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Brian Hennessy. China Australia Consult. 2004.

I'm sitting in a teahouse near the back gate of my university. Red lanterns outside, comfortable cane chairs inside, and a welcoming smile from the receptionist. This is where I come to relax, to read a book, or maybe to prepare some notes for tomorrow's class. There's more going on here than meets the eye.




The tea, although a little bitter, is refreshing. A endless cup, filled to the brim by a young lady whenever my brew drops below the plimsol line. Her other job is to mop the floor. A small thermos of hot water sits on my small glass-topped cane table, but I am not allowed anywhere near it. Its her job to top up my tea.

A raucous, rude cockatoo guards the entrance. It speaks Chinese of course. Damn thing called me a turtle-egg last time I was here, and that's a hanging-offence in China. An unforvivable insult. Perhaps that's why he is perched in his cage way out of reach above the door. I tell you, feathers will fly one day.

I got a free meal tonight. Was invited by the cook and the working girls to sit down and join them. My status is rising. Actually, these ladies had given up on me long ago. At first it was all smiles and sweet hellos. Then it was offended dignity (why did he refuse? Isn't he normal?) followed by a collective cold shoulder. This is how I came to be regarded as an oddity. Someone to be tolerated. An eccentric perhaps. A 'laowai' (foreigner) reading books and drinking tea alone.

Alone in communal China. What a strange man. I am part of the furniture. I think they like this laowai now because I am invited to share their humble meal. And humble it is. Some brown grassy stuff drenched in hot sauce, resting on a bed of ordinary looking white rice. Well the rice wasn't so bad.

Same for the conversation. With my limited Chinese and their three or four words of English language, somehow we managed to crank out a few jokes. Mostly about my big western nose. Later I learned the real reason for their mirth. Lets just say that they believe that size of a man's nose is in direct proportion to the size of his whatsis! All true, of course…

Then I return to my table, my tea, and my book. And they go back to work. Their time is up. If I stay here for a couple of hours, we'll give each other a nod of recognition as they escort their clients past my table and out to the foyer where they pay the bill to the Xiao jie who is doing her makeup behind the counter. Xiao jie is always doing her makeup.

Prostitution is illegal in China. However, since Deng Xiao Ping's policy of Opening Up and reform was implemented, many things have opened up. Big business and small business. The market determines supply and demand. And there's plenty of demand for business here on a Friday and Saturday night. A businessman's clients need to be looked after, you know. It's part of the deal.

Prostitution. These working girls. Young for 10 minutes. Maybe they will find a rich man one day. To be a mistress is not so bad, eh? Might even score one of those pretty little Changan cars into the bargain. My student doctors tell me about the dark side. Disease. Wives supporting impoverished families. The occasional student at my university earning money to fund her fees or buy fashionable clothes and cosmetics. A poor student from a poor county, earning money to buy food for herself.

The cheerful young lady wipes my table. "Xie xie, xiao mei," I say. "Bu yong xie," she replies. I reckon she is no more than 14. Hope she doesn't graduate to a better paid job here when she gets older. 



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