I’m not feeling so well these days. It must be the damn weather affecting me and making me feverish. Curling up with a good book these days seems to hold more appeal than anything else.
One night, while I was about to nod off, something from the telly caught my attention. A program produced by TV3 known as 999, highlighting all sort of current social issues and crimes.
I did not make it a habit to watch this program, but something caught my attention. A raid by the authorities in a brothel. They were showing pimps and prostitutes clad in skimpy clothes.
All right, at this point, you may ask me… what’s so eye-catchy about the scene? It is not those attractive, perfectly sculptured half nude young female specimens that caught my eyes, but one prostitute in particular. She was clad in nothing but the bed-sheets.
She was in her mid thirties, tanned, rather plump, and not really good looking. That’s not exactly the image of… call-girls or prostitute that I have in mind. I’m absolutely under the illusion that all prostitutes are alluring, sexy, and young.
And then the narration started. Then I found out that the prostitute in question is a widower in her late 30s. Selling her body, serving 8-10 clients per day, earning more than what I earn in a month in just one night. I gasps in shock then, and turned to my husband and asked him why men would be interested to have sex with someone like that? I would understand it if… if she’s young, and sexy, and fair…but she’s…let’s just say she’s not that attractive and yet men are paying to have sex with her.
My husband told me that he doesn’t know why people slept with her…but…a few seconds later, I realized belatedly that what I’ve asked was a very stupid question. It’s almost the same thing where young women go for old, bald, married men but with a load of cash to spare. It is not their virility they after. It is wealth and status.
It’s not quite about some hot, mind blowing sex, isn’t it? It’s about being in the illusion of being in control, getting whatever you desire and being fooled into thinking that you’re on the top of the world…escaping reality. What’s a few hundred, or even a few thousands for such feelings? It is a form of escapism.
Not everyone are lucky enough to get such feelings, and I guess, the job of a professional sex worker is to do just that. That must be why people actually paid that plump prostitute who is in her 30s for companionship instead of choosing those young, doll-like chics.
I assume…there must be competition between her and those younger, prettier, sexier looking prostitute, and to be able to earn so much, to serve so much clients… there must be something that’s she’s really good at; that there’s a lot of clients goes to her repeatedly, enabling her to earn so much in just one night. I think, it’s not just her experience in bed…. but her skills in spinning illusions.
These thoughts, the thoughts of prostitutes, and spinning of illusion and giving some sort of visions to others, reminds me of a book that I’ve read…in this book, prostitution is not only legal, but also thriving, culturally speaking, and the main character, Empress Orchid, or rather, Lady Yehonala who is the last Empress of China also visited a brothel to learn some ‘skills’ in order to prepare herself to ‘serve’ her Emperor ‘husband’.
The book is known as Empress Orchid written by Anchee Min.
The Empress Orchid is a fictionalized account of the Empress Dowager Tsu Hsi, who was the power behind the throne for the last 46 years of the Ching Dynasty in the 19th century.
Orchid was a Manchurian born into poverty, but came to the Forbidden City to be one of the emperor’s 3000 concubines after deciding that the Emperor is a better choice of a husband than her retarded cousin.
She was one of his seven wives. She was chosen to be wife no.4, and she survives the dangers and palace intrigues.
Soon, after acquiring the ‘skill’ from the brothel and charmed her Emperor husband, she become one of his favourite wives, and the only one to bear him a son, who ascend the throne at a young age upon his father’s death.
With her son as regent, Orchid struggles to lead an empire already on its final legs. Anchee Min’s novel is full of historical detail and sheds new light on an empress demonized by Chinese history. A woman who was blamed for the fallen dynasty.
The novel’s first third focuses on Orchid’s gradual climb into favor. The opulence of life in the Forbidden City is hardly to be believed, and Min’s descriptions are so lavish that the story’s pace is quite leisurely.
On Orchid’s wedding day, June 26, 1852, now known as Lady Yehonala, describes her gown as “a medley of many reds. Rich magenta spiked with yellow, wine sparked with cream, warm lavender spilling to nearly blue. The dress was constructed with eight layers of silk and was embroidered with vigorous spring flowers, real and imaginary. The fabric was woven with gold and silver threads. It bore large clusters of jade, pearls and other jewels. I had never worn anything so beautiful, or so heavy and uncomfortable.”
Such exotic attire becomes a metaphor for Orchid’s early married life, which appears ideal, but is empty and almost unbearable.
She sleeps alone, guarded by eunuchs. Court etiquette prescribes 99 dishes at each meal, yet again, Orchid usually eats by herself only after her eunuch, An-te-hai, tests the food for poison.
Delicacies, clothing, jewelry, gardens, plays all the diversions of privilege can’t engage the 18-year-old Orchid mentally, spiritually or physically. Homesick, stifled by ritual, longing to visit her family, she begins a private quest to attract the emperor’s attention and affection.
Anchee Min entwines many story lines in the novel: the rivalry with the emperor’s first wife, Nuharoo, who takes over as mother to Tung Chih, Orchid’s son, the emperor’s failing health and increasing reliance on Orchid; power struggles among Chinese officials; and attacks by European forces, which drive the emperor into exile until his death in 1861.
At 26, the widow Orchid becomes Empress Dowager, but she is almost assassinated on her journey to return the emperor’s body to the Forbidden City. This segment of the book is the most rushed. Anchee Min’s efforts to do justice to both imaginative fiction and accurate history become strained. A huge cast of characters races through these pages, and keeping track of who’s who, much less whose side they’re on, grows difficult, but I enjoyed this book nevertheless.
Cleffairy: Trapped in a gilded cage, it is a wonder that Empress Orchid did not suicide.