Using Free Sex to Expose Sexual Abuse in China

Using Free Sex to Expose Sexual Abuse in China

What you need to know

A Q&A with Nanfu Wang, director of the documentary ‘Hooligan Sparrow’.

Nanfu Wang directed and produced the award-winning documentary Hooligan Sparrow. She was born in 1985 in a village outside Fengcheng city, Jiangxi province, roughly halfway between Hong Kong and Shanghai in southeast China. Her mother and father were farmers who earned extra money as substitute teachers. Busy caring for other farmers’ children, “They didn’t have time to take care of me,” said Wang during a recent interview in New York, where she has lived since 2012.

The highest level of education available in her village was elementary school, which she started at age four. “When I was nine years old, my father sent me to boarding school 60 miles away in the city,” said Wang. When she was 11 years old, her father died and the family couldn’t afford to keep her in school. Her mother encouraged her to learn a trade to support her eight-year-old brother. “My family wanted him to have an education, college, in the future,” said Wang. But she took heart from her late father’s encouragement and persevered in her own schooling, studying English for three years and becoming an elementary school teacher at age 16. “Every day, I dreamed of going to college,” said Wang, who kept studying and saving money for classes in a Bachelor’s program. “I studied an average 16 hours a day and completed a four-year bachelor’s degree in two years.” Wang then applied for graduate school and got a full scholarship to study at Shanghai University in 2007, where she studied English literature.

Courtesy of Little Horse Crossing the River

Upon graduating, Wang was accepted at Ohio University to study journalism in 2011. In Ohio, Wang saw her first documentary films. The next year, she transferred to New York University and soon decided to make her first film, a documentary of her own about sex workers and poverty in China. She hoped that a woman called Ye Haiyan (“Hooligan Sparrow”), who had offered free sex on the Internet to draw attention to the plight of poor women selling their bodies to support their children, would lead her to the prostitutes she wanted to interview.

Very quickly after meeting Ye for the first time in May 2013, they attended a protest in Hainan, the island province off the south China coast. They called for the punishment of a school administrator accused of kidnapping and raping six teenage girls. All of Wang’s ideas about her project changed. The film she ended up making, following Ye around on a series of protests, shed light on the widespread practice of bribing Chinese officials with forced sexual favors, and the lengths to which those officials will go to cover up their crimes. Wang spoke with ChinaFile Managing Editor Jonathan Landreth in New York.

Ye Haiyan started using the Internet to draw attention to the plight of sex workers in 2002. All these years later, is your family aware of the film you’ve made about her?

Of all my family members, my younger brother [now a computer programmer in Beijing] knows the most about what I was doing. He learned about Ye Haiyan as I learned, and he was outraged. It was an education for both of us.

How did you make it to the U.S.?

In China, I studied English literature and I wanted to work in journalism, but I didn’t have a journalist’s background and I didn’t want to study journalism in China.

Why not?

[Laughs] The very reason I wanted to study journalism was that I was disappointed by the journalism I saw in China. There was a lack of depth and investigation in stories. Although I wasn’t very political, I was very suspicious of what I read and what I heard.

When did this awareness move you to act?

I was naïve, but part of the reason I am the way I am is that I was always kind of adventurous and rebellious. Even though I didn’t know much about activism, I thought over and over again about what my dad taught me as a child. He always said, “You need to think independently.” It reminds me of the classical Chinese tale, “Little Horse Crossing the River,” which is the name of my production company.

Nanfu Wang

One day, a mother horse asks her little horse to cross the river to do some errands. The little horse says, “Sure, I’ll do it,” but it was his first time across the river and when he was about to cross, a squirrel in a tree said, “No, you shouldn’t do it; my brother drowned in the river. It’s really deep and you will die.” So the horse stepped back. But then a buffalo said, “No, no, no, it’s okay, you can cross easily; the level of the water is just around my ankles.” The little horse went back to his mother and said, “I don’t know what to do. They’re all saying different things.” And the mother said, “In your life, you will hear different people say different things based on their own opinion and experience, but you will have to figure it out yourself.”

That story has stuck in my mind. Without a father, I grew up with a mother who only spoke about food and clothes. Whenever I needed to make a decision, it was really hard, because there was nobody I could ask for advice. In all the major decisions in my life, it was painful to choose the right thing to do. I would always think back to that story. That shaped my personality.

How did you first learn about Ye Haiyan and what did you feel?

I was just one of her 70,000 followers on social media. At the beginning, in 2002 or 2003, she was very controversial. All my information was from the Internet. She posted nude photos and documented her sexual experiences. Then she went to do free sex. I was very dubious about her, not knowing if she wanted fame. I couldn’t read her motivation, but when she did free sex, her message was that sex work should be legalized, which is something I believe in. I wanted to get access to poor sex workers, but thought that it would be really difficult for me to go to a brothel and gain their trust. She already had worked in those places and had contacts. Initially, I thought she would lead me to my characters and while she might be one of them the film was not going to be about her.

When did you decide you wanted to make this film?

Once I was here [in New York] I realized documentary was for me and that I wanted to make a film about the healthcare system in China, because of my father’s experience.

How did he die?

He had heart disease from the time he was a child, but poverty is what killed him. He wouldn’t have died if we had had enough money to get treated. His illness wasn’t very serious, it just went untreated and he died when he was 33. As I child, I went to the hospital with him every month and witnessed how difficult it was for farmers and peasants to get treatment. I’ve always wanted to tell stories about people at the bottom of society. After a year in New York, because of some school assignments I got in touch with some local sex workers. I was amazed how open-minded they were, even though their work is still illegal.

What’s the difference between sex workers in New York and China?

The ones I met here in New York were really proud of what they do. They could speak openly about themselves. They are storytellers, and proud of their job. They had freedom to enjoy creativity in their work. In China, this work is much more stigmatized.

How do you explain these differences?

Here [in the U.S.], they don’t face that much judgment, but in China, there’s much more judgment, it’s a much more conservative society when it comes to sex.

What went into the decision to go back to China for this film?

In May 2013, I discussed this project with my professors but not with my family. I talked with my friends and knew that the main challenge would be getting access to the sex workers.

Did you know that Ye Haiyan would be central to your film?

I thought she would be a character who would lead me to sex workers, but I didn’t end up meeting with them at all, because since the day we went to the protest in Hainan, everything changed. We were on the road and our lives were in danger.

What had you learned in your two years in the U.S. that affected your decision?

Before I arrived in the U.S. I had never seen documentary films. I don’t think that I am an exception. People my age, even college graduates like me, don’t watch documentaries. First, you don’t have access to documentaries. If you’re not in the circle of documentary filmmakers, you don’t even know they exist. Ordinary people have never heard of them. Part of the reason was my family background. We didn’t even have a television until I was a teenager. It wasn’t until I went to Ohio that I started watching documentaries. I was exposed to different stories and styles. I was just amazed at how documentaries could be about human beings and current stories. In China, the so-called “TV documentaries” are just about food, landscapes, history.

Did anybody at NYU consult on Hooligan Sparrow?

A lot of professors were really helpful to me when I came back with the footage. Zhang Zhen [Associate Professor of Cinema Studies at NYU] heard what I was doing through a mutual friend. She said, “Do you have a cut? I want to see it.” So I sent her a rough cut, and she watched it and was very impressed. She actually showed it at Reel China. That was one of our first public showings.

Apart from your younger brother, why didn’t you tell your friends and family you were making this film?

My mom and I only talk about the essentials. For example, when I told her that my major was Documentary Film, she couldn’t understand what documentary film was. And so when I went back [to China], I simply told her I was making a film. Not the topic of the film or anything.

Ye Haiyan’s daughter is along for the wild ride during much of the film. What was she like off-camera?

She’s really goofy, but definitely really calm and mature. There were reporters interviewing her one day, and some asked, “What do you think of your mom when she has nude photos on the Internet and has sex with strangers? What do you think of her?” And she said, “She’s my mom. I took the naked pictures of her, the ones you saw on the Internet.”

What role does social media play for China’s activists?

Social media is really important and really effective in the digital age. It has really changed the way people do activism. Even though Chinese censors are really effective, they can’t keep up with the pace of social media. The government can pre-censor certain words, but they cannot censor breaking news. Before terms become sensitive, they can be circulated for a period of time. Activists take advantage of that to spread information. Activists connect and have a strong network on social media. What amazed me was that even though some of them had never met each other in person, the same cause, the same beliefs brought them together. If I go to a different province, people I have connected with over social media will offer me accommodation. That’s how close activists are. Like family. Brothers and sisters.

Did you keep track of how many miles you traveled?

No, but I wanted to do an interactive map on the film’s website so people could get a sense of the large scale of the crackdown and surveillance, but we didn’t have the resources to do it.

Was Ye Haiyan’s compassion for her tormenters understandable?

It’s not only her. It’s all of the [activist] lawyers, even me, I felt that way. There was one incident when [Ye Haiyan’s attorney] lawyer Wang and I were followed by secret police. They were on motorcycles and we were walking. So lawyer Wang and I decided to walk slowly and go into a shop and make it harder for them to follow us. Eventually the two guys came to us and said, “Hey, mei nü [pretty ladies], where are you going? We can give you a ride. This is really difficult for us. Please understand. We are making a living. We have to follow orders. We have to report to our supervisors. It’s our job. Please understand and make our lives easier.” You can’t hate them. You really can’t hate them. You just sympathize with them.

Are the instant messaging platforms Weibo and Weixin as powerful today as they once were?

Weixin right now definitely has a wider reach than Weibo, but the activists are using all platforms to spread information, to educate people. Whenever there is an incident, a lot of the government-hired people post [messages], and the activists try to write long posts to educate people on how to differentiate between what is real and what is not.

Have you been able to show any of your footage inside China?

Not really, but I showed it to people who are in the film because I wanted them to see it before I let the public see it.

What reaction did you get from them?

They all loved the film. Ye Haiyan said, “I cannot believe that you documented everything. All the details. How did you do it?” By the time I got to show it to them, two years had passed. She said, “I had forgotten a lot of the details, and watching the movie reminded me how much I had gone through. Even I was surprised that those things happened.” After a while, you remember the feelings but not the details.

Did you ever want to stop because you were so afraid?

No. I think I was more angry than scared. At every single moment the emotions are a combination of different things. You get fear, anger, sadness, hopelessness. I felt like, “Oh my God, there is nothing that can change this country.” Like nobody could save us. I think fear is low on the list. Anger is sometimes higher. I was angry that I couldn’t film. I could witness with my eyes, but I couldn’t get evidence. I couldn’t show people what was happening.

How did you keep your anger in check during the three months you and Ye Haiyan were on the road in China, running from the authorities?

I don’t know. It was so hard. I had nobody to talk to. We didn’t talk on the phone because we thought our phones were monitored. So I didn’t talk to family, friends, anybody. The other activists experienced this frequently and they were aware of it and I was new. Everything was shocking to me. I found it hard to believe. Oftentimes I couldn’t understand. I couldn’t understand why ordinary people were attacking Ye Haiyan. I did not know that the government would hire people to do that. So I kept asking them questions, “Why, why, why?” I wrote in a diary, I kept a video diary, almost like a therapy session to channel my feelings.

Did you use any other techniques to cope?

Film. I felt comfortable and safe when I was filming. Sometimes I felt like, as long as I capture it on camera I have power. It’s my way of fighting back. I feel like I win somehow.

If you had to do it over again, would you?


Have you tried to go back to China since the film came out?


Do you think about it?

Yeah. I think I need to measure when I can go back and whether it’s safe to go back, which I won’t know until I try. Right now, because I have a lot of things to do, I don’t want to risk being arrested. But maybe in the future when I feel I have a period of time when I am prepared for that consequence or any consequence then I would try to go back.

Has anyone back in China had a surprising reaction to the film?

It’s painful because a lot of my friends couldn’t understand what I did. And even knowing what I did, some of my friends would say to me, “You’re very politically biased,” or, “You are extreme.” “You are influenced by Western culture.” “You changed.” I think being brainwashed is very hard for people to overcome.

Has anybody come to you and said, “I do understand”?

Not many. I think my brother was the only person who really changed his view on society. And my friends would say, “No, I think the government did the right thing because stability is more important than anything else. I don’t want my family to suffer. We are good. The economy is good. We don’t want there to be any revolution or social disruption.”

The News Lens has been authorized to repost this article. The piece was first published by ChinaFile.
(ChinaFile is the online magazine of Asia Society’s Center on U.S.-China Relations)

First Editor: Edward White
Second Editor: J. Michael Cole