Winning essay of the Overseas Press Club Award, December, 2007
While a remix of “Katiusha,” a famous Russian national song blares over the sound system, disco lights flash and Russian girls take the stage in colorful feather bikinis and red cowboy hats. The venue is the club ‘Blues’, a popular place among both foreigners and Chinese men seeking an adventurous evening in Harbin.
Seven barely clad girls dance on stage, attracting the hungry gazes of Chinese men. Being part of the audience made me wonder what motivated these girls to come from the Russian Far East to the industrial city of Harbin, the capital of Heilongjiang province, 12 hours by train from the Russian border. Why would they leave their homes to dance in a dusty Chinese club?
As the girls descend from the stage, I follow 19 year-old Ira to the bar where she orders a shot of vodka. Ira escaped her husband’s beatings in Russia to make money as a dancer in China and seems satisfied, not giving much thought to the future. She discloses that 70 percent of Russian dancers in Harbin are also prostitutes, mainly serving Chinese clients. “I haven’t slept with a Chinese man yet, but I dream of making love to a tall Brazilian, with black hair and passionate eyes,” Ira says, stroking her blonde hair and gazing across the room. The idea of returning home hasn’t really crossed her mind. Despite the work, she feels freer and more financially independent in China than in Russia.
Some Russian girls meet Chinese boyfriends and husbands through dancing. Others are satisfied with the role of mistress and even maintain friendly relations with their “sponsors” wives, who often happen to be Russian, as well. Olga, a dancer I met at a different club is part of such a bizarre relationship. Her sponsor’s wife is Russian, twice Olga’s age. The two women often have dinner with their shared man and even go on trips together.
These are likely the exceptions, with most dancers unsatisfied with their arrangements, salaries or future prospects. Most Russian dancers in Harbin make on average $7 an hour, less than the hourly wage for teaching English, while they work longer hours in a smoky environment, enduring the harassment of Chinese customers and bar owners. “I hate Chinese men for their lack of culture!” says Katia, one of the dancers from ‘Blues’. “Why don’t you just leave then?” I reply. “Leave to where? To spoiled Russian men and the vast ‘nothingness’?”
The longer these girls stay in China, with its limited material comforts and freedoms, the more acute their dilemmas become. Leaving their few comforts for the uncertainties of Russia becomes more difficult, while their careers rarely advance beyond dancing. The result is often a youth gambled and lost in hopes of a brighter future. “Blues” might be an appropriate name for a club that creates an atmosphere of temporary happiness yet in reality overshadows uncertainty and sadness.
*This post first appeared on http://www.thinkborders.com