Out of the Shadows
Story by OLIVER SARIA
Photographs by DIANA KING
Eden, a new film that garnered a heap of awards at this past spring’s South by Southwest film festival in Austin, Texas, deals with the issue of sex trafficking—in the United States. That statement is enough to raise eyebrows. Both its star Jamie Chung and the woman who inspired the film’s story, Chong Kim, hope it also spurs action to combat this hidden crime.
Jamie Chung arrives for our interview at a Los Angeles café bearing a gift for Chong Kim, the woman upon whom Chung’s latest film, Eden, is based. They hug one another warmly and sit side by side. Kim shares photos from her smartphone of her 12-year-old son and scrolls through some snapshots taken during the South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin, Texas, which both attended and where Eden won three awards: Narrative Feature Audience Award, SXSW Chicken & Egg Emergent Narrative Woman Director Award (Megan Griffiths) and Special Jury Recognition for Performance (Jamie Chung). There’s an ease and lightness between them that belies the gravity of the film, inspired by Kim’s horrific true-life ordeal.
Set in 1994, Chung plays Hyun Jae, a Korean American high school student in New Mexico who enters a bar with a fake ID. She leaves with a seemingly kindhearted fireman who turns out to be a wrangler for a sex trafficking ring, headed by a corrupt law enforcement official. Imprisoned in a storage unit with dozens of other girls, Hyun’s captor gives her the name Eden and forces her to become a prostitute. Tortured, raped and injected with narcotics, Eden escapes her two years of captivity by deftly rising through the ranks of the organization.
On this bright Sunday afternoon, Chung, based in Los Angeles, and Kim, who lives in Dallas, seem like friends reuniting over brunch, nothing to indicate the extraordinary circumstances that have brought them together.
Kim opens the gift box that Chung hands to her, revealing a purple enamel bracelet framed in gold. Kim immediately puts it on. Chung presses her arm next to hers, “See? They match.” Chung is wearing the same bracelet in orange. Her gesture drives home the point that whatever happens to Eden, these two women are bonded, not merely by the film, but by a cause.
That cause involves the rampant, yet seldom-discussed issue of human trafficking. Federal law defines victims of human trafficking as those induced to perform labor or a commercial sex act through force, fraud or coercion. Legislation passed in 2000 states that any child under age 18 who performs a commercial sex act is considered a victim of trafficking, regardless of whether force, fraud or coercion is involved.
Within U.S. borders, its victims are American-born and immigrants alike, the common denominator being that the most vulnerable in society often suffer the greatest risk: the teenage runaway who falls prey to a pimp for shelter and protection; the rural peasant from China who incurs debt for passage to America and gets trapped in indentured servitude at an illegal sweatshop; the young woman from Korea, duped by a recruiter, who finds herself forced to perform sex work in a massage parlor in Los Angeles’ Koreatown.
There are as many as 27 million men, women and children involved in forced labor, bonded labor and forced prostitution around the world, and upwards of 100,000 people live in bondage in the United States, according to State Department estimates. Some 600,000 to 800,000 people are trafficked across international borders each year, with 14,500 to 17,500 trafficked into the U.S., according to a 2005 U.S. State Department report.
Sex trafficking, in particular, is believed to be the second most lucrative organized crime, experts say.
“Drugs can only be sold once,” explains Kathleen Ja Sook Bergquist, associate professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas’ School of Social Work and a licensed clinical social worker. “But a person can be sold over and over again.”
Bergquist co-founded Bamboo Bridges, a Las Vegas based grassroots organization that seeks to raise awareness about human trafficking in the Asian community and also provides resources for victims. According to the group’s website, Asian Pacific American women represent the largest segment of persons trafficked into the United States, and Las Vegas has been identified as among the top 17 destination cities for human trafficking.
But given the hidden nature of the crime, “no one knows exactly what the numbers are,” says Bergquist. She notes, however, in the Asian American community, in particular, this so-called hidden crime actually happens in plain sight.
“It happens in brothels and massage parlors and hostess bars,” affirms Sue Jong Park, supervising social worker for the Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking, also known as CAST, a survivor-focused service organization based in Los Angeles, which is a major trafficking hub.
“But we’re [also] seeing a lot of cases that happen inside the trafficker’s home, which is really just a general house on the street,” Park adds. “That’s the place where the traffickers run their hidden business.”
She offered this case study as an example:
“There was a Korean woman in her mid-30s who decided to come to the United States because she was promised by her [male Korean] trafficker that she was going to be working as a waitress and she’d earn five times her usual salary. But then she got into the sex trafficking situation from the first day of her arrival, and she was abused and threatened by her trafficker every day and was forced to serve customers and perform sex work at the trafficker’s house [in L.A.’s Koreatown]. It lasted for three years. She escaped the situation when police raided the house, and she was able to get connected to us through a referral from law enforcement.”
These neighborhood brothels are often sophisticated operations with ties to Asian gangs, says Bergquist. “They are on a track or circuit, keeping victims moving from one house to another, so that they are never able to know where they are,” she says.
She pointed to two high-profile raids: Operation Jade Blade in 1998 and Operation Dollhouse in 2007 that involved multi-agency raids across state lines targeting networks of hidden brothels in massage parlors, apartment complexes and suburban homes in largely Asian neighborhoods between Las Vegas and Southern California. Of course, the problem goes beyond these geographic regions. Two years ago, authorities uncovered a sex trafficking operation in a massage parlor on Long Island, N.Y., involving a Chinese owner who had tricked several women from Korea to serve as sex workers. Suffolk County prosecutors said Jin Hua Cui, of Flushing, N.Y., would tell the victims if they did not cooperate, she would have them killed by the Chinese mafia. Police said Cui also threatened to tell their families and community they are prostitutes. “The embarrassment factor back in Flushing is huge,” Detective Lt. Edward Reilly, of the Suffolk County Police Department, told a local newspaper at the time.
This case touches on the fact that forced prostitution operations are able to exist partly because traffickers exploit Asian cultural traits—namely silence and shame—to coerce victims. “Not surprisingly, shame and stigmatization have been the most common tool for traffickers to threaten Asian victims,” says Park of CAST. “Most of my Asian clients have told me that their traffickers used to threaten them that they’re going to call their families and their friends and disclose their stories on their sex work in the United States, which victims would never want to imagine.”
Bergquist adds that traffickers often scare the women about law enforcement, telling them: “If you go to law enforcement, they will arrest you and treat you like a criminal.”
“As an immigrant group, we just keep our nose to the grindstone, and we avoid any negative light,” says Bergquist. “There’s such a lack of information within the community and a lack of intestinal fortitude to really address the issue of sex trafficking.”
Bergquist says, even after the victims escape, “the shame becomes a huge barrier for them to move on, especially when they have to access the services in the community.”
Chong Kim has experienced this firsthand. The hardest scene in the film for her to watch wasn’t the various depictions of abuse, torture and rape; it was the final scene. In real life, an uplifting Hollywood ending was more elusive. “The survival after the trafficking, that was the hardest part,” she confesses, “because while you’re being trafficked you don’t have time to think, you don’t have time to feel. It was harder to integrate. There is a huge shame factor.”
Part of her initial challenge was getting sober after being force-fed drugs by her captors, she says. She’s been clean from cocaine and methamphetamine for 12 years now. And it took her nearly six years to tell her story publicly. By 2003 Kim had become a volunteer domestic violence legal advocate in Minneapolis, Minn., where she attended a panel discussion on human trafficking. When a supposed expert on the panel told an audience member that trafficking could not happen to Americans, Kim raised her hand and said, “Yes, it can because it happened to me.”
In 1994, at the age of 18, Kim, who was born in Korea and immigrated to the U.S. as a toddler, met a man at a bar in Dallas, where she lived. Within three weeks of dating, she fell in love, she says, and under the pretense of meeting his parents in Florida, she agreed to an overnight trip. But she says he ended up taking her to Oklahoma instead. “He tricked me,” Chong says, “and put me in an abandoned house, and that’s when he contacted the trafficker.” According to Kim, he burned her identification documents and waited for the traffickers to pick her up. After Kim was moved to an apartment complex by her captor, a suspicious neighbor called the police who rescued her.
Kim says her captor was never caught. Meanwhile, she was referred by authorities to a nearby women’s shelter, but a staff person inexplicably kicked her out, she says. “The woman said, ‘Because I don’t know if you’re an illegal immigrant,’ even though I had no accent … She was being ignorant and racist by telling me she wanted me to prove that I was a legal citizen,” says Kim. Why didn’t she call home? Kim does not want to get into the specifics, but at the time, she was estranged from her family. Not knowing where to turn, Kim says she accepted the aid of a middle-aged woman in the neighborhood who offered her work for an escort service. But that woman ended up being a middle person who sold her to traffickers in Las Vegas with ties to organized crime, she says.
Shockingly, at that point, her hellish two-year odyssey had only just begun.
She would suffer rape and torture while under captivity, along with other women, she says, and was heavily drugged. “To be honest, I actually wanted to die,” she confesses. She was often defiant because she wanted her captors to kill her to escape the misery, she describes. “When I realized it was a game to them, that’s when I decided well, I’m going to play too,” she says. “There’s a huge disassociation that comes with being exploited. It’s the only way you can save your life.”
She would eventually gain the trust of the head trafficker, living in his Las Vegas penthouse, she says, and then one day fled.
In 2005, after years of coping with her trauma, Kim began to share her experiences to various groups, news outlets and daytime talk shows.
Hollywood eventually came calling. She was approached by various writers and producers who wanted to adapt her story, frequently inserting male characters in savior roles. “They wanted to keep the Asian girl,” Kim recounts, “but have someone like Russell Crowe or Johnny Depp to play an undercover cop or a customer and go after these people, and he meets Eden and he’s so captivated. First of all, I never had a love story like that …” Kim begins. Chung chimes in, “I love how men love to romanticize being a customer and then falling in love and rescuing the girl. It’s like, that sh-t never happens. Noble guys don’t go to brothels.”
When eventual Eden co-screenwriter, Richard B. Phillips told Kim he’d like to write a script about her, she assumed nothing would come of it. Four years later, in 2009, he shared his finished draft. There was no male savior. The lead character remained her own heroine. Ultimately, the finished product presented an exceedingly rare opportunity for the right actress: a gritty, dramatic lead role written specifically for an Asian American woman.
“As soon as I finished reading it,” Chung recounts, “I knew it was something I had to be a part of. It was a story that I wanted to help tell.” As an adolescent girl born and raised in San Francisco, she had learned about “comfort women,” the euphemism for sexual slaves used by the Japanese military during World War II, while attending Korean culture classes. “They showed us a video of these women doing interviews of how they were forced against their will and tricked into sex slavery in the war front,” recalls Chung. “It was something that really spoke to me at that age. I’m sitting there thinking, ‘That could be me. That happened to girls my age.’ It really affected me, and I think that’s another reason why I was so attracted to this film.”
And to execute it properly, Chung says she was willing to shoot graphic scenes. “I told [the director] Megan [Griffiths]. ‘Whatever you want, I’ll do it.’ She said, ‘That’s not my style of movie. I personally wouldn’t want to watch it.’ ‘Oh, thank God,’ I thought.”
In the end, the hardest scene to shoot actually didn’t even involve her. She sat off to the side while a group of male actors playing frat brothers rehearsed a scene involving a simulated gangbang. As they stood in a circle, rabidly hooting and chanting, it felt a tad too convincing for Chung. “Still, to this
day, it’s the most disturbing thing for me to watch, I don’t know why,” she says. “I guess because all the boys look so innocent, they’re not creepy, they can get girls if they want, but they chose to hire these girls as entertainment for the house. These men, just the excitement of the abuse. It grossed me out.”
Yet, like most of the film, the gratuitous details are left mostly to the audience’s imagination, which only enhances the film’s gut-wrenching quality, relying on the characters’ emotions to convey the true aftermath. Reviews during SXSW have rightly lauded Jamie’s evocative performance. The Austin Chronicle wrote, “Jamie Chung gives a dynamic performance, exhibiting extraordinary growth in her character as she attempts to usurp power from those depraved degenerates who have taken everything from her. Her climb toward empowerment is wholly captivating.” From Variety, “It’s a tribute to Chung’s subtle, multilayered performance that she maintains sympathy even when it’s not entirely clear how far she’s gone over to the dark side.”
It is the kind of meaty role that could possibly make her a star or at least burnish a career already on the rise, but she insists that has never been her motivation. “It goes deeper than that,” she asserts. “It’s a story that needs to be shared.”
Unfortunately, the film has proven to be a difficult sell for distributors, despite the accolades it has received. “It’s certainly not the ideal date night movie,” Chung concedes. “It’s hard to get people to pay attention to a subject matter that is going to make them uncomfortable.” Kim was recently in Cannes, France, to help sell the film, where it was screened concurrently with the film festival. At time of publication, however, the film had yet to secure a national distributor (though, it does have international distribution).
This, at a time when the issue is finally gaining traction nationwide.
Just last month, Deputy Associate Attorney General A. Marisa Chun released a statement saying that the Department of Justice’s commitment to preventing and combating human trafficking “has never been stronger.” Citing collaborations with multiple federal agencies over the past three years, including grant funding to Asian Pacific Islander victim services organizations, she noted the number of forced labor and adult sex trafficking prosecutions has increased by more than 30 percent. “In 2011 alone, the Department of Justice charged nearly 120 defendants, an all-time high, in forced labor and adult sex trafficking cases,” said Chun. She also added that “more work remains to be done.”
Some states are also pushing for stronger legislation, with California leading the effort. Polaris Project, a leading nongovernmental organization, ranks all 50 states in terms of which ones possess a comprehensive anti-trafficking legal framework. In 2007, when Polaris began its rankings, only 28 states had anti-trafficking criminal statutes. As of August 2011, 45 states now have sex trafficking statues and 48 have labor trafficking statutes. California currently ranks at the top, with the most comprehensive legal framework. This November, the Californians Against Sexual Exploitation, or CASE, Act Initiative will appear on the ballot, and, if it passes, would make that framework even stronger. The most aggressive measures proposed by the initiative include: increasing penalties for human trafficking, including prison sentences up to 15 years to life and fines up to $1.5 million; requiring a person convicted of trafficking to register as a sex offender; requiring sex offenders to provide Internet access and online identity information; and prohibiting evidence that the victim engaged in sexual conduct from being used against the victim in court proceedings.
Daphne Phung, founder and executive director of California Against Slavery, the nonprofit organization behind the initiative, says she has encountered scores of trafficking survivors as she campaigns up and down the state. “Some of them are not ready to speak up yet, but they confide in me,” she says, “and some are ready to speak up and be at the podium. But all survivors want to know that they can help prevent the next victim.”
Phung’s involvement in this advocacy began in 2009, after she watched MSNBC Dateline’s Sex Slaves in America. “That evening I couldn’t sleep. At the end of the night, what it came down to is that the law has to change and citizens have to be awakened.”
Phung’s road to activism seems a testament to the power of the media to raise awareness and even spark action.
Chung and Kim are hoping Eden can also serve as a powerful awareness tool.
As a survivor and an activist, shedding light on the issue of human trafficking has become Kim’s life’s work. Based in Dallas, where she lives with her husband and son from a previous relationship, she travels the country speaking out on the issue. She also serves as a co-producer for a forthcoming documentary series about sex trafficking around the globe, titled Street Dreams. “When I do speak, I know I’m speaking for all the girls that didn’t get out,” says Kim. “People now know that it happened. People will now start to bring more awareness.”
Before Chung departs from our interview, Kim makes sure to cover a last-minute wardrobe detail for their photo shoot the following morning. “I wanted to show you something.” Apparently, Kim came to the interview bearing gifts as well. She unfolds two black “California Against Slavery” T-shirts with the silhouette of a child around the tagline: “It’s Time for Justice.”
“It’s yours to keep,” Kim tells her.
“Oh, that’s awesome. We definitely have to wear this tomorrow, for sure,” Chung replies.
After they exchange their good-byes, Kim reads the card that accompanied the bracelet. In it, Chung thanks Kim for the inspiration she’s given her, and she expresses how honored she is to tell her story.
At one point during the interview, Chung declares that the issue highlighted in Eden is very much a part of her now. “Because I’m aware of what’s going on,” she says. “I’m never going to leave it behind.”
This article was published in the June 2012 issue of KoreAm. Subscribe today! To purchase a single issue copy of the June 2012 KoreAm, click below.