Photos: Sex workers in southern Chinese village mired in drugs, AIDS and poverty

March 5, 2012Jing Gao3 Comments, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

From NetEase Forum


Sex, drugs and AIDS are eroding Gejiu, or “the Tin City”, in Yunnan province. The city has more than 5,400 registered injection drug users, at least 70 percent of whom are infected with HIV. Thousands have reached a stage where their immune system has been damaged, and their HIV has become a full-blown AIDS. Many female AIDS patients still cluster around the city’s Gongren Village (literally Workers’ Village) and sell their bodies at 10 yuan to 50 yuan per service.

Inside a hospital in Gejiu, an AIDS patient sits by the window and watches sunset.


Chai Qin was born in 1969 and brought up in Gejiu. In 1989, out of pure curiosity, Chai Qin took some heroin, and has been trapped in the abyss ever since. After she quit her job, she soon stepped into the most famous red-light district in Gejiu. Over the years, HIV has quietly spread from her to her customers.


Chai Qin’s infection has already displayed some symptoms, for example, on her skin. She has festers leaking fluid all over her body. “If I don’t change my pants often enough, I can smell the stench from my own body when I sit here and the wind blows.” Chai took off her sweater pants and revealed her two legs covered with lesions. Dark yellow pus was oozing from under the gauze. She said the stench came exactly from these festers. Even with such a body, she entertained seven customers last month and earned 310 yuan ($48).


Chai Qin’s life partner is Zhang Wei, who is also an HIV patient. Zhang Wei works as a caretaker at a local hospital. They are not legally married. In this circle, most people either live alone, or live with those who have also contracted the infection. Chai Qin will ask Zhang Wei to stay away when she receives a client at home. “I really don’t have a choice. We need money, to buy medication. Sometimes, I get really tearful in the meantime, but if I don’t do it, I will have no source of income,” Chai said.


Gejiu is located in the central part of Yunnan province and has been the world’s largest production center for tin, whose tin reserves account for about one tenth of the world total. In 1953, tin production in Yunnan was listed by the central government as one of the 156 key industrial projects that the Soviet Union provided aid for. “Workers’ Village” came into being as a result. At the time, hundreds of buildings were erected, marking the heyday of Gejiu. Five decades later, Workers’ Village is but a ruin of what it was and has become a run-down colony for miners and low-income sex workers.


Places for prostitution “Transaction”, like this one, can be easily spotted in the narrow alleys of Workers’ Village. A typical one-room hut has no window, no plumbing and can only fit one bed inside. Therefore, it remains dark all year around, and one has to go to a public bathhouse and pay 5 yuan for a shower. About 300 to 400 people work as sex workers in Workers’ Village when the trade was at its height. Prostitutes are highly mobile and continually on the move, as the business is always the best in the first few days when they move into a new place, and easily sours when they overstay their welcome.


“House of hookers,” “Whore.”

Residents at Workers’ Village seem to have grown accustomed to prostitutes as a social group, but an undercurrent of resentment and discrimination is rippling across the population. Older people coined epithets for women coming from Sichuan and Guizhou provinces. Children, on the other hand, chalked on the wall vocabulary they have learned: “House of hookers,” “Whore.”


Illegal clinics are thick on the ground in Workers’ Village. These clinics, despite extortionate fees they charge, often prove counterproductive and dangerous for sex workers seeking treatment. On the other hand, addictive drugs are are very easy to come by in Gejiu. Sexually transmitted diseases, drugs and HIV/AIDS are intertwined problems that sex workers have to combat. Estimates on Gejiu’s drug abusing population vary between 5,400 and 5,700, 70 percent of which is HIV positive. Little is known about the actual number of HIV/AIDS patients that do not register with the authorities. However, to a city with a population of 400,000, the HIV prevalence is already astounding.


Li Man, director of the non-governmental organization Kucao Workshop, displays an educational tool she uses for her classes.
Kucao Workshop teaches women about HIV prevention, sexual skills, and how to persuade customers to wear a condom. Hundreds of sex workers in Gejiu are HIV positive. Nevertheless, about 40 to 60 percent of their clients refuse to wear a condom. They would say, “The feeling is similar to washing your feet with your socks on.”


Gao Ping, a sex worker, holds her pet dog Duoduo in her arms.

Ever since she contracted HIV, her major focus of life outside her work has been taking care of her dog. “Only dogs are our friends and enjoy our company. People like us are too pathetic.”


Gejiu saw an outbreak of AIDS in 2008. Most AIDS patients died alone in the fields, in public restrooms, on the streets or in rented apartments when they had no medication to take and no one bothers to even pay them a visit. In the picture is the snapshot of an educational video about self-care that Li Man showed to a patient named Shanshan. Two months later, Shanshan passed away.


Gao Ping sits in a room at an KTV, or a karaoke box, where she works. At the corner of the KTV room is a secret room concealed behind a wall. The secret room has nothing but a coffee table, on which Gao Ping and her clients have sex. She is paid 50 yuan for each service (US$7.93), 10 yuan (US$1.59) of which goes to the KTV owner as commission. Gao Ping said, “I am actually pretty concerned about myself. Now I live a lone and don’t have a boyfriend, I may have died in my own home and no one would even know. A few days ago, a woman died downstairs. It wasn’t discovered until her body gave off the stench five days later. The wolfhound she kept was also found dead next to her body. I guess it must have been too grief-stricken.”


Wu Xiujuan displays her embroidery of flowers and cranes worked in cross-stitch. In the afternoon, when she has no client, she works on her embroidery. She wants to save up to start a small business. Her body has begun to fester. Every now and then, she falls unconscious. In order to hide her illness from her client, she wears gloves and never takes off her tights. She charges between 20 yuan to 50 (US$3.17 – 7.93) yuan for each service.


Two days after she spoke to our reporter, Wu’s home was set on fire. Most of her belongings were reduced to ashes. The remains of her clothes still hang on the clothes line. In Workers’ Village, sex workers getting extorted or beaten is a commonplace.


In the ruins of her home, a used syringe tainted with blood for injecting illicit drugs is found.


At Gejiu Hospital of Infectious Diseases, Shen Yaping sits on her bed, her face blank of all expressions. Having contracted tuberculosis, fungal infection, hepatitis C and HIV, she is left near-blind. This January, she received 20,000 yuan (US$3,170) as alimony from her divorce and used the money on her treatment.


The government provides health insurance to the HIV-infected. But most of them are nevertheless denied treatment, because they cannot scrape together the threshold 500- to 1,000-yuan hospitalization fee.


On January 15, 2012, three AIDS patients passed away at Gejiu Hospital for Infections Diseases. Many patients cannot even be forgiven by their families posthumously. An AIDS patient’s daughter, who refused to visit the mother on her deathbed, said, “This is what she deserves.”


Yingbochi, the central district of the city, is still a landmark of Gejiu’s nightlife. Inside dozens of KTVs basking in neon lights, hundreds of women await their customers.

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3 comments to “Photos: Sex workers in southern Chinese village mired in drugs, AIDS and poverty”

  1. Jolene | March 18, 2012 | Permalink Reply

    I cannot believe you just told us Wu’s house was burned because of your interview with her.
    NO! NO! NO!
    where is the basic respect to those poor ladies? wtf IS THE GOVERNMENT DOING? your people are suffering in those pictures.

  2. Andrea | March 18, 2012 | Permalink Reply

    A reporter’s job is to report. I believe there is also danger for the reporters to uncover things happening here. This is not a normal society we’re talking about. It is enough to prove tat those who dare to kill the interviewee will dare to kill the reporter. It is not like if the dirty side is uncovered, people can go on to the street and protest. Those high up do not give a shit. It takes a lot of courage to report these.

  3. Vico | November 29, 2012 | Permalink Reply

    “Shen Yaping sits on her bed” picture has to be the saddest image I have seen in all my memory, what a terrible thing, what misfortune, so much mystery while we take our lives for granted. I call for anarchy! Men are not fit to rule.

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