Red Lights by Tiantian Zheng University of Minnesota Press HK$729 The concept is captivating. In a move that would give any fly-on-the-wall documentary or reality television programme a run for its money, anthropology professor Tiantian Zheng goes on a bizarre field trip. Zheng embeds herself in karaoke bars scattered around Dalian, a humming port and shipbuilding centre in northeastern China. In two years, she appraises and becomes entangled in some of the same issues as the rural migrant hostesses around her to produce Red Lights: The Lives of Sex Workers in Postsocialist China. She deserves credit for her imagination and courage, because a madhouse atmosphere reigns. As a result, she must tread carefully - especially at a bar that bears the ironic name Romantic Dream. There, Zheng is forced into constant vigilance against police raids and attacks by thugs from rival bars. At night, with three hostesses, she sleeps on a couch in a private room rented by customers during operating hours. 'Every morning before going to sleep, we pushed a couch against the door in case gangsters attempted to break in,' she writes. 'In times of danger, we held our breath and turned down the lights, making the room look unoccupied.' The experience of common adversity gradually weaves Zheng and her quarry together despite initial misgivings on the hostesses' part. At first, they mock her geeky aura and ask why she wants to assess them when she could observe professional urban women with regular jobs. Their puzzlement underlines their lack of self-esteem. As Zheng portrays them, their lot seems dire - a sharp contrast to the alluringly devil-may-care lifestyle sketched by the likes of ex-sex worker turned author Dolores French. Zheng is more old-school and the male of the species is very much the villain of the piece. Even streetwise readers may be surprised at just how badly the hostesses are treated - with a little help from Beijing's disastrous anti-pornography campaign. The offensive gives bar owners carte blanche to control the hostesses' lives. Forced to hide and therefore forfeit their identities, they become easy prey for violent men capable of murder. According to a report cited by Zheng, in 1999 in the nearby city of Shenyang, more than 100 hostesses were murdered. In Dalian, the bodies of murdered hostesses regularly turn up on the street but police cannot identify them. It appears that killing sex workers is easy and even slyly accepted. But for others, hostessing is a means to an end rather than a lifetime occupation. Many hostesses, Zheng finds, marry clients or open their own businesses, such as shops. 'Sometimes I ran into them when I went shopping myself,' she writes. Zheng's relating of the vagaries of the world's oldest profession is intriguing but marred by bouts of questionable reasoning. 'Among their widespread forms of 'everyday resistance', consumption practices constituted a crucial weapon hostesses used to wrestle with the surrounding society,' she claims. So buying mascara is an act of rebellion? At that, the 'red spiders' that the professor befriended might arch their eyebrows and smile. This work could have benefited from repeated reality checks and some tough editing.