Some migrant workers who lost factory jobs in Suzhou, Jiangsu, due to the global economic downturn have found new work in the city's dance halls. Hundreds of laid-off migrant women - and thousands of Suzhou natives - have flooded about 10 large dance halls in the heart of the city.
On a recent Saturday night, more than 1,000 people queued in freezing rain to crowd into a dance hall on the second floor of a commercial building in Shi Road. Admission was just 7 yuan (HK$8) and included a cup of tea. The ventilation did not seem to work and many patrons ignored 'No smoking' signs, puffing away on each side of the hall despite repeated fire-danger warnings broadcast over loudspeakers.
With the hall covering at least 3,000 square metres, it's no small business. Open from 9am to 9pm, it can rake in 35,000 yuan a day with a total attendance of 5,000 people.
It's obviously a successful business model, but dancing is not the main attraction. More than 300 women, most aged below 30, waited for partners. Most wore simple clothes - shirts, boots and coats - and cast furtive glances at passers-by, eager for their patronage.
The lights are turned off for each eight-minute dance. Several women said they charged 10 to 30 yuan for a dance. Patrons are allowed to hug and kiss them for 10 yuan but, as the price rises, hands are allowed to wander further. When the lights go back on, the men look around for a new partner for the next dance. Sometimes the women take the initiative, greeting men passing by or dragging them onto the dance floor.
Some of the women said they began working in the dance hall after being laid off last year. One, from Anhui , said she thought of it as a temporary job initially, only to find it was a lucrative business. She came to Suzhou two years ago to work in an electronics factory. But she lost her job a year ago.
'I was desperate to find another job at that time. A friend of mine then brought me here,' she said. 'It was not a bad idea because I can have a job, and I can earn more and work less.' She said the women in the halls regarded it as 'easy money', while insisting that it was far removed from the sex trade.
Most patrons are migrant workers or locals on low pay but the women can easily earn 100 yuan a day. They are self-employed and do not pay the operators anything, apart from their admission fees.
Several people said the police checked the venues regularly but a Suzhou businessman who knows some of the dance hall operators said they were not concerned about the prospects of a crackdown because they had bribed officials.
The woman from Anhui said health and safety were her two biggest concerns. She said the lack of ventilation made it hard to breathe and she was worried that she could be crushed to death one day.
The businessman who knows some of the operators said their biggest fear was that a fire or stampede would break out in one of the dance halls.
Some Suzhou businessmen say the dance halls helped to avert social disorder at a time when most local companies were struggling to find overseas orders. They have provided re-employment opportunities for laid-off workers and low-cost entertainment for those who retained their jobs, and local government officials do not seem to mind their presence.
Such dance halls first appeared in Suzhou about a decade ago, when the business model spread across the mainland. But business has boomed in the past year, thanks to the financial turmoil and the growing queues of jobless it created.
Many of the women working in Suzhou's dance halls used to earn little more than 1,000 yuan a month in the city's electronics factories before being laid off.
But the Anhui woman said that even if jobs became available in local factories, she would be unwilling to leave the dance hall.
She said she made at least 3,000 yuan a month as a dance hall girl, more than double the income from a factory job.
However, she still planned to quit when she felt that enough feeling was enough.