"This Face" Artwork by Xu Yong
Source:Artintern.net Author:Shu Yang Date: 2011-08-09 Size:
Five hundred-plus portrait photographs showing a female face, sometimes wearing make-up, sometimes not; at first glance they seem unrelated, but they are all of a young woman called Zi U, a Chinese sex worker.


This Face Artwork by Xu Yong Exhibited at 798 Art District, Beijing


This Face Artwork by Xu Yong Exhibited at 798 Art District, Beijing

Five hundred-plus portrait photographs showing a female face, sometimes wearing make-up, sometimes not; at first glance they seem unrelated, but they are all of a young woman called Zi U, a Chinese sex worker. The photographer, Xu Yong, has made a close-up record of Zi U's face at different times on one day, beginning the moment she gets up right through until her day is over. A sex worker's face is both important as a front that draws in clients and a mask for hiding her true identity. The photographs that Xu Yong has taken of this face through a single day are combined with Zi U's own diary describing her life that day; the pair has collaborated in a work that adroitly combines text and image.

This work of course makes us think of a previous collaborative piece by Xu Yong and a sex worker called Yu Na, Solution Scheme; this too combined images with a self-description by the subject. The difference between the two works is that the earlier piece is a posed work by someone who is displaying her body in photographs as a way of getting out of sex work; while this new piece is the photographic record of the face of a woman who intends to use sex work to make money. Setting aside for now any moral judgements of these two works by Xu Yong, they both allow us a glimpse of the reality lived by sex workers in China.


This Face Artwork by Xu Yong Exhibited at 798 Art District, Beijing


This Face Artwork by Xu Yong Exhibited at 798 Art District, Beijing

Sex work is a global industry. It is to be found everywhere in both developing and developed nations, and in some places it has become a special feature of the tourist trade. After the Chinese Communist Party established the People's Republic in 1949 there was a period when sex work was strictly outlawed; today, it has grown to become an enormous industry in China. Be it in major metropolises like Beijing and Shanghai, or in distant Shigatse in Tibet or right down in the countryside, there are sex workers in the hotels, boarding houses, bars, karaoke parlours, hairdressers, bathhouses and massage parlours. Out on the streets or hidden away in private clubs and fancy apartments, there too we find fashionably-dressed sex workers plying their trade. There have even been complaints lodged with the authorities concerning sex workers touting for business in ordinary residential neighbourhoods and outside primary schools. Although the prevailing social moral climate strongly condemns sex work, we are compelled to accept the reality that it is widespread. If we ignore this reality there will be no chance of appropriate social management of sex workers, so driving them underground into the arms of organised crime, and depriving them of their legitimate rights.

Today in China we have on the one hand the government implementing regular crackdowns on prostitution followed by periods of relative tolerance; and on the other, the continued ubiquity of sex work. This bizarre social situation has led to sex work being a grey industry that everyone in China is aware of, yet left sex workers as an at-risk group unable to work openly. That Xu Yong has been able to persuade sex workers to take part in publicly exhibited art works, works that stand as rare testimony of the social reality of our times and provide a direct glimpse of human nature, is itself a work of courage and extraordinary significance. When, through Xu Yong's art, we get a glimpse of Zi U's hidden life of sex work, we are also able to see how an actual Chinese woman looks at and copes with the world we live in. Zi U's face is both a mirror reflecting her hidden world and a true record of the desire in contemporary Chinese life. Whether you like it or not, this is one true face of the society we live in. Xu Yong exposes hidden aspects of our society, expressing his social observations through the medium of art, without adding any commentary or critique, then presenting them to us, leaving each of us to seek out solutions to this social problem for ourselves.

Shu Yang

April 17 2011.

#p#副标题#e#The Manuscript of Zi U

January 19 2011    By Zi U

Around ten in the morning my jumbled dreams are cut short by my cell phone ringing, which I mistakenly assume to be a call from a client. I don’t want to get up, while my whole body is aching, like I’ve caught a heavy cold, and I don’t feel at all like moving. The next time I peel back my eyelids, it’s already close on noon. The day before yesterday Lee moved me to a new hotel. The room is spacious and there’s even a computer so I can get online and ease the boredom a bit. The only downside is it being a bit too close to the East Third Ring Road and so fairly noisy, but then I remember it’s not long until I go back home for Lunar New Year, so I tell myself I can put up with it. With some effort, I get up and head for the bathroom, where in the mirror I’m greeted by the sight of a bloodless face and out-of-it eyes, and it makes my heart hurt. I used to be a carefree girl, a girl with lots of dreams; while I was at college I caught many an admiring eye from the boys (and not a few envious glances from the girls), now when I look at my face, no matter how I try, I can’t come up with appropriate words to describe it. I think about how, coming up to New Year, clients’ pockets will be stuffed with cash and that sorts my head out and I set to washing my face and putting on make-up. Today I make myself up to be as charming as I can. I look at me in the mirror again – looking smart and not a little sexy! OK then; I give myself an encouraging smile and hope this will be a day with big rewards.


This Face Artwork by Xu Yong Exhibited at 798 Art District, Beijing

I lean against the bed and indulge my habits for coffee and cigarettes to sharpen up a bit, and eat a couple of crackers. I’m a little bored so I turn on the TV and watch a snippet of news, about the government placing restrictions on the housing market. Around 11:40 my phone rings. It’s a middle-aged author. We’ve done it a few times and he’s not mean with his money, but he’s a little bit too big down there, almost more than I can take. But thinking on the money I agree to see him. Each time, he’s super tense. The minute he comes in, without giving me time to speak grabs me and hugs me tight. “I’ve missed you so bad. Today I want you to suck me dry.” I can barely breathe. He strips off my clothes hurriedly until I’m left without a stitch on. By this point he’s completely lost any air of the cultured gentleman of letters – naked as a buck beast, fumbling on a condom quick as he can then pressing down on me. Soon that great big thing of his is stretching me down there so it hurts. I grab on tight to his arse and do my best to keep up with his rhythm, crying out with abandon. The louder I am the more he likes it – he has no idea that I’m hurting bad enough to cry out in pain. He goes at it with ever more force, squeezing my breasts hard with both hands. I strain to prise his hands off. At last, he comes to the sound of my wild screaming and finally relaxes a little. I lie there quietly for a while, then feeling for his sweat-soaked face I push him back down on the bed, get up and head to the bathroom clutching my groin. “I have another client in a bit; you hurry up and get washed too. And you do it much too hard, you know.” He glances at his cell phone. “Same every time, you’re in such a hurry to get rid of me. Ah well, I know you’re much more busy than I am.” In the bathroom he cops another feel. Shower over, he heads back into the room and pulls a wad of cash out from his wallet and hands it to me. I eye the thickness of the bills and the pain I was feeling not moments ago seems to have disappeared entirely; I come forward and give him the sweetest of kisses. “I’ll be thinking of you.” He hesitates for a moment then says, “Would it be OK if I introduce you to a friend of mind?” “Fine; next time you come bring him along too.” “He wouldn’t come with me; he’s a bit of a special somebody.” “Well, we’ll make arrangements some other time then.” I push him out the door before he can say anything else. I put my clothes on and straighten out the bed then sit on the sofa to catch my breath. I sort my hair out and check in the mirror, fixing my face-powder and lipstick.

Lee turns up a bit before one with takeaway from that Taiwanese chain Bellagio; it’s my three favourites. We chat for a while. During the World Expo last year the government cracked down and things got hard for our line of business. Lee tells me that Lucy has rented retail space in a clothing shopping mall in Harbin; she got a friend to send word that she won’t be coming back to make a go of it in Beijing. Venus got work as a sales rep for a wine trader through one of her clients; the salary’s 6,000 a month plus commission on top. Anyone getting on the way I am now is not doing so badly. Thank goodness, this year there haven’t been any major national events to be made a big deal of. Huadu and the other big clubs used the time while they were closed down last year to redecorate and have all re-opened, and the flat fee for putting in a shift as an escort has gone up by a hundred. The madams are all frantically running around looking for girls. I got several calls myself this week wanting me to come over to work. But I’m hardly going to go back to that having dragged myself out of it. The way I make my money now is faster and freer. I don’t like singing and drinking. There’re girls who seem born for it - and they can look like they’re enjoying it too. But even more importantly, there’re new regulations that if you work as an escort you have to take your ID card to the police and be registered and put on file, plus all wear identical clothes and a standard name badge that they issue. That’s not something I could take! The Passion Club and the Regal haven’t opened up again yet since getting shut down, but chances are that’s just because they haven’t paid off the right people.


This Face Artwork by Xu Yong Exhibited at 798 Art District, Beijing

At half past one Chen arrives, as per our date. First thing he’ll do each time he arrives is put the keys to his Bentley somewhere I’ll be sure to see them. I’m all smiles, “Ooh, you’re so cool today, lookin’ good! Did you come specially to see me?” “Of course, my little naughty,” he replies, excited, “And I bought a little bit of underwear, just for you.” He unwraps and throws over some practically see-through lingerie. “Hurry up and get this on; let’s see how dangerous those curves of yours are.” So, he wants to be teased, is it? Who cares anyway, get him sorted and get him out of here is the ticket. But as it turns out, when I’ve put on the pale pink lingerie, it does make my figure look even better! He keeps his eyes fixed on me as I take a hurried shower and then lay down on the bed. “Come here and let brother-in-law give you some good loving.” I make as if I’m enjoying this and fake it up big for my reply, “Oh, brother-in-law, you’re so bad! Sister’s only been gone a minute and you start coming on!” This is too much for him and there’s an immediate response from his nether regions. He feels me up and down all over most lasciviously, talking all the time as he does. “Brother-in-law even thought about fucking you in his dreams. Get on quick and fuck me.” I respond to his words by quickly slipping a condom on him and then getting astride. All of a sudden he gives a fierce tug and rips the lingerie off me. As he tears off the bottom half he follows on by sticking his thing in me. I tremble all over, then start grinding my arse and talking dirty but in the sweetest of voices. It’s not two minutes before he shoots his load! “Oh wow, my lovely one, you’re sooo dirty, fucked me so I feel this good! With all you dirty little girls about, what’s the fucking point in a wife?” I immediately feel really uncomfortable. I mean, it’s not that I haven’t heard this sort of talk a thousand times before, but each time I do it hits me right in the pit of my stomach. There’s not one full-of-himself man in this world you could count on, so the best thing for me is to give up on any thought of marriage and stay happy and independent for the rest of my life. And his wife can’t blame me, it’s her man who’s at fault. Times we’re living in no-one can point the finger at anyone else because no-one’s living up to any moral standards. After I’d seen Chen out I stand at the mirror and look at my face; it’s a blotchy mess of red and white and covered in his dirty, stanky sweat.

Half an hour later the client Lee put on to me arrives. The doorbell rings and when I answer it I’m greeted by a veritable mountain of flesh. As I shut the door I wind my arm around a neck thicker than my waist, “Do you like me, sweetie? How about you stay and have a bit of fun with me?” “OK; ages back I heard tell that when you were at the Huadu you were the madam’s best girl. Tried to book you a few times but they always said you were busy, but today I’ve finally got my time with you.” To make him happy I help him undress then take him into the bathroom and washed him down. Having washed him all over I take the disinfectant soap I use on myself and give his groin another careful going over. Maybe it’s being so fat; his thing is about the size of a butter bean. Most likely it had never developed properly right from when he was a kid. Completely naked, I kneel down and lick his thing gently with the tip of my tongue, then made sucking noises that start slow then get faster, until each gulp comes hard after the previous. He screws up his eyes like he’s at the very height of bliss. “Feels so good. Can I come in your mouth? I’ll double the money.” On hearing the word ‘double’ I start nodding my head for all I’m worth. He lets out a heavy moan and a spurt of warm cum gushes into my mouth, a meaty stench like raw brains that’s vomit-inducing. I turn quickly to squat by the toilet and heave and heave but I still feel nauseous. I get a toothbrush and squeeze out a long strip of paste then brush hard at every corner of my mouth. Good as his word, when he leaves he pays double. I hold up the big red bills to my numb mouth and kiss them – it was using that mouth that earned these!


This Face Artwork by Xu Yong Exhibited at 798 Art District, Beijing

At half past four it’s a handsome older man around sixty; he’s dressed fashionably like a twenty-something. Lee had told me this man is secretary of some industry association. He always likes to sit on the sofa for a while after he arrives and asks a lot of personal questions. He asks if I like music, what my spoken English is like. He says he’d like to help me find different work. A company in his group has a vacancy for secretary that would be just right for me and there’d be a chance later this year to go with him to Los Angeles. Perhaps because of his age, when we do it he always sticks to the most vanilla man-on-top, girl below position. He slowly enters me with his semi-hard thing then steadily sets about gently swaying. If he went too fast I suspect his heart couldn’t take it. After about the time it takes to smoke a cigarette, he lets out a long sigh. There’s only a pitifully small amount of ejaculate in the condom. But I want to make him feel better, “You lasted much longer than the last time!” On hearing this, the old fella happily pulls out his money clip and lets me help myself to the notes in it. I give him a perfunctory leg massage and help him get dressed, then send him cheerfully on his way. Next to him I really am very young. It’s quite bizarre when you make the comparison.

My purse is a lot fatter now than earlier this morning. In a few days’ time when I have a break while I’m on my period I’ll go up the China World Trade Centre and buy some Dior cosmetics, give my poor face a bit of loving! I’ve not been back home for a whole year and I think about mum and dad and my brother, who’s still unemployed, back in our hometown. I can pick some things up to take back for them as New Year presents at the same time. I’ll get dad a winter overcoat and a new mobile phone for my brother. My family will never know what it is I do, but the money can certainly make a difference to my life and theirs. Is there anything more concrete than that? I just hope I can achieve my ‘GDP target’ – a million – in the shortest time possible. Perhaps I’m just being vain. At this point I’m in a great mood. I turn on my MacBook and put on some music, smoke a cigarette, then look in the mirror to do my eyebrows.


Zi U’s Face without Make-ups

Around seven Lu arrives, bang on time. He’s really annoying, he always wants to kiss. For fuck’s sake, that’s the thing we in the profession hate the most. And he never has a shower first; the stink of cigarettes on him mixes in with his bad breath. In bed I push at him with both hands, instinctively wanting to get a bit further away from his mouth. But when I do this he’s even more eager to kiss me. My irritation bubbles up inside, I find it incredibly uncomfortable and if I had a knife I’d likely stab him. I can’t stop the tears welling up. Fuck, if it wasn’t for the money I’d not go anywhere near a man like him in my life. He carries on writhing about, so I grab his shoulders tight. I think my fingers might have dug into his flesh. But he just blows his stinky breath on me, “Am I not the all-powerful? I want all women to surrender before me.” Is as if time has stood still, the filthy bastard won’t come! Maybe he’s just using me like a puppet he can lay all his nonsense on. It feels like a century but at long last he’s got it all out of him. Going into the bathroom I daren’t look up into the mirror to see what my face is like. The tears have already rolled down past my cheeks. He’s now laid face down on the bed like a dead pig, snoring away like a good ‘un. I shake him awake and am not in the slightest embarrassed to ask for an extra couple of notes before getting rid of him.

The client who arrives at half past eight is a semi-famous actor. He looks a lot skinnier than the last time I saw him – maybe acting is as hard a life as our profession! “I’ve been worn out with work recently; it’s been more than two months since I last touched a woman! Let’s do it two times today, what do you say?” “Of course that’s fine, I’ve not seen you for months and I’ve missed you something rotten. All I can do is to watch more of you on TV.” Oh yes, I long since learned how to say the sort of things men like to hear. In this line of work they all know how to do that. Doing it with him is different than with the others, I feel like he takes me over completely. When he gets undressed he still gives off that celebrity aura, which plays to my vanity. I put his slowly hardening thing in my mouth and it soon becomes fully erect as I suck. When he puts it inside me it’s more than he can take and he shoots a half-condom load of thick liquid. “It’s really been too long since I last did it. That was much too quick.” “Yeah, I’ve not had my thrills yet but you’re already done! I still want it, ooh yeah.” Even I find the sound of me saying this enough to make my skin crawl. “I can’t manage a second time today; you’ve sucked it all out of me! The way you are really puts lead in my pencil. And I have to be up bright and early tomorrow to fly down to Shenzhen for a shoot.” I had been worried that he’d take up too much time as there are more clients to come later. So of course when I hear him say this I’m delighted, but what I say is, “But I still want more, are you really not going to give it me?” “Next time, I guarantee we’ll do it twice next time.” Well! If I could run into a few more clients like this things would be a lot better; nice and clean, plus quick and good money. It’s hard to say who’s fucking who! There aren’t many clients like this.

I get a call from Venus. She tells me the price of imported wine has gone up five times or more so she’s earned a fair whack from her sales commissions. She wants to sell Maotai rice liquor as well, as the price of that has gone even more crazily. Actually, not a lot of people know that even the price of condoms is several times what it was last year. We chat about how we once planned to buy a place in the eastern Beijing suburbs together; I tell her I worry that I’ll end up having to become a nun, because then at least you get a ready-made place to live in one of the convents, and I have no plans to get married anyway. I mean, fuck, people like us out there making it on our own end up not even able to buy a place to lay our heads, so I don’t know what else we’re expecting to do with our lives. What would be the right thing to do? My academic qualifications are just about good enough to wipe my arse but little else. Venus has got a foreign boyfriend she met through selling imported wine. She’s already got her passport sorted and is set to go abroad and make a go of it there.

Usually there are more clients in the evenings than in the daytime. Li, who made our date a week ago, is late. On the phone earlier he’d been saying he wanted to try something a bit saucier this time. He lied on the bed, smoking a cigarette and roughly pulling off my clothes, then squeezes my tits hard. “You dirty whore, see if I don’t fuck you senseless tonight!” As he’s saying this he undoes his bathrobe, pulls off the belt from it and ties my hands up tight. He places a pillow under the small of my back, pulls my legs up hard and presses his solid body down on top of me. The bed starts creaking. Now he has his hands round my throat and he chokes me with some force. I struggle for all I’m worth; it feels like I’ll suffocate any minute. Lots of men like these sort of abnormal perverted behaviours. I’d love to know if they behave the same when they’re with their wives. The more I struggle the harder he thrusts. Beads of sweat drip off his forehead onto my face and into my mouth. “Scream, scream louder. Say you’re a dirty whore, say it!” Hearing him say this I feel utterly ashamed of myself and wish I could look in the mirror and give myself a slap. But in a moment I get my head straight. From the very first day I started taking clients I threw the word ‘respect’ into the river. And he’s not wrong, I ought to be a dirty whore in bed, otherwise who would pay me those fat wads of cash? “I’m a filthy whore, I’m a filthy whore…” The more I say it the louder I get until at last his mad passion reaches its peak. As soon as he loosens his hands I curl up, rubbing my throat and letting out a string of coughs so that I nearly throw up. When I look in the mirror afterwards, my face is a total mess…

Every day around this time I get hungry to the point my stomach’s growling. I wipe the foundation off my face with some cleansing lotion, stick on a thicker top and head downstairs to the bar in the Western-style restaurant to fetch a sandwich and a jar of yoghurt. If I didn’t have any other clients I might go for a late meal in Sanlitun, which is not far away, or arrange to go eat spicy hotpot with a couple of good girlfriends in the 24-hour eateries down on Guijie. You’re quite likely to meet girls you know down that way and you all end up chatting deliriously and drinking ‘til three or four in the morning. It’s as if the restaurants down in Guijie are in business just to suit us. To be able to eat a proper meal at a normal time might seem like the most ordinary thing in the world but to us it’s a luxury. Maybe I’m too greedy and want more than a normal person does, so I have to pay a bigger price. But then what’s wrong with that? I look into the mirror and attempt a smile. God, I look so numb and stiff. I sit at the dressing table and put on my seductive evening make-up ready for my next client.

My midnight client is a foreigner, big and tall, well-shaped face soft in outline and fine features, speaks very fluent Chinese. “Can I ask something of you, my pretty one?” “Of course you can, so long as it’s something I can do.” And so from his bag he pulls out this enormous rubber dildo. Oh my God, does he want to fuck me with that? I tense up right away. He sees what I’m thinking and hurries to explain, “Don’t worry, honey! This is for using on me!” Hearing this I sort of get his drift. He gets me to start by gently stroking him all over. Although his skin is very white, his body hair is so thick it sticks right up and is prickly. He kisses my eyes, my lips, my breasts and all over. Just as I think of touching him down below he stops me. “Don’t touch it.” Heh, this foreigner’s a stranger one! I take a condom out from the bedside draw and put it on my middle finger then try running it down the crack of his arse. And this does make him so excited he lets out a cry. Seeing that he likes this, I boldly take the dildo and stick it in his ‘back passage’ and start gently thrusting. “Harder, baby; ram it in hard, harder.” So long as he can take it I’m not bothered, so I ram the dildo in hard as I can. The second I thrust it in, like floodwaters breaking, he starts clawing frantically at the bed-sheet and calling out in a loud voice, “Sally, Sally…” Maybe that’s the name of the one he loves and he’s imagining I’m her. I go at it faster and the quicker I get the more excited he becomes until he can take no more and shoots his load onto the white of the sheets. “So sorry, I’ve made your sheets dirty.” As he’s getting ready to leave he pulls out a bottle of Christian Dior perfume for me. First thing I do is sort the sheets out and call a maid up to change them.

By now it’s twenty to two in the morning and the last of my pre-arranged clients has left. A day’s work done, I take off my clothes and heels and toss them aside then eat an apple without even bothering to wash it first. Just as I’m getting ready to take my make-up off, my phone rings. It’s Lee, wanting to know if I’ll take another client now. After hesitating a moment I tell her, “I’m just too exhausted after today. Ask someone else, hey?” Although I’m keen to earn more money, today my flesh is truly weaker than my spirit is willing and I haven’t the strength to do it again. I’m red and swollen down there and so rough and dry that it hurts to put even a cotton bud in. The time I finish working is when I’m physically most relaxed. I fill the tub with hot water and take a long comfortable bath, letting the hot water soak me all over and speed up my circulation, washing away my aches and weariness. As the bath is filling I use the time to check myself in the mirror again. My face is hidden behind a thick layer of powder but even so you can just make out new fine wrinkles at the corners of my eyes. My once luscious lips have lost their colour too. I have my hair tied back, loose and messy. At long last I can take off the day’s disguise and let my face and body fully relax! After my bath I head back into the room and throw myself down on the bed without even drying my hair properly. I was planning to turn the light out straight away and sleep but then a thought occurs… I get out of bed barefoot and go and unlock the safe and take out all the money I earned today and count it one note at a time. This is perhaps the one time (and it’s only at such a time) that I feel like I’ve achieved something!

  Zi U

  Zi U’s faces were photographed at her work place.

[Editor] Elemy Liu