ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
The world's great megacities - New York, London, Shanghai - are magnets. They draw people from across the globe who want to make money, reinvent themselves and then, in many cases, move on. Recently, NPR's Frank Langfitt picked up such a passenger in his free taxi, and we're going to hear her story now. And we should tell you that it includes some content of a sexual nature. Here's Frank with the latest from his series "Streets Of Shanghai."
FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: I was driving to work one morning on Huaihai Lu, just as I am today. It's a high-end shopping street. And just across from the Tiffany's, there was a woman trying to hail a cab. So I pull over, and she hops in. And she explains she's not Chinese, actually, but Vietnamese. She said she was in town for a few weeks for work. So I said, what do you do? Said she worked at a bar. And I said, specifically, what's your job? And she said, I think you know. She explained that she's a prostitute, and she gave me her working name, Cherry.
A few days later, I met her at her hotel where she shares a room with three coworkers. We went to a restaurant. After lunch, she told her story. She grew up on Halong Bay in North Vietnam, raised by her mother, a rice farmer. In January, she came to work in Shanghai, which, like the rest of urban China, has a huge sex industry.
CHERRY: First time is very hard. I think I cannot do it. I think I cannot earn the money like this way and never do it before.
LANGFITT: She says initially, she was uncomfortable soliciting men.
CHERRY: You don't know how to start the story to talk with the people. And then, I was spent - I lost about one week. I cannot earn any money.
LANGFITT: You couldn't get a single customer?
LANGFITT: She wasn't sure the men found her attractive, and they had so many other women to choose from. More than 50 work the same after-hours bar on Saturday nights.
CHERRY: I am also not young.
LANGFITT: How old are you?
CHERRY: I'm 33.
LANGFITT: How old are the girls in the bar?
CHERRY: Maybe 20, 22, 24.
LANGFITT: Is it hard to compete?
CHERRY: Very difficult.
LANGFITT: Cherry says her clients are businessmen from all over the world, drawn to Shanghai, just as she is, by China's economic boom and the opportunities. Back in Vietnam, she lives near Halong Bay, a spectacular landscape where limestone islands jet out of green waters. She worked there as a bartender.
CHERRY: My salary, one month - $200. Here, much better, much higher - 2,000 or 3,000.
LANGFITT: Or 10 to 15 times more. After she lost her job in Vietnam, friends advised her to come to Shanghai. Cherry travels in and out on tourist visas. She doesn't like the work, but says she's saving up a lot of money. As we chat, I asked to see pictures from her life back home. Cherry brushes her finger across the cracked screen of her smartphone. There's her house with gleaming white tile floors and cut flowers on the coffee table. There's a photo with her arms around her 2-year-old son.
CHERRY: He's very cute, and he's very clever, I think.
LANGFITT: Cherry's mother and brother take care of him while she's away. Without the heavy mascara and platform shoes, Cherry looks like any other single mom, smiling and happy.
Do people back home know what you're doing here?
CHERRY: They cannot.
CHERRY: Why would I let them know that I do this?
LANGFITT: Like most foreigners in Shanghai, Cherry doesn't plan to stay for a long time. She plans to quit by the end of the year and take her savings to England where she has a boyfriend who also doesn't know what she does now. There, she hopes she can keep her past a secret and build a new life. Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Shanghai.
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