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Wednesday, April 13, 2005

THE FLAT WORLD DANCERS OF CHINA

A hard luck survivor from the fringes of the global economic revolution finds a place with the outcast denizens of a sexy nightclub...

I wonder what Thomas Friedman would make of the girl with the giant blue butterfly wings dancing with the gray man from China who spews hearts and magic bunnies in the nightclub run by a guy whose day job is keeping a watchful eye for illegal immigrants and Al Qaeda infiltrators along the Southern border.

The New York Times columnist’s latest book, after all, is about how shifts in technology and international logistics have had a “flattening effect” on the global economy. (Excerpt here.) What with Google, UPS, and outsourcing coupled to a rising class of highly educated technical workers in the developing world, especially China and India, Friedman’s thesis goes, we’re barreling locomotive-fast into a new world we’re not ready for, where the old economic assumptions just don’t play.

That’s good, as far as it goes. But then, my guess is Tom Friedman still never dreamed of Hsiao-Tsing, the Chinese girl who came to Second Life on orders from her boss to make the Linden Dollar equivalent of two bucks a day, or be fired. When I profiled her a couple weeks ago, I left off wondering how much of the story she told me was true. (The reality behind the “virtual sweatshop” meme being so ephemeral, as it is.) I went so far as to seek out Lala Lumiere, officer of Second Life's Mandarin Chinese Club, and without quite explaining why, asked her to contact Hsiao-Tsing in pinyin Chinese. She did, and got more or less the same story Hsiao-Tsing gave me. (Lala’s hoping to bolster membership in the Club, so I asked her to write out her request for Chinese-literate readers; it’s featured in the screenshots here and here.)

At this point, then, I’ve decided to assume the story is true, that Hsiao-Tsing logs into Second Life from a Chinese Internet company for the sole purpose of harvesting Linden Dollars for her employer. (And to anticipate the question, “Why not just ask Linden Lab to run an IP trace on her account, to find out for sure where she's really from?”: my assignment is reporting on Second Life, from within Second Life. Peeking at Second Life server data would be like Bob Woodward suddenly getting to riffle through the mind of God.)

Hsiao-Tsing has contacted me several times since the profile, still looking for help to earn an income, and I've advised her as best I could. I took her to a Tringo match, and tried to explain how someone could make money off winning. I told her about fashion designers and real estate speculators, and how they sold their in-world currency for real cash on the third party exhanges sites. I even bought an image of the Great Wall of China which she’d uploaded into Second Life, to sell. (Taken on a family vacation, she told me.)

I was wondering how she’d been faring since then, when the manager of a Mature-themed nightclub contacted me one night at around 2AM, to let me know.

“[She] approached me two nights ago and asked me in broken English if I was hiring,” Dwight Roark tells me. “She was very excited when I paid her about L$125 for her dancing… [she] told me she needs more money, so I told her she can host.” (“Dwight Roark” isn’t the manager’s true in-world name, which I’ve changed on his request, concerned that the interview might somehow antagonize a competing nightclub owner, who, he says, might send "people to try to terrorize us, threaten us out of Second Life and then the sim we were in.")

In many Asian cities, the only work a young woman without evident job skills can get is performing for foreign tourists in a red light district. For now at least, Hsiao-Tsing's economic opportunities are constrained to running a dance script on her avatar, while acting as hostess to nightclub patrons. Which is what she's doing, when I visit Dwight's club. A visitor is standing at its edge, flatfooted.

"Welcome you Timmy," Hsiao-Tsing tells him. "Dance."

"Yes, we are working Hsiao-Tsing," Dwight tells me, "but she is getting fair pay, just like our other employees, and opportunity. We do not sweatshop our employees." To dance, he pays her L$25 an hour plus tips dancer, and L$100 an hour to host events.

"I'm not sure about the tips they make," Dwight adds. "At our old club, dancers could make several L$1000... [T]his club is slower, but it is very possible to make L$1000 a day with hosting and dancing. If that is what she is aiming for." Dwight initially contacted me because he'd found out Hsiao-Tsing's China story, after he'd hired her, and he wanted me to investigate further. ("Being forced to work for Linden Dollars at any cost or be fired, that is very unethical," he says.)

In any case, he's happy with her efforts on behalf of the nightclub. "The one and only problem is the mild to moderate language barrier," he allows, but "she is very polite and friendly. Well, there was a fight earlier, but due to the language barrier, Hsiao-Tsing did not realize it. But it's no big deal, there is often bickering or rowdiness in the clubs."

As Dwight tells it, adding Hsiao-Tsing to his roster is just one more hire to his already unconventional nightclub staff. "We are also equal employment opportunity, and have disabled employees, one of whom has fairly severe cerebral palsy and was fired by [another club]." That Resident has been working as a host for several months, Dwight says. "He types very slow because he has hemiplegia. So back when we had to report the events, we got special permission to assist him with that, but he does fine. A few spelling errors, but he is reliable, nice to guests, etc. He is trying his hardest to get the Bingo system down, too. He has 'hotkeys' he's trying to set up for the commands." (Dwight's club features Bingo and a few casino games.) "[I]f any special needs people approach you due to the article," he tells me, "feel free to send them to us... we [also] have a mall and other ventures they can work at. We have a Puerto Rican host/dancer but her language deficiency is not so profound as Hsiao-Tsing’s...

"Like I said," he finishes, laughing, "we take 'em all in... language barrier or physical/mental disability is not an issue, so long as they can serve some purpose for business, even if it is just as a 'door greeter'."

I talk to Hsiao-Tsing in Instant Message, as she whirls and twists with a few patrons around her. Streamed music booms through the room-- 50 Cent's "Candy Shop" ("I'll take you to the candy shop/I'll let you lick the lollypop"), at the moment-- as I approach.

I ask Hsiao-Tsing how she's been doing.

"Just so bad than you," she tells me, "for boss is add my task to be L$2000 per day. If can't finish, he will ask my money." But for now, she brings money in as a dancer and hostess-- and though Dwight's club is decidedly adult-oriented, she hasn't resorted to stripping or anything racier beyond dancing. (She'd expressed moral qualms over engaging in in-world sexual activity, and made that boundary plain to her boss, from the begining.)

"If you have interesting," she continues, "I'll show you my money tree in my new land. When you wanna? Tomorrow OK? Or after while?" If I understand her right, she's afraid she may have to leave Second Life soon, if she can't continue making a substantial income. "[B]ut I like here, like this Second Life and friends include you. So wish I can Surive. I can get money way."

Hsiao-Tsing's attention wanders over to jin Gupta, the gray man in short shorts dancing next to her.

"What do you think about jin that guy please?" she asks me in IM. "He looks so strange. But he maybe good forums here."

They strike up a conversation over the bunnies and hearts that occasionally emerge from him, while he dances.

"Hey jin," Hsiao-Tsing begins, "why you always do that?"

"I like it," say Gupte, and laughs. "Where are you from?"

"China, what about you?"

"Oh, me too."

"Really?" says Hsiao-Tsing. "What's your job?"

"Which? Second Life or real life?"

Hsiao-Tsing answers the former.

"I'm a teacher," says Gupte. "I like Second Life. Peoples here always very friendly."

Hsiao-Tsing affirms that. "I like teacher," she adds.

jin Gupte turns and notices me standing next to them.

"Hi lidens," he says, greeting me. "Why you don't dance?"

No particular reason not to, so I do. And while I dance, I ask him where he's from, in China. He names a coastal city within the country's fabled enterprise zone, where limited capitalism is state policy. He discovered Second Life, he says, through "my comrade. But my English is not good." I ask him if I can take a screenshot, and he nods.

"I'm dazzling," Gupte announces. "I'm dazzling."

I agree that he is dazzling.

"I feel it's unfair, the education in China," he tells us suddenly. "Do you agree with me?

"You mean the teachers?" Hsiao-Tsing asks him.

"For the children's parents always indulge students," jin continues, heedless. "The parents not allowed teacher rebuke the students... often students don't learn hard. They are often lazy. Although I try my best." So they go on talking and dancing, a Chinese tech worker paid scant wages to be here, and over in another, more developed province, a Chinese teacher with enough disposable income to afford entre to the same space-- a nightclub that really only exists as a configuration of electrons on a server in downtown San Francisco.

"We take in lots of the dancers and hosts other clubs kick out," Dwight Roark tells me earlier. "Seems they may have unrealistic standards or expectations. It makes an eclectic mix. But that is not a bad thing." In his first life, Dwight describes himself as a border patrol officer on America's Southern border, interdicting illegal immigrants and suspected terrorists attempting to cross into the United States through Mexico. The area of the border he patrols, he says, "is very much a weak point, and the problem is, the Mexican population is accustomed to open crossing. Even on 9-11, when we tried to lock down or tighten the border, they did not cooperate and we had riots and uprisings."

In here, however, he cares for his eclectic staff of the abandoned and the exiled and the people looking for another chance.

"Maybe now I will have to protect Second Life against communism and unethical labor practice?" he asks, laughing.

Posted at 04:44 AM | Permalink

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Comments

Great symbolic time for you to post this, eh Hamlet? 4:44 AM? You know what that means in Chinese. ;)

Posted by: Torley at Apr 13, 2005 6:09:05 AM

Hamlet Linden wrote:
"She'd expressed moral qualms over engaging in in-world sexual activity, and made that boundary plain to her boss, from the beginning."

That's good. But imagine if her boss was not so understanding, or she gets a little bit too desparate to meet the l$ quota and keep the job? Even if we're just talking about hot IMs and animated avies, what if your partner isn't entirely OK with this, but is working under pressure from her real-life employer?

If so, we've suddenly left the wonderfull world of consenting adults meets free speach, and that's a moral and legal can of worms we, IMHO, don't want to see opened.

-nym

Posted by: Nym at Apr 14, 2005 1:09:00 AM

hehe, very unlucky number :-p

Posted by: Mikey Mechanique at Apr 20, 2005 1:00:17 PM

Hi guys. I read this article with interest. Before I came to SL 4-5 weeks ago I was on my 9th or 10th month of Final Fantasy XI (hereafter FFXI). Video Game Playing is a very real professional in the 3rd world. Because of the poor economies and lack of opportunities wages are incredibley low and people line up to take any job available. Video Game Playing is a sweet job if you can get it. I understand her anxieties about being fired. She is, sadly, easily replaceable in countries where Video Game Playing pays better than farming.

In FFXI many people were intolerant of the professional players who were understandabley aggressive (after all, its not just a game to them, its how they feed themselves). The professional players were known as "Gil Farmers" where Gil was the currency, much like the Linden is in SL. They took alot of grief from the wealthier recreational players who thought through their actions they could -- run them off? Of course, the professional players, or sweatshop players as you call them, couldn't be run off and they numbered literally in the THOUSANDS.

They are coming. If this gal can make it work, hundreds more will come. The economy will become very competitive and STRONG. Its going to be fun to watch, actually. It will make us all work harder as more shops open, more land barons sprout wings, and tringo house after tringo house dots the landscape. I predict a second or third seperate server in order to handle the demand of the professional players.

I intend to be right in there with them working my ass off to make the almighty Linden because that is what interests me, even though I can flush down the toilet what your girl here will earn in a day.

These are interesting times, are they not? Anyone read Snowcrash 10-15 years ago? It was a book that predicted this. You gotta read it.

E =)

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