Hooligan Sparrow

PBS Premiere: Oct. 17, 2016Check the broadcast schedule »

Frequently Asked Questions

Filmmaker Nanfu Wang provides answers to the frequently asked questions she receives about Hooligan Sparrow.

What is the significance of the name, Hooligan Sparrow, given to Ye Haiyan?
Ye Haiyan's name consists of three Chinese characters, one of which means sparrow. She chose Hooligan Sparrow as her pseudonym, and she is widely known in China by that name. Her 70,000 followers on social media all know her as Hooligan Sparrow, and that's how I first heard of her as well.

What drew you to this story?
I first heard about Ye Haiyan (who is known more widely by her nickname, Hooligan Sparrow, in China) a few years ago when I read an article online about a Chinese woman who was offering to work as a sex worker - for free. I've lived in China most of my life, and I've always been interested in issues related to sex workers' rights, so I was curious to learn more about this woman and what motivated her.

The brothel where she offered to work was one of thousands across China known as "Ten Yuan Brothels," which are frequented by the poorest of China's migrant laborers. The brothels take their name from the average price of a visit with one of their working girls - ten yuan, or about two dollars.

Sparrow had a long history of advocating for women's rights in China, and her offer of free sex in the Ten Yuan Brothel stemmed from a desire to expose the terrible working conditions in the brothel and also the desperate lives of the migrant workers who visited them.

As I researched Sparrow, I learned that like me, she came from a poor farming village with limited access to education. I appreciated her respect for people whom Chinese society rejected, and I shared her desire to understand their lives more deeply. I reached out to her via e-mail in early 2013 to see if she'd be willing to let me film her as part of a larger video project about sex workers in China. She replied, "When you're in China, we'll talk."

That's when I started the film.

Describe your relationship with Hooligan Sparrow. How did she feel about sharing her experiences on camera?
We had never met each other prior to making this film. I contacted her via email and by phone a few months before I returned to China to meet her. At first, it was hard to get a hold of her because she was planning for the protest and was very cautious about disclosing where she was and what she was doing.

When I finally caught up with her, I learned about the plan of the protest, and I volunteered to go with them despite their warnings that it could be risky for me.

It was from that point on that I felt she and other activists fully trusted me and gave me full access.

In the following months, we travelled extensively together across the country to avoid the harassment of secret police, and we developed a very close and dependent relationship.

What has been the biggest challenge you faced creating this film?
Filming itself was a great challenge because we were constantly followed. I wasn't able to film with bulky, professional filming equipment, as it would have drawn the attention of police (both uniformed and secret) to the subjects I was filming. To avoid endangering my subjects or myself, I ended up carrying only a backpack with a Canon 60D DSLR camera, a small point-and-shoot, a pair of glasses with an embedded micro camera, and an Edirol audio recorder. With the exception of the interviews, almost every shot was filmed handheld, which allowed me to blend in more easily than if I had been filming with a tripod.

What were some of the light moments while making the film?
I found humor in the paranoia I felt as a filmmaker. Because I was always traveling with my hard drives, and they contained all of my footage, my biggest fear was that the police would arrest me and not only find the evidence of me filming but also take all the footage. So a few times when I heard a knock at the door, I quickly hid the camera, but it turned out to be just people we knew, and we would all laugh. On the other hand, it also was a deeply sad feeling to know that if I were ever caught, there would be very serious consequences.

What did you shoot on?
I shot most of the film on a Canon 60D, which is a small DSLR. Other parts of the film were shot using a hidden camera mounted in a pair of glasses, and other parts were shot with a small point-and-shoot camera. The small form factor was an advantage, because I didn't want to draw attention to myself when I was filming; larger cameras could have endangered me and the people I was with.

How long was the production and post-production?  How long did it take to make the film?
The production was actually very short. I shot the film between mid May 2013 and late August 2013 - less than 4 months. But what's amazing was that a lot of things happened during that short amount of time, and many people's lives changed over those few months.

The editing was a much longer process - I started editing in September 2013, and I've been editing on and off since then. The film was picture locked in November 2015.

Is Ye Haiyan an artist? Can we call what she does art?
She is unique because she is an activist but she uses performance art in her activism. She said once, "If I put a sign next to my breast, a lot of people would want to see my breast. But if I do this over and over, one day they'll be sick of my body and start to pay attention to the sign I'm holding."