Two of the major new titles from the University of Toronto Press are about China. At first glance, foreign policy and sex work have little in common. As UTP got ready to release these books, however, it became clear that they both shed light on the unique role Canada plays on the world stage.
Wendy Dobson has written extensively about China’s relationship with North America. Her 2013 book, Partners and Rivals, for instance, analyzes how the United States and China compete for dominance while being bound together by a deep economic interdependence. Widely acclaimed when it first appeared, Dobson’s systematic model of U.S.-China relations was upended three years later by Donald Trump’s largely impetuous, combative approach to American foreign policy.
As Trump escalates America’s trade war with China, Dobson shows Canadian policy makers how to rebuild their uneasy relationship with Chinese officials in Living with China. Dobson describes Canada as a “middle power,” perched between two superpowers, U.S. and China. Canada got caught in their cross fire last winter, when Canadian border officials detained Meng Wanzhou, CFO of the Chinese technology giant Huawei, at the request of America. China retaliated by arresting two Canadian travelers, Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig, who remain in jail despite diplomatic appeals by the Canadian government.
Canada’s status as a middle power was a selling point of sorts for Eileen Yuk-ha Tsang, author of China’s Commercial Sexscapes. Most accounts of China’s vast sex industry come from Western societies, and they tend to focus on the extramarital adventures of traveling businessmen. The Chinese government actively works to keep a tight lid on its domestic erotic empire, even within China itself. Given the extraordinary lengths Tsang went to chronicle the Chinese sex trade, she was reluctant to publish her book in a so-called major-power country for fear of inviting unwanted attention.
“UTP’s strong publishing record in progressive scholarship on sex work dovetails with the fact that as a Canadian house, we are unencumbered by the U.S.-China push-and-pull,” says Jodi Lewchuck, UTP acquisitions editor for sociology and anthropology. “As such, we made a good fit for Eileen’s work.”
To gain access to her subjects, Tsang spent three years working as a bartender in sex clubs around Beijing. Based on almost 200 interviews with female sex workers and male clients, China’s Commercial Sexscapes explores the complex dynamics of sex worker–client relationships, placing them within the wider context of expanding globalization and capitalism. While UTP’s Manuscript Review Committee applauded Tsang’s scholarship, they worried about publishing her book.
“Given the very frank and open ways in which Eileen discusses sexuality, paid sex work, and the policing of that work in a society that is historically very closed about such matters,” Lewchuck says, “our board wanted to be sure that we had a discussion about the possibility that the author could be detained or her freedoms or otherwise jeopardized with the publication of the book.” Tsang responded to these concerns by pointing to the power of place. “Her location at the City University of Hong Kong and the international recognition of her research,” Lewchuck says, “made her comfortable publishing this volume with us.”
Tsang is busy conducting fieldwork for Unlocking the Red Closet, her follow-up to China’s Commercial Sexscapes, based on the experiences of male sex workers. What China’s relationship with the U.S. will look like when the book appears in a few years is an open question. One thing is certain: Tsang will publish her next exposé with a press in the middle power, UTP.
Chris Reed is a publicist with the University of Toronto Press.