I first heard about Ye Haiyan (who is known more widely by her nickname, Hooligan Sparrow, in
China) a few years ago when I read an article online about a Chinese woman who was offering to work as a sex worker – for free. I’ve lived in China most of my life, and I’ve always been interested in issues related to sex workers’ rights, so I was curious to learn more about this woman and what motivated her.
The brothel where she offered to work was one of thousands across China known as “Ten Yuan Brothel,” which are frequented by the poorest of China’s migrant laborers. The brothels take their name from the average price of a visit with one of their working girls – ten yuan, or about two dollars.
Sparrow had a long history of advocating for women’s rights in China, and her offer of free sex in the Ten Yuan Brothel stemmed from a desire to expose the terrible working conditions in the brothel and also the desperate lives of the migrant workers who visited them.
As I researched Sparrow, I learned that like me, she came from a poor farming village with limited
access to education. I appreciated her respect for people whom Chinese society rejected, and I shared her desire to understand their lives more deeply. I reached out to her via e-mail in early 2013 to see if she’d be willing to let me film her as part of a larger video project about sex workers in China. She replied, “When you’re in China, we’ll talk.”
On May 14th, 2013, I returned to China from the U.S where I had lived for two years at the time. When I landed and got a hold of her, she was in the midst of preparing for a public protest with a number of other activists. Two government officials in southern China had taken six schoolgirls to a hotel for a night, and the local government seemed poised to hand down a perfunctory sentence. Sparrow and her fellow activists wanted justice to be served for the girls and their families, so they planned to stage a public demonstration denouncing the government and the officials, a move that could land all of them in prison.
I knew at this moment that the story I set out to tell – the story of the lives sex workers and Ten Yuan Brothels – had changed. I asked Sparrow and the other activists if I could follow them and record what happened at the protest. They agreed.
The chain of events I witnessed in the months that followed the protest shocked me. I’ve never had illusions about fairness in China’s justice system or the accountability of its government. But I never expected to see ordinary people turn on their neighbors who were fighting for their rights. I never expected to be attacked by screaming mobs just for filming on the street. I never expected to be interrogated by national security agents, and that my family and friends would be harassed and threatened by secret police.
But this is the China I saw.