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Tibet's Women of Misery

Economic change has driven a move to cities -- and lives built around construction work and prostitution. Money and comforts are sparse.

October 07, 2003|Ching-Ching Ni | Times Staff Writer

TSETANG, Tibet — As the sun rises over this dusty river valley, Yaji tucks her hair under a New York Yankee baseball cap and throws a shovel over her shoulder. From 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., she works on the construction site of a new road on the outskirts of town, mixing cement and moving dirt.

As the sun sets behind rugged mountains scraping the azure Tibetan sky, Qixizhuoma paints her lips a dark amber and pats her cheeks pretty with pink powder. From 8 p.m. to 8 a.m., she works along the banks of the Yarlung River, in the red-light district.

Construction and prostitution are hardly traditional jobs for women in this deeply Buddhist land of sacred mountains and holy lakes. But for the daughters of poor Tibetan farmers hoping to cash in on the economic transformation of their homeland, they are just about the only employment available. Together the young women, in their own way, have helped drive the dramatic makeover of this Tibetan frontier town from a medieval backwater to a modern Chinese city.

"I don't like it here. I have no other choice," said Yaji, 18, who like most Tibetans uses one name. "I have two sisters. They need money to go to school."

In the heart of the southern Tibetan prefecture of Lhoka, Tsetang is known as the mythical birthplace of the Tibetan people. Legend has it that a monkey meditating in a nearby cave was seduced by a female demon who refused to wed another monster. She married the monkey, and they produced six children who grew up to form the six major tribes of Tibet.

Since Chinese settlement of this remote region intensified in the 1990s, the cradle of Tibetan civilization has taken on the feel of a Himalayan Wild West. Large government subsidies to build roads, bridges and high-rises have lured an estimated 10,000 Chinese migrants to Tsetang alone. Although the majority of the 58,000 people living here are Tibetan, an aggressive cultural invasion threatens to make Tsetang another Lhasa, Tibet's holiest city, where more than half the population is believed to now be Chinese.

Already, shining new buildings and street signs stamped with the names of the Chinese provinces whose people helped construct them dominate the city center. Nearby, the People's Liberation Army maintains a base, guarded by bayonet-carrying soldiers and high walls bearing the slogan "Maintain National Unity, Safeguard Territorial Integrity."

Remnants of old Tsetang linger in the form of crumbling village huts made of earth and stone, with colorful prayer flags fluttering from roofs. Many urban Tibetans with government jobs have moved into Chinese-built apartment blocks. But rural Tibetans clad in traditional robes still toil in the barley fields on the edge of town or linger near ancient temples erected more than 1,000 years ago.

According to officials here, life has never been better. They recite data on Tsetang's rising economic output like a modern-day mantra: $157 million in 2002, 56 times what it was in 1959 and 17% higher than in 2001. By 2005, they are hoping it will hit $250 million.

"You can see, we are experiencing unprecedented growth. People's living standards have improved more than at any other time in history," said Deji, the commissioner of Lhoka prefecture.

But the most dramatic change has taken place in Tibet's rising new cities. Rural poverty drives Tibetan men and women into urban areas in search of jobs. But women face the more daunting challenges as they leave behind a life molded by working in the fields and rudimentary education to compete in a world where Tibetans move ahead only if they are culturally assimilated and fluent in Chinese.

With a name that means "happiness," Deji is a living tribute to the progress made since Beijing annexed Tibet in 1951. She was born to poor peasants in 1959, the year Tibet's spiritual and political leader, the Dalai Lama, was forced into exile after the Chinese crushed an uprising. She learned Chinese in elementary school and joined the Communist Party at 27. She rose to the top of local government and can talk impressively with visiting foreigners about the French megastore Carrefour and World Trade Organization policies.

But according to Tibet observers, for every success story like Commissioner Deji there are countless women and men for whom progress means scraping out a living as part of a growing underclass. For many, becoming a migrant worker is the only way to improve their lot, but the quest for prosperity is often much harder than they had hoped.

"Wealth is really concentrated in very small sectors of the community, concentrated in urban areas and concentrated in people who work for the government," said Kate Saunders, a Tibet specialist based in London. "About 85% of Tibetans live in rural areas. The majority of Tibetan women are still struggling to survive."

No one knows exactly how many hardscrabble fortune-seekers in Tsetang are Tibetan women from the countryside.

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