In front of the Tianyue theatre (天约戏院), there is an old lane where tourist groups do not go … it’s not on the tour. There is no sign that marks the entrance to the narrow Yu Family Lane (余家冲). A woman passed by me and stopped. She had a big smile on her face and pointing at the other direction she said: “为啥和导游不在一起？这里没什么可看咯” (Why aren’t you with the tour guide? There is nothing to see here).
Hongjiang (洪江古商城) is an ancient business town that flourished during the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties. During the 19th century, the town owed its prosperity to opium trafficking which fostered a ‘brothel culture’ that lasted well into the Republican Era (1911-1949) until the Communist took over.
Yujia Lane’s qinglou
Yujia Lane (余家冲) is just but one of the many alley that contribute to make Hongjiang (洪江古商城) a fascinating maze into which travellers get lost. Moss and wild flowers are between the steps of the stairs that lead to ancient mansions.
Nothing in Yujia Lane points at what it used to be. History can be deceiving: you can pass right by it and not even know it is right there in front of you … and the red lanterns hanging in the streets were not there to show that it was Hongjiang’s ‘red light district’.
Until the Republican era, Yujia Lane was known for its qinglou. In Chinese, qinglou (青楼) literally means “blue mansion” and is the Chinese literary term for ‘pleasure quarters’ whereas the word jiyuan (妓院) is the less euphemistic, less poetic, more direct term for ‘whorehouse’.
Licensed vs unlicensed qinglou
There were two kinds of brothels, the licensed ones call Tang Ban (堂班)) and the unlicensed ones call Yao Ban (窑班). Lujia alley was not the only ‘red light district’ of Hongjiang (洪江古商城). Indeed there were up to 60 Tang Ban in town and the Yao Ban were ‘as numerous as the hair on an ox’.
Equally, there were two types of prostitutes or courtesans. Those earning a living both as a performer and a prostitute and those who did not sell their bodies but worked only as performers in the qinglou. The latter entertained their clientele by singing, dancing, reciting and composing poems, playing chess and the qin (琴) or guqin (古琴), a seven-string instrument referred to as the “instrument of the wise” in Chinese culture.
Hongjiang’s brothels were hidden in yinzi buildings (窨子室) which are characteristic of the ancient business city. The yinzi buildings that hosted brothels were two- to three-storied buildings with a regular front door and a one or two hidden entrances somewhere in the back. This hidden passageway was called andao (暗道) and was used by those clients who enjoyed to indulge in a life of debauchery, but were anxious to keep up the appearances.
Hongjiang’s upscale qinglou: the Shaoxing ban (绍兴班)
Today’s Hongjiang’s Yujia alley’s qinlou are non-descript buildings transformed into residences. Originally, the yinzi buildings that are characteristic ofHongjiang (洪江古商城) had not exterior windows so as to prevent thieves and bandits from breaking in. The windows we see today were added after the Communist took over in 1949. People moved in and today several households live in one yinzi building.
Sauntering in the streets of Hongjiang provides an incredible experience, but by visiting a few of the buildings like the Sheng Feng private bank (盛丰钱庄) or the Fuxing Chang opium house (福兴昌烟管) travellers can delve into the towns’ past. One of the buildings that was renovated and opened to tourists was the Shaoxing Ban (绍兴班).
The Shaoxing ban was founded during the reign of Xianfeng of the Qing in 1860 and cattered to the elite of the city. The girls who ‘worked’ there were no common prostitutes. They were rather courtesans or mistresses. Indeed, wealthy Hongjiang businessmen who had a wife, rented a room at the Shaoxing ban for their mistress. She was therefore hidden from the businessmen’s wife and other men.
Going to Hongjiang
Hongjiang (洪江古商城) is definitely an interesting place to visit if you are travelling in western Hunan (湖南) province. It’s a popular destination for Chinese tour groups who follow their tour groups, however, few foreigners make it to there.