'She was chained like a dog': The voiceless victims of Asia's sex slavery trade

A handout photo. Sylvia Yu Friedman takes a break from interviewing survivors in Kunming, China, in 2011.
PHOTO: South China Morning Post

On a cold winter’s night in January 2013, Sylvia Yu Friedman drove an hour out of Kunming, China, to a small, dim-lit market in Yunnan province, on the border of Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam.

She and two other women were there with a mission: to film inside one of the most notorious red light districts in southern China, one which sources had told her was home to hundreds of young women – some of whom were as young as 16 years old – who had been trafficked from neighbouring countries.

At about 10pm on a weekend, she walked through the market with a camera hidden in the shoulder strap of her backpack and mobile phone in hand. Her counterparts didn’t follow.

Yu Friedman walked fast and her heart beat even faster. Although she had spent barely a few minutes down the narrow dead end of the market, her presence had caught the eye of the local heavies.

Just as she hopped into the car, two mamasans and three young men appeared out of nowhere and surrounded their vehicle, demanding they get out and hand over their phones.

“They told us, ‘we know you took photos and you’re posting them on Weibo. Get out of the car’,” Yu Friedman recalls.

“At the moment I thought I was dead … I really thought my life was over.”

A handout photo. Sylvia in Kunming in 2010 on one of her trips to interview survivors of sex trafficking.
Photo: South China Morning Post

Yu Friedman threw the camera from her backpack onto the back seat of the car as she got out and deleted the footage from her iPhone in a matter of seconds.

For 15 minutes a confrontation ensued until suddenly someone shouted: “The police are coming!”

Footage from the incident would later form part of a documentary that was aired in Hong Kong titled Sex Slaves in China, which recorded the price of women trafficked as between 10,000 yuan to 20,000 yuan (US$1,600-US$3,200) depending on how attractive the buyer deemed them.

The story is part of a new book published by Yu Friedman late last year.

A Long Road to Justice tells the stories of a two-decade career in Asia, which began in journalism and later shifted to philanthropy for ultra-high net worth family offices, all while campaigning and fighting for the rights of women forced into a line of work where they had few rights.

Yu Friedman’s new book is the third she’s published, and her second on sex trafficking in Asia.

Her first book, Silenced No More: Voices of 'Comfort Women', published on Aug 5, 2015, explores the history of thousands of women who were trafficked into sex slavery by the Imperial Japanese military before and during World War II.

A handout photo. Sylvia Yu Friedman is speaking with a group of migrant women at a non-profit in Beijing in 2007. 
PHOTO: South China Morning Post

Yu Friedman’s latest work is quite different to her first, she says. In A Long Road to Justice, she asks the reader to join her on her journey through interviewing victims of trafficking.

She writes about the stories of victims as she saw them and the feelings she experienced while completing her work.

“I share how I felt when I met these victims so that the reader can identify with me and my journey because they may not be able to identify with victims or survivors, but they read and live vicariously through my experience,” she says.

The new book is also a story of coming to terms with her own identity. It is now in development to be made into a feature film.

“I also delve into my personal experiences as well; hitting rock bottom in my personal life; exploring my self-rejection of my Korean heritage,” she says.

“There’s a thread of generational trauma not only in me but in just about every Korean and Chinese person that I’ve met,” she says. “That’s because the wounds of the war were never healed, they were never resolved, which has led to generational bitterness.”

While her journey is present, it is only one part of the bigger picture she paints of trafficking in Asia.

Says Yu Friedman: “I felt like it was a letter of love and compassion to tell the stories of the voiceless but also the frontline workers and the unsung heroes who sacrifice a lot to help these people.”

A handout photo. The front cover of Sylvia Yu Friedman’s A Long Road to Justice.
Photo: South China Morning Post

The following excerpts from A Long Road to Justice: Stories from the Frontlines in Asia are published with permission from Penguin Random House SEA:

Chapter 1: Near-death experience in Kunming

It was my first time in such a remote red-light district. I sensed the danger. I sensed the women were controlled and not free to happily walk away, and yet I was walking freely outside. This paradox was inconceivable and heartbreaking. I reflected on the unjust nature of life.

It is just a matter of chance where one is born and into which family. This and a host of other circumstances beyond the control of these women had led them into a destiny of unimaginable trauma and enslavement.

I pretended to look at my phone but felt weighed down by the oppressive spirit of the place. What was I doing here? Amy had advised that I film in this particular alley, pretending to be a tourist who had lost her way. I depended on Amy for every step I took but now that I was here, it seemed too dangerous, too close for comfort; I couldn't shake off the feeling that I was possibly risking my own life.

But I told myself I needed to expose this wicked racket.

I felt a rush of adrenaline as I held out my phone camera and walked by that surreal scene of window after window of young scantily-clad girls who looked like anguished mannequins with painted faces. I felt victorious once I had captured the undeniable images on both my phone and the small camera I had hidden in my backpack.

No one had been able to get this on film before. It was a weighty coup that would expose evil. After feeling euphoric for a few seconds and thinking that I had outsmarted the gangsters, I walked back calmly to the jeep where Mary and Tina were waiting for me.

All of a sudden, we were surrounded by three thugs in their twenties and menacing mama-sans in their forties.

Instantly, I regretted putting my life in the hands of Amy and Mary. I felt I made a huge mistake and I was going to pay with my life. The men were dressed in black. Their eyes bulged out of their sockets. They had hard lines etched on their foreheads. I suspected the two mama-sans were former prostitutes who had clawed their way through the ranks to become brothel managers.

A handout photo. Sylvia with a street child in Poipet, Cambodia.
Photo: South China Morning Post

I wasn’t sure who scared me more: the middle-aged women or the young male gangsters. They screamed at us in Chinese, saying, ‘Give me your phone!

Show me your phone! We saw you taking photos and posting them on Weibo!’ They were screaming and pointing their fingers an inch away from our faces. I panicked and began sweating. I felt nauseated.

Somehow, I had been able to take off the small camera from my backpack and throw it into the car-seat pocket. I hastily moved almost numb fingers across my phone and deleted the footage in a matter of seconds. This was a miracle in and of itself since I was not very familiar with my iPhone.

“What do we do? What do we do?” we asked in unison. The confusion and panic mingled together, choking us and, I’m convinced, cutting off the blood supply to our brains. Mary didn’t have any answers either, and I felt like she was ready to throw me to the wolves.

Tina, the driver, froze and then suggested we get out of the car. She was terrified. In hindsight, that was a mistake. I was furious with her. But we had no idea whether or not these men had weapons or if they would have broken our windows and slashed our tires.

Foolishly, I got out of the car after mixed signals from my accomplices. Mary crumbled and was barely coherent. Tina seemed like she was going to escape and leave Mary and me behind. I felt her sense of self-preservation kicking in.

I showed them my phone and said I had nothing. But they continued to scream obscenities and accused me of posting photos of their brothels on Weibo.

Then, unexpectedly, in the midst of the screaming, a man yelled, ‘The police are coming! The police!’ With these words, they scattered like cockroaches under a harsh spotlight. It was freakish. It was my first miracle.

A handout photo. Sylvia teaching wartime Japanese sex slavery at the City University in Hong Kong in March 2018.
Photo: South China Morning Post

Chapter 3: ‘He chained me like a dog’

Back in 2011 before my television documentary filming trip, I visited Door of Hope’s shelter in Yunnan to interview some of the survivors and learnt that two of the thirty girls there had been sold as brides to poor farmers but were able to escape.

I spoke with one of these young women, Mei Li, who had an aloof, tough demeanour and seemed sceptical of my intentions. She was short and portly and had caramel highlights in her chin-length hair. She wore eyeshadow and lipstick on her heart-shaped face that made her look older.

Mei Li was sold as a fourteen-year-old bride, then locked up in chains like a dog by her elderly husband and contracted HIV later when selling her body. My heart felt heavy but I braced myself for the sad retelling of her tale.

With tears in her eyes and almost as if she were having traumatic flashbacks, she told me about what had happened:

“She knocked on a door on the third floor. A man with a cigarette in his mouth opened the door and eyed me up and down. She said, ‘Here she is, she had dinner a few hours ago.’ And then she walked away towards the stairs. I called out, feeling desperate, ‘Auntie, where are you going? I need to go home!’ The man was wearing a black turtleneck and grey pants. He pried me from the door and forced me into a room and locked the door.

Mei Li in 2011 in Kunming, China.
PHOTO: Sylvia Yu Friedman

“I panicked and couldn’t breathe. I screamed for days. There was no clock, no phone. I looked for food and water in the closet. There was nothing. ‘Let me out, let me out, I want to go home,’ I shouted and pounded at the door. All I could hear was the television and smell the cigarette smoke.

‘I’m hungry,’ I shouted, but my voice was strained. I was starved for days, and later learnt that I was there for two weeks. I was given water occasionally and had to use the wastebasket to relieve myself. By the time a few men came in the room, I could barely move from the floor. I was in a fetal position on my side. ‘Help me,’ I whimpered. ‘I need to go home’.”

I was gripped and was in shock for her. How could this happen in our day and age? Are there monsters out there who would trick and kidnap a girl like this? But there was an evil familiarity, a sense that I had heard this same story before.

The faces of the elderly women survivors of Japanese military sex slavery, euphemistically known as ‘comfort women’, flashed before my eyes. Most of these women were Mei Li’s age – fourteen or fifteen years old – when they were deceived into thinking they were going to work as a nurse or factory worker. Instead, they were taken to a brothel and raped repeatedly.

The cycle keeps repeating with no end in sight. I felt this was a profound moment for me, like a confirmation of my calling as a documenter of these atrocities and human rights abuses against women.

A handout photo. Sylvia Yu Friedman with survivor Kim Soon-duk in Washington DC in 2001.
PHOTO: South China Morning Post

It was hard to write on paper about the violence she experienced. It was unbearable, and I could see the pain in her eyes. I hoped that there was some kind of release and healing as she unburdened herself. But it felt like I had taken her yoke, and it was crushing. I told myself that I had to really stand in her shoes to be able to write her story with power – this gave me the motivation to keep on going.

“I was fourteen. Only when I went to this man’s small and musty home – this man who was old enough to be my grandfather – did I realise to my horror and disgust that I had been sold as a bride to this wretched and violent man. He was a farmer, and we all knew that men like him couldn’t afford to marry the traditional way.

“‘I’ve paid for you. Now you’re my wife,’ he grunted. He chained me like a dog in one of the rooms. He unchained me when he wanted to use me’.”

A handout photo. Sylvia Yu Friedman wearing a hanbok, a Korean traditional dress.
PHOTO: South China Morning Post

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.