The Asian Review of Books:
Zhang Lijia has moved from fact to fiction. After her 2008 "Socialism Is Great!": A Worker's Memoir of the New Chinamapping her late blooming from monolingual willful factory worker to bilingual provocateur, we have in Lotus a first novel detailing the life and loves, trials and tribulations of a group of young migrant women sucked into South China’s sex industry.
The distance traveled between the two books is less than might appear. “Socialism is Great!” —the exclamation mark is crucial—was an autobiographical account of the author’s “coming of age” yet Lotus retains strong biographical threads. A deathbed admission revealed a grandmother sold to a brothel as a young prostitute in the 1930s served as the germ for the novel.
Zhang’s foundation was the academic work of two US feminists on the new China sex trade, built on by meeting Lanlan, a former prostitute and then NGO worker. Zhang volunteered herself for the same NGO, Tianjin Xingai House, distributing condoms to working girls in the City’s massage parlors and hair saloons. Lanolin is part of Lotus. But the whole novel is peopled with spirits from the author’s past. Hu Binbing, the failed and divorced businessman of the book, who has turned to photojournalism, is the alter ego of the late Zhao Tielin, a photographer who embedded himself amongst the prostitutes of the Hainan slums. The transformation of autodidact village boy to urban intellectual recapitulates the metamorphosis of Zhang’s rocket factory mentor almost two generations earlier. These characters provide a depth to the novel.
For breadth, there is the gamut of China’s social concerns, internal immigration and corruption, materialism and the collapse of community. Lotus—and her friend Little Red—are enticed away from the their rural fastness by Hua, one of the first village girls to flea country for Shenzhen’s urban maw. The two young girls succumb to a seductive vision far from the realities of the mind-numbing robotic work they find in Workshop’s 7 and 6 of their shoe factory. Little Red’s dream is extinguished after she and her fellow workers in Workshop 6 are burnt to death behind its padlocked doors. Company cash arrests justice.More in the Asian Review of Books.
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