Tibet’s Women of Misery

Times Staff Writer

As the sun rises over this dusty river valley, Yaji tucks her hair under a New York Yankee baseball cap and throws a shovel over her shoulder. From 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., she works on the construction site of a new road on the outskirts of town, mixing cement and moving dirt.

As the sun sets behind rugged mountains scraping the azure Tibetan sky, Qixizhuoma paints her lips a dark amber and pats her cheeks pretty with pink powder. From 8 p.m. to 8 a.m., she works along the banks of the Yarlung River, in the red-light district.

Construction and prostitution are hardly traditional jobs for women in this deeply Buddhist land of sacred mountains and holy lakes. But for the daughters of poor Tibetan farmers hoping to cash in on the economic transformation of their homeland, they are just about the only employment available. Together the young women, in their own way, have helped drive the dramatic makeover of this Tibetan frontier town from a medieval backwater to a modern Chinese city.

“I don’t like it here. I have no other choice,” said Yaji, 18, who like most Tibetans uses one name. “I have two sisters. They need money to go to school.”


In the heart of the southern Tibetan prefecture of Lhoka, Tsetang is known as the mythical birthplace of the Tibetan people. Legend has it that a monkey meditating in a nearby cave was seduced by a female demon who refused to wed another monster. She married the monkey, and they produced six children who grew up to form the six major tribes of Tibet.

Since Chinese settlement of this remote region intensified in the 1990s, the cradle of Tibetan civilization has taken on the feel of a Himalayan Wild West. Large government subsidies to build roads, bridges and high-rises have lured an estimated 10,000 Chinese migrants to Tsetang alone. Although the majority of the 58,000 people living here are Tibetan, an aggressive cultural invasion threatens to make Tsetang another Lhasa, Tibet’s holiest city, where more than half the population is believed to now be Chinese.

Already, shining new buildings and street signs stamped with the names of the Chinese provinces whose people helped construct them dominate the city center. Nearby, the People’s Liberation Army maintains a base, guarded by bayonet-carrying soldiers and high walls bearing the slogan “Maintain National Unity, Safeguard Territorial Integrity.”

Remnants of old Tsetang linger in the form of crumbling village huts made of earth and stone, with colorful prayer flags fluttering from roofs. Many urban Tibetans with government jobs have moved into Chinese-built apartment blocks. But rural Tibetans clad in traditional robes still toil in the barley fields on the edge of town or linger near ancient temples erected more than 1,000 years ago.


According to officials here, life has never been better. They recite data on Tsetang’s rising economic output like a modern-day mantra: $157 million in 2002, 56 times what it was in 1959 and 17% higher than in 2001. By 2005, they are hoping it will hit $250 million.

“You can see, we are experiencing unprecedented growth. People’s living standards have improved more than at any other time in history,” said Deji, the commissioner of Lhoka prefecture.

But the most dramatic change has taken place in Tibet’s rising new cities. Rural poverty drives Tibetan men and women into urban areas in search of jobs. But women face the more daunting challenges as they leave behind a life molded by working in the fields and rudimentary education to compete in a world where Tibetans move ahead only if they are culturally assimilated and fluent in Chinese.

With a name that means “happiness,” Deji is a living tribute to the progress made since Beijing annexed Tibet in 1951. She was born to poor peasants in 1959, the year Tibet’s spiritual and political leader, the Dalai Lama, was forced into exile after the Chinese crushed an uprising. She learned Chinese in elementary school and joined the Communist Party at 27. She rose to the top of local government and can talk impressively with visiting foreigners about the French megastore Carrefour and World Trade Organization policies.


But according to Tibet observers, for every success story like Commissioner Deji there are countless women and men for whom progress means scraping out a living as part of a growing underclass. For many, becoming a migrant worker is the only way to improve their lot, but the quest for prosperity is often much harder than they had hoped.

“Wealth is really concentrated in very small sectors of the community, concentrated in urban areas and concentrated in people who work for the government,” said Kate Saunders, a Tibet specialist based in London. “About 85% of Tibetans live in rural areas. The majority of Tibetan women are still struggling to survive.”

No one knows exactly how many hardscrabble fortune-seekers in Tsetang are Tibetan women from the countryside.

I’d rather be going to school,” Yaji said in halting Chinese as she kicked her shovel into a mound of earth.


The oldest of three children in a family of herders, she quit school after the eighth grade to help support the family tending sheep and yaks. Two years ago she hopped on a bus with a few girls from her village, and four hours later they got off in Tsetang.

Much as their nomadic ancestors sought greener pastures, here the girls move from construction site to construction site, exchanging manual labor for the equivalent of about $2.50 a day. Although they are among the lowest-paid workers in an industry dominated by Chinese men, the job makes them high earners in a region where the annual income of farmers and herders hovers at just over $200.

“Since April we made $250,” said Yaji, her face toasty red from the high-altitude sun. “I sent it all to my parents.” She did save a little for herself -- about half a day’s pay went for her gray baseball cap with the letters “NY” sewn in gold. She doesn’t know where New York is; she’s never even heard of it.

Nima, 36, a Tibetan foreman supervising the construction of a sprawling government building in the middle of town, says there are at least 60 construction sites in Tsetang. Almost all of them hire young Tibetan women to shovel sand, paint walls or scrub new floors. Most are teenagers from rural Tibet who can’t speak Chinese, a basic prerequisite for almost any decent job here. Some start as young as 15, although the foreman insists they must be at least 18.


Sixteen-year-old Laba never spent a day in school. She came to Tsetang last year to join about 30 girls from her village toiling in the building trade. “It’s not easy to find work,” she said after returning from her shift at the site of a new office tower. “This job lasts only 10 days.”

Awaiting her at the end of the day are cramped slums where a road paved by the Chinese ends and the old Tibetan quarter begins. Up a rickety ladder and atop the flat roof of a weather-beaten house is an 8-by-8-foot shack that she and two girlfriends share, splitting the $5-a-month rent.

It looks about as comfortable as the inside of a chimney. But they have tried to fix the place up by plastering the walls with cattle feed bags, ripped cardboard boxes and pictures of a blond woman and a white-skinned Chinese model scavenged from discarded packaging material for ladies’ socks.

There is no electricity or running water, and there are no toilet facilities. The girls cook simple meals of barley over a campfire outside the hut. They wash themselves at the public bathhouse, but that costs 60 cents, so they wait as long as they can between visits.


The girls are easily seduced by consumer culture and are eager to shed their traditional wardrobe of woolen dresses and striped aprons. Laba’s roommate Lama, 17, spent a whole day’s pay on a white sweatshirt with a “BOSS” logo. But her favorite purchase is a postcard of Hong Kong pop star Nicholas Tse. She doesn’t own a radio and wouldn’t understand his Chinese lyrics anyway. But seeing his picture by her bed makes her giggle and helps her pass the long nights lighted by candle.

As primitive as their lives seem, the construction girls are the envy of reluctant prostitutes who prowl the night while others sleep. “At least they make an honest living,” said Qixizhuoma, 20, blotting her tears.

She is an ethnic Tibetan from a part of Sichuan province that once belonged to Tibet’s vast eastern empire but is today part of western China. As a little girl, she dreamed of becoming a singing star. She joined a song-and-dance troupe after high school, but it disbanded. A girlfriend told her about a singing gig in Lhasa, and off she went.

In the beginning it felt like a dream come true. Packed audiences came to watch her croon traditional folk tunes about the beauty of Tibet. But within months, police shut the place down after a bloody brawl involving a rival dance hall.


Qixizhuoma decided to head south to Tsetang to pursue her career. Instead, she was drawn into a riverfront district lined by brothels thinly disguised as hair salons, massage parlors and karaoke bars, where scantily clad girls squeeze onto narrow sofas and wave to tourists under fluorescent pink lights.

In urban Tibet, ethnic boundaries are closely observed. Even in the red-light district, Chinese establishments keep to one side of the water and Tibetans to the other.

“The Chinese girls across the street always stare at us as if we stole something from them,” Qixizhuoma said in fluent Chinese in a private room filled with colorful Tibetan chests and long sofas covered with traditional blankets. It’s where she takes strangers for a can of Lhasa beer and a chat, or more if they can afford it.

She works with five Tibetan girls, some 16 years old. “I’ve become a bad girl. I can’t leave,” Qixizhuoma said, lighting up a smoke to hold back the tears. “If I run away, I won’t be able to send any more money home. What would happen to my sister? She needs money to go to boarding school.”


At about $400 a month, the job should make her rich. But a pimp keeps all her earnings, except about $2.50 a day for living expenses plus a small sum he promises to send her parents. Since she started working early this summer, her family has received one payment of $120.

She doesn’t dare tell them how she earned it. Her boyfriend, a fan from the Lhasa dance club who treated her like a star, has abandoned her.

Her customers are migrant workers, visiting businessmen, even policemen. “Sometimes they pay, sometimes they don’t,” she said, referring to the police. “Usually they tell us it’s a raid and shut the doors behind them. But when they sit down they become customers.”

Unlike her roommate, a chirpy 22-year-old from Lhasa who sports tight camouflage pants and a tank top that flaunts her curves, Qixizhuoma cloaks herself in a baggy, black sweater that hides her body like a mourning cape even when she is on duty.


And unlike the construction girls who are proud to stash away their $2.50, she wastes no time spending her allowance. Sixty cents on fast food (there’s no stove where she lives). Sixty cents on dry cleaning (nor a faucet). About $1 on video rentals.

The movies work like drugs during the unbearable daylight hours, when she can’t sleep and feels too embarrassed to step out on the street. She can watch seven in a row. Her favorites are ghost stories, but the subject doesn’t matter. She just tries to numb herself and kill time.

“I don’t even know what month it is,” she said over an earsplitting Michael Jackson video playing in the main parlor. “Every day is the same. There’s no point to keeping track.”

Whether they work the night shift or the day shift, the young women find time to go to temple, once a week. They make offerings -- dropping small bills between the fingers of their favorite statues of Buddha or dripping yak butter onto the flames of candles -- and pray.


The construction girls say they usually wish for good health, so they can earn more money. Qixizhuoma, however, sometimes wishes her body would quit. It feels like the only way to answer her prayer: “I just want to go home.”