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Uncovering the Secrets of Shanghai’s Red Mansion

The harrowing story behind the dilapidated Shanghai ‘Little Red Mansion’ has gone viral on Chinese social media.

Manya Koetse

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Chinese underworld kingpin Zhao Fuqiang turned his Shanghai “Little Red Mansion” into a hell on earth for dozens of women who were forced into a life of sex work within his organized crime network. The story has now gone viral on Chinese social media.

At number 632 on the intersection of Xuchang Road (许昌路) and Huimin Road (惠民路) in Shanghai’s Yangpu District, there is a six-story building that is locally known as the ‘Little Red Mansion.’

The Red Mansion has everything to do with Zhao Fuqiang (赵富强), a man who made headlines in September of 2020 when he appeared before a Shanghai court in relation to gang-related crimes.

Zhao Fuqiang and 37 other defendants were found guilty of leading and participating in organized crime, rape, prostitution, fraud, bribery and corruption. The court found that Zhao had been active as a criminal underworld leader since 2004. During this time, he recruited women and forced them to engage in prostitution for his organization.

The Shanghai Second Intermediate Court gave Zhao the death penalty, while the other 37 defendants were given various sentences, ranging from 30 months to 20 years of imprisonment. One higher government official in Yangpu District by the name of Lu Yan (卢焱) was sentenced to 17 years in prison for taking bribes and serving as an umbrella for Zhao and other criminals.

Zhao Fuqiang

Zhao was the owner of the Red Mansion. Throughout the years, Zhao, who is originally from Taixing in Jiangsu, was able to earn a fortune through his large and powerful business and government network. He ventured into the restaurant industry with his Huichi Huihe (汇吃汇喝) company and ran businesses in Shanghai, Beijing, and Taixing.

The Red Mansion case went trending on Chinese social media this week after China Business Journal (中国经营报) published about it on December 3rd. One article is titled “Uncovering the Secrets of the ‘Little Red House’ – Its Inside Story Is Unimaginable” (“‘小红楼’秘闻被揭开 内情令人难以想象“). The other in-depth article by reporter Cheng Wei (程维) is titled “Exploring the ‘Red House’ in Shanghai” (“探秘上海”红楼”“).

Cheng’s article is a detailed description of the building and its layout, with many photos showing the extravagant rooms and peculiar layout design. Although the reporter gives enough information for readers to get a hint of what was going on in the building before 2020, the other article gives more insights on what actually took place there.

The original title of that article was “In 19 Years, He Turned the Dilapidated “Little Red House” Into Hell on Earth for Victimized Women” (“19年时间他将一座破旧的“小红楼”,打造成迫害女性的无间地狱”). It was published on December 1st by 10PM Reading (@10点阅读) on the Netease news platform, but has since been deleted, although it is still available on some other platforms.

 

From ‘Hairsalon’ to Mansion

 

The main article explains how Zhao Fuqiang, originally a small-town tailor, first arrived in Shanghai in 2000 in search of the big money and that he became active within the world of organized prostitution. His own wife, who studied dance, allegedly first became a prostitute before he recruited a bigger group of young female migrant workers through his wife’s network.

The author claims that Zhao used threats and physical violence to get these young, rural women to work for him. After being raped, beaten, and scared into thinking that nude photos of them would be sent to family and friends, these women ended up having sex for money in one of Zhao’s two newly established Shanghai ‘hair salons,’ where men would pay 150 yuan ($23) per visit. The women would never see a dime of the money they earned for Zhao.

With the money Zhao earned through his ‘hair salon’ business, he ventured out into the world of subletting shops in the city. Through the help of his dubious yet powerful network, Zhao got his hands on over 1000 shops which he was able to sublet without ever making a big investment. In a timeframe of nearly two decades, Zhao probably made around one billion yuan ($156 million) from this.

Since his business was anything but legal, Zhao needed a safety net to protect him. Higher officials and big business figures could not be seen visiting one of his ‘hair salons,’ so he needed a more secure place to welcome his guests.

At the six-story so-called Little Red Mansion in Shanghai’s Yangpu district, Zhao would invite high-level governmental and business people. The security cameras within the building recorded them, potentially serving as blackmail material.

The place that once was the ‘Red Mansion.’

The article tells the story of one of the girls who was recruited to work at the Red Mansion. Chen Qian (陈倩) was a fresh graduate, studied in the U.S., and she first came to Zhao after seeing an appealing recruitment ad in the media that offered a high salary for a job at Zhao’s restaurant company.

After it became clear to Chen that her job would actually involve having sex with Zhao’s clients, there was no way for her to escape in a heavily secured environment. When the young woman finally had an opportunity to leave the premises to go to a bank in 2017, she asked the staff to alert the police to tell them about her situation and that of the other women who were held captive as sex slaves by Zhao.

It did not end well for Chen, since the police doubted her story. Zhao, who brought Chen’s mother to the police station, was able to convince the local authorities that it was just a matter of domestic dispute, and Chen was later put on house arrest without access to her phone, and she was beaten for her attempted escape.

To make matters worse, Zhao had also thought of an additional way to exploit the women he controlled: egg donation. Chen was one of the women who reportedly was forced to have a surgical procedure to sell her eggs to (illegal) fertility agencies in order for Zhao to make more money.

In Chen’s case, the procedures for egg retrieval at the clinic caused an abnormal build-up of fluid in the abdomen, and she eventually became infertile because of it.

 

The Red House Prison

 

A dance teacher by the name of Cui Qian (崔茜) was another victim of Zhao. Like Chen, she was also forced to donate her eggs, leaving her depressed and anxious. Having a Shanghai household registration, she was eventually forced to marry Zhao in order for him to officially become a Shanghai resident.

Women like Cui and Chen were not just imprisoned by the actual walls of the Red Mansion; Zhao made sure that their social circumstances would make it virtually impossible for them to leave by also recruiting their family members as helpers or cleaning staff. The Red House was not just where they all worked, it was all where they all lived.

When Cui filed for divorce in 2019, and again filing a report against Zhao for rape – an earlier report in 2018 was ignored by authorities – things finally started rolling. In front of the court, Cui Qian told about Zhao’s practices of bribery and forced prostitution, along with naming a number of people within higher-level positions as accomplices.

Cui’s actions led to Zhao’s downfall. Later that year, in 2019, he would finally be arrested after nearly two decades of running his illegal businesses.

However, the tragedy does not end with Zhao’s arrest. Besides the trauma experienced by his victims, the women in the Red House also gave birth to babies who allegedly were left without official registration, making it impossible for them to attend school or receive healthcare.

 

Exploring the Mansion

 

In the article by reporter Cheng Wei, we can see what the Red Mansion looked like after it was abandoned in 2019.

The author describes how the building, which once was a hotel and a teahouse, was somewhat of a mystery to locals, who had no idea what was going on there.

The Red Mansion after its closure in 2019.

The reporter describes how the first few floors of the building were basically all storage rooms, while some floors (such as 2nd floor) also had beds and rooms which looked like migrant workers’ lodging.

The building’s fifth floor had some basic guests rooms, some more luxurious than the others, just like any regular Shanghai hotel.

The sixth floor is the building’s most luxurious one, where the reporter saw upscale guest suites and a reception hall that one would expect to see in a palace.

Some of the rooms even had iPhone and iPad boxes and manuals in the bedside drawers, suggesting that guests would even find these kinds of complementary devices in their rooms besides the lavish bathrooms and closets filled with lingerie.

One of the rooms in the abandoned building, image by Cheng Wei.

The sixth floor was also home to the so-called “Fourteen Beauties Suite,” the largest room with seven bunk-beds, accessible through a hidden door (which looks like a regular mirror).

The mirror in this room is actually a door. From the other side, there’s also a concealed door leading to a closet which then leads to the women’s dorm. Photo by Cheng Wei.

On the same floor, there is also a dressing room and bathroom with enough space for up to 4-7 people.

According to the reporter, all closets in the suites have women’s clothings, from lingerie to role playing outfits and stockings.

The main rooms and corridors are equipped with digital combination door locks, so that people can’t enter any floor or room without knowing the required codes.

Besides discovering concealed doors, the reporter also found some left-behind documents, including time schedules for women’s training classes (dancing, performance) and books relating to female self-cultivation and etiquette.

 

Online Anger

 

On Weibo, the Red Mansion story has blown up and is also being censored. The hashtags used by China Business Journal in its post have also been taken offline. Meanwhile, hundreds of netizens are still putting together the pieces on what happened at the Red Mansion.

“I’m reading and screenshotting at the same time,” one Weibo user writes:

“I initially just thought this obviously was a prostitution case, but then I came to find out it was not just that..There are too many questions about officials shielding one another, the social grievances, and so on. Thinking your back was leaning against a big tree, only to find out it actually is a man-eating tiger. I’m slowly starting to understand what it means to speak out. This issue will probably be forgotten once again within a short while, but the memories of one person are also the memories of millions!”

“How many Red Mansions are there out there?” some other commenters wonder,with others writing: “How on earth is it possible that this place was able to exist for such a long time?!”

Many people are angered because Zhao allegedly was able to continue for so long through the help of people working for local authorities.

Others are also angry because the topic is being censored online, saying that the women who were victimized by Zhao are being silenced once again.

“When I first read this, I thought it was something that happened long ago,” one commenter writes: “But this is all so recent!” Others also write that they are shocked that this could happen in downtown Shanghai right in front of everyone, without anyone knowing.

Although many say that Zhao deserves nothing but the death penalty, which he already was given, they also call for more transparency regarding the local authorities who made it possible for him to run his ‘business’ for nearly two decades.

“These people can’t be punished enough,” some say.

“This is just too dark,” another Weibo user writes, suggesting that some of the secrets behind the ‘Little Red Mansion’ might just be too dark to ever come to light.

By Manya Koetse

With contributions by Miranda Barnes.

Spotted a mistake or want to add something? Please let us know in comments below or email us. First-time commenters, please be patient – we will have to manually approve your comment before it appears.

©2021 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

Manya Koetse is the founder and editor-in-chief of whatsonweibo.com. She is a writer, public speaker, and researcher (Sinologist, MPhil) on social trends, digital developments, and new media in an ever-changing China, with a focus on Chinese society, pop culture, and gender issues. She shares her love for hotpot on hotpotambassador.com. Contact at manya@whatsonweibo.com, or follow on Twitter.

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China Arts & Entertainment

Chinese Social Media Reactions to The New York Times Bad Review of ‘Wandering Earth 2’

A New York Times bad review of ‘Wandering Earth II’ has triggered online discussions: “China’s gonna save the world, the US can’t stand it.”

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This Chinese Spring Festival, it’s all about going to the movies. After sluggish years for China’s movie market during the pandemic, Chinese cinemas welcomed millions of visitors back to the theaters during the weeklong Spring Festival holiday.

Much-anticipated new movies attracted Chinese moviegoers this festive season, including Full River Red by Zhang Yimou, the suspenseful Hidden Blade, or the animated Deep Sea by Tian Xiaopeng.

But the undisputed Spring Festival box office champion of 2023 is Frant Gwo’s Wandering Earth II (流浪地球II), the sequel to China’s all-time highest-grossing sci-fi epic Wandering Earth (2019), which also became the fifth highest-grossing non-English film of all time.

The narrative of the follow-up movie Wandering Earth II actually takes place before the events of the first film and focuses on the efforts by the United Earth Government (UEG) to propel the Earth out of the solar system to avoid planetary disaster. This so-called Moving Mountain Project – which later becomes the Wandering Earth Project – is not just met with protest (the majority of Americans don’t believe in it), it also bans the Digital Life Project, which supports the idea that the future of humanity can be saved by preserving human consciousness on computers (backed by an American majority). The film is all about hope and resilience, human destiny, and geopolitics at a time of apocalyptic chaos.

Outside of China, the sequel was also released in, among others, North American, Australian, and UK cinemas.

Although the film, featuring movie stars Wu Jing and Andy Lau, received an 8.2 on the Chinese rating & review platform Douban, a 9.4 on movie ticketing app Maoyan, dozens of positive reviews on Bilibili, and was overall very well-received among Chinese viewers, a bad review by The New York Times triggered discussions on Chinese social media this weekend.

Chinese media outlet The Observer (观察者网) initiated a Weibo hashtag about “The New York Times‘s completely sour review of Wandering Earth II” (#纽约时报酸味拉满差评流浪地球2#).

The New York Times review of Wandering Earth II, titled “‘The Wandering Earth II Review: It Wanders Too Far,” was written by Brandon Yu and published in print on January 27, 2023.

Yu does not have a lot of good things to say about China’s latest blockbuster. Although he calls the 2019 The Wandering Earth “entertaining enough,” he writes that its sequel is a movie that is “audaciously messy” and has lost “all of the glee” its predecessor had: “(..) the movie instead offers nearly three hours of convoluted storylines, undercooked themes and a tangle of confused, glaringly state-approved political subtext.”

The topic was discussed on Chinese social media using various hashtags, including “The New York Times Gave Wandering Earth II a 3″ (#纽约时报给流浪地球打30分#, #纽约时报给流浪地球2打30分#).

Instead of triggering anger, the bad review actually instilled a sense of pride among many Chinese, who argued that the review showed the impact the movie has made. Some commenters pointed out that the movie is a new milestone in Chinese cinema, not just threatening America’s domination of the movie industry but also setting a narrative in which China leads the way.

“We’re gonna save the world, and America just can’t stand it,” one commenter replied.

That same view was also reiterated by other bloggers. The author and history blogger Zhang Yi’an (@张忆安-龙战于野) argued that The New York Times review was not necessarily bad; it actually shows that Americans feel threatened by the idea of China’s important role in a new international world order, and by the fact that China actually will have the capacity to lead the way when it comes to, for example, space technology innovation, robotics, and artificial intelligence.

Zhang argues that if a similar movie had been made by the Indians as a Bollywood blockbuster – including exploding suns and wandering earths – The New York Times would have been more forgiving and might have even called it cute or silly.

But because this is China, the film’s success and its narrative clash with American values about what the international community should look like. Zhang writes: “The China in the movie doesn’t boast itself as the savior of the world, but in reality, China really is capable of saving the world. The United States is no longer able to do so (电影里的中国没有把自己吹嘘成救世主,现实中的中国真的有能力做救世主。而美国却已经不能了).”

One popular Film & TV account (@影视综艺君) also summarized the general online reaction to the bad review in the American newspaper: “Whenever the enemy gets scared, it must mean we’re doing it right. Our cultural export has succeeded.” That post received over 120,000 likes.

Meanwhile, another state media-initiated hashtag on Weibo claimed on January 28 that Wandering Earth II has actually “captured the hearts of many overseas audiences” (#流浪地球2海外上映获好评#), and that the film’s “imaginative” and “wonderful” visuals combined with its strong storyline were being praised by critics.

ON IMDB, the movie has received 5.9/10 and a 70% Rotten Tomatoes score. The Guardian gave it 2/5. Meanwhile, on Weibo, one reviewer after the other gives the film 5/5 stars.

Weibo blogger Lang Yanzhi (@郎言志) writes: “Recently, we’ve seen a lot of attacks and slander directed at the China-made science fiction movie Wandering Earth 2, especially coming from from Western media and pro-Western forces, because the film’s “Chinese salvation” narrative made them uncomfortable. This was already the case when the first film in the series was released. It is very clear that Wandering Earth is not just a movie: it is a symbol of great influence.”

By Manya Koetse , with contributions by Zilan Qian

 

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China Arts & Entertainment

Behind the Short Feature Film of the Spring Festival Gala

The first-ever ‘mini film’ of the Spring Festival Gala struck a chord with viewers for its strong storytelling and authentic production.

Manya Koetse

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This precious and powerful short film by Zhang Dapeng has touched the hearts of Spring Festival Gala viewers. But there is more to the short film than meets the eye. Here’s the noteworthy story behind the 7-minute Spring Festival Mini Film.

On January 21, 2023, China’s Spring Festival Gala, hosted by China Media Group, kicked off the Year of the Rabbit. The annual show, which featured forty different acts and performances, lasted over four hours and attracted millions of viewers worldwide (see our liveblog here, and see a top 5 highlight of the show here).

Traditionally, the Spring Festival Gala always shows several short public service ad films in between the performances, but this year was the first time the Gala featured a “mini-film” or “micro film” (微电影).

Titled Me and My Spring Festival Night (“我和我的春晚”), the 7-minute film was praised among viewers. On Weibo, one hashtag dedicated to the short film received over nine million clicks (#我和我的春晚#).

The film was directed by the Beijing director Zhang Dapeng (张大鹏). Born in 1984, Zhang is a Beijing Film Academy graduate who previously attracted wide attention for directing the Peppa Pig Celebrates Chinese New Year movie and the brilliant ad campaign that came with it. Titled What Is Peppa, that short ad film featured a grandfather living in rural China who goes on a quest to find out what ‘Peppa’ is. The promotional video became an absolute viral hit back in 2019 (see/read more here).

Still from ‘What is Peppa.’ 2019.

This time, Zhang’s latest Chinese New Year film is about a hard-working former military man from China’s countryside named Zhang Jianguo (张建国), for whom coming on the show to play the trumpet has been a dream for many years. By featuring his story, the film takes us from the Chinese 1980s, 90s, 00s – as we see him change jobs, move around, and start a family – up to the present.

The main idea behind the film was to honor all the ordinary viewers who have written – and are still writing – to the Gala ever since it first aired in the early 1980s, and to tell a story inspired by these personal letters and ordinary viewers.

Short Summary of “Me and My Chunwan”

At the start of the film, we see Zhang Jianguo dusting off his military honorary awards (光荣军属), putting on his jacket, grabbing his thermos flask and trumpet, and setting out on a journey in the midst of winter.

Riding an electric tricycle in the icy cold, his driver (actor Huang Bo 黄渤) asks him where he is going. “Can you keep your mouth shut?” Zhang replies (“你嘴严实不严实”). “I can,” the driver says, and Zhang then says: “So can I.”

The voiceover narration, a first-person narrative by Zhang himself, explains that he has always been busy: “I never had time for the Spring Festival Gala. My Spring Festival fate is all because of something my captain said.”

The film jumps to a scene showing Zhang as a young military man during the Chinese New Year’s Eve, working outside while people are watching the Spring Festival Gala on a small black and white television inside. As his commander (played by Wu Jing 吴京) hands him his trumpet, he says: “Go and play your trumpet on the television.”

“If the leader asks me to go on the Spring Festival Gala, it’s a task I must complete,” the voice-over says.

But in the military scene itself, duty calls and Zhang has to blow the trumpet to announce dinner time.

In the years that follow, Zhang is always busy during the Spring Festival Gala. Working in the factory, getting married, working on a train, farming cattle, taking care of his family, and always cooking. His trumpet is still there with him, to announce dinner time or hanging on the wall as a memory of times past.

As the years pass by, Zhang realizes that he has gradually forgotten about his commander’s words. Time moves fast. First, he had a son, then his son grew taller than himself, and then his son had his own son. “And I still had never been to the Spring Festival Gala.”

With his captain’s words back on his mind, Zhang, now an older man, sets out on his journey without telling anyone. By foot, by electric tricycle, by bus, and by train, Zhang travels all the way to the famous Beijing Studio 1 to perform at the Spring Festival Gala after being “too busy” for forty years.

Backstage at the Spring Festival Gala, Zhang sits down with famous Chinese Spring Festival Gala performers (Ma Li 马丽 and Shen Teng 沈腾). While unpacking his lunchbox, he tells them he was finally not too busy to come on the show: “I wrote a letter and here I am.” “It’s that simple?” Ma Li wonders.

The producer then rushes to come and get Zhang, who bravely walks towards the stage with his old little trumpet.

A female voice-over then reads out a message, while we see various scenes throughout the years showing Zhang – from young to old – writing letters to CCTV from wherever he is.

The female narrator says: “Dear Uncle Zhang, we’ve received your letter regarding your hopes to realize your cherished stage dream. In this age of emailing, and knowing that you’ve been writing us for 39 years, we’re moved and feel guilty. Our reply may be late, but not our sincerity..

Meanwhile, we see a flashback to a mailman pulling up to old Zhang’s home (the mailman is the actor Wang Baoqiang), and the old Zhang finally receives that much-anticipated letter from CCTV at his remote rural home.

The female narrator continues: “This year, we proudly invite you to be a guest at the Spring Festival Gala and to “ring the dinner bell” [play the sound announcing dinner]. Sincerely, the Spring Festival Director Committee.

In the final shot, we see Zhang blowing the trumpet at the Gala, with flashbacks showing him blowing that trumpet in all those decades before. He has finally made it to the big stage.

A Noteworthy Story

While Me and My Spring Festival Night received a lot of praise on Chinese social media, the story behind the film was not immediately clear to many viewers celebrating the Chinese New Year, but it was explained in several articles and interviews with director Zhang Dapeng.

During the live-televised Spring Festival Gala itself, the airing of Me and My Spring Festival Night was directly followed up by a shot featuring a person (a veteran) in the audience standing up and actually playing the trumpet.

Directly after, the song “Goodmorning Sunshine” began, representing multiple people from all kinds of professions and social groups. About one minute into the song, the camera turns to another audience member: the person who plays ‘Uncle Zhang’ in the mini-film. Later in the song, we can see he is wiping away tears, visibly moved.

Why was he so moved? The older man in the audience, the main ‘Uncle Zhang’ actor in the film, is Jin Changyong (金长勇), and he actually is not a professional actor.

Somewhat similar to the character Zhang Jianguo, Jin Changyong or “Uncle Jin” (金叔) is a hardworking veteran from Hebei’s Huailai County in Zhangjiakou.

Jin Changyong is a 63-year-old farmer who is also active at the Hebei Tianmo Film and TV Park doing security and logistics-related jobs. He served in the army for four years from the age of 19, as, among others, a military chef.

Director Zhang Dapdeng came across ‘Uncle Jin’ one day while shooting another film at the studio. While Jin was busy doing kitchen work, director Zhang saw him and, as he later recounts, was struck by his face that showed he had “lived through many changes” (“这种饱经沧桑的脸”).

Zhang later invited Uncle Jin to star in the movie, and he also made sure Jin’s own story played a role in the script.

Director Zhang Dapeng, image via CCTV.

This makes this short movie all the more special, something which has since been discussed on Chinese social media (#春晚微电影的主演是普通农民#).

The surprising twist in the story is how Zhang Jianguo tells other people he has just always been “too busy” to attend the Gala, while he had in fact already written to the show for 39 years with the hope of one day being invited.

Another noteworthy aspect of the film is how Zhang Dapeng chose to cast some of China’s most celebrated actors as supporting roles to lift up the main character and actor, Jin, who was inexperienced and learnt from his fellow players.

In an interview, Jin expressed that the entire experience of playing in this short film left his overcome with emotion. After the filming had ended, he told reporters that he had sleepless nights because he had not received an actual invitation to the Spring Festival Gala yet, something which he so very much hoped for. Just one week before the show, that invitation finally came.

The fact that Jin, in a way, played a man like himself in the short movie has added to the film’s popularity.

“I was sincerely moved by this film,” one commenter wrote, with others saying: “This was the best program I’ve seen on the Gala over the past decade.”

While some people also remarked that the short film seemed to have been influenced by The Grand Budapest Hotel by Wes Anderson, others praised it for its originality.

“This was just the best part of the night,” several commenters said: “It made me cry.”

“Zhang Pengda – a name to remember,” others wrote.

You can watch the short film on Youtube here.

By Manya Koetse 

Get the story behind the hashtag. Subscribe to What’s on Weibo here to receive our newsletter and get access to our latest articles:

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