ZHUHAI, China — The Golden Years nightclub where prostitute Coco Wang worked had been closed for renovations for more than a month, so when her boss asked her to service a group of Japanese tourists in Zhuhai, a southern city famed for its sex, seafood and golf, she didn't think twice.
"It was a job. I wasn't making any money and the pay was good," said the 21-year-old high-school dropout from northeastern China, who said she made more than $400 for the three nights of work last month. "We see lots of Japanese. I had no idea what a big thing it would become."
Wang, who doesn't use her real name to ensure that her parents don't know what she does for a living, was taken by bus to the Guangdong Regency Hotel, which consists of skyscrapers of 32 and 28 stories. There, she cavorted with, she said, "about 400 other girls and about 300 Japanese businessmen" in a vast banquet hall.
After dinner, the hotel arranged for buses to take the revelers, celebrating 15 years in business for a construction company in Osaka, to the 530-room Zhuhai International Conference Center Hotel on Lover's Road, a boulevard overlooking Zhuhai Bay. There, for the better part of a weekend, Wang spent time with, "I don't know, three or four Japanese. They had a big party. On my floor, at least, they had girls in every room."
The weekend orgy by 268 Japanese male tourists and upward of 500 Chinese prostitutes in Zhuhai has touched off a furor in China, roiling its always sensitive relations with Japan.
The incident ended Sept. 18, the date China marks as the beginning of Japan's occupation of Manchuria in 1931. It is a day as evocative of history as Dec. 7, Pearl Harbor Day, is in the United States. But Wang, who did not know about the day's importance until she read it in a newspaper, and other witnesses said none of the Japanese realized they were reveling on such a solemn anniversary for the Chinese.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Kong Quan called the affair "extremely odious." Japan's foreign minister, Yoriko Kawaguchi, on Tuesday promised an investigation.
Enraged Chinese have flooded the Internet with somewhat breathless essays drawing parallels between the cavorting businessmen and the Rape of Nanking, the 1937 slaughter and rape of hundreds of thousands of Chinese civilians by Japan's Imperial Army.
Both hotels have been shut temporarily, several hotel executives have been arrested and staff members have been put into "emergency study sessions," employees said.
A hotel attendant, wearing a red Bugs Bunny T-shirt, ran up to a traveler at the shuttered front door of Zhuhai International Conference Center Hotel on Wednesday. "We're closed," she said. "We're all inside studying law."
Prostitution and sex tourism are huge businesses in China, played out almost in public. Practically every hotel, from no-star dives to five-star international chains, boasts a bevy of women offering oily massages and more to travelers. "None of us thought anything of servicing Japanese," said Wang. "They and the South Koreans were some of our biggest customers at Golden Years."
An official of the construction company denied the excursion was a sex trip. "We went there for an award ceremony to reward our employees, as well as for a recreational company trip," he said.
Incidents involving Japanese in China invariably take on an incendiary quality, with the Chinese quick to take offense and the Japanese just as quickly arguing that they are being singled out unfairly. Many Chinese believe Japan's efforts to apologize for its wartime behavior are insincere. Chinese continue to cope with the remnants of the war. Last month, one construction worker died and several others were seriously burned when they unearthed a batch of mustard gas left behind by after the Japanese occupation.
In recent years, China's Communist rulers have nurtured anti-Japanese feelings among their people, said Gilbert Rozman, a professor of sociology at Princeton University.
He said that since the mid-1990s, Communist Party officials around then-President Jiang Zemin decided to use resentful nationalism as a unifying ideology to replace the communism that few believed in anymore. The government also has routinely played down any mention of the multibillion-dollar flood of Japanese aid and low-interest loans to China.
The investigation started after a Chinese translator put a witness' account of the episode on a Web site and Chinese newspapers picked up the story. In Japan, the media played down the reports.
"The Japanese will say this is another example of how China tends to pick on them," Rozman said. "They want to bury these issues. But it's impossible."