Mistresses are big business in China, where no official is a real man without his own ernai. What’s in it for the girls?
Shanshan’s $550 shoes came from her lover, but the soles of her feet, as hard as leather, came from her childhood. ‘We used to play barefoot in the village,’ she told me. ‘All the girls in the karaoke bar had feet like this.’
At 26, Shanshan has come a long way from rural Sichuan, one of China’s poorer southern provinces, famous for the ‘spiciness’ of its food and its women. Today her lover, Mr Wu, keeps her in a Beijing apartment that ‘cost 2.5 million yuan ($410,000)’, and visits whenever he can find the time away from his wife. In his late 40s, and an official with a massive state-run oil company, he was recently in Africa for six months developing an oilfield. Shanshan got bored and decided to improve her scant English by finding a ‘language-exchange partner’ online, which is how she and I became friends this spring.
Shanshan never referred to Wu as her boyfriend; he was her ‘man’, her ‘lover’, and occasionally her ‘uncle’. When she said ‘boyfriend’, she meant the man her own age back in Sichuan with whom she spent much of her free day exchanging text messages and whom she saw twice a year.
She’d walked the common path for country girls becoming mistresses, or ernai (literally, ‘second woman’). She’d gone to Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan, at 17, where she’d worked as a hostess at a karaoke bar at a hotel, before moving to Beijing to do the same. Her work involved entertaining men, including, if they paid enough, sleeping with them; that was how she’d met her lover, who’d offered to set her up after their fourth ‘date’.
It was an understandable decision on his part: Shanshan was sexy, merry, and smart. And for her, it was an obvious choice. An enormous amount of off-book money sloshes around Chinese business and officialdom, and some of it runs into handbags. As well as paying for her apartment and buying her gifts, Shanshan’s ‘uncle’ provided her with a living allowance of ‘about 20,000 yuan ($3,260) a month’. This was about the average for Beijing; in smaller towns, 10,000 yuan might be acceptable, or even 5,000. At the top end, a mistress might receive 10,000 yuan in spending money every day.
She was adamant that I never visit her apartment because she was surrounded by other ernai. Local estate agents target provincial officials and businessmen looking to put their money into Beijing’s property bubble, and the men fill up the apartments, bought as investments, with their women. ‘Half of the apartments are empty,’ she explained. ‘And the other half are full of girls. Everyone gossips. About money, about men. If they saw me with a foreigner, they’d talk about it for a month.’
Keeping a woman is common among powerful Chinese men. A study by the Crisis Management Centre at Renmin University in Beijing, published this January, showed that 95 per cent of corrupt officials had illicit affairs, usually paid for, and 60 per cent of them had kept a mistress.
Until recent crackdowns forced greater discretion, Chinese official life had two social circles. As the mobster Henry Hill puts it in the film Goodfellas (a key reference point for Chinese provincial officialdom): ‘Saturday night was for wives, but Friday night at the Copa was always for the girlfriends.’
At dinner with Shanshan, Xiaoxue and Lingling — two of Shanshan’s slightly older friends from Sichuan — they all agreed that the social circuit had disappeared of late, and that it had come largely as a relief. ‘It used to be a big part of work,’ said Xiaoxue, who was kept by a businessman back in Sichuan. ‘You had to make yourself look really pretty, and you had to make up to the most important people there, but not so much that the woman they came with would get jealous. But you still had to be…’ she started to flutter her eyelashes and raised her voice an octave: ‘Oh, you’re so clever! Oh, what important work you do! Oh, you’re really 55? You look so strong!’
‘That was how I came to Beijing,’ Lingling added. ‘I was with an official in Neijiang [in Sichuan], and they were hosting an inspection visit. One of the officials who was visiting really liked me, and he asked the guy I was with then to lend me to him, in exchange for connections. So I slept with him while he was in Neijiang, and then he brought me up to Beijing. But it didn’t work out between us.’
‘If you’re an official, you have to have a mistress, or at least a girlfriend,’ Xiaoxue said, ‘otherwise you’re not a real man. I used to have this friend who was a fake mistress. She was best friends with a gay guy — not a “duck” [male prostitute], just a normal gay guy — who was an official’s boyfriend. So the official would pay her to come out with him and pretend to be his mistress.’
Most mistresses are rural women who come to the job through other sex work, picked up at the karaoke bars, massage parlours and nightclubs that are often an obligatory part of business socialising. Their work is about emotions as much as sex. As with western punters who seek the ‘girlfriend experience’ online, Chinese men want the illusion of intimacy. ‘You have to be the girlfriend he wanted when he was 20,’ said Xiaoxue. ‘He wants to believe that you would be with him even if he wasn’t paying.’
She distinguished being a mistress from short-term hostessing, where you had to be a perfect servant, always putting the man’s needs first. ‘If you’re too nice to him all the time, he’ll know it isn’t true,’ Xiaoxue said. ‘If he looks at another woman, you should be jealous and sulk all evening until he apologises, so he knows you care.’
As the saying goes: ‘Old oxen chew young grass’