Yang Song and the Long History of Targeting Asian American Sex Work

Her death sparked a grassroots movement. To understand her story, we have to go back to the beginning of Asian immigration exclusion.

10 months ago

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“A woman begins to fall.”

This is how the New York Times depicts Song Yang — just before her death, a half-naked body frozen in trauma.

Song Yang was a 38-year-old sex worker living in Queens, NY. During a targeted police raid on the night of November 25th, 2017, she fell to her death from the balcony of her 4th-floor apartment. A year before, an undercover police officer raped her at gunpoint. After reporting the assault, Yang was harassed by Vice NYPD, pressured to become an undercover informant, threatened with deportation, and arrested and humiliated in multiple stings in the months before her death.

Yang’s story is a shocking and painful case of police abuse that highlights the systemic disenfranchisement of immigrants and sex workers. But that’s not the direction journalists Dan Barry and Jeffrey Singer chose to take in their splashy October 11, 2018 editorial. The two journalists tell Yang’s story in the exploitative, sexualized manner often reserved for East and Southeast Asian women. Even worse, they frame her death as tragic individual psychology instead of persistent and pernicious institutional oppression.

Barry and Singer pore over the lurid details of Yang’s death with exoticizing, sensationalist language, calling Flushing, Queens a “netherworld…where sex is sold beside cloudy tanks of fish and crab.” They describe residents using exploitative, Orientalist tropes, painting the Asian women Yang associated with as pitiful victims and the Asian men as shifty-eyed, lecherous Johns and pimps.

By breaking up the timeline of Yang’s harassment by Vice NYPD and interspersing them with these sordid anecdotes, Barry and Singer made each instance of abuse seem separate and unrelated. They emphasize her deteriorating mental health rather than the months of targeted harassment that likely caused it. They write that police raids have decreased by 20% since Yang’s death but omitted these key facts: "arrests of Asian-identified people in New York City charged with both unlicensed massage and prostitution increased by 2,700% between 2012 and 2016” and ICE has been using prostitution diversion courts to stalk immigrants. Any mention of systemic injustice came from Yang’s brother, who was dismissed as an amateur “lone-wolf investigator.” His suspicion of a Vice coverup was attributed to foreigner’s distrust, a fantasy borne of deranged grief.

“ICE has been using prostitution diversion courts to stalk immigrants.”

Barry and Singer choose to introduce Flushing community activist Michael Chu by quoting his assessment of Yang’s appearance and “service”:

“I hear she was №1: young, pretty, and her service was great.”
March for Song Yang in Flushing Queens, March 5, 2018. Photo Courtesy of Emma Whitford on Twitter.
March for Song Yang in Flushing Queens, March 5, 2018. Photo Courtesy of Emma Whitford on Twitter.

Compare this to Emma Whitford’s continued reporting on the same case, which began November 30, 2017. Whitford selects quotes from the same Michael Chu that reflect his significant advocacy for Yang, instead of dehumanizing them both:

“When they are in this type of business, then nobody care…So some police just take advantage and make situation worse and make the circumstances tough.”

“No matter what kind of profession or service you provide, a life is the most important thing to respect…There’s a lot we need to do to improve. We want the truth, the real truth… we all have to learn something from this.”

Whitford’s work consistently keeps the focus on Song Yang’s humanity and Vice NYPD’s targeted brutality against immigrant sex workers, as well as the continuing community activism and growing legislative support for sex work decriminalization catalyzed by Yang’s death.

But Whitford’s reporting is printed in The Appeal, Queens Eagle, DocumentedNY, not as a full spread interactive photo show in The New York Times. Most of the world will only see the latter version, with more mentions of the sultry smells of Chinese street food wafting through the night air than of police corruption. Song Yang’s death was an American sociological failure, and the political activation in its aftermath is one of the most moving tales of American collective heroism I’ve ever heard. But all of that was co-opted and printed as fetishizing pulp.

Dan Barry and Jeffrey E. Singer, Pulitzer Prize-winners at the New York Times, had the most power to control Yang’s narrative. We expected their investigative journalism to be responsible by upholding justice and pressing for accountability. Instead, they wrote a trashy noir fantasy to titillate white readers who have zero investment in the real damage done to real people. For them, a yellow whore died; life moved on.

Barry and Singer’s article isn’t an anomalous instance of poor journalistic integrity. Women of East and Southeast Asian descent are routinely sexualized by white journalists, even when they are the victims of horrific crimes. When the Daily Mail reported on a man who kicked his Thai wife to death, they chose to include photos of her in a bathing suit, dehumanizing her as a sexual object and implying complicity in her own gruesome murder. Another report of a man who butchered his Filipino wife before a sex holiday only shows an unrelated photo of bikini-clad pole dancers, as if the perpetrator’s libido overshadows both the victim and the heinous crime.

“The association of Asian women with sex work, as well as equating Asian sex work with human trafficking has been a hallmark of anti-Asian propaganda since the first US anti-immigration efforts.”

This pattern is not simply an issue of implicit bias or negative representation. The sexualization of Asian women and the association of Asian women with sex work, as well as equating Asian sex work with human trafficking has been a hallmark of anti-Asian propaganda since the first US anti-immigration efforts in the 1800s, which targeted Chinese immigrants. From the beginning, sensationalist journalism about the “moral racial pollution” of Asian sex work has been deliberately disseminated to stoke public contempt, promote discriminatory policies, and tightly control immigration.

To understand how this came about, we must go back to the origins of Asian exclusion in the US. Between the 1840s to the 1880s, Chinese labor was preferentially exploited by American industrialists and seen as a threat to white men’s livelihoods, especially after the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1868. Corporate interests, trade agreements, and treaties with China did not permit the US to altogether ban Chinese immigration at that time, and race-based immigration exclusion was legally and morally unprecedented. Thus, legislators used different tactics to systematically disenfranchise and exclude Chinese immigrants.

“The Anti-Chinese Wall” political cartoon, Friedrich Graetz, Puck, 1882. (Library of Congress)
“The Anti-Chinese Wall” political cartoon, Friedrich Graetz, Puck, 1882. (Library of Congress)

US citizenship was (and to some extent still is) a moral as well as legal category. Racial exclusion could therefore be effected via conduct-based policies — if the conduct was associated with racial identity. After the Civil War, “good moral character” was framed around the nation’s self-image as a bastion of freedom (versus slavery) and Christian virtues. As a result, sensationalist “yellow peril” propaganda associated Chinese immigrants with dangerous, “un-American” values and conduct.

Journalists and politicians described Chinese laborers as tantamount to slaves for accepting lower wages than “free white” workers. They used Victorian mores of sexuality to invalidate and systematically dismantle the Chinese family. Chinese marriages were condemned as illegitimate because of polygamy; concubinage was falsely equated to antebellum slave harems, debasing all Chinese wives as complicit sex slaves.

Journalist and politician Frank M. Pixley said of the Chinese marriage:

“The true fact is…they are nominal wives. They are not the wives of honor…there is not a family, as we understand the honorable and sacred relation of the family tie, among the Chinese...”

Xenophobia and racism combined with anti-miscegenation laws and socioeconomic hardship to force Chinese laborers to live in large bachelor societies with a need for legitimate sex work. Though there were sex workers of all nationalities, white journalists singled out Chinese sex workers, writing countless lurid stories about “trafficked yellow slaves”, both criminal and victim, doubly guilty via association with their male counterparts, Chinese “slave” laborers.

Journalists racialized discriminatory wages (set by white American employers), polygamy, and prostitution (necessitated by racism and low wages) as uniquely Chinese “slave-like” characteristics so that the newly-emancipated US could use the abolition of slavery to justify race-based discrimination against them. They especially targeted female immigrants, fearing that the “enslaved, mongoloid” children thereof would be, as birthright US citizens, a threat to America’s future as a white, Christian nation.

“The first federal law to restrict immigration to the US was premised on the assumed criminal sexuality of Chinese women.”

Thus, California passed the Anti-Prostitution Act of 1870 to prohibit the “kidnapping and importation of Mongolian, Chinese, and Japanese females for criminal or demoralizing purposes.” Purported to protect trafficking victims, in practice it gave immigration officials complete authority to deem any Asian woman a prostitute and forbid her entry into the state. In 1875, the same year the Statue of Liberty was built, Congress passed the Page Act to nominally exclude Asian “forced laborers” and prostitutes from entering the US. However, because Chinese female immigrants — whether wives or sex workers, trafficked or not — were essentialized as selling themselves into sexual slavery, the Page Act was enforced to exclude and deport all Chinese women.

Conveniently, these gendered, conduct-based exclusions restricted the settlement of Chinese American families and communities while keeping up the pretense that the US is open to all the world’s tired, poor, and huddled masses.

“The Only One Barred Out” political cartoon criticizing Chinese exclusion.
“The Only One Barred Out” political cartoon criticizing Chinese exclusion.

The sex trafficking stereotypes of Chinese women were later applied to other Asian immigrant groups. After the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, US plantations imported Japanese men for cheap labor. Japanese immigrants tried to avoid the fate of the Chinese by assimilating white values and conduct, but this did little to curb racist animosity. White lawmakers suspected “the assumed virtue of the Japanese — i.e. their partial adoption of American customs — makes them the more dangerous as competitors.”

Anti-Japanese race riots in California led to the Gentlemen’s Agreement of 1907, which banned new Japanese immigration — but allowed for family reunification. This exception created a loophole that allowed Japanese bachelors in America to start families via arranged marriages with women in Japan, whom they met through photos, called “picture brides.” Initially tolerated, when Japanese American families began to circumvent alien land laws by leasing land in their US-born children’s names, Japanese women also became a threat.

The picture brides system was spun by white journalists to claim that Japanese women were being trafficked, and the Ladies Agreement of 1921 put a total ban on picture brides, effectively ending immigration from Japan. The policy went on to affect Korean immigrants and refugees after the annexation of Korea by Japan.

Picture brides at Angel Island, California, c. 1910. Courtesy of California State Parks, Number 090–544
Picture brides at Angel Island, California, c. 1910. Courtesy of California State Parks, Number 090–544

Thus, the first law to restrict immigration to the US were premised on the assumed criminal sexuality of Chinese women. This set the precedent both for the legality and method of eventually excluding all Asian and Pacific Island immigration to the US.

The true irony is that children in the US are one of the most frequently sex trafficked populations in the world, and the actual preponderance of sex trade and trafficking via East and Southeast Asian countries came about for global economic reasons directly related to western imperialism. From the sexual exploitation of Vietnamese people in French Indochine; to WWII comfort women kidnapped from China, Korea, and the Philippines being transferred from Japanese soldiers to the US military; to sex work industries surrounding US bases throughout Asia, Asian sex labor has always followed militarism.

These global injustices persist today. In Thailand, there are currently 5 times more commercial sex workers in districts near former U.S. bases than not. The sex trade developed in Korea in response to US militarism has now replaced Korean women with Eastern European and Filipina women, many of whom are trafficked. The 1997 Asian financial crisis hit Southeast Asia especially hard because “the International Monetary Fund’s interest-rate policies and cuts on social-welfare programs not only contributed to the region’s economic problems but also made poor migrants more vulnerable to changing market forces.” Today, the displaced rural poor continue to be exploited for inhumane sex tourism in urban centers, then punished by anti-trafficking pressures from the west. In other words, sex trafficking trades are largely the result of colonialism and imperialism, yet legislation that vilifies the victims thereof are often enacted to bar immigration.

“By targeting marginal immigrants…Congress was able to restrict Chinese immigration while maintaining a veneer of inclusiveness.”

The west’s perception of Asian women, constantly shifting from perpetual prostitute to sex trafficking victim, whichever is most convenient at the time, is an insidious stereotype rooted in the exploitation of Asian labor by white imperialist powers. It was historically used to exclude Asian immigrants and undermine Asian American civil rights. Today it is still a lived reality that is most damaging to the most marginalized members of our communities, like Song Yang.

In June 2018, after a months-long investigation, the Queens DA absolved Vice NYPD of misconduct in Song Yang’s death. However, the continued work of Representatives like Ron T. Kim and Yuh-Line Niou, community activists such as Red Canary Song and DecrimNY, and investigative reporting by Emma Whitford and Melissa Gira Grant have kept public pressure on seeking justice for Song Yang and creating safer conditions for sex workers. Michael Chu continues his community advocacy, leading the Flushing Neighborhood Watch and facilitating the safety and legal redress of Chinese immigrants.

Ron T. Kim and Yuh-Line Niou campaigning for Queens DA candidate Tiffany Caban.
Ron T. Kim and Yuh-Line Niou campaign for Queens DA candidate Tiffany Caban

Asian American communities must learn from the past and actively support this work. For East and Southeast Asian Americans, media representation seems like a perennial issue, as does hypersexualization and fetishization. But it’s not just about Hollywood movies or “yellow fever” on dating apps. Sensationalist, exploitative journalism like Barry and Singer’s New York Times article is another kind of racist representation that needs to be abolished, one that has been used to directly exclude and disenfranchise all Asian Americans.

We also need to ask the tough questions:

“…we all have to learn something from this.”

Remember that the Page Act, “by targeting marginal immigrants — women and prostitutes at that — Congress was able to restrict Chinese immigration while maintaining a veneer of inclusiveness” when it needed to. Eventually, “all Asians and Pacific Islanders from Turkey and Saudi Arabia in the west to the Polynesian Islands in the east” were barred. An attack on the most vulnerable members of our communities is an attack on us all.

Editor’s note: another version of this story was previously published in Hyphen Magazine.

Thanks to Gerrie Lim.

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Diana Lu

Published 10 months ago

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