Hooters restaurant underscores mixed sexual messages in China


Sunday is a slow night for the Beijing Hooters girls. Jiang Xin -- or Summer, as her name tag reads -- takes the opportunity to teach the new hires one of their dance routines.

With smoky dark eyes and her all-black trainer uniform, 24-year-old Jiang is sexy, smoldering and standoffish until she smiles. This she does when she gently admonishes the girls to loosen up, laugh, and stop tugging at the bottoms of their shorts.

Hooters in Beijing is much like its American counterpart. The waitresses dress in orange track shorts, pantyhose and shrunken white tank tops. When customers come in, they call out in garbled English, “Welcome to Hooters!”

A sign hanging by the bathroom reads: “Caution. Blonds thinking.” A glass case displays a Hooters China swimsuit calendar, mugs, T-shirts and a Hooters-branded miniature Temple of Heaven.

On the scale of China’s sexual evolution, Hooters lands somewhere between a wink and a smile. Unthinkable two decades ago, the restaurant promotes a playful kind of sexuality different from the country’s seedy massage parlors and hostess bars, and yes, it serves the chain’s famous wings too.

The restaurant may be another example of globalization in China, but it’s also a snapshot of changing attitudes toward sex in a country full of contradictions. Gone are the days when public displays of affection were frowned upon, although selected things remain off-limits.

Pornography is strictly prohibited. A government campaign last year netted 5,000 arrests for distributing porn online. The crackdown even extended to dirty jokes sent to cellphones.

Last summer, local officials blocked the opening of a sex-themed park named “Love Land” in Chongqing that featured a large collection of genitalia sculptures, calling it an “evil influence.”

Yet authorities turn a blind eye when it comes to illegal brothels. Often disguised as hair salons, they remain one of the most common sights in any city, operating unabated next door to businesses and schools without the slightest fuss from locals.

“In terms of sex, China has these really competing views, socially and personally,” said James Farrer, a professor at Sophia University in Tokyo who has studied sex in China. “What Hooters does is give a new model. . . . It’s an almost family-style restaurant. It’s clean. It’s very far removed from the salacious commercial sex that is rampant in China.”

The Beijing Hooters, one of three in China, sits on the second level of a renovated block of restaurants and shops, above a French bakery. But one doesn’t have to look far to find contrasts.

Down the street are two barbershops with scantily clad women waiting for customers and looking bored. In the same neighborhood, adult stores don’t bother with euphemisms to conceal what they sell. Their signs read simply, “Sex Shop.”

This is not out of the ordinary in Beijing. Brothels and kinky toy shops are mixed into residential neighborhoods everywhere. Next to Hooters is an apartment complex. Across the street is one of the capital’s trendiest shopping malls, filled with famous foreign brands.

Hooters has even received the blessing of local government. After restaurants opened in Shanghai and Beijing, city officials christened the eateries by dining there, said Stephanie Xu, vice president of marketing for the restaurant chain in China.

The restaurant’s clientele is largely clean-cut, corporate expatriate types, a few visiting businessmen, couples and even parties of women. The wait staff is also a cut above. The women are interviewed for how outgoing they are and how well they speak English.

Xu said many of the waitresses are university students working part time to cover tuition. Pay starts at $500 a month and can go up to almost $900. Such wages are on par with the earnings of recent college graduates in Beijing.

Others look at Hooters as just another Western influence that China could do without.

Lin Lixia of the Women’s Law Studies and Legal Services at Peking University called Hooters an example of “hot-girl economics,” a strategy of profiting from female sex appeal. Though quite the norm in the U.S., the concept is relatively new in China, where economic reforms are only three decades old.

“It’s a generational thing,” Lin said. “Taking a woman’s body and objectifying it, that we don’t support, but the young people desire it and the women want to do it.”

For some waitresses, however, being extroverted and flirtatious does not come naturally.

“Some of the girls are shy at first, and uncomfortable in the uniforms,” Jiang said. “Eventually they learn it’s not low-class, it just looks good.”

Jiang has worked at Hooters since it opened in Beijing in 2008. At the time, she was studying law at a university in the city. She has since dropped out of school to work full time. Being a lawyer reflected her parents’ wishes, not hers, she said.

Jiang admits her boyfriend doesn’t like her working there, and her parents have never come for a meal. Jiang says she hopes to find a job in sales next.

“It’s not a career, and you can’t do this forever,” she said. “But it’s a good experience.”

With unemployment among graduates at 13%, more young women are applying to Hooters. In addition to good looks and the ability to speak English, they need a few other skills. Jiang coaches them in yelping, dancing in a line and, so they’re not embarrassed when an English-speaking customer asks, the real meaning of “Hooters.”

With a sly smile, Jiang demonstrates how to respond: “Of course I know what hooters means.”

Kuo is a special correspondent.