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Only when sun sets on the southern Chinese city of Mengzi, do the roller doors of the city's red light district rise. They reveal tiny lounge rooms bathed in pink light where young women put on stilettos and apply makeup. Strangely intimate, domestic scenes where a poster on the wall of a naked couple hints at what's for sale. The rags-to- relative riches tale of this , person city in Yunnan province is textbook modern China, and with prosperity sex follows. Add increased internal migration, where job prospects may put hundreds of miles between husbands and wives, and a gender imbalance that's left the country with a bride shortage, and China's sex trade - though technically illegal - is suddenly booming.
In Mengzi, the 30 or so brothels of Zhao Zhong Rd represent just one, highly visible, portion of the city's sex industry. And on the sliding scale they - along with hotels, massage parlors and karaoke television KTV joints - are considered high end. Their sex workers range in their teens to late 20s, happy to make fast money over slogging for low pay in a restaurant or factory. But further back in an older, shabbier part of the city is another class of sex workers.
They work out of their homes, earn less and have little support on the occasion a customer is violent or leaves without paying. And with Mengzi just a few hours drive from the "Golden Triangle" of opium-production, some of these women do sex work to feed their crippling heroin addiction. Overall, HIV is still a low-prevalence epidemic in China with just 0.
Rather the disease is concentrated in "hotspots", with Yunnan accounting for the country's highest number of reported HIV cases. Where in the past injecting drug use and unsafe blood handling were the most common ways to be infected, cases from sexual transmission has leapt from Thirty-year-old Ruan Shiyuan first discovered she'd contracted HIV in , most likely due to unclean needles.
With her single mother busy working as a brothel boss, growing up in Mengzi Ruan was often left to her own devices. She took up heroin at 17 and began working in the sex industry a couple of years after that. Nationally HIV is at a relatively low level among sex workers 0. Sweeping up scattered seed shells and a used condom off the floor, she asks if I mind if she eats as we talk. Lunch is a piece of watermelon and a small bowl of plain noodles. She's painfully thin, and every morning takes milligrams of heroin followed by a dose of methadone from the city's clinic in the afternoon.