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Zhuhai, China: The Vices of a Boom Town

When booze, girls, and people from around the world with too much money come together in a SEZ boom town you get China’s take on Pattaya.

I didn’t know places like this existed in China. A phalanx of tiki-bars ran down the side of a pedestrian street in the Gongbei district of Zhuhai, a city at the mouth of the Pearl River Delta on the border of Macau. Old, grizzled expats, Chinese salary men, a group of young English teachers, and a couple of tourists were perched on stools at these little beer islands sipping beer, eating pizza, and being chatted up by bar girls. Rent-by-the-hour hotels were everywhere, some with bright neon lights advertising remarkably low prices for those looking to get in and get out. Prostitutes in skin tight clothing cut maximally short at both ends wobbled through the streets on too-high heels. A thick layer of grit and sleaze covered everything. It was like something out of Thailand — a similarity that was not lost here, as I saw more than one business branded with the moniker “Pattaya.”

Zhuhai was one of China’s original special economic zones (SEZ), which means that it was the staging ground for the country’s first experiments with economic reform and reopening to foreign investment in the 1980s. It was meant to act as China’s economic window to Macau, just like Shenzhen, the first SEZ on the other side of the Pearl River Delta, was a window to Hong Kong.

To put it simply, Zhuhai is a boom town, and it displayed those certain social elements that tend to follow these types of places wherever they spring up in the world. The Gongbei district of this city was rocking on a Saturday night. The nighttime entertainment that this city that many have never heard of before was unparalleled in all my travels in China. There was a heightened sense of energy here, the kind where booze, girls, and people from around the world with too much disposable money come together and you know that something (bad) is going to happen. For reference, this was the place of the Japanese orgy incident: 400 Japanese men, 500 hired Chinese women, one hotel.

Bar girls

Zhuhai

Lotus street, Gongbei district of Zhuhai

They sat within the little huts that were lined up in a row along the Liánhuālù walking street. They were done up all sexy and would beacon to people passing by to join them or a drink. It was kind of like in a Wild West movie how working girls stand on the balcony of a brothel and call in the cowboys. Only in this instance you only get is beer and conversation. I suppose the official title for these girls is “bartender,” but they were pretty much bar girls that also poured drinks. As they manned their little tiki booths they would talk and flirt with the clients, keeping their glasses full throughout.

From my observations there are two types of bar girls: the overly friendly and talkative bartenders/ waitresses and those who appear to be clients but are actually working for the bar. Whatever the case, their job is the same: they talk to the clients, pretend they like them, keep them entertained, and above all, keep them buying drinks. In a way, bar girls are like strippers who don’t take their clothes off. It makes sense, as people don’t go to bars to drink, they go to bars to socialize, flirt, etc . . . so having people hired to do this job just seems like a logical business practice. But this graft occasionally goes sour when an unsuspecting client is given a hugely over-bloated bill for the girl’s drinks (service).

There is a definite line between bar girl and prostitute. From my experience, bar girls are often just college students with good social and linguistic skills out to make some easy cash. One is not inherently the other, but occasionally the two professions do overlap.

There are also bar boys in China, but their job generally consists of looking cool out in front of a bar and finding people in the streets to bring in. They are just unskilled touts. They act friendly, try to hook you in by saying that they can get you “what you want,” and then lead you inside a bar and hand you off to a bartender, a waitress, or a bar girl. It’s a tight system, and, from looking at the amount of people employed in these two professions in this country, it seems to work.

Zhuhai

But I didn’t stop at any of the tiki-bars in Zhuhai for a drink. I’m not going to pay someone to endure my conversation and endless questions when I can find some unsuspecting sucker that will do so for free.

Boom boom girls

A young man walking alone through this area of Zhuhai at night easily finds himself within the cross hairs of ladies on the prowl. A couple of girls with breasts three fifths exposed walked up on both sides of me, trying to grab one arm each. The advance that was abruptly halted, and from the looks on their faces they seemed ill-prepared for being shooed away like lepers.

What’s wrong with this guy?

From the looks of things, I was out of step with this place, but that did not prevent me from enjoying the show. I’m challenged with my own morality too much to bother projecting it onto others, but this is just not my game. Anyway, it violates the first rule of travel: never pay for something you can do yourself for free.

But my sentiment was not widely echoed here. In point, Zhuhai is called the city for lovers for a reason. Being just one tick from Hong Kong and Macau with a reputation for offering female “companionship” at mainland prices, it’s a beacon for shoestring hedonists and lechers from China’s reacquired colonies.

Hotels

Now, most hotels in the world are sex hotels. Unless it’s a backpacker hostel or a place that caters to tourists in particular, most hotels operate as places for people to have sex in. Not only do people cheating on their spouses or engaging prostitutes use hotels for this purpose, but ordinary couples do as well.

In tight cultures like China — where extended families, coworkers, and students often live crammed together under the same roof — copulating where you live is often not an option. So it’s normal in these places for young couples — even recently married ones — to resort to only engaging in romance in pay-by-the-hour hotel rooms, and the line between a sex hotel and a normal hotel is very slim.

So I don’t mind staying in sex hotels, even when it’s overtly obvious that a good portion of the clientele are on the clock, as I know that wherever I sleep there is a very good chance that it was a locus of copulation the night before. This is a reality of travel, and one that you just get used to pretty quick. Travel long enough and miscellaneous hairs and stains on bed sheets eventually lose much of their revolting qualities.

map of Zhuhai

Where is Zhuhai?

How can you tell the difference between a sex hotel and a normal hotel? A sex hotel will have hourly rates prominently advertised, a wide assortment of condoms and, sometimes, sex toys in the room, bathrooms with glass walls, intimate choices of lighting (red, blue, etc . . .), and habitations so small that there is pretty much nothing else you can do in them but screw and shower. In China, this pretty much describes every hotel. To be honest, designating a hotel here as a sex hotel doesn’t really mean too much: they’re all sex hotels.

The reason why I use the term “sex hotel” to designate the accommodation in Zhuhai is more to describe the clients than the actual places themselves. I chose one of the most blatant boom boom hotels on the Liánhuālù strip. It was ridiculously cheap, and I figured it would be the same show everywhere: drunk men stumbling toward the elevators and through the hallways with their arms around scantly clad women who are definitely out of their league (but right within their price range). I took the elevator up to my room with a greasy faced salary man with baijiu breath and a young girl on his arm. I choked on his exhalations, he fumbled with the elevator buttons, and I gritted my teeth while the two embraced. Every other time I entered and exited this place I made sure to take the stairway that lead out through an intentionally covert alleyway.

I was expecting phone calls and door knocks through the night from enterprising young ladies offering me their particular brand of “massage,” as is often the case in Chinese hotels all over the country. But none came. Either the receptionists kept them off my back or they were already booked up for the night. I’m guessing the latter. But either way I got a good night’s sleep, the faint sounds of squeaky mattresses notwithstanding.

Conclusion

As far as the traveler is concerned, Zhuhai is perhaps known for three things: nightlife, beaches, and the Macau border. I was on my way to the latter, merely using this place as a stopover. But from what I know about what I did not experience, Zhuhai warrants another look. I came into the city at night and left in the morning for Macau, so I missed the beaches and all of the 146 islands that lay right off the coast. This region is called the “Chinese Riviera,” but I will have to return to tell if it lives up to this name. The only thing I observed was China’s take on Pattaya.

Filed under: Articles, China, Women

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 90 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3548 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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