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“To Be a Little More Realistic”: The Ethical Labour of Suspension among Nightclub Hostesses in Southeast China

Jiazhi Fengjiang

University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh, United Kingdom

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Pacific Affairs is delighted to announce the 20th William L. Holland Prizefor the best article published in Volume 94 (2021) is awarded to Jiazhi Fengjiang for her article published in Vol. 94, No. 2.

Through the lens of “ethical labour,” a bridge to a nuanced engagement with the concept of suspension [xuanfu/悬浮] as applied to migration and mobility, Jiazhi Fengjiang’s Holland Prize winning article, “To Be a Little More Realistic”: The Ethical Labour of Suspension among Nightclub Hostesses in Southeast China,” captures the negotiations of temporal, societal, and affective interstitiality by young women migrants working as hostesses in high-end nightclubs in southeast China. Based on sustained, in-depth and empathetic ethnographic research that leads to revelatory vignettes and evocative writing, the article guides readers from the intensely personal to the emphatically systemic with aqueous ease. This combination of theoretical nuance and committed empirical research enables an array of contributions to the study of the intersections of gender, mobility, temporality, affect, and work.

Jiazhi Fengjiang is lecturer (Assistant Professor) in social anthropology at the University of Edinburgh. She holds a PhD in Anthropology from LSE. Her first ethnographic monograph explores the rise of ‘grassroots philanthropy’ in late socialist China. She has previously held research positions at Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity and Princeton University.


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1) Can you tell us about some of the intellectual and personal reasons you became interested in the subject?

As a woman who grew up in a county-seat town in China undergoing drastic post-reform transformations, I have always been interested in how social-economic mobilities and inequalities are conditioned by a changing political economy. What makes it so challenging for certain groups of people in contemporary China to achieve a materially and ethically decent life? How do class and gender intersect in their predicament of labour? These are the broader questions that have driven my ethnographic research on work, ethics, and social change.

This research project on nightclub hostesses (yechang xiaojie 夜場小姐) engages with the primary concerns of a group of young migrant women: how to maximize their gains from hostess work, quit, and then lead an “independent, autonomous life” with “proper work” and dignity. I was interested in investigating what conditions their predicament of “suspension (xuanfu懸浮)” – “struggles hard but moves nowhere”, to quote Xiang Biao. And I found the lens of “ethical labour” a productive one that sheds light on their intersectional predicament in a nuanced way. While people engage in ethical judgement and reflections in everyday social interactions, it is the laborious aspect of regulating one’s ethical dispositions that I highlight in the concept of “ethical labour.” Nightclub hostess work presents a special case as it involves complex boundary-crossing negotiations and does not necessarily involve selling sexualized intimacy for money. It is such ambiguity in hostess work that necessitates the performance of ethical labour, which is a critical component of emotional labour and enables the commodification of the intimate, the sexual, and the emotional.

2) What is the central argument of your article in a nutshell?

This article explores young women hostesses’ daily navigations of the seemingly irreconcilable ethical contradiction between their need to compromise their dignity in the present and their hope for a dignified life in the future. I argue that these young women are investing in what I term the “ethical labour” of suspension in navigating the contradictions. By the ethical labour of suspension I am referring to the conscious effort of deferring ethical judgements and questions about one’s own activities in order to avoid the irreconcilable ethical conflict between one’s present activities and one’s long-term goals. The women are making sure that they get what they want in the particular moment, which often involves compromising their dignity to perform acts that are morally questionable or immoral at the societal level. Although it cannot be directly commodified, ethical labour is a form of labour as it consumes energy and is integral to the performance of other forms of labour, particularly intimate and emotional labour. However, ethical labour does not simply mean pushing ethical questions aside. It is sustained by conscious effort and is overshadowed by fears of ageing and by failure to achieve long-term life goals. Prolonged ethical labour often fails to resolve ethical conflict and may intensify one’s stress.

3) Were there any unexpected challenges or developments during the process of on-the-ground research?

Ethnographic research in anthropology requires long-term fieldwork that enables the researcher to produce deep knowledge about an issue and a place. This research project on women nightclub hostesses was in fact the product of an unexpected development of “on-the-ground research”, perhaps the best kind, during my long-term doctoral fieldwork from 2015 to 2017. In the past decade or so, I have been following documentaries, investigations, and debates on sex work, broadly defined, in various contexts around the world, but I had not planned to conduct research on this topic for my PhD. For my PhD project, I was exploring the rise of ‘grassroots philanthropy’ (caogen gongyi) in southeast China. I was following one of my key interlocutors, Wang Bing, a businessman and co-founder of a social organization (the Chinese equivalent of an NGO) targeting rural children’s education, and I got to know his wife Xiaoling, who was a salon owner and beautician. Wang Bing spent substantial time at his wife’s beauty salon, inside and outside, and it was through this couple that I got to know the customers of the beauty salon, who were primarily young women who worked as hostesses in a nearby high-end nightclub. The couple had known most of them for many years; the young women often shared the most intimate personal stories with the couple when they spent time in the salon before their work, and they often enjoyed late dinners together after their work. I was only a bit older than the hostesses, and I felt like they were like my younger sisters. After I got to know their stories and predicaments, it naturally developed into a side project that I felt personally attached to.

While this research remains a side project, it also offers me much insight into local social life and gives me a holistic understanding of why certain groups of people are anxious to “help” others in this particular moment; who receive the most empathy; and who are marginalised from the ecologies of help. In fact, Lanlan, the key interlocutor featured in this article, was also very interested in my research on volunteering and charity, and she asked me to take her on volunteering trips to rural villages to visit children there. She went with me a couple of times when I was there.

The outstanding challenge to me as an ethnographic researcher working with this group of young women has been my strong awareness of my own inadequacy in terms of social action. I feel that I will never be capable to do justice to what they have revealed to me.

4) What might be some of the implications of your argument and research for studies of decentralization (and/or other subjects) beyond China to other parts of Asia and the world?

My argument questions the preoccupation with the decriminalization and destigmatization of sex work in public debates in Asia and other parts of the world. Politically, I stand with the efforts to decriminalize and destigmatize sex workers and hostesses because this is important to improve their working conditions. However, for many of my interlocutors, their main concern was quitting their work for a socially recognized livelihood, rather than seeking social, legal, and familial recognition and rights related to their current occupation. Hence, it is important to recognize the diverse demands and experiences of hostesses/sex workers in the industry rather than foregrounding one kind of demand featuring social recognition and legal protection in the battle to destigmatize sex work. These women migrants’ predicaments remind us that alongside our efforts to destigmatize and decriminalize sex work, we should also direct our efforts to tackling deeper levels of inequality that would in fact also contribute to the efforts to destigmatize sex work.

This article offers a starting point for shedding light on these marginalized voices. These young women’s predicament in fact reflects the broader predicament of the younger generation of rural-born migrant workers (those who were born in the 1990s and 2000s). This article is thus dedicated to my key interlocutors Lanlan, Dan, and their co-workers who have faced this untold predicament in their lives. Their insights and generous sharing bring this article to life.

Furthermore, as a “native” anthropologist conducting research at “home” (versus at an “other” place), I see the potential of ethnographic research for critical knowledge production as integral to its political potential in terms of action. I find this positionality of doing ethnography as a practice and as an action empowering because it helps me to understand why I started, how I got here, and the ethical positionalities and responsibilities we have as anthropologists, researchers, and, ultimately, as friends. I find maintaining regular in-person visits to our fieldsite (at “home”) critical to keep our actions alive and to deepen our knowledge about the places. This has obviously been complicated by the pandemic. This journal article serves as a starting point for further interventions. I have also been working on a graphic project (image 1) that tell their stories through a visual-verbal form for a wider public in China and beyond. Visual language, in my view, has the potential to diversifying academic knowledge production and translation.

(Image 1: a sample page from my graphic project: “Lanlan”)

5) What did you find most challenging, rewarding, or interesting about the review process?

The editorial and management teams at Pacific Affairs have been exceptionally professional, efficient, and supportive. The revision process for this article has been incredibly rewarding for me as an early-career researcher. The article could not have taken its current shape without the generous support and input by the special issue guest editor Xiang Biao and the journal editor Hyung-Gu Lynn, who offered extremely engaging and constructive comments. Special thanks go to the participants at the “suspension” workshop at Oxford in 2018 who contributed greatly to my formulation of ethical labour in this article. I am also deeply encouraged by the journal’s appreciation of solid on-the-ground empirical research and cross-disciplinary endeavours as on-the-ground qualitative research has become ever more challenging and yet also more important in understanding China and the Asia Pacific region in a world troubled by polarizing ideological battles that impede deep knowledge, empathetic dialogues, and viable global political projects. I thus highly recommend Pacific Affairs as a venue for publication for those who conduct on-the-ground research in Asia and the Pacific.