The ladies within

How many times have we seen the warm, red lights flickering on a dark and empty street in the middle of the night?

The window panes are frosted to prevent the overly curiously from snooping and are enblazoned with bold words “Massage and Treatment”. When the doors are closed, all you see is a tangle of legs beneath the signage.

In the day, if they are open at all, the shop looks like a common room where bored young women lie on long arm chairs to watch television and trade gossip.

At night, the rooms serve as respite for middle-aged men who let the same nubile women in short skirts and low tops rub their feet, thighs and anything else that skimmed the law.

I passed by these shops often and observed the women who worked in there. The older madams had a hard edge about them, sitting with their legs splayed open as they scarf down their lunch.

In their “care” were the young and no-longer-innocent defined by perky bodies and painted faces. Sometimes, they sit listlessly in the doorway texting or staring at passing crowds.

I heard a story once that these young women come to Shanghai like moths to a flame. They arrive wide-eyed and alone on dusty buses and slow trains from the countryside, and can be easily picked up by predatory men who promised jobs and a bed. For every young woman who had a friend or relative in the city they could reach out to, there was another who thought simply to try their luck.

“The Shanghai Railway Station or the South Station are prime locations,” a photograher once told me. He knew a bar owner who sent his men to pick up these women on a daily basis. It’s almost too easy, the owner boasted, and would “test” them out in the storeroom at the back of the bar.

Is there a dignified way to capture this particular underbelly of Shanghai, or any big city for that matter? Perhaps, if you befrieded them and photographed them honestly, learn about their many stories that led them behind the frosted windows.

But for now, all I have ever done was capture a passing glance of a distracted room.

We’re all exposing ourselves at the end of the day, and learning to live with it.

February 2012



  • Reply March 14, 2012


    As they say, the oldest trade in the world…

    I imagine if you were male, walking by at night, pimps would be hounding you left and right in hopes of offering up a special massage. How proliferant are these parlors? When I last visited Shanghai, they were positioned in batches, sometimes a half dozen on one block.

    • Reply March 14, 2012

      Sue Anne

      @Nick: I’ve never been to the concentrated red light districts in Shanghai. The things about these kind of massage parlors (one would include high-end spas and mid-range parlors where ladies wear uniforms but are still revealing) is that they are peppered everywhere. We’re talking neighborhoods where kids play, residents go grocery shopping and are fixtures in daily life. So I wouldn’t say they are prevalent or even flagrant, just part of a neighborhood landscape.

  • Reply March 15, 2012


    It has changed a lot in past 5 years though. Many of these places have been closed down before the Expo and are less obvious to spot around the city center.

    Documenting life of these girls would be a great project but it might be difficult to get close to them…

    I like the shot by the way, revealing enough but not too much with the number and the reflection on the window.



    • Reply March 19, 2012

      Sue Anne

      Thanks Damien. It would make a great project but perhaps best shot from a different angle i.e. different paths to the city etc. Focusing on this pseudo domestic sex-trade aspect would seem exploitative.

  • Reply March 23, 2012


    Hi Sue Anne: Until I saw the photographs and heard a recent TED-X talk by Lisa Kristine, I didn’t realize that an estimated 27 million people in the world (men, women, children, sometimes whole communities) are enslaved today. Probably many of these “girls” you consider in this post are not where they are by choice.

    For an interesting interview with Lisa Kristine, go to . Lisa Kristine’s homepage with incredible photographs is . And for what can be done to stop slavery, go to . Thanks for adding your photos and awareness to this world issue.

    Thanks too for your Suzhou workshop. You are encouraging, helpful, and insightful. Zài Jiàn and Aloha, Renée

    • Reply March 26, 2012

      Sue Anne

      It was lovely meeting you Renee, and your partner as well. I’ll have a look at Lisa’s work, and hope you continue with street photography in Shanghai. Cheers, Sue Anne

  • Reply October 12, 2014


    I like the photographer’s reflection on the mirror — showing the very professional posing, especially for, assuming, an ad hoc photo opportunity like this. Her the two legs formed a stable human diapod, and her two hands were holding tightly to the professor camera with yet a mandatory flexible grip. I could never do that. When I see a “pink box” like this, I usually get yelled at by the girls the moment they see me pulling out a phone, let alone a camera. They do not want their photos to be taken, especially by men. So, I couldn’t imagine myself being able to take such a stable — and beautiful — shot!

Leave a Reply

Time limit is exhausted. Please reload the CAPTCHA.