October 26, 2006

I met Ding Xiao under somewhat unusual circumstances. She was my neighbor when I lived on the fourth floor of Building 18 in Gangxia Village, Shenzheng City. This all happened nearly 10 years ago, so the story seems to have acquired some molded edges.

That evening, there was a lot of commotion in the hallway. I cracked open the door and heard a voice from the corridor: “The police are checking temporary residence permits!” Shortly thereafter, someone started banging on my burglar-proof door. It was a young woman of fair complexion and fine features imploring me to open the door. She introduced herself as my neighbor and in need of my help. Indeed, I had often passed her in the stairwell, but we never exchanged words. She stood holding a pot of asparagus fern. A male undershirt still in its plastic wrapping was tucked under her arm. She explained with embarrassment that she didn’t have a temporary residence permit and needed to hide for a bit. These two items happened to be very important to her, but since she was sharing a room with someone, they might not be safe, so if she could just leave them with us temporarily for safe-keeping.

A few days later, she came and retrieved her two treasured items. With time, she became more familiar with us and would often come by to borrow DVDs, CDs, and books. She was quiet, a bit shy, childish. She told me Ding Xiao wasn’t her real name. She worked as a sanpei, a “sit-down girl,” meaning she stood out on the Gangxia eatery strip where all the restaurants were and whenever a customer needed a girl, the restaurant manager came and asked one of them to sit with the customer. For each customer, you got $200-$300, not including tip. But it was $30-$50 a pop to get rid of eatery strip security and the village police that often came around to shoo them off. And of course you couldn’t be skimpy with the restaurant managers or else they wouldn’t bring you customers. Mostly, sit-down girls were meal-time companions, drinking partners; they provided company, conversation, and singing. And if a customer liked a girl enough, he might have her “come out.” The restaurant charged an extra $100 “going out” fee. These girls had to operate under a competitive employment system. Ding Xiao lived with her boyfriend in one of the single units across the hall. I often saw the boyfriend shirtless, playing cards and gambling in the nearby convenience shops. Ding Xiao’s boyfriend didn’t have a job. She supported him.

One night, after drinks with a customer, Ding Xiao came by our place. She told us stories, startling ones that had me and my girlfriend wondering whether they were entirely true. She spoke calmly. She was sick, she said. When she was 16, she was in vocational school. One night after class she was raped by an evil man and became pregnant. She miscarried, which became the root of her maladies. She constantly needed to take medicines. My girlfriend interjected that she often saw the girl climbing up the stairs carrying a satchel of herbal medicines. Ding Xiao’s family worked in a chemical factory in Yueyang, Hunan. There were a lot of girls in the family. After what happened to her, her family shunned her; her neighbors and classmates gave her the eye. She barely made it through graduation. She swore she would leave forever, go far, far away. Unfortunately, she was tricked to Shenzhen by a man from her hometown to work in a salon and ended up a call girl. She had just turned 17. A kind-hearted lad helped her run away, and since she was penniless, she repaid him with her body. When she seemed at brink of perishing, her current boyfriend took her in. She was no ingrate.

Without any embarrassment or awkwardness, she spoke by the grace of alcohol, so calm, so even-keeled, as if recounting someone else’s story. We always thought well of this little girl. She was always polite, never brazen or vulgar. She said she knew we didn’t look down on her, that we were good people. Ding Xiao was alone in Shenzhen, without friend or family. She would often find excuses to come to my house, to talk about what was on her mind or to watch TV. There were a lot of “sit-down girls” on the eatery strip. Competition was fierce. Once I mentioned in passing that a few days ago, I had eaten on the strip with some friends, and she immediately asked if we had need for “sit-down girls,” that if we did, to get her. Ding Xiao was simple like that.

We suggested she find a real job. She said she was afraid to because her boyfriend didn’t allow it. One day, I ran into her on my way home. She asked if she could have mail delivered to my address. She didn’t want her boyfriend to know. Not much later, I received an express mail for her. She opened it straight away. Inside were a newly issued temporary residence permit and a vocational school diploma. She said playfully, You believe me now?

Ding Xiao’s boyfriend interfered with her finding a job so she continued to work as a “sit-down girl.” When the Lunar New Year approached, Ding’s boyfriend went back to his hometown in Shanxi. Ding Xiao used the gift cards her customers gave her to buy $1000 worth of presents from Wanjia Supermart as preparation for going to Shanxi to meet her future in-laws. She had never been on a plane before and wanted me to drive her to the airport. She arrived at Shanxi uneventfully later that day. That evening, my girlfriend received a tearful phone call from her. She had been tricked. Her boyfriend’s family didn’t live in the city, but out in the country. She wanted to come back to Shenzhen. She did return, a few days later, alone. She was rushing to move by the Eve of the Lunar New Year to avoid further entanglements with the boyfriend when he returned. Abashedly, she asked my girlfriend to lend her some money. She was still short on the rent deposit for a new place. My girlfriend lent her $500. About a month later, she repaid her and also invited us to come visit her at her new place.

One day, a good six months later, I ran into Ding Xiao in the street. She was shopping, with a pretty, white Pekingese in tow. She had just come back from Hunan. She had originally planned on never coming to Shenzhen again, but when she couldn’t find work back home, she returned nonetheless. The dog she had raised since it was a pup and as she was lonely in Shenzhen, she decided to bring it back with her. She told me her birthday was coming up. The afternoon of her birthday, she paid us a visit. She brought fruit with her. In celebration of her 19th birthday, I gave her a multi-function desk lamp. She was obviously delighted and said she would bring the lamp home to give to her second eldest brother, who was a graduate student in Wuhan. That night, my girlfriend took her to eat at McDonald’s.

One day, I suddenly got an urgent call from a stranger. He told me that Ding Xiao was locked up at the Fugan police station and that I should immediately go and bail her out. This man had been locked up with her but had just been released on bail. I was on a business trip so I told my girlfriend to go to the police station to bail her out. My girlfriend was less than pleased, but still, helping out a person in need was a priority. Ding Xiao had been caught in the police’s city-wide anti-pornography and anti-indecency efforts. The police stated they would all be sent to the reformatory to sit out their sentence. A few days later, I got a call from Ding Xiao. She’d gotten out and was very grateful to us for helping her. She related pitifully that she and a dozens of other girls on the eatery strip had been arrested suddenly by the police. In the end, due to a lack of evidence, and the persuasion of lobbying restaurant owners at the police station—business had thinned out after their arrest—each “sit-down girl” was fined $500 and released

After this, we had no news of Ding Xiao for about a year. Then one evening, I ran into her outside Jinghan Restaurant on South Caitian Street. If she hadn’t called out my name, I wouldn’t have recognized her: run-down, cachectic, with poor, pimpled skin. Was this Ding Xiao, that beautiful, simplistic girl of 20? She pointed to a man not far away and said that was her boyfriend. I gave him a nod. He glared at me expressionlessly. She didn’t elaborate. I didn’t ask. When we parted, I said that if things get too unbearable in Shenzhen, just go home. Hurry home. She lowered her head and smiled bitterly.

Then we moved and lost all touch with Ding Xiao. A delicate night rose had withered beneath the sun.