By Sudeshna Sarkar
Kathmandu, July 9 : Once a sacred Buddhist pilgrimage destination, the Tibetan capital Lhasa is rapidly turning into a hot spot of 'pink parlours' where flesh trade thrives under China's modernisation drive, a US couple says.
Sarah Schorr, a freelance American photographer who has been visiting Lhasa since 2004 with her Tibetologist husband Cameron Warner, has put together an exhibition of photographs to be displayed in New York, focusing on the city's mushrooming pink salons that are actually brothels.
'By day they are hair salons and bars. By night they double up as brothels,' says Schorr, who has also exhibited her photographs in Kathmandu.
'When I visited Lhasa in summer 2004, I was struck by these storefronts bathed in a lurid pink neon light in the evening. But the windows did not display any products. Instead, these doll-like women sat there demurely. I realised they were the merchandise.'
Initially apprehensive about going in, Schorr says she felt compelled to do so. 'I have been photographing women,' she says.
'My earlier project was on the strippers in New York. After taking photographs from outside, I got a little bolder and wandered inside. It was an amazing experience. The women liked being photographed, they wanted to talk about their lives.'
Communicating through her interpreter friend, she discovered the women were mostly between 15 and 35 years of age, though there some were younger. Most of them had little education or professional skills. They were in the flesh trade hoping the money would secure a better life in future.
There are both Chinese and Tibetan women in the brothels, with the former seeming more sophisticated and better paid. In the brothels she visited, the Tibetan girls charged less than 100 yuan.
Schorr says she is amazed by the rapid changes that occurred between 2004 and March 2006, when she went last.
'The Chinese influence is incredible,' she says.
'Only a small part of Lhasa still retains its traditional look with old buildings and temples. Elsewhere, you have these modern department stores, Western clothes and of course the brothels. Every little town has a brothel. I was surprised, I didn't expect this.'
Her husband Warner, who has been visiting Tibet since 2001, attributes the boom in brothels to China's drive to develop and modernise the region.
'With the Chinese government making large investments in Tibet, some people are becoming wealthy quickly,' he says. 'The knowledge of that wealth is driving Tibetan women, who don't have access to it in their villages, to rush to the capital.'
The presence of a large military contingent in Lhasa, annexed by China in 1949-50, is also contributing to the rising sex trade.
'You have all these soldiers, men living without families,' Warner says. 'There is a disparity in the male-female ratio and so sex trade rises.'
The newly opened railway between Beijing and Lhasa and accompanying development projects are also a factor.
'New roads are being built, people are coming in to start new businesses,' says Warner. 'So you have more groups of men without their families. This imbalance is also causing the Chinese women to flock to Tibet to join the flesh trade.'
Despite China's phobia of publicity, Schorr says she has had no problem either taking photographs or obtaining visa - and she keeps her fingers crossed that it would remain so.
'I would like to go back,' she says. 'I would like to speak to the women about safe sex and be active in making health options available to them.'