. Really. You owe me a drink. I’ll be free this weekend, we can meet up and you can get that for me.”

As it turns out, he wasn’t playing a bit. I owed him 35 kuai, and he was calling to collect. A few more messages later – “So, about that drink …” – and my subsequent silence, he abandoned the chase. Seems he didn’t think the money was well spent. Needless to say, it took me a few dates before I’d accept a drink again.

– United States of America, 27


Previous instalments:

Learning that an ex is married. Walking away from a Tinder date. Getting set up by your boyfriend. [part 1]

Humiliation by comedy in a Beijing bar. Parents say, “break up with him” because boyfriend is not Chinese. [part 2]

A Chinese first boyfriend who ruined dating for years. Suffering through sleep apnea on a first date. Offered money for sex with a stranger. [part 3]

Guy uses Chinese whispers to ask for a date. Remedies for dating in inauspicious circumstances. [part 4]

These stories are shared by the women who experienced them in their own words. All stories took place in Beijing, China, unless otherwise stated. Identities are kept secret out of respect for the individuals in the stories.

Words and Women: Ursula K. Le Guin

“You cannot take what you have not given, and you must give yourself. You cannot buy the Revolution. You cannot make the Revolution. You can only be the Revolution. It is in your spirit, or it is nowhere.”

Ursula Le Guin
image from: GooglePlay

“You can’t crush ideas by suppressing them. You can only crush them by ignoring them. By refusing to think, refusing to change.”

― Ursula K. Le Guin, from her 1974 novel The Dispossessed

Download The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin and read for free

Words and Women is a regular feature that spotlights short quotations from influential women activists, artists, and authors.

Ms Foreign Friend

There’s no need for a name when you’re ‘Ms Foreign Friend’ in China:

A Chinese Barista wrote ‘Ms Foreign Friend’ on my Starbucks cup, Beijing, 2015 © Cas Sutherland

Silver lining: At least being foreign didn’t change the fact I’m an independent woman whose marital status does not affect her identity!

The Legacy of Qinghuayuan

The trains running through this historic railway station honoured my neighbourhood with 27 traffic jams a day.

Rails but no trains. Wudaokou, Beijing, 6th November 2016 © Cas Sutherland

On 22nd October, expat magazine the Beijinger reported the imminent closure of the Railway station closest to Wudaokou, Beijing’s student district. Qinghuayuan station was built in 1910 as part of the line between Beijing and Zhangjiakou, the first ever railway in China.

Until 31st October, two trains stopped at this station every day. One, the #4471, was among the slowest category of trains in China. The 325 kilometer journey between Beijing and Chengde, the location of the Emperor’s summer residence, took 10 hours and cost 25rmb. It stopped at Qinghuayuan for 22 minutes once every day at 9:19am.

The more popular S2 train, between Beijing and two sections of the great wall at Badaling and Yanqing, stopped at Qinghuayuan 26 times daily, costing 7 rmb for the 90 minute journey to one of the country’s largest tourist attractions.

The station was usually empty, as very few passengers chose to catch the train at Qinghuayuan due to its inconvenient location a couple of hundred meters from the North fourth ring road and half way between two distant subway stations. In fact, its existence was rare knowledge among most residents of the area.

Rails dismantled, Wudaokou, Beijing, 12th November 2016 © Cas Sutherland

Those who spend time in Wudaokou, however, will have the frequency of those trains engrained upon their memory. Just north of Qinghuayuan, the tracks cross a major road almost directly under the elevated subway platforms, causing serious traffic jams 27 times a day.

Every closure of the level crossing was audible for a mile in any direction. The female announcement voice, siren, and warning bells rang through the surrounding streets, echoing out a cautionary challenge to travellers: can you get past before the barriers close?

A pair of bored police officers stood around, constantly waiting for their moment to shine. With the wave of a flag ahead of the approaching train, they let the world know, ‘I’m helping the world stay safe.’ Cars, buses, and cabs queued up either side of the crossing while bikes and pedestrians crowded the barriers, everyone raring to go and revving motors as soon as the slow, noisy trains came into view.

Crossing the tracks was always a test of how best to time a journey, how to navigate the crowds, how to chose a route through the oncoming traffic and get past the intersection without stopping at the jolt of blaring sirens.

The end of last month saw the closure of this 106-year-old station and redirection of all trains, away from the busy heart of student city.

The speed with which the railway line has been disassembled is testament to the powerful decision-making going on in the city’s heart. There is no reticence here, no public opinion polls, just action. Once the demolition of this small part of Beijing’s history was wished, it was granted. Imagining the obstructing road might be a hindrance to deconstruction, the quick and constant disintegration of this small part of my home has come as a shock, particularly considering the apparent lack of workers involved in this destruction.

The end of the line, Wudaokou, Beijing, 12th November 2016 © Cas Sutherland

Where once stood an inconvenient level crossing, which doubled as an unsafe pedestrian walkway, now stand railings dividing foot- and cycle-paths and the busy road. Several meters of metal tracks are still exposed underfoot, embedded in an uneven rubbery surface that pretends to work as a road. The lines of unfettered traffic attest to the improbability of resurfacing. But those tracks lead nowhere, dropping off into piles of rubble at either side of the road, where once-wary hawkers have claimed an extension to their territory.

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No doubt the memory of this old station will soon slip away, lost among disuse and imagination. The building will continue to stand, visible only to those passing above it and watchful enough to actually notice through the steamy windows of the hectic subway. Let the legacy live on.

校园贷: China’s campus loan sharks

There is a phenomenon quietly sweeping through China, aptly named ‘xiàoyuán dài’ or ‘campus loans’, through which university students are falling rapidly into debt with little way out. Young people on university campuses are being targeted by online finance companies who give out loans or brand new iPhones, with no down payment required.

Most of China’s vast student population are supported by their proud parents, and don’t need to worry about tuition fees or spending money. With accommodation fees as low as 600 yuan (£70 or $87) per year, and meals for as little as 5 yuan (58p or 72¢) students can hardly plead the exorbitant costs of life on campus.

That pocket money sent from home, however, is unlikely to cover much beyond the basics. Leaving campus was once an unusual undertaking, a journey of necessity rather than desire or curiosity but these days students are less satisfied with staying put. Wander around the student districts, like Wudaokou in Beijing, and you’ll see streets lined with foreign shops, boutiques, coffee shops, bars, clubs, imported food stores and KTV venues. This is where students manage to drop that cash. For some, spending money is one method of maintaining relationships or saving face.

One report was about a college student in Zhengzhou, Central China’s Henan province, who borrowed 8,000 yuan ($1,214) at first but had to repay about 80,000 yuan in accumulated debt and interest after just six months through a series of repayment borrowings. He finally committed suicide as he couldn’t pay.

Students are suckered into these schemes by the ease of gaining a ready cash flow. Loans are approved within hours, using basic personal information. The consequences probably seem minor in the shadow of all the possibility that cash could grant. However, there is danger in store for these fickle borrowers.

Part of the deal is weekly repayments and monstrous interest rates of as high as 30%. If students miss repayments they can be in for serious public humiliation. Some companies force borrowers to promote the loan sharks to their friends, tying them into a pyramid scheme. Many companies hold precious collateral: students are required to submit a nude image with his or her national ID card in frame, before the loan can be approved. This image becomes the threat: it will be publicly released online in the event of failure to meet repayment deadlines. Some companies offer larger sums (from two to five times more) to those who send nude images, a deal offered almost exclusively to female students.

One relieved student in this situation said, anonymously:

Fortunately, my family paid the money. The interest is very high. If you wanted to borrow 1,000 yuan, the weekly interest is 300 yuan, which means you have to owe 1,300 yuan within a week.

This issue has been widely reported but no law has yet been successfully enforced. This could be due to the low threshold for establishing lending platforms in China, as some companies masquerade under the e-commerce umbrella. Since there are no strict laws or regulations on campus loans, there’s little hope of management, and colleges are being advised to offer financial awareness training to university students instead.

Read on:

China’s Murky World Where E-Commerce Meets Student Lending [Bloomberg]