Escaping the Beauty Salon

Over twelve long years, a woman from Jiangxi province imprisoned more than a dozen young women in a beauty salon located in China's most thriving city, Shanghai. Employing beatings, fear tactics, and forced drinking of urine, among other methods, she compelled the women to prostitute themselves to customers. The 100-square-meter salon was divided into six or seven rooms, and the victimized women ate, slept, went to the bathroom, and spent their lives inside. Their IDs and cellphones were confiscated, and were not even given holidays off. One woman hadn't been home to visit her family for eight years. On August 18, 2013, four of the women escaped with the help of a customer, and subsequently revealed the true nature of the “hell" they had lived through. Five years later, the victims have not been able to escape the "salon" in their heads. A lack of understanding from their loved ones, the loss of friends, and a dearth of action on the part of government agencies has stymied their attempts to protect their rights after regaining freedom. They want the criminals involved to receive appropriate punishment, and hope for recognition from the larger society. Above all, they want to escape the "salon" imposed by the larger society. In the twelve hours after this article was posted, it received more than ten million hits.

The Escape

A midsummer night, and the lights at the Lele Beauty Salon have just gone out. The ground in front of the entrance is still wet from the rain that fell that day. This is the Chuansha area of Pudong, near the eastern coastal outskirts of Shanghai. The owner isn't there, and most of the women are gathered around the twenty-inch TV. But Fang Yuan seems distracted, and keeps her eye on the quiet street outside. 

For Fang Yuan, this might be the most important night of her life. A girl from a village in eastern Hubei, she has been imprisoned in the Lele Beauty Salon at 339 Xinde Road for nearly four years. Among the women there watching TV, the most seasoned resident has been there for twelve years, and the newest for less than two. 

A car arrives, a blue Chevrolet approaching slowly from the west. Fang Yuan taps the leg of the girl behind her. She’d managed to tell her earlier about the plan to escape, muffling her voice in the cabinet as they were both getting towels for foot massage clients. 

The two are as tense as a tightly-wound wire. One of Fang Yuan's old customers has agreed to come save her. The plan is that the thick-lidded, seemingly gentle client would send two cars: one to whisk the women to safety, and the other filled with men tasked with preventing anyone from the salon from following them. 

The second car appears, a white sedan from which three men appear and walk toward the glass doors. One has a round face and a buzz cut—”That’s them.” Earlier that evening, the client had sent Fang Yuan a cellphone shot of the man so she would recognize him.

Fang Yuan grabs her friend and the two dash for the door. Their yellow Crocs slip on the slick bricks outside the door, but they manage to escape out into the night. 

Their escape on that summer night in 2013 had to succeed—they had already suffered too much. According to the verdict of the Shanghai No. 1 Intermediate People’s Court, Zhang Jiuqin had “confiscated their IDs, means of communication, and money, and forced them to sign false work contracts and loans in order to control their personal freedom, employing tactics of water torture, beatings, deprivation of food and heat, forced drinking of urine, threats and so on…for long periods of time, to force them to provide numerous men with oral sex, manual sex, and other forms of prostitution.”

When Fang Yuan met with this reporter on May 8, 2018, she chose a location in the popular tourist area of the Nanjing Pedestrian Street, to give me a chance to see some of the city. Nine years before, at the age of sixteen, she had eagerly anticipated coming to Shanghai, but it was only four years after her arrival that she finally had a chance to visit the famous sights of the Bund and Nanjing Street, which up until then she’d only seen on TV.

“I ran, while they were right there watching.” Fang Yuan’s voice carries over the noise of the busy Sichuan restaurant. Thinking back, she recalls that for a long time she only remembered her escape in her dreams. She would dream that she’d hidden herself in a pigsty, or made herself invisible. But each time her escape would fail. The madam Zhang Jiuqin “always knew where I was.”

Many of the girls forced to work in the salon by Zhang Jiuqin were fooled into coming there in the first place. The small salon was described as an ideal place to work, “with someone to cook for us, washing machines to wash our clothes, heating and air conditioning for any weather, and we could take training classes at the salon’s expense.” Fang Yuan had been duped into coming by her aunt, who told her that because of the congenital lymphedema in her left foot which made it impossible for her to stand for long periods of time, she “would always have a stool to sit on.”

In 2009, Fang Yuan came to Shanghai with a friend from middle school. When they met Zhang Jiuqin, she wore long bangs braided back from her face and gathered into a high ponytail, and dark blue eyeliner. With Zhang’s Western clothing and height of 1.7 meters, their first impression was that “she definitely seemed like a business owner. She had that way about her.”

Around noon that day, Zhang Jiuqin took Fang Yuan and her friend to her restaurant called Dio Coffee, which was across the street from the salon. Qiu Yue will always remember, “I had stewed meatballs, and they were so good.” After the meal, they went to the Lele Salon. 

The 100-square-meter salon had only four beautician’s chairs placed near the entrance, and people’s voices came from behind a wooden screen. When Fang Yuan looked in, she saw women washing customers’ feet. She and her friend told Zhang that they didn’t want to wash feet or perform massage. They were only interested in learning how to cut and style hair. Zhang readily agreed.

But on the second day, one of the older workers there handed each of them a red bra that had clearly been worn before. Qiu Yue was given a pair of used high heels—blue, stiletto-heeled, and too tight, she could barely manage to totter around in them.

At that time, Fang Yuan was sixteen and Qiu Yue was fifteen. Neither had worn a bra before. Some of the boys at their school liked to stare at the girls’ expanding chests and laugh at them. Half an hour later, when the older worker found Qiu Yue in the bathroom refusing to put on the bra, she gave her two hard slaps. Over their red bras, the girls put on cheap white polo shirts and black skirts. They had to wear blue eye-shadow, and looked like dolls fresh out of the factory. 

They were taken into the massage rooms. One customer groped Fang Yuan’s body, and Qiu Yue was poked until she bled. The girls were terrified, but when they resisted, they were beaten badly. Their heads were forced into a yellow bucket for washing towels until they gagged on the water. They were held down until near suffocation, pulled out for a breath, and then plunged back in again. 

Fang Yuan has a small face, pale skin, and sparkling eyes. But even after five years, the terror that was inflicted on her remains. She is petrified of choking on water. Each time she was tortured, her ears would throb for days afterward. She would swab out pus from her ears and be unable to hear people speak to her. “Someone would be right in front of me, but it would be as though there were some barrier between us, and I was the only person left in the world.” She would end up so frightened she couldn’t sleep. 

They were also beaten with a rolling pin that glistened as though it had been oiled. As they were tortured with water, their feet would be beaten. Because of Fang Yuan’s medical issues with her feet, they would hit her buttocks instead, producing dark bruises. Fang Yuan says that Zhang Jiuqin would do this so regularly that they became too afraid to resist, let alone to try to escape. It was best not to even think about it. The girls quickly learned not to make eye contact with Zhang Jiuqin, because she might beat them just because she didn’t like their look. Even imagining of the stifling feeling of having their head shoved in a bucket and the pressure of the water entering through their eyes, ears, nose, and mouth was enough to make the women start to shake. 


Total Domination

The salon faced north, with the door opening out onto Xinde Street, which ran east-west along a small river. The street was narrowed down to one lane to the east by residents’ parked cars. If they wanted to escape, they couldn’t head that way, since they’d be too easily trapped. They had to go west, where the street was unobstructed. Fang Yuan gathered this information as she washed her customers’ feet. At first she asked questions because she was curious about the outside world, never thinking that it would become an important part of her escape plan. 

Heading west had its own dangers. Whether deliberately or not, Zhang Jiuqin’s other business, Dio Coffee, was strategically placed just west of the salon. Whenever a woman tried to escape, or someone caused trouble at the salon, a male worker would rush out of the restaurant to deal with it. 

Zhang Jiuqin regularly sat in a second-story window of the restaurant watching the salon. Whenever a police car passed by, she would immediately call the salon to warn them. She also kept an eye out for a car belonging to the father of one of the girls, who was from Shanghai and had been tricked into working there. Later, Fang Yuan and the others heard that the girl’s father had been in prison and she’d been living with relatives before ending up at the salon. Once Zhang Jiuqin caught the girl standing in the glass door, and she immediately ordered the other workers to pull her away—what if her father happened to pass by and see her?

As the manual Chevrolet does a U-turn beside the river, its engine dies, as Fang Yuan waits anxiously by the side of the road. The other salon workers still don’t know what’s going on. They think the three men who have come to help her are just customers, and they yell for Fang to come back inside. 

When the car finally arrives, Fang Yuan pushes her companion into the passenger’s seat before squeezing in beside her. Recalling that day, she says, “I was so flustered I didn’t even think about getting in the back.”

The car starts moving, and when Fang Yuan turns around to look back, she suddenly realizes that her aunt Ma Nan—the one who had fooled her into going to the salon in the first place—is sitting in the back seat. Fang Yuan’s mind goes blank. She doesn’t know what Ma Nan, once a victim of Zhang Jiuqin and then an accomplice, is doing in the car. Is she being rescued too, or is she there to take them back?

No one speaks. Once the car has driven quite a distance, Ma Nan finally says, “I never thought you’d pull something like this.” Fang Yuan sees that Ma Nan is there to take her back, but they all know she can’t do it alone. When Ma Nan realizes that herself, she waits until the next red light and gets out of the car. When she returns to the salon that night, Zhang Jiuqin will beat her face with the sole of her shoe. 

The salon was located on the bottom floor of an old six-story residential building with yellow walls. At its peak, seventeen women were kept imprisoned there. They opened their doors every morning at 8:30am, and at 9am, Zhang Jiuqin’s BMW or Buick would park outside. The girls would prepare water and facial cleanser for her, and squeeze toothpaste onto her toothbrush, and then Ma Nan would fix her hair. When her face and hair were done, Zhang Jiuqin would sit on the couch while the girls formed a line between the door and the cash register, reporting one by one how much money they had made the day before. Zhang gave each girl a daily quota of between 400 and 900 yuan. If they did not make their quota, they would be dragged into a back room and forced to hold handstands until the customers began to arrive.

Their salaries constituted ten percent of whatever they brought in, but the money never actually reached the women. Each day, their cut was put into an envelope with their name on it and locked in the cash register. At most, they could ask for a few hundred yuan from the cashier, which they then gave to someone else to buy necessities for them. At first, one of Zhang Jiuqin’s older brothers was responsible for doing their shopping, then it was done by one of their regulars, and finally by Ma Nan. The women were also expected to help pay for the salon’s gas bill, since Zhang Jiuqin felt that they owed her for taking hot showers. Each year, Zhang would send a bit of money to the girls’ families to pacify them, a tactic to keep the girls at the salon. The unsuspecting families got a few thousand yuan, while less easily placated families like that of Fang Yuan were given up to 10,000 yuan. 

One of the cashiers, Chen Lihua, had started working there in 2013. She was from the same town as Zhang Jiuqin, and when she’d first arrived, she’d discovered that all of the girls spoke her local dialect. Can they really all be from Jiangxi? she wondered. In fact, Zhang Jiuqin had forbade the women from speaking a dialect that Chen didn’t understand, worrying that they would hatch an escape plan behind her back. 

Zhang Jiuqin used a rigorous system to keep control over the women. When each girl first arrived, their cellphone, purse, and ID were taken from them and kept behind the cashier’s desk. They could only use the telephone at the desk, and they had to keep it on speakerphone, or Zhang Jiuqin would listen in to the receiver. When relatives phoned at the new year, they had to say that the salon was too busy for them to go home. Even when they were obedient, Zhang Jiuqin stood to one side with her thumb at the ready. If a girl spoke out of turn or began to cry, Zhang would immediately cut the line, and the girl would be beaten severely. 

In the winter, the women would sleep in loft of less than ten square meters that had been created by placing wood planks above the bathroom. It was stuffy and dark, and the quilts were moldy. Zhang Jiuqin made sure that older workers would be paired with the younger workers, to sleep under the same blanket to keep an eye on them. In the summer, they would sleep on the floor head to foot, and whispering was strictly forbidden. 

If two women were seen together, “talking and smiling,” their hands and feet would be beaten with a rolling pin. Fang Yuan told this reporter that each time she and Qiu Yue passed each other on the way to the bathroom and had a chance to say a few words, they would immediately pretend to quarrel, showing that their relationship had turned bad. “Then she wouldn’t get beaten, and I wouldn’t beaten, so we were both ok.”

It was impossible to go anywhere. Chen Lihua, Ma Nan, and Zhang Jiuqin’s adoptive daughter were allowed to go out to buy medicinal foot wash for customers or other essentials, but the rest of the women were kept under strict surveillance. Even throwing out the trash thirty meters away was a luxury: “You could feel the breeze, and it felt like you were floating.”

Qiu Yue remembers everyone at the salon having pale skin, and any little impact would leave a scratch or a bruise. Walking over the pedestrian bridge in Xujiahui now, the afternoon sun makes Qiu squint and tear up. It is a long term effect of having spent so long without seeing natural light. Newly arrived girls weren’t even allowed to stand in the glass doorway, so there was no way to get any sun. 

The oppression was horrific: they couldn’t speak to each other; they couldn’t lose their temper with customers; they couldn’t have tiffs with coworkers. They couldn’t even cry in private, because if their eyes looked red, they would be beaten. This all was very difficult for the loquacious Qiu Yue. She would hide somewhere and bite her wrist where it would be covered by her sleeve. If Zhang Jiuqin saw the marks, she would get a beating. The tooth marks eventually turned dark and throbbed, but at least it gave her a moment of psychological relief. A few of the woman had tried to commit suicide, but the cuts on their wrists were immediately discovered, and it was impossible to hang themselves from the low ceiling of the loft.

Every so often, a relative would come visit one of the girls, and they all had to follow Zhang Jiuqin’s instructions. When Qiu Yue’s mother came to visit, Zhang insisted that Qiu keep her mouth shut, or else “I’ll get your mom locked up in jail.” One day, after they had been there for just over a month, Qiu Yue and Fang Yuan were locked in the bathroom by Zhang Jiuqin’s niece Yu Hongling, who also worked for the salon. Qiu Yue’s mother had told her that one her relatives would come to visit while they were in Shanghai, but she didn’t know exactly when. Qiu Yue heard someone outside call her name, and she began to scream “Help!” But, just as when one of the girls was getting a beating, someone turned the music up, and her relative didn’t hear her screams. Yu Hongling covered Qiu’s mouth and forced her to the ground, and the cashier Wu Shuhong came running to hold her down. Fang Yuan was so frightened that she couldn’t move a muscle to help her friend. 

They couldn’t tell how much time had passed. No noise came from outside. Qiu Yue had lost her opportunity to escape. Her lips were bleeding, her eyes were red and swollen, and her face had been beaten until she no longer looked like herself. But her physical pain was nothing compared to the agony of losing hope. She was stuck there. 

Often it was the women who’d been there for a while who administered the beatings. If they were lenient, they themselves would be beaten. Since Fan Yue has a lame foot, she’d only hit one person, Zhang Jiuqin’s adoptive daughter, an orphan who had been adopted once but ran away at the age of thirteen because of abuse. At fourteen, Zhang adopted her and brought her to the salon to work. She’d run away once, but came back when she realized she had nowhere else to go. Fang Yuan felt she was stupid to come back and got so angry she helped beat the bottoms of her feet. 

In 2011, a women escaped in the middle of the night when she was supposed to be closing the security door, and jumped into a car that had been waiting for her. After that, Zhang Jiuqin forced all of the women to sign IOUs of between 100,000 and 400,000 yuan, and told them if they left, she would come after their families and demand payment. 

They were kept from speaking freely and hidden from the sunlight. Aside from the north-facing glass door, there were only three other windows on the back wall, which were blocked by horizontal metal bars and clouded by layers of dirt. Fang Yuan tried to wipe them clean to let in a little light, but when Zhang Jiuqin found her, she beat her hands until Fang couldn’t even grasp her dinner bowl. 

Each time they describe being beaten, Fang Yuan and Qiu Yue smile as though on the verge of laughter. 

It’s the kind of bizarre amusement that can accompany descriptions of past abuse. “It’s actually pretty funny, and stupid.” Sitting across from this reporter, Fang Yuan smiles and shakes her head. “If I’d just been a little bit braver, they couldn’t have kept me there. Now when I think about it, it all seems like a dream.”


One Day of Freedom

For the two years after Fang Yuan arrived at the salon, an older man who hocked things on the street was her only consolation. Whenever it rained, he would come inside the salon. He didn’t ask anything of her, just sat on one of the massage beds chatting, but he always paid full price. 

If the music was turned up loud, Fang Yuan would tell him who was being beaten in the next room, and they would tear up together. But he didn’t dare try to help Fang Yuan escape, since Zhang Jiuqin knew about him and his family. Fang Yuan didn’t want him to get hurt either; he had become like family to her. 

After she had been kept there for a year, Fang Yuan worked up her courage to ask the older client for a cellphone so she could call her mother for help. She didn’t dare ask him to get a message to her mother. She had tried that once, but when her mother heard an unfamiliar man on the line, she had immediately called the salon and Fang Yuan had gotten a beating. This time, the older client managed to slip her a pink cellphone. Because of her foot, Fang Yuan had trouble getting up into the loft, so she had the ‘special privilege’ of sleeping downstairs. She didn’t dare take out her cellphone during the day, but she could use the cover of darkness to experiment with it. She had never used a cellphone before and didn’t know how to send a text. When the phone was discovered a week or so later, she hadn’t yet figured out how to reach anyone for help.

Not long after, the older client died of an illness, and Fang Yuan’s world got even darker and more isolated. 

Much of the time, the hope of “leaving” was dependent on Zhang Jiuqin. Zhang was adept at using both the carrot and the stick. First she would beat them, then she would console them by saying, “Try it for a month, and if you really can’t get used to it, you can go back home.”

From the girls’ descriptions, Zhang is a very high-strung person. She never left to take vacations; the salon was open every night until one or two in the morning, and the cashiers would often get a phone call from her at 3am, saying “I dreamt that Wolf [a nickname Zhang had given to one of the girls] ran away. Keep an eye on her.” When her jade bangle had broken and her eyelid started twitching, it meant something was amiss, so she gave every person in the salon a sound beating. 

When another woman escaped, Zhang Jiuqin held an all-night meeting at the salon. She screamed at them, “Are you trying to kill me? Why can’t you give me just a little peace of mind? Do you want me to kneel in front of you to beg you to stop cheating me?” Fang Yuan and Qiu Yue were surprised, and as the girls crowded around to comfort Zhang, they found it all a little ridiculous. “We kind of felt different after that.”

Zhang would also make different promises to different people. For example, she told Fang Yuan that she would take her to have her foot treated. She told Ma Nan many times that she would someday leave the salon to her. According to court documents, contracts found in the salon showed that on September 30, 2009, Zhang Jiuqin did in fact make her niece Yu Hongling turn control of the salon over to Ma Nan for one year for the sum of 96,000 yuan. On May 23, 2013, another contract was signed for the sum of 400,000 yuan. 

Initially, Ma Nan was one of the victims. In 2002, the Lele Salon was beginning its second year as a place of prostitution, and 15-year-old Ma Nan was tricked by Zhang Jiuqin into coming there. According to Ma Nan’s legal deposition, “She was there for a few days and found that the clients took liberties with her. She wanted to leave, but Zhang Jiuqin told another girl to pull Ma into the bathroom and they beat her face, choked her with water, forced her to drink urine, and stripped her naked to pour cold water on her in the middle of winter….” Six years later, in 2008, Ma Nan became foreman of the operation, and her role changed as she paced like a monitor through the salon. She was even called “the executioner” by the girls because of the brutal beatings she meted out.

Zhang also told Ma Nan that she would find her a husband in Shanghai. Chen Lihua did not believe her: “She was putting on a show for that poor girl, telling her that since she’d been faithful for so many years, she was going to find a home for her in Shanghai….If that girl hadn’t been so brainwashed and dependent on Zhang Jiuqin, the salon wouldn’t have kept going.” Chen Lihua and Ma Nan both oversaw the operations, but Chen pitied the girls, and was just “going through the motions.”

Zhang Jiuqin’s psychological control also led to spontaneous surveillance among the girls themselves. Zhang Yan had come to the salon in 2006, so was one of the more seasoned workers. Zhang Jiuqin had promised her that she could return home after the new year, and Zhang Yan worried that if one of the new girls ran away, “the old witch would beat me again.” And if there were fewer girls at the salon, there would be less of a chance an experienced worker like her would be released. 

All Zhang Yan wanted was to go home. She liked to stand by the door, since there she could attract business, and could also prevent anyone from leaving. Qiu Yue told People, “She stood in the doorway every day, keeping watch on everybody. She was worried we’d try to escape.”

With almond-shaped eyes that pull down at the corners and high cheekbones, Zhang Yan’s smile is a little bitter. She wrings her two hands between her knees and her eyes never stop moving. When she realizes that her interview has been shorter than the others, she sends this reporter a text message: “Do you think I answered your questions ok yesterday? Do you think that because I didn’t cry, it isn’t as real?” Fang Yuan and Qiu Yue think Zhang Yan is oversensitive. But perhaps she is just recovering very slowly, and she reacts as though she were still at the salon—she’s terrified of making a mistake. No matter what she does, she’s afraid of being beaten at any slip-up. Even after five years, she still does not believe in herself. 

In 2009, Zhang Yan begged a customer to rescue her, and soon after was removed from the salon by two muscular men as everyone watched. “They took me to his [the client’s] little shop, and the next day he helped me buy clothes and took me out to eat.”

The salon recorded information about all of their regular clients, such as: “Drives a Santana, quite tall, keeps his hair combed back.” If a girl ran away, Zhang Jiuqin would use the information to look for her. The man who helped Zhang Yan escape was located, and Zhang Jiuqin phoned to threaten him into bringing Zhang Yan back, saying that she would contact his wife if he didn’t. 

Zhang Yan only got to enjoy one day of freedom before she was taken back to the salon and badly beaten. She didn’t dare run away again, and was still there in August 2013 when the police arrived to save them. After it happened, Zhang Jiuqin used her as an example to tell all the new girls that they had no chance of escaping. 


Disaster

By the time Ma Nan got out of the car, their rescuer had already driven quite far. Fang Yuan and her companion Yang Liu sat squeezed in the passenger seat looking out at places they didn’t recognize. A second car met them, and Fang Yuan and Yang Liu crouched down in the back, trying everything to avoid being followed. The car finally stopped at a hotel, and their rescuer used his ID card to get them a room. Finally in their own room with the door locked, the two were so excited that they held hands, unable to sleep. 

Six months later, Yang Liu abruptly told Fang Yuan that she hated her. It was Fang Yuan who had duped her into coming to the salon. Yang Liu is a relative of Fang Yuan, and she had been a hairdresser. When she’d heard that Fang Yuan was in Shanghai studying cosmetology, she’d called the salon. Zhang Jiuqin was delighted that there was a girl who wanted to come, and she’d stood beside Fang so that Fang was afraid to reveal any misgivings. Fang Yuan told Yang Liu that all the girls in the salon were very happy. She did not dare say, “Don’t come here.” She remembered once trying to call her mother, but as soon as she’d tapped in the number, Zhang Jiuqin had caught her and gave her a beating. Zhang suspected that she often secretly called home, since how else would she have the number memorized. 

The day that Yang Liu arrived, Fang Yuan couldn’t sleep because she felt so awful. “I was in hell, and I’d brought someone else into it. I felt like my heart had died.”

Some of the girls at the salon had been tricked into moving there from their hometown. Others had been tricked or forced into coming there from the Dio Coffee restaurant. Liu Hua told People that she had been a cashier at Dio Coffee. Zhang Jiuqin had accused her of making mistakes with two VIP cards, and they had argued: “You’re a whore!” Zhang had hit Liu and dragged her into the salon for a beating. From that day on, Liu spent three years inside. 

Qiu Yue recognized that Zhang Jiuqin liked women who were relatively naive and had little experience out in the world. First she would ferret out if they had relatives or friends nearby, then she would inquire about their situation at home, probing to see what kind of personality they had, and homing in on the ones who were weak.  

During a meeting, Zhang Jiuqin once told a 28-year-old worker, “You’re not young anymore. You should get married. I don’t have many girls right now, but wait until I find two new workers. If you take care of them for me, I’ll give you the money to get married.” From then on, many of the women waited eagerly to turn 28, when they would be set free. Qiu Yue was then eighteen, and she despaired over the thought that she would have to stay there for another decade. But in reality, the woman who had been promised her freedom wasn’t let go even after she turned 30. 

Qiu Yue sometimes feels that “every life involves a tragedy.” For example, her cousin Xu Li wanted to come to Shanghai to be a hairdresser and arrived with Qiu Yue’s mother to visit her. Zhang Jiuqin turned her own apartment in the Bright Gardens Complex across the street into a fake staff dormitory to show to them. To prevent Qiu Yue from speaking to her mother, she even insisted on sleeping in the same bed with them. 

Xu Li observed that although no one was there for a haircut, there were plenty of men who came to have their feet washed and to get massages, which she found strange. She had no interest in working there. But she accidently left her cellphone in Zhang Jiuqin’s apartment. She went back to get it just as Zhang Jiuqin was taking Qiu Yue’s mother to the nearest train station. As Xu Li was taken back to the salon by Ma Nan, Qiu Yue knew that her cousin was trapped as well.

Two months after Qiu Yue escaped, she went with Fang Yuan, Fang Yuan’s father, and Xu Li’s mother to Shanghai to try to rescue Xu Li. Qiu Yue told Xu Li’s mother that when they arrived at the salon, they had to get Xu Li out as quickly as possible, without talking to anyone. But when her mother burst into the salon, Xu Li was so frightened that she ran to the back of the salon. In an interview with People, Xu Li said that she was terrified that Zhang Jiuqin would seek retribution against her family, as she had often threatened to do. 

After she was rescued, Xu Li returned to her hometown in Hubei, while Qiu Yue remained in Shanghai. The two have essentially no contact. “She hates me, and I can’t do anything about it,” Qiu Yue said, lowering her head and fiddling with her cellphone.


No One Understands

The day after they escaped, the client took Fang Yuan and Yang Liu to the bus station. Fang wanted to go to Wenzhou to find her father. The client even gave her his old cellphone. The bus took off, and the phone connected, and Fang Yuan said to her mother, “I’m heading your way right now. I don’t want to say anything now. I’ll tell you when I see you.”

Fang Yuan once thought that if Zhang Jiuqin let her go one day, she wouldn’t go home right away. “My dad is a barber, and if I went home and didn’t know the first thing about hairdressing, what would he think I’d been doing all that time?” She’d first go find a real hair salon to study hairdressing before she could face her family. 

When Qiu Yue went home, the first thing her father did was buy her a 1300-yuan Vivo cellphone. He was embarrassed that she had been out in the world working for so long and didn’t even have a cellphone. She hadn’t been home for four years, and her older brother and his wife were not pleased with her. “Oh, so you still remember where home is? I thought you were having such a great time in Shanghai that you didn’t want to come back. You were there for four years, after all.” Qiu Yue began to cry, and she felt awful, but she couldn’t say anything to them. 

Their family members knew only that they had been duped and taken to wash feet in a salon and weren’t allowed to leave. Fang Yuan didn’t even tell her family that she had done massage. “I couldn’t tell them. The village is filled with old people, and if anyone knew about it, they’d start gossiping. What was she doing every day out there? It would get passed around and sooner or later they’d think the worst.”

But each time they watched a reality police show on television and saw a public bath or massage parlor being investigated, Qiu Yue would see her mother surreptitiously wipe away tears. “She’d wonder if I’d had to go through the same thing when I was at the salon.” Qiu Yue would lie in bed and cry. “I’d never show my father how unhappy I was. I always made sure they thought nothing really bad had happened to me.” Qiu Yue slowly brainwashed herself, telling herself that she didn’t care about her past, and eventually she started to believe that none of it had happened. 

A cashier who didn’t keep close watch on them and the remodeling of the salon in 2013 began to make the workers restless. It also afforded a golden opportunity to escape. In mid-May of that year, Qiu Yue and Zhang Jiuqin’s adoptive daughter escaped as they were putting out the garbage in the middle of the night. Fang Yuan and Yang Liu were the second wave of escapees, and four others escaped in the early morning of August 19. The girl from Shanghai was one of the last four to escape, and she filed a police report with an officer her family knew at their local station. 

Three days later, the police burst into the Lele Salon and arrested Zhang Jiuqin, Ma Nan, and Chen Lihua. They rescued Liu Hua, Zhang Yan, and six other women. In August of 2015, Zhang Jiuqin was sentenced to life imprisonment for forced prostitution. Fang Yuan’s aunt Ma Nan was treated as an accessory to the crime and given seven years.

Zhang Jiuqin appealed and the second court reduced her sentence to fifteen years. Her lawyer in the first case, Zhao Nengwen, refused People’s interview on the basis of client confidentiality. Another lawyer defending an accessory to the crime who saw the verdict in Zhang’s second trial did agree to an interview. He speculated that the lesser sentence was perhaps due to a recent decision made by the People’s Supreme Court that “manual sex does not rise to the level of ‘prostitution’ in cases of organized prostitution rings.” 

Ma Nan’s family was no longer angry at her, but was instead worried about her future. She would be released in two years at the age of 33, without any job experience, and with a criminal record. The court had telephoned the local authorities in her town and everyone knew that she was in prison. What would she do when she got out? Fang Yuan’s mother had gone to visit Ma Nan in prison once, and said that her hair had grown so long that it was down to her waist. 

The last time Fang Yuan and Qiu Yue saw Zhang Jiuqin was at the first court hearing, and her hair was long and wild as well. They sat in their seats and shouted insults at their tormentor.    

Fang Yuan and the other women filed a civil case against Zhang Jiuqin seeking damages, and it has dragged on for four years. They formed a group around the lawsuit called “Minding our own business,” and they occasionally asked questions posed by this reporter to the larger group to confirm their own memories. 

In order to keep up their legal actions, Fang Yuan, Qiu Yue, Liu Hua, Zhang Yan, and two other victims have returned to Shanghai to work. Four of them are still in the Chuansha neighborhood, where the old location of the Lele Beauty Salon has become a relic of the former Pudong New Area. 

Chuansha is quite small, with one bustling main street running east-west, where a taxi can take someone from one end to the other without the meter even moving. 

Why would they come back there? The women say that they have gotten used to it. Even though they’d been imprisoned in the salon, the place still gives them a feeling of inexplicable security. Liu Hua often still drives past where the salon once was, to see how things have changed. “For a while it was a veterinary’s office, and now it’s a shop that sells cigarettes and alcohol.” When this reporter took Qiu Yue into the city center, she became agitated, saying that she didn’t like crowded areas. 

Aside from this reporter and the other women imprisoned in the salon, neither Fang Yuan nor Qiu Yue have told anyone else about their experiences during that time. Qiu Yue once tried to tell a friend at work about it, but “she couldn’t understand why I didn’t run away. Are you really that dumb?” Qiu Yue didn’t tried again after that. She waves her hand and says, “Forget it. It’s all in the past.”

“She couldn’t understand. She’s never been through what you’ve been through.” These interviews took place on dreary, rainy days, and Fang Yuan often expressed her disappointment with life: “Why am I still here on earth?” She thinks of suicide, but is too afraid to do it. When others ask her what’s wrong, she’ll lift her head and reveal the dimples on her right cheek, saying, “I’m just crazy, don’t let me bring you down.”

Fang Yuan was imprisoned in the Lele Beauty Salon for a total of 1407 days, from August 18, 2009 to June 25, 2013. She was sixteen years old when she arrived, when Nokia phones and their colorful keypads were all the rage. When she came out, she was twenty, and everyone was using smartphones. The first time she felt the change that had happened in the outside world was when she saw a customer playing an interactive game on his cellphone screen. 

As the golden age of smart technology was developing, Fang Yuan and the other women were losing their youthful years to beatings and the assaults of clients. Both of Fang Yuan’s eardrums have been perforated, and her hearing has deteriorated in her right ear because of the water torture she was subjected to. But she refuses to use eardrops because the feeling of liquid in her ear is too distressing. Each time she showers, she covers her whole head with a large bathing cap. Even washing her face in cold water feels suffocating. According to the court judgment, Fang Yuan, Qiu Yue and the others all suffer from some form of PTSD.

Something that puzzles both Fang Yuan and Qiu Yue is the question of whether they have ever been in love. How can they explain their past to a boyfriend? If they say they’ve never been in a relationship before, how can they explain their bodies? If they say they have been in a relationship before, where was the love? Qiu Yue hates her first customer, saying that he destroyed her chance to have a first love. 

The women have mostly either given up on men or are too easily moved by small gestures. Liu Hua formed a relationship with a man who took her to the hospital when she was sick, but when she accidentally became pregnant by him, he skipped town. She gave birth to a girl and is now a single mother. She sends most of her monthly salary home to her parents, so they can buy formula and diapers to care for the baby. 

On the train to Wenzhou in the final stage of her escape, the whole ride Fang Yuan thought about how to explain to her mother what had happened during her years away: what had gone on in the salon, what the customers had done to her, and how she had been forced to write a painful letter to her family—”If you keep causing trouble, I’ll disappear somewhere in Shanghai and you’ll never see me again.”

The train pulled into the station, and the 9am sunshine made Fang Yuan’s sensitive eyes water. The office buildings across the street seemed enormous, and as her mother hurried toward her, she seemed both different and exactly the same. Fang Yuan called out to her, “Mom!” But she didn’t dare look at her mother, and instead squinted down at the ground with an awkward smile and said, “It’s pretty hot today.”

(At the request of the interviewees, the names of the victims have been changed. The names of the lawyer who refused an interview, Zhang Jiuqin, Yu Hongling, and Wu Shuhong have not been altered.)

Translation: Eleanor Goodman