Chat girls in Tangdu

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The clementines were best when green-skinned and sour; about the murders, I cannot speak. From the rampart above the old city gate, one could look over an expanse of roofs whose thick gray tiles were like scales. The streets were lined with peddlers and stalls; most of the shops had roll-down shutters instead of doors.

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On the pavement, people washed vegetables, impaled eels on a nail, and welded engine blocks. Outside some of the restaurants there were dogs in cages that no longer bothered to bark. I taught in a teacher training college on the edge of town. They loved to sing songs.

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Any mention of boyfriends or kissing made them giggle and blush. But despite their childishness, these were far from halcyon days. They were fined if they missed the compulsory six a. Most of their free time was spent listening to political speeches or picking up litter round campus. Most did not want to be high school teachers, because the pay was low from to yuan per month, half of what postal workers or train conductors were paid and working conditions were poor: most school classes had over 50 students, and there were few facilities beyond a blackboard and textbook. But even those who wanted to teach were adamant that they wanted to work in the city, not the countryside.

When I asked the students what their ideal job was, many said they wanted to go into business, be a manager, or work as a translator for a foreign company. Their English was too valuable an asset to be wasted on teaching. They wanted a job that would make them rich and take them far away from the villages and small rural towns where they had spent all their lives. This was originally used to refer to success in the imperial civil service exams, but nowadays is a metaphor for courage and perseverance against great odds. In years this ambition would have been praiseworthy but irrelevant: for years most graduates had been ased their jobs by the government.

But in the mid s the Chinese government began to loosen its control of labour and trade and brought in economic reforms known as gaige kaifang. Businesses and factories that had been propped up by the state now had to compete in an open market. While this led to many closures and redundancies, it also created new opportunities. It became possible for people, including my students, to imagine getting jobs in distant cities, maybe not even as teachers.

I had looked forward to finding out where they ended up, what jobs they got, who they married, but after they left the college, and I left China, we gradually lost touch. Though there had been internet cafes in the town sincefew of my students regularly used. On the rare occasions I got a message, it was brief and not very informative. How are you doing now? Do you still remember me? Wish you happy! In April I went back to China to find out what had happened to two former students I had managed to keep in touch with: Huo Wenli, who now lived in Shanghai, and Wang Xiao Long, who was still in Shaoyang.

I was sure he must have received an excellent reference from the college, and help in finding a job. I met Wenli on the gleaming platform of the Dongchang underground station. He was wearing a brown leather jacket with padded shoulders over a grey T-shirt. On his chest a woman opened her mouth in either a gasp or a scream.

Half her face was drawn in a pop-art style; the rest was pixellated. His trousers were cream-coloured and tight, without being skinny, and ended in a pair of worn Converse trainers. There was nothing to differentiate him from all the other fashionably dressed young guys on the Shanghai underground.

But there was no time to reminisce. Already we were moving down tunnels lined with pictures of buildings that looked sentient, like a dead rabbit, or an explosion of spikes. We have too many ugly buildings. We must make them modern. Outside it was a warm afternoon and the buildings seemed modern enough. For two or three blocks, they were high and impersonal, their windows reflecting the clouds.

I asked Wenli what he was doing in Shanghai, expecting him to say he worked as a translator or in the media. A trainer. We turned off onto a small street where two girls were hitting a shuttlecock back and forth, watched by a third girl who was texting while eating sugar cane. He disappeared into a small shop whose windows were covered by photos of afflicted skin. I saw boils, rashes, nodules, spots, blotches, welts and what appeared to be some sort of orange mollusc.

As I stood there, wondering what else to ask Wenli, I remembered two things about him. The first was that his sister had killed herself after years of emotional problems. The second was that his final dissertation — a brilliant analysis of how corporations choose their names — had been almost entirely plagiarised.

Neither seemed profitable avenues of conversation. Wenli came out holding a red plastic bag.

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He took me to a small restaurant below street level whose walls were covered with posters of waterfalls, flower-filled meadows, blond women with electric guitars astride Harley Davisons. After we ordered, the waitress — a short girl with a fringe you could use as a ruler — asked us to pay in advance. So many come here from outside. I asked how he had gone from not wanting to be a teacher in Shaoyang to being a teacher in Shanghai. I thought I could get a job in a company.

But it was very hard, for three months I try, but the competition is too strong.

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In European terms, it would be like a French person travelling to Russia to find their first job. But there was nothing unusual about this. It is estimated that there are over million migrant workers in China, moving from city to city.

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Though the vast majority are in search of jobs in construction or factories about which both Peter Hessler and Leslie Chang have written excellent booksincreasing competition amongst graduates has meant that even the best students are often forced to look for work outside their own province. Between the of undergraduates increased by five times, which has led to a corresponding increase in graduate unemployment.

A recent study found that in Maybe if I stay in Shaoyang, the leaders will know some people. But Kunming is too far. They do not have guanxi. Guanxi has several meanings. When used in this second sense, guanxi often connotes corruption. Many of my colleagues asked me to do things on behalf of their friends, most typically visiting a local school. Though I was usually glad to do so, after the visit the friend of my colleague would take me for a meal, get me drunk, then ask me to give private lessons to the sons and daughters of the leaders.

In most cases, my refusal was taken gracefully, but there were several instances where it led to a spate of gift giving, and once, with a red envelope full of money being put into my pocket. When the man refused to take it back, I put the envelope on the ground, which made him roar with rage. I was told that this was such an insult that the man would have beaten me if I had been Chinese.

He asked if I remembered a teacher called Mr Liu. We went to his house often, sometimes in the evening, so he could teach us the dances. But he also put his arms round us. Some classmates say he try to kiss them. But I think it was true. He did not do this with me but I believe my classmates. But I was unlucky too. I was lucky because someone from my hometown was working in an office, and they told me there was a job. I went to see the boss of the company and he agreed. The salary was low but I did not care.

I worked very hard, and it was boring, I had to check a lot of forms, some in English, some in Chinese. But I was glad to have a job. In the end, it was not his qualifications that had got him the job, but a connection formed in his hometown.

However, it was exactly this kind of friendship that nearly got him killed. Wenli told me that after three years he left his job in Kunming and went to work in Guilin the capital of Guangxi province, only a nine hour bus ride from Shaoyang. When Wenli told his partner he wanted to quit, he was locked in a room. His mobile phone and wallet were taken, and guards were put outside the door. When, on the third day, he escaped through a toilet window, he found himself alone in an unfamiliar neighbourhood, being pursued by two angry men.

It was in a small pocket of my trousers for years, I never take it out, not even when I wash them. It was only one yuan but it was enough to make a call. I phone my friend who works in Kunming police department, and he says he will call his uncle who is the police chief in Guilin.

Now I am a… a niu bi. It means that I am someone who is up and coming. If I stay here four years more I will get a household permit for Shanghai, which means my kids can go to school here. Or maybe I will sell it. On the black market it is worthyuan. Leslie Chang writes in Factory Girls about the many ways in which people from the countryside are tricked or swindled when they first come to the city, and also about the way workers jump from one factory to another in an attempt to improve their salary and conditions.

A recent survey of young graduates in six major Chinese cities found that 30 percent changed their jobs at least once a year, and 70 percent changed their jobs every three years. After lunch we took a stroll round the neighbourhood. Old women were walking small white dogs. The dogs had pink, protruding tongues and looked incredibly pleased. When we got to the end of the block, Wenli realised he had forgotten his bag.

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He sprinted back, and when he returned, held up the bag like a trophy. When I asked Wenli about his classmates, he said he knew of three girls in Changsha, two boys in Nanjing, another in Guangzhou. There was only one problem. I knew most of the students by the English names they used in class, whereas Wenli only knew them by their actual Chinese names. A very fast runner. Wenli and I walked till the end of the block, and then there were no more shops or houses, just a two-block expanse of rubble. It was as if there had been some localised earthquake.

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The one surviving wall was marked with a large, spray—painted character I had seen on the walls of too many houses, shops and restaurants. It meant the building was condemned. Though this had been common 10 years ago, the rise in house prices in cities like Shanghai and Beijing, coupled with preparations for the EXPO in the former, and for the Olympics, has accelerated the rate of demolitions.

According to Wenli, this had been very unpopular. They say they have lived here all their life and do not want to go because of an exhibition that is for rich people. They say they cannot afford to live in the city and must go outside. He stopped because on the pavement ahead a man and woman were kissing. It was not a peck on the cheek or lips but a passionate pressing of mouths. We walked for a block; the buildings d; I stopped to buy miniature mangos. Mean and very crazy.

They are all rat girls. But things have changed a lot. Now a girl will have sex before she gets married, but if she has sex, she often wants to get married. But if you do not, it is OK. We turned off the street into a residential compound where the air smelt of honeysuckle. A bicycle smoothed by. The flats were five storeys of white-tiled concrete with red s painted on their sides.

Chat girls in Tangdu

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