The Death of a Hair Salon Girl

At the Media Forum of Tianya Club, the following post appeared:

[translation]  Today, I walked by a news kiosk and glanced at Nanfang Weekend.  My attention was suddenly attracted to it ...

Everybody knows that yesterday was the big day for Shenzhou IV.  Therefore, all the major media will carry the obvious headlines of the "enthusiastic praise" about our country's magnificent accomplishments.  There was no way that Nanfang Weekend would not have the words Shenzhou VI on its front page (or else it could not have gone out into the streets).  Yet, I was struck by the fact that Nanfang Weekend only gave 1/4 of the front page for a photograph of Shenzhou VI (with the coverage itself appearing on page 2-3).  The remaining 3/4 of the page was given to an article on the life and death of a hair salon girl.

I did not even look any more and I immediately purchased the newspaper.  Just the cover alone was worth the price.  I was even more astonished that Nanfang Weekend dedicated three full pages for this story (whereas Shenzhou VI only got 1-1/2 pages) for what seems to be a vulgar story.  What kind of story is this?

For your reading, the following is my translation of that Nanfang Weekend story.

The Death of a Hair Salon Girl (by 傅剑锋 刘鉴强 胡丽霞)

The day is September 3.  It is getting late at night, and the road next to the Lanzhou train station is getting deserted.

At that moment, a man and a woman got out of the hair salon with the pink light on and walked into the railroad workers' dormitory across the street.  The woman is Gou Li (pseudonym), 23 years old, round face, big eyes, always smiling.  The man behind her had disheveled hair, old clothes, and the oil-stained legs of his pants were stuffed into his socks.

Gou Li is a working girl at the hair salon.  At noon on this day, she had actually packed her baggage.  She bade farewell to the owner of the sex equipment store next to the hair salon and said: "I now have the money that I needed urgently to repay my debt.  So I won't be working as of tomorrow."

But the sex equipment store owner never imagined that this would be the last 'deal' with Gou Li.  Late that night, Gou Li expired.

She was strangled to death while completely nude in her rented room.  A bicycle braking wire was buried deep into her neck, and the man "with the legs of his pants stuffed in his socks" had disappeared.

Based upon this unique description, the Lanzhou police keyed on two types of people: one was workers who ride tricycles and the other was workers who moved steel bars.  On September 15, after working twelve days and nights on this case, the Lanzhou police finally found a young man named Tang matching all those characteristics at a worksite.  When the police found Gou Li's personal handy-phone system underneath his pillow, the young man broke down.

He told the police that he had killed the woman purely to release anger.  In another city, he had patronized a prostitute and ended up being beaten up and robbed of 200 RMB.  Therefore, he wanted to take revenge on all these girls.

Just when the police thought that they had closed the case, a new development created much sadness among the police officers.  From the belongings of Gou Li, they found two diaries.  Each page contained deep, longing thoughts for her husband.

"Stunning.  It was stunning.  Who would imagine that she was such a sentimental girl?" sighed a police officer.

The life of Gou Li as a wife was recalled bit by bit by her husband Chen Xiaolin (pseudonym) to this reporter, who also spent several days with her in-laws' family.

The happy life of Gou Li began at the end of 2003 when she met Chen Xiaolin.  She was on the way to work in a city.

"She looked really good when she smiles, so I was attracted."  At the time, Chen Xiaolin was sitting across Gou Li, but he did not dare speak to her.  Gou Li also felt something and she asked to borrow his telephone.  That was how they got acquainted.

Soon their love grew quickly.  Chen Xiaolin asked: "My family is very poor.  Would you mind?"  Gou Li said: "I don't mind."  Gou Li told him very honestly that she had a boyfriend before but he was not good to her.  She had an abortion once.  But if he truly loved her and did not mind that, she was willing to live with him for a lifetime.

Chen Xiaolin was touched.  The two got married one month after they got to know each other.

Gou Li's family lives in a remote and impoverished mountain district in Shaanxi province Baoji city Linyou county.  Gou's father died young and her two older brothers barely managed to support her to complete secondary school.  Afterwards, she had to go to work.  There are five people in Chen Xiaolin's family.  The sister is married, so there are the parents and a younger brother.

To go from the county center to Chen's family takes 3 to 4 hours with lots of steep slopes and cliffs.  When our reporter went there on a local tricycle, the experience was comparable to a roller coaster ride.  The Chen family has more than 30 mu of dry land, and their income is like others in the village at about 2,000 RMB per annum, barely enough for expenses.

They did not take any wedding photographs because they had no money.  But the Chen family borrowed 10,000 RMB to send to the Gou family as the betrothal present in accordance with the tradition in northwestern China.

For the Chen family, they were willing to spend the money.  The Chen family were willing to borrow money to throw a big wedding banquet for their son, who was just a poor boy completing only elementary school and was now marrying a well-mannered secondary school graduate.  But the Chen family lived in a remote corner of China and their wedding guests were mostly neighbors.  Most of them could afford only gifts of 1 or 2 RMB, very few over 5 RMB and only one 20 RMB (from a village cadre to whom they were related).  So this banquet was a money loser.  Worse yet, part of the loan was high-interest.  Chen Xiaolin said: "I'd have to repay it quickly even if I have to sell blood."  According to his family income, it would take 15 years to repay the 30,000 RMB if they don't eat or drink.

So their hope was put upon labor work.  Chen Xiaolin's younger brother went to work as a security guard in Beijing.  His father, who is Gou Li's father-in-law, went to carry rocks at a Shaanxi quarry mine for 30 RMB per day.  In Chen Xiaolin's memory, his father's face was filled with lines, he looked like he was 60 to 70 years old when he was only 50 or so and he only weighs about 40 kilograms at a height of 1.6 meters.  With a physical built like that, he still had to carry rocks that weight several hundred kilograms.  When his father came home, his back was all rough.  Gou Li cried several times to Chen Xiaolin: "When can we let dad and mom enjoy life a little bit?  Dad is wasting his life away for the money."

Gou Li's father died young, and so she treated her father-in-law like her own father.  One time, she found out that he slept in the street under someone's eaves in order to save a couple of dollars, she cried abundantly.  "She was a good-hearted person who loved dad dearly . At the time, she kept telling me to go work and make money," said Chen Xiaolin.

But the Chen parents did not want them to go work immediately . They wanted them to stay home and make a baby.  Those days were the happiest in Gou Li's life.  In the cave that measured less than 10 square meters, she posted a baby picture.  When she got pregnant, she stood on the tall yellow earth and tended the sheep, saying, "Husband, do you know what is the happiest moment in a woman's life?"  Chen Xiaolin did not know.  She smile and said, "When she is pregnant!"

But fate did not favor this family.  On a night last July, Gou Li miscarried.  Her mother-in-law cried, but Gou Li told her while crying herself: "Mom, I am still young.  I will give you another good baby.  I will not let you down."

But Gou Li could no longer wait to realize her promise to her mother-in-law to "have a good baby."  The urgent task for her and her husband is to earn money to repay the debt.  This year, in March, she and her husband went to Lanzhou to work.  They rented a room for 50 RMB at Zhangsutan in Lanzhou.  The room had space for a bed and as soon as the door was opened, the foul odor from the public restroom next door rushed in.

At first, Gou Li found a job for 300 RMB at a clothing distribution market.  Chen Xiaolin found a job for 350 RMB at a factory.  The couple did the arithmetic: rent at 50 RMB and all other expenses are at least 100 RMB.  After one year, they can save around 5,000 RMB.  "When will we ever repay the debt?" the worried Gou Li woke Chen Xiaolin up in the middle of the night and asked.

After half a month, Chen Xiaolin quit his job and borrowed money to buy an old motorcycle to work as a taxi driver.  Gou Li also quit.  She told her husband: "Many people from our home are working at hair salons.  The pay is around 1,000 RMB.  Don't worry, I won't do anything to betray you."  At first, Chen Xiaolin took her to work every day at the hair salon.

In those days, Gou Li used to come home at 9pm at night.  Chen Xiaolin was usually very tired from his work.  Gou Li would fetch the water water to wash his feet.  They had a small tape player and they sit and listen to it together.  They like the song "Two butterflies."  Gou Li would lean on her husband's shoulder and sing lightly: "Dearest, let us dance.  Love's springtime has no sundown ..."

Sometimes, Chen Xiaolin drove the motorcycle at night and did not come home to sleep.  Her wife told him that she came back every evening at the same time.

But pretty soon, he found out from the landlord that his wife was lying.  From there, Chen Xiaolin found out that his wife was working as a "miss" at the hair salon.

He was enraged: "No matter how poor we are, we cannot do this!  You have betrayed me!"  He called up Gou Li's brother and said: "I can no longer deal with Gou Li.  Let us get divorced."  Gou Li cried: "Did you think that I really want to do this kind of work?  Do you want to see dad wasting away his life for money?  I am doing this only to lighten the burden at home."

In thinking back to this shameful episode, Chen Xiaolin lowered his head, rubbed his hands together hard and cried: "At the time, I could not find anything to say ... I felt that I was too poor, too useless, and not a man.  My wife did this for the family.  She loved me so much ..."

After the big quarrel, Chen Xiaolin silently accepted Gou Li's 'work.'  But after 'working' for only a few days, Gou Li was caught for prostitution in a police sweep.  On April 18, she was sent away to a detention center for six months of education.

On April 19, he went to the detention center.  When they saw each other, they grabbed each other and cried.  Chen Xiaolin held Gou Li's hand and said, "Don't cry.  I'll find a way to get you out, no matter how much it costs."  Gou Li wrote in her diary: "I thought that there was no way to come up with that much money.  I am really sorry.  I am really sorry to have taken the job."

Gou Li began keeping a diary from that day on until she was released in late August.  There are 116 diary entries.

In order to find the money for Gou Li at the detention center, Chen Xiaolin called his family and lied: "Gou Li was accidentally hit by a car and needed money for medical expenses."  The family pulled together and sent 1,000 RMB over.

Chen Xiaolin worked even harder with his motorcycle in order to get the money to save his wife.  Gou Li wrote how touched she was in her diary: "I am really proud of having a husband like you."

Later, Chen Xiaolin sold his motorcycle for 1,000 plus RMB in order to "retrieve" Gou Li.  At the time, Gou Li felt very heavy-hearted in the detention center and wrote that her man was "too stupid, too stupid."

Even during these difficult times, Gou Li had moments of happiness.  May 13 was her birthday, so her husband spent 20 RMB to buy a baked chicken and twenty eggs.  The chicken was shared with all of the roommates at the detention center.  On that day, Gou Li wrote in her diary: "Husband, you bought the chicken for me.  I am very touched."  But Chen Xiaolin had reached a stage that he could not even afford a 2 RMB bowl of beef noodles.  He spent 5 RMB on his own birthday.

Seeing that things were getting unbearable, Chen Xiaolin had to borrow money again to buy a used motorcycle.  But this was an illegal motorcycle, so he got fined again and again.  One month later, he sold the motorcycle and ended up losing 1,200 RMB.  Meanwhile, Gou Li had no idea and wrote in her June 25 diary entry: "Are you still riding the motorcycle?  It must be tough.  You should take care of yourself and not ruin your body.  I really really want to fly to your side."

These endless memories and thoughts constituted the principal spiritual life of Gou Li behind bars.  The diary has more than 100 entries that began with, "Husband, are you thinking of me?"  She copied the line, "Husband, I am thinking of you.  I love you.  I want you for my whole life, dearest husband" several hundred times over four full pages of the diary.

At the detention center, Gou Li looked forward to visits from her husband.  In the diary, each visit was marked.  There were 21 visits.  Each time, the meeting lasted only 5 to 6 minutes so they could only pass notes to each other.  "When I think of you, I look at the notes that you sent me.  Each time that I read the notes, my tears start falling," Li Gou wrote in her diary.  In the northwestern peasant villages, the wheat is ripe.  In her diary, Gou Li wrote that she missed the wheat in the fields, she missed her husband who was back home helping with the harvest, she missed her father-in-law and all her relatives.

Soon June had gone by, but the release date was still faraway.  On the day when she was released, her husband Chen Xiaolin was still trying to borrow money in Beijing and thinking about how to get her out.

In July, the night time weather in Lanzhou began to turn cold. Gou Li took pity on a roommate at the detention center.  She childishly wrote in the diary: "Husband, this morning, I gave my pair of jeans to the new roommate who came in last night.  Do you blame me?"

Late August, she was surprised to be told that she would be released two months early for good behavior.  On that day, Chen Xiaolin was still in Beijing trying to borrow money and working on ideas to get her released earlier. 

The ecstatic Chen Xiaolin hurried back from Beijing.  His wife met him at the train station.  When they saw each other, they embraced and cried.  The wife had not eaten well in the past few months, so Chen Xiaolin borrowed 500 RMB from his fourth uncle and took everyone who had helped him for a big chicken dinner.

But Gou Li's four months behind bars had already cost Chen Xiaolin 10,000 RMB, which were all borrowed.  Four months in the city had brought no money for them, and actually increased the debt.  In particular, a 1,300 RMB loan had to be repaid within the next 10 days.  So Chen Xiaolin spent one day with his wife, and then he had to go back to Beijing to work and gather money.  Their plan was for Chen Xiaolin to find 800 RMB in Beijing and Gou Li to borrow 500 RMB from her own family.  When the money arrives, "You must come to Beijing immediately.  We will spend a happy mid-Autumn festival in Beijing.  Then we will work together in Beijing and start a new life," said Chen Xiaolin.

On September 1, Chen Xiaolin left for Beijing.  Gou Li saw him off in the waiting room and cried non-stop.  Chen Xiaolin said, "Don't cry, don't cry.  We'll be together soon."

But this was their final farewell.  Four days later, Chen Xiaolin got the terrible news that Gou Li was killed by a patron.

The hair salon has since been closed by the police

Chen Xiaolin could not figure out why his wife would go back to do the same thing after being incarcerated for four months.  "My only explanation is that she did not want to borrow money from her very poor family, and she also wanted to see me in Beijing as soon as possible.  That was how she thought she could make some money quickly ..." said Chen Xiaolin who then began to cry.

Among Gou Li's possessions is a ledger which lists her expenses in the month after her release.  Chen Xiaolin said that he did not leave her much money so she must have made it on her own.  According to the ledger, she did not spend more than 4 RMB on food.  The only luxury is 150 RMB for a personal handy-phone system.  The clothes and shoes were essential after her release, but none of the items cost more than 50 RMB.  In Chen Xiaolin's memory, his wife had never spent more than 60 RMB on clothes.  "Last year, the cotton jacket that I bought her when she was pregnant was the most expensive clothing -- 60 RMB."

As Chen Xiaolin recounted these past events to our reporter, he broke into crying very often.  He was sometimes repetitious, and also disturbed.  He admitted that there were many things that he cannot disclose, and will probably never ever tell anyone.  He even admitted that he lied to the CCTV reporters who came to the village to interview him.  He wanted to conceal the truth about Gou Li's death from his family.  But several days ago, a relative in Lanzhou told the truth to the village folks.  Suddenly, public opinion in the village went from sympathy to sarcasm and his mother was in tears.  Chen Xiaolin feels too ashamed to go home.  He does not dare to return to comfort his grieving mother, and went to Beijing to work instead.

Chen Xiaolin did not want to imagine the struggle and pain that his wife went through before deciding to "do it."  He said that he will bury all that in his heart.  In her diary, Gou Li did not say a single word.

The only thing that will let outsiders peer into the heart of Gou Li is a rumor from the hair salon workers.  The girls said that after each transaction with a client, Gou Li would use paper to create many hearts.

These hearts were for her husband.  Each heart carried a small wish of hers.  On the other side, there is the fact of a cartoon: the nose is heart-shaped, the face is put together with "kiss you" or "love you", the mouth is a crescent moon ... among the belongings of Gou Li, there is one full bag of these hearts, more than 1,000 of them.

Selected entries from Gou Li's diaries

May 4, Wednesday, sunny.

Today is my seventeenth day at the detention center.  Husband, when I heard your voice, I was especially happy.  I heard that you are riding the motorcycle again and I was really touched.  I was comforted.  As long as you think about me, I will be willing to do anything.  Husband, everyday I long to come back by your side and let you hold me.  I really miss you ... when I heard you speaking, I was so happy and assured.  I am really proud to have a husband like you.

May 21, Saturday, cloudy

Husband, I was finally able to call you today.  When I got through, I don't know why I started crying after just a few words.  After hanging up the telephone, I went back to the room and cried aloud.  Really.  I don't know why I have so many tears.  Actually, when I heard you say, "When you come out, I won't let you do that kind of immoral business," I was quite touched.  Husband, as long as you can say that, I am content and I feel that it was worthwhile to come in here.

June 18, Saturday, partially sunny but mostly cloudy

Husband, I began calling you after noon but I could not get through.  I skipped lunch to continue calling until I finally got through.  I am happy.  But since I was not able to get through to you after so many tries, I got angry.  At that moment, you said that you had gotten rid of the motorcycle.  I got mad and I stupidly scolded you.  Finally, I found out that your motorcycle was confiscated by the authorities.  But I was still mad and I spoke to you in a nasty may.  Husband, I am sorry.  I was wrong.  I should not take it out on you.  Husband, please forgive me.  Tomorrow is your birthday, and I don't want you to spend it in this mood.  You should spend your birthday in a happy mood, so I want to call you again today.  I don't know if I can get through ...

June 22, Wednesday, clear

Husband, could it be that you don't have money these days?  Why else is your telephone off?  Sigh, I know that you are not having an easy time outside.  I have made up my mind.  You should come less often in the future.  This is my problem and you should not waste any more money.  It has been two months, and I will be out in another four months.  It will be quick.  As long as you think about me every day.  Husband, it is not that our fortunes are bad.  We should be quite lucky and happy, because you found the one that you love and I found the one that I love.  We should be quite happy.  At worst, we don't have money.  It does not matter because we are still young and we have plenty more opportunities to make money.  The only thing is that we spent six months apart.  We still have a long lifetime.  When I come out, we will earn more money.

June 25, Saturday, cloud at first and sunny later

Husband, I want to call you today.  How come you did not pay the bill yet?  You don't have the money?  Or some other reason.  I am worried.  Are you still riding the motorcycle?  It must be tough.  You should take care of yourself and not ruin your body.  I really really want to fly next to you and let you hold me while I sleep.  I don't know when I can realize this dream.

July 1, Monday, sunny

Husband, sometimes our hearts are connected!  I sensed that you might come to visit me today and you actually came.  I was so happy to see you.  But when I saw that you lost weight and you looked wan and I heard that dad is sick, I felt particularly bad and I wanted to cry.  But I did not cry in front of you.  But did you know when I went back to the room and read your letter, I cried like a mad woman?  When my roommates asked me questions, I could not say a word.  I am really sad.  I am really sad.  How could it turn out like this?  Why do the heavens treat us this way?  What did we do wrong?  Husband, I am worried and I am vexed.

July 25, Monday, sunny

Husband, I could foretell that you would come today and you actually came.  When I heard what you said, I felt bad and sad.  Husband, please don't be like that.  I am married to you and I will be yours for my whole life.  I don't care if you are rich or poor.  I want your person and not your money.  As long as you are true to me, I will follow you and endure a lifetime of hardship.  Husband, please don't get strange ideas.  I chose you, and my person and heart belong to you.

The tragedy of Gou Li is not unique among 'misses', but her story was especially bitter and tragic and therefore aroused public interest and caused pain in people's hearts.

According to Renmin University Sex and Sociology Research Institute director Pan Suiming, among the 970 'misses' interviewed in 13 districts in northern China, more than half were married and one third of them were mothers with children at home.  Among those surveyed, more than 90% sold their bodies due to poverty.  Among the wives and mothers, most sold their bodies to meet family expenses, and sometimes the husbands and family members were aware.  In the more extreme case, Professor Pan pointed out that husbands took their wives to work, brothers bringing their sisters and even parents bringing their daughters.  These sickening arrangements are even more shocking than the case of Gou Li.  Their tragedies basically have been concealed in their gray lives outside of the public view.

Professor Pan pointed out that the so-called "poverty" in his studies is not "absolute" poverty but just "relative" poverty in the sense of poverty under wealth inequality.  Gou Li's husband Chen Xiaolin told the reporter that his family was poor, but not to the point of having no food on the table.  But why did Gou Li still engage in a profession with huge moral risks?  The reason is that compared to those rural people without debt, they were poor; compared to those people who can afford to wear clothes that cost more than 60 RMB, they were poor.  In the eyes of Gou Li, in order to bridge that chasm, it would never be possible through just working and her only remaining capital was her young body.

Obviously, to prevent tragedies such as that of Gou Li, we have to eliminate poverty, shrink the rich-poor gap and work on fair distributions.

Eliminating poverty and promoting harmonious social development are the major administrative goal of the current government.  On March 14, Premier Wen Jiabao was interviewed by the People's Daily and said used "the economics of poverty" to explain the strategy for building a harmonious society.  Wen said, "I am reminding of what the Nobel Economics Prize winner Schultz said.  He said that most people in the world are poor.  If you understand the economics of poverty, then you will understand many important principles in economics; among the poor people of the world, most of them make a living out of farming.  So if you understand agriculture, you will then truly understand the economics of poverty."

The "economics of poverty" of Schultz that Premier Wen Jiabao brought up can be applied to the tragic path of the life of Gou Li.

Gou Li and her husband came from poor villages.  Gou Li's mother-in-law told our reporter over and over again that their family had more than 30 mu of dry land but their net income hardly reached 2,000 RMB per year.  Under these circumstances, apart from the old woman herself, the only thing is for the whole family to go and work outside.  This is related to the question of solving the problem of rural poverty in the "economics of poverty."

When Gou Li and her husband arrived in the city, they found it hard to get jobs.  Her husband had to drive a motorcycle for a dangerous living.  This is related to the question of solving the problem of jobs.

Finally, Gou Li found a job that paid 300 RMB.  With such a low wage, she could hardly survive in the city much less than repay.  Therefore, she became a "sex worker" who earned more money but illegally so.  This is related to the question of fair distributions in the "economics of poverty," including the question of how to improve the wages of poor people.

These big problems are prevalent right now.  When Tsing Hua University professor Hu Angang was interviewed by a Xinhua reporter, the average ratio of urban-rural mean personal incomes had increased to 3.23 by year 2003, and the ratio of actual incomes has reached 5 times.  He pointed out that the employment rate in 2004 showed negative growth rates for the first time, leading Xinhua to quote other people: "Within the cities and rural villages, 'classes' of poor people have appeared."

But the encouraging thing is that these core issues of the "economics of poverty" were the points of attention of our government, and they have begun to strengthened and systematize the policies.  ...