Xin’Ai: Chinese Sex Workers Helping Each Other

by Lanlan on December 16, 2013 · 4 comments

in Activism, Health


Lanlan conducting legal training conducted at Xin’Ai’s office. Photos courtesy of the author.

Willa Dong reached out to us as a translator/liason for Chinese sex worker activist Lanlan, who founded the Xin’Ai Home. We’re very happy to have Lanlan’s account of working to create and grow an NGO from the ground up. For more information on detainment of sex workers in China, as well as general background, read this report by Asia Catalyst, an organization that has worked with Lanlan in the past and to whose blog Dong has contributed to.

“Let us face disease, discrimination, the police, love, and family together because we are sisters. Let us welcome the rain, and embrace the sunshine!” –Excerpt from Xin’Ai’s blog

In May 2008, four sex workers established the Xin’Ai Home, a not-for-profit, nongovernmental organization, in the Dongli District of Tianjin, China. The organization was founded with the aims of promoting self-confidence and self-love, as well as fostering solidarity and mutual aid, to uphold the rights of female sex workers, eliminate violence against women, and increase awareness of women’s health. This organization primarily serves low-income female sex workers, including providing HIV/STD prevention workshops, health care referrals,  training in vocational skills, violence prevention, and women’s legal issues. As of now, over 90% of female sex workers in Dongli District have received services from Xin’Ai, and around 3000 people in total have been reached. All of Xin’Ai’s staff members are women, and currently there are three full-time staff, two part-time staff and ten volunteers.

Embracing Sunshine, Establishing Xin’Ai Home: The Founding of the Organization

I began working in sex work in 2000. In 2007, I started volunteering for the Beijing Aizhixing Institute, one of the first HIV/AIDS advocacy and research NGOs in China to obtain more condoms. I felt scared after meeting several people living with HIV/AIDS (PLWHA), because of all the sisters1 who knew nothing about HIV. I wanted them to become aware of HIV and to recognize the importance of condoms. In 2008, current and former sex workers Sister Zhang, Xiao Tong, Li and I decided to start HIV prevention work among sex workers. Over a dinner meeting, we discussed the naming of the organization we envisioned forming. I said that many female sex workers had little self-confidence, were sometimes preoccupied with money, and did not take care of our health. We decided to christen the organization “Xin’Ai” (meaning “confidence and love”) hoping that through our efforts, more sisters would believe in themselves and love themselves. Thus, the Xin’Ai Home was born.

At that point, Sister Zhang owned a foot massage parlor2, and recruited nearby venues to participate in these outreaches. Xiao Tong had a car and provided transportation for the others in her spare time. Li and I led workshops inside the venues. At first, they went around to familiar venues and discussed HIV infection risk without condoms. During this time, the Aizhixing Institute donated 5000 condoms to me, and the Pink Space, a sexuality research NGO in Beijing, provided support in creating a booklet on HIV prevention. Whenever we returned to these venues, I would discuss HIV prevention while also distributing copies of the booklet and condoms. The Tianjin Municipal Center for Disease Control (CDC) also sought my guidance in coordinating sex workers to receive health checkups. However, without financial support, we spent our personal savings, and carried on in this way for over half a year. At the end of 2008, Sister Zhang returned to her hometown and Xiao Tong also left. I began spending weekends in Beijing studying to become a tour guide in addition to my health education work. In 2009, I passed the exam to become a licensed tour guide and would stay in Beijing if I had a tour group booked. Whenever I did not have a group to lead, I returned to Tianjin and continued to do venue outreaches. I felt that I had almost reached my breaking point when I met Professor Fang-ping Wang, the coordinator for the Taiwanese organization Collective of Sex Workers and Supporters (COSWAS), at a conference. Upon learning about my work, Professor Wang helped me apply for funding from Oxfam.

In June 2010, Oxfam began supporting Xin’Ai’s administrative and programming costs and estimated that I should receive a monthly salary of 2400 RMB (approximately 392 USD). I left my tour guide job despite its higher pay. Li and I then rented an apartment, began working full time, and hired Chen as a part time accountant. We identified our client population as women working in foot massage parlors, full body massage parlors, rented flats, street-standing women, and women working in small saunas, in order to serve low-income female sex workers working in the lowest-fee venues. The sisters that I had originally reached out to in the saunas had moved to foot massage parlors. I now didn’t know anyone at these venues, so I asked other sisters and clients about the whereabouts of these women. However, once located, many of these women were not initially receptive to participating in the workshops, until I revealed that I had also been a sex worker. I was quickly accepted because I was someone of the same background. Besides these outreaches, Xin’Ai also held socials to bring together FSWs (female sex workers); performed outreaches on women’s health and general health knowledge, and massage skills; and lectured on gender issues. In this way, Sister Zhang, Xiao Tong, Li, Chen and I established a self-confident, self-loving home.

Learning, Reflecting and Growing: Organizational Development

At the end of 2010, Li left Xin’Ai after getting married and becoming pregnant, and Chen started working full time. I then hired another part-time accountant, Pan, and a part-time outreach worker, Xiao Mei. Another issue I now faced was communication issues within the organization. These programs required the sisters to sign their names and have their photos taken. Chen felt that there was no need for this, while I required that the program guidelines be followed. I also required simultaneous paper and electronic documentation of these outreaches, while Chen felt that this was redundant. As a new accountant, Chen sometimes misplaced receipts, while I required that the receipts be neatly organized. These different interpretations of program guidelines caused conflict and feelings of depression and anger, so much so that the relationship between us once-close sisters chilled to the freezing point. Amid these difficulties, Professor Wang came to Tianjin, talked to each person individually, and helped to smooth out these issues. I became aware of the need to pay particular attention to communication methods and techniques during communication between staff members, and we gradually reconciled and reunited.

I frequently had insomnia due to worrying over effectively implementing this hard-won program. I did not know how to prepare financial statements, perform trainings, write program reports, or understand many of the questions that the sisters asked me on basic women’s health knowledge. With these pressures, I seized many opportunities to attend trainings and conferences, and studied voraciously. During the spring of 2009, several Chinese NGOs that served sex workers met in Kunming, China to establish CSWON (China Sex Worker Organization Network). This network provided me with several resources and opportunities for training. While reflecting on past work, CSWON’s chairman, Zheng Huang (Tony Zheng), felt that the most gratifying part over the past four years was seeing my growth. In this time, I learned how to plan and implement outreaches, draft program handbooks, create program budgets, and work on program management, organizational management, strategic planning, policy advocacy, human rights, gender issues, legal training, gynecology and STD training, and documentary production. I also participated in several conferences. I integrated these new skills into my work, and when new challenges came up at work, I was able to bring these problems to the trainings and to learn from them. I also taught these skills to the other staff members and volunteers, and as both the individuals and the organization continued to grow, they gradually began to master these professional challenges.

In 2010, Xin’Ai expanded to the surrounding districts. We assigned the 158 venues we were in contact with about 12 outreach districts, and performed one monthly outreach on average in each district. This way, we could efficiently organize outreaches and post-outreach records. Outreaches are the core activity of Xin’Ai, and the organization spends the most effort on this activity. For the sisters who are the most receptive to outreaches, the follow-up session is scheduled closely afterwards, in order to communicate with them while the outreach is still fresh in their minds. Every time an outreach is performed, information is also collected on the sisters who did not understand the material. Xin’Ai has created comprehensive outreach records for each venue and individual records for each worker, as well as an outreach journal. By viewing the journal, one can know where each month’s outreaches took place. By viewing each venue’s records, one can understand the basic context of the venue and the workers there. Through taking the initiative and repeated follow-up, contact with more sisters was established than the projected number in the original estimate. During these outreaches, some sisters would ask disease-related questions, which would be immediately answered by a doctor from the Jiaozhou Health Advice Center (胶州爱心健康咨询中心) over the telephone. If the issue couldn’t be resolved then, it would be carefully recorded; the sister would then be called back with the answer after consulting with a doctor. Every time we did an outreach, my coworkers and I would first read through the outreach log to familiarize ourselves with the circumstances and unresolved questions from the previous outreach. Each month, Xin’Ai would write a summary of all the outreaches performed to see which venues were not visited and which venues needed to be followed up with to plan next month’s outreach.

Besides a record of work activities, Xin’Ai’s annual report also includes the challenges faced and strategies to deal with them in the future. In 2011, Xin’Ai began working with volunteers, who consisted of the passionate sisters they met during the outreaches. Some became part-time employees and some remained volunteers who distributed materials, taught peer health education workshops, coordinated socials and health check-ups, and attended trainings.


Asking a question at ICAAP 2013 in Bangkok, with Gisa Dang of Asia Catalyst interpreting

From Health Services to Fighting Stigma: Expanding the Organization’s Scope

When Xin’Ai was first founded, I focused only on HIV prevention, but realized that there were additional issues that needed to be addressed during these outreaches. For example, some sisters refused to use condoms, would not accept them even if they were free, and would sometimes bar Xin’Ai staff from entering the venue. The staff felt extremely frustrated, but after discussing the issue with the sisters, they realized that despite the AIDS Prevention and Control Act of 2006 that prohibited condoms from being used as evidence of prostitution, the police were still using them as evidence. During periods of crackdowns, more sex workers were afraid to use condoms, and chose to work under unsafe conditions. The sisters were afraid to keep condoms around, and were afraid to keep them in their rooms, but had to also go on with their lives, as they had parents to support and children’s tuition to pay, so they could only secretly continue to work. However, the likelihood of using condoms was substantially lower…When you give them condoms, they don’t know where to hide them, and wherever they hide them, they feel unsafe, and feel it’s safest to not use them. Once during an outreach, one of my colleagues said to me: “The reason why these women were arrested was because they found the condoms we gave her.” I felt heartsick, and could not fathom how condoms, a tool for health, could become evidence of a crime. When I gave talks on health, encouraging the sisters to use condoms seemed ineffectual and laughable. But after understanding these circumstances, Xin’Ai staff changed their aims, and instead taught sex workers how to hide condoms, such as underneath flowerpots, in rice bags, and in stoves. Only through putting ourselves in a sex worker’s position could we successfully perform outreaches. From then on, more FSWs were receptive to our services.

Many sex workers silently endured client harassment and violence, as well as theft and robbery.  This problem was not rooted in a lack of health knowledge, but in gender roles, poverty, and the legal environment. Xin’Ai expanded its vision to include protecting women’s rights and decriminalizing sex work. I decided to first address stigma against sex workers, beginning with improving sex workers’ living conditions. In December 2012, Ma and I participated in an applied theater training hosted by Oxfam, in preparation for using these techniques to raise sex workers’ self-confidence and eliminate societal stigma.

On April 20, 2013, after work, I visited a sister who had just been released from police custody. This sister’s friends and family were afraid that she had been taken to a detention center, so they raised 45,000 RMB (approximately 7389 USD) to try to find someone who could use their connections to get her released. In May of 2013, Tianjin began another round of crackdowns, and several more sex workers were arrested and detained. This roundup of FSWs included women served by Xin’Ai as well as three of the volunteers. The police did not follow law enforcement protocols, and these women could not exercise the skills they learned during the legal training workshops to protect themselves. This stark reality and external circumstances dealt a huge blow to Xin’Ai’s work, and the team began to suspect that spending our efforts on this sort of work was useless. While a pessimistic atmosphere enveloped the entire team, Ma, Wang (a volunteer, not Professor Wang), and I were invited to participate in the International Conference on Sexualities in China. An entire afternoon session was dedicated to the topic of sex work, and panelists from different regions and disciplines discussed the question of sex work from many perspectives. Wang and I both made a keynote speech. During the meeting, the atmosphere of respect, compassion, and appreciation significantly encouraged us. When we returned from the conference, we felt our morale return, and went back to work.

Some people do not understand Xin’Ai’s work, and believe the organization should instead encourage sex workers to change occupations. However, this would help those harming sex workers rather than sex workers themselves. Several domestic and international HIV prevention programs fund women’s organizations such as Xin’Ai substantially less than programs for men who have sex with men (MSM) and PLWHA. I believe that this is due to these organizations’ disapproval of our work. Additionally, some sex workers see the decriminalization of sex work as a pipe dream. “How can it be possible? The arm is no match for the leg3, we’ll continue to be fined, we’ll continue to be arrested as before, what use is there?” Many believe that their so-called rights are still far away from being won. Xin’Ai’s members have discussed ways to change the policy environment and sex workers’ pessimistic outlook. Everyone believes that if society decreased stigma against the sex trade and sex workers, then policy and the legal environment would be changed, and sex workers’ living conditions and outlook would be improved. Xin’Ai hopes that more people will understand sex workers and the work of sex worker organizations. We have been connecting with various community-based organizations, in order to be understood and accepted by more of these organizations. At the end of 2013, there is another initiative in the works to invite college students to Xin’Ai for informal discussions and to possibly to give lectures at universities.

Xin’Ai must explore how to promote cohesion among its members, confront stigma from the outside world, and persevere in doing effective HIV prevention work. Xin’Ai possesses a distinctive mission in fighting against gender and sex work stigma, through raising self-confidence within the community (including Xin’Ai members and the sex workers that we serve) and by confronting stigma from the outside world. By summarizing specific practices, challenges may be overcome; and then we can continue on to the next part of this long journey.

1. Translator’s note: “Sisters” is pretty one-size-fits-all for women you feel close to – they could be your actual sisters, female cousins, friends, but here she’s talking about other sex workers she knows.
2. A sex work location.
3. Chinese idiom meaning that the weak cannot defeat the strong.

Thanks to Willa Dong for translation. Dong is a public health researcher based in Beijing. Contact: dong[dot]wmc[at]gmail[dot]com.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Tracey Tully December 17, 2013 at 4:50 am

Very good article Lan Lan. Thank you!


God Sent February 6, 2014 at 12:34 pm

I living in Xian now, I’m a 28 year old laowai from the UK and I desperately want to help sex workers in my area. How can I help?
Please e-mail me:


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