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Yang Ling: Life as a Karaoke Girl

Portraits of Young People in a Changing China

New America Media, Personal voice/Photo essays, Yang Ling as told to Rian Dundon Posted: Sep 23, 2008

Editor's note: As the glamour of the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing fades, NAM takes a post-Olympic look at the country and the real lives of people there. Photographer Rian Dundon captured images and crafted intimate portraits of the lives of young Chinese men and women in a changing society. In the fifth in a series, Dundon profiles 23-year old Yang Ling.

Yang Ling is known as a "karaoke girl." Her job is a fixture of China's massive sex industry in which karaoke establishments play center stage. Customers are usually groups of men looking to sing and drink in the company of young girls like Yang Ling, who often provide sexual services in addition to performing the duties of a waitress. These girls, known as "xiao jie" (little sister), are either chosen by male customers as they enter the club or are assigned to customers by the house mom or "mama-san," an older woman who handles the affairs of the "xiao jie." Sexual services provided in karaoke bars are a widespread and more socially accepted form of prostitution in China, though other venues such as massage parlors are also prolific. The sale of sex is technically illegal in China.

JISHOU CITY, China-- I came to Jishou City because at home there is nothing for me. Sure I could help my parents on the farm, feeding animals like I've done all my life, but then what? Like me, most of the young people from my hometown left to find work. Here I make 500 RMB (73 USD) a month and the karaoke bar gives me an apartment and food for free. It's better than being at home even though here I must be at work all-day everyday. But I don't have many friends anyway and the ones I do have work here with me. If we have free time we play cards or chat.

Xiangxi, China, 2007. Yang Ling (left) sits in a friends nearby shop while she waits for customers to arrive.

When I fist came to Jishou City two years ago I was very nervous, very afraid. I immediately wanted to go back home to my family. I had never been away from them and had never left my hometown before. At first I lived with my cousin who helped me get a job selling clothes in a retail store. But soon enough the boss was asking me to stay and work until very late at night. It is not safe for a girl to be alone in a shop that late at night and besides, I wanted to hang out with friends during that time, to enjoy myself.


One night after work, some people invited me to go party with them. We stayed out all night having fun and dancing until dawn, and I was to open the clothing shop. I was supposed to open the place at 8 a.m. but I didn't get there until 10 a.m. The boss was very angry. He cursed and yelled at me and said some terrible things about me, so I left that job at the clothing shop. Soon after that a friend helped me find a job here at the karaoke bar and I have been here ever since. At first I was only a waitress. My duties were filling teacups and clearing dishes and I only made 300 RMB (44 USD) a month. Now I make more.

Yang Ling in one of the private party rooms at the karaoke house.

Though my hometown is only two hours away, my parents have never been to the city and I only return home once a year for the Spring Festival (Chinese New Year). I have a big family, with two sisters and two brothers, and this is the reason I never furthered my education. You see, in the countryside a family will always choose to send their sons to school first. Then, if it is financially possible they will send the daughters. With two brothers in my family, education was never even a possibility for me. So I stopped after elementary school to help out on the family farm, feeding the animals and such.

Now only my younger brother is in school. Sometimes I send him money if he needs it, but I never send any to my parents. I don't make enough to support them yet-- there is barely enough for myself. My older brother became a farmer in our hometown and my sisters married and moved away to live with their husbands' families. I rarely see them.

Of course I can never tell my family what I do for a living or even that I work at a karaoke bar. They would be too worried and I don't want to trouble them like that. The men who are customers here are middle aged, and are not rich, and not poor. They come here to sing and drink and relax and talk to us girls. Me, I never ask what they do for a living and they don't talk about it. They are only here for pleasure.

Yang Ling sits in a friend's shop while she waits for customers to arrive at the karaoke house. "I really want to go to a bigger city if I have the chance."

I don't know what I will do in the future, but I know that I would like to move on from here. I am now 23 years old, but I don't want to return home and marry. I am glad I left home and came to the city but even this place is too small. I really want to go to a bigger city, maybe Changsha (Hunan Province's capital city) if I have the opportunity. Maybe if I meet someone who can take me away, or if a better job presents itself, I will do that.

But right now I cannot see so far into the future, I can only see what I have here and now, and hope for something else to come along and change that. The main problem is that I have no skills and thus no chance to find different work. In my life I have only farmed and sold clothes and worked at the karaoke bar, so on my own there is really nothing else I can do to advance my situation. All I can do is wait.

Xiangxi, China, 2006. In a private room at a large karaoke house, a customer sits with with his karaoke 'xiao jie' or 'little sister'. Prostitution is rampant in China and karaoke clubs are one of the most prolific venues for the sale of sex.

Portraits of Young People in a Changing China -Xiao Wu, Tattoo Artist

No Way Out: Lack of Education Traps Chinas Rural Youth

From Mao to Yao Ming: Tiananmen Changed the Chinese View of the Body

From Prude to Lewd: China's New Sexual Revolution

Xiangxi, China, 2006. Late night in a private room at a large karaoke house.

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