Les Roses d'Acier - France
The Steel Roses or les Roses d’Acier (铿锵玫瑰) is a group of seven female current and former Chinese sex workers based in the Parisian neighbourhood of Belleville. Together, they work to ensure that the legal rights of women like them are respected.
Like many Chinese sex workers in Paris, the members of les Roses d’Acier came to France with the hope of making money to improve their situations back home. The majority of them come from northern China where they fled violent domestic situations, or were no longer able to make ends meet.
After incurring over 100,000 Yuan ($20,000) in debt to pay agencies to arrange their travel and tourist visas, they are told to claim asylum in France. Until a decision is made on a claim, they are able to stay legally. However, it is only at that moment that their situation is made apparent: they will not have access to any work papers, in stark contrast to what they were promised. In an effort to make quick money, they are left with two options: nannying or sex work. Many who choose the former suffer severe exploitation at the hands of the families they work for and in desperation turn to prostitution. They send home their earnings, taking care that their families never learn the truth about their work in France.
In December 2014, journalist Anne-Marie Bissada and Nick Kozak first made contact with les Roses d’Acier through Médecins du Monde. For the next five months, they met periodically with the group in its basement office at the Atelier Santé Ville in Belleville.
Initially, the women were only comfortable being photographed while wearing masks, the same ones worn during their first public appearance at a demonstration in December 2014. But over time they let their guards down and on their own initiative suggested their portraits be taken with theatre makeup and clothing of their choice.
With that suggestion, it became apparent that the group had evolved and had grown more comfortable in its role as a public organization. It should be stressed that the members of les Roses d’Acier still run the risk of their families finding out the true nature of their work.
Interviews conducted by Anne-Marie Bissada. Special thanks to Tim Leicester and Ting Chen 陈頲 of Médecins du Monde.
“Before I came to France, I had the vision it was a kind of paradise really, a heaven on earth, very idealistic, a rose-tinted image of life here [in France]...but there are lots of problems, for example, we work outside in the streets, so we’re constantly exposed to people’s insults, prejudices and their stigmas; we’re constantly stigmatised. We’re constantly exposed, also, to different kinds of violence; it can go from groups of children who come to insult us, or steal from us, or people who will physically assault us.”
Aying arrived in Paris in 2014
“As a woman living abroad, everything is uncertain, everything in my life is uncertain. We can’t decide much. I feel powerless at times. It’s very difficult at times,
it’s like I am screaming but no
one really notices.”
Yueyue arrived in Paris in 2013
“I do meet many women who arrive at this type of situation and they cry a lot. And I tell them to stop crying, because in doing so, you’ll just tire yourself out and that won’t help you. No one will help you here. You have to help yourself. You need to understand the situation now.”
Ajie arrived in Paris in 2013
Each member of les Roses d’Acier was asked to bring to a photo shoot an object in her possession that she considered personally important while living in Paris. From left to right: a). Lensless glasses belonging to Aying. She says she wears them in Paris to look more sophisticated and counteract negative views of her. b). A flower representing the “blossoming” of Ajun's youngest daughter who joined her in Paris. c). A photograph of Xiaoxia’s monkey ornament representing her Chinese zodiac sign. d). A stuffed animal depicting a character from the movie Ratatouille. It was given to Juli by her recent husband when they went to the Euro Disney theme park. e). French language DVDs for Chinese speakers given to Yueyue by her Polish boyfriend in Paris. f). A shirt that belonged to an Afghani boyfriend of Ajie. He used to wear it all the time and Ajie's coworkers assumed he was a police officer. g). A necklace that Amin received from her boyfriend in China. She says the small heart represents just how small his heart is.
“The agency from China gave me a number to contact here [in Paris]. It was a type of dormitory. When I asked when I was going to start working, I was then told: “no you have to figure it out for yourself.” And then they said, “when you get there, you will see the people in Belleville working, you can go and ask them what kind of work you can do.”
Amin arrived in Paris in 2013
“You asked me what were my impressions of France? I really regret having come to France. I was secretly crying just about every day and I can pretty much say all of the hardest and saddest and most difficult events in my life have happened here in France.”
Juli arrived in Paris in 2014
“My husband was not okay with this decision; he said it was too complicated because of our two children...I left without telling my children, so it wouldn’t be so difficult for them. But I’ve asked my family to forgive me for doing that. The last thing I want is for them to be angry with me.”
Xiaoxia arrived in Paris in 2012
“Before I started, I went on to the Lotus Bus* to get some advice and some information, because I’d never done anything like this [sex work] before. On the Lotus Bus they explained how to use a condom to protect myself. And I thought, right, I’ll give it a go and see how things work out for a few days.”
Ajun arrived in Paris in 2011
*The Lotus Bus is a mobile clinic supported by Médecins du Monde, that offers legal and medical advice to sex workers in Paris.