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The Soothing Spot has Muzak, gurgling fountains, and a friendly local staff. By all accounts it is a legitimate, happy-ending-less massage parlor. No matter. A few months after opening in an upscale mall, management began photocopying ID cards and blanketed the waiting room with posters warning that untoward advances would not be tolerated. Why the grabby hands? Locals point to Chinese massage parlors and brothels exploding across the city: Apple Spa.
The influx of Chinese prostitutes is a continent-wide phenomenon, argues Basile Ndjio, the author of a forthcoming paper in Urban Studies. He estimates that between 13, to 18, Chinese sex workers are currently in sub-Saharan Africa. Growing African purchasing power helps explain sex migration. That means more money for imported televisions, imported handbags and, yes, imported sex. Ndjio, an anthropology professor at the University of Douala in Cameroon, is perhaps the only academic studying the phenomenon.
He stumbled on his specialty by accident while putting himself through graduate school in Cameroon with work as a casino croupier. Prior to his current paper, Ndjio has over the past six years authored two of the only studies on Chinese sex migration to Africa. The country has as many as 10 million sex workers—roughly the population of Greece—working in massage parlors, bathhouses and karaoke bars. The southeastern city of Dongguan population: 8 million alone has perhaps , prostitutes.
Is Chinese sex labor migration to Africa and beyond forced or voluntary? Around the globe, many women work in prostitution rings run by Chinese pimps and protected by corrupt local officials. Anecdotal research suggests a more nuanced situation. In Cameroon, Ndjio has found that most Chinese sex workers are rural women that move abroad for gigs as waitresses and secretaries, only to arrive and find traffickers demanding sex work for the repayment of plane tickets and visas. Whatever the circumstances of their arrival, prostitutes have gifted China an unexpected soft power: their ubiquity is changing local beauty norms.
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