Boys flocking to be ‘ducks’ for China’s bored housewives

Tom Miller in Beijing for The Observer

Near the restaurant where Mao Zedong and President Nixon shared roast duck during the heady days of ‘ping pong diplomacy’, Beijing’s new ducks strut their stuff at a popular nightspot. They are easy to pick out: in tight clothes and sunglasses, the ducks sway to the beat and scan the seething dance floor.

For many Chinese women, male prostitutes – yazi, or ‘ducks’, after their female equivalents ji, or chicken – are an increasingly essential part of a girls’ night out.

Xiao Yu, a prostitute in his twenties who sports a tight red T-shirt with aviators atop spiked hair, is agitated: ‘I really can’t talk. This is working time.’ Xu Wen, his pimp, runs a tight ship, roaming the club, checking on his boys, ensuring that the women in the private rooms at the back are happy.

‘Women pay,’ he says, ‘to buy a duck for a few hours of chatting, drinking and flirting. If they then want to rent a hotel room for the night, the price rises.’ All the yazi in the nightclub earn as much as seven times the city’s average wage.

‘Many ducks who work here have problems at home; their parents might be divorced or they’re poor,’ says Xu. Many come from old Manchuria, where the men are tall but unemployment is high. ‘I wouldn’t say working as a duck is fun,’ Xiao Yu says. ‘I do it to pay my way through university. I’m a student at the Central Academy of Drama.’

Creating a boom in demand are tourists – moneyed thirty- or forty-somethings from Hong Kong or Taiwan who use mainland gigolos to spice up their holidays. ‘When they [ducks] get to have sex with a beautiful girl, they are excited,’ says Xu. ‘But often it’s old and unattractive women, which they find pretty disgusting.’ Xiao Yu is more sanguine: ‘It’s not that bad. It’s just a job.’

Once the preserve of bored housewives, Beijing’s male prostitutes are increasingly sought after by younger women. Jenny, a 26-year-old, says she and her friends visit karaoke bars where they pay to drink, sing and play dice with attentive young men. She says: ‘My friends have white-collar jobs, except for one who’s a housewife. She’s bored of sex with her husband, so she spends his money sleeping with yazi. It’s very normal. It’s not cheating, because it has nothing to do with love; I can easily separate sex and love. I just do it for the sex.’

She describes how the first time she took a duck home they chatted, listened to music and showered before getting into bed. ‘I wouldn’t say he was a particularly skilled lover – just average, nothing special.’

The commoditisation of sex is nothing new in China, where social inequalities and consumerism have created desires only sex work can satisfy – both for the prostitutes and for their customers, who have the cash for illicit pleasures.

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