Cold War intimacy beyond the Taiwan strait : sexual labour and Chinese modernities in the teahouse

  • I-Ting CHEN

Student thesis: PhD Thesis (Lingnan)


This research asks who the mainland Chinese hostesses are with regard to not only their sexual labour but also the ways the ambiguity of language, nationality, and history is manifested in their daily life, such as in using Japanese loanword “annada” (sweetheart) to call their clients and being seen as dalumei (the mainland little girl) despite their age and Taiwanese citizenship. What emotions and affects are at work when they sing a duet in both Mandarin and Minnanese with each other to express their feelings? How do we understand the sexual labour and women’s encounters in relation to not only their current experiences but also the ways in which the entanglement between the discourses of modernity, desire and subjectivity, and the history of colonialism, the civil war, and the cold war in East Asia shapes those experiences?

The United States-led internationalisation of feminism after World War II and the United Nation’s protocol on “gender mainstreaming” from the 1990s onward have inflected government policies in different countries in East Asia, including Taiwan. After the lifting of Martial Law in 1987, the government in Taiwan adopted “gender mainstreaming” as a major instrument for policy-making, pursuing the promulgation of a series of laws protecting women and children and criminalising sexual offenders. Simultaneous with the campaign for legislative reform in post-martial law Taiwan is the emergence of cross-strait migration after the enactment of laws permitting cross-strait exchange. Women migrating from mainland China to Taiwan, were represented in cold war feminist discourse as either the victims of human trafficking or wanton women who sell themselves in exchange for Taiwanese men’s money. Their life in Taiwan, therefore, was deployed by feminist and nationalist narratives in prolonging the cold-war sentiment and the “us-Other division” between běnshěng ren and waishěng ren after the Civil War.

Feminist scholar Naifei Ding coined the term “cold sex war” to depict how the US and UN-led international feminist campaign against human trafficking was deployed to fight against “enemy patriarchal-cum-socialist influences” (Ding 2015, 58) in East Asia in general and Taiwan in particular. Although Taiwan branded itself as “a nation of gender equality and democracy,” the social anxiety about national and sexual bodies/boundaries obscured the agential practices that mainland Chinese hostesses have engaged in through doing business in the teahouses and small drinking parlours. This dissertation investigates questions of desire, gendered subjectivity, and modernity in the context of cross-strait relations between Taiwan and mainland China. I conduct the investigation of sexual labour, Chinese modernities, and “cold-war and cross-strait intimacy” through (1) analysing the debates about women’s body and labour in Taiwan and mainland China in existing scholarship; (2) reading the representation of the courtesan figure in the late Qing novel Haishanghua liezhuan; and (3) the ethnographic work that I conducted in the erotic teahouses in Taipei. Through this dissertation, I hope to highlight the complexity of mainland Chinese hostesses’ erotic business, intimacy, work and life with the clients. I argue that a greater understanding of this complexity sheds new light on contemporary Taiwan-China relations.

Date of Award15 Oct 2020
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Lingnan University
SupervisorTejaswini NIRANJANA (Supervisor) & Yuk Ming Lisa LEUNG (Supervisor)

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