It's easy to miss the Hong Kong Art Salon, located on a commercial strip of Taraval Street in the city's outer reaches. The squat building shares the block with a Chinese bakery and a martial arts studio, and every 15 minutes, a Muni train rattles through like a small temblor. The whitewashed exterior is stained, the plate-glass windows streaked and grimy. Except for a sign promoting $8 haircuts, it could be mistaken for the office of a not-very-successful car insurance salesman.
For months I'd been hearing from federal investigators about the salon and its owner, a Hong Kong native named Yuen Ling Poon who immigrated here in the mid-1990s. I wanted to know more about her, so one Sunday last fall, I walked in off the street and asked for anappointment. The place was deserted except for two bored-looking kids at a play table and the sole employee—slim, in her mid-30s, sporting a shaggy haircut she hadn't bothered to blow-dry—who seemed amused by my request.
A week later, the same woman greeted me quizzically at the door and led me to a stylist's chair. The counters were fuzzy with discarded hair; the linoleum floor looked like it hadn't been mopped for months. A dying jungle of plants lined a shelf, their roots drowning and fetid in dirty apple juice jars. The same two kids I'd seen last time sat at their table squabbling, while a gaunt man with sharp features and deep-set eyes—the woman's husband, it seemed—ate his lunch.
I requested deep maroon highlights. The woman nodded and returned with a bowl of dark red goo and a brush. I watched her rip up several large sheets of aluminum foil into jagged pieces; apparently she wouldn't be using the neat, precut foil squares common at most salons. She dipped the brush in the goo, slathered it on chunks of hair, and wrapped the sections into messy metallic twists that protruded in every direction.
The phone rang. "It's for you, Ling," the man said in Cantonese, confirming my suspicions that this was the woman I had come to see. Joining her at the styling station, he seemed more practiced and confident than she did, selecting neater sections of hair and painting on the dye with more restraint. "Not like that," he scolded her more than once.
Poon wasn't much of a conversationalist. "How much do you pay for rent?" she demanded at one point. When she finished with the foil, she handed me the latest issue of Jane and told me to wait. I listened as she tried to cajole her son into doing his homework. Then, remembering my highlights, she moved me, a bit sheepishly, to a dryer. After another ten minutes, Poon led me to a line of sinks in the back. Her husband watched disapprovingly as she began untwisting the knots of foil. "Let her lie down all the way," he snapped. As Poon guided my head into the sink, I had a clear view of a traditional Chinese shrine on the rear wall. She ran my hair under warm water, handed me a towel, and led me back to the chair.
I looked in the mirror, horrified. My hair was the color of watermelon Kool-Aid.
The feds were right. Running a salon was surely not the only way Poon had spent the last few years earning a living.
It was a clear but typically chilly night a year ago January, and Yuen Ling Poon was visiting the apartment that she rented at 2054 19th Avenue, in a pale greenish-blue split-level house just a few blocks from the Hong Kong Art Salon. For almost six months now, she had been paying $2,000 a month for the sparsely furnished three-bedroom flat—originally two bedrooms until she rented additional space to accommodate her thriving business. Around 8:30, someone pounded on the door. Used to customers arriving day and night, Poon swung it open. On the porch, a dozen federal agents from the Department of Homeland Security stood at the ready.
Poon tried to slam the door shut. But the lead agent, Michael Desmond, a senior investigator specializing in Asian organized crime, easily overpowered her, and the rest of the crew swarmed in. A few of the men began sifting through drawers and closets. Others fanned into the hallway and kicked open a bedroom door. The scene they discovered was utterly unromantic: a mattress covered with just a sheet and towel, a table littered with condoms and lube, an Asian woman huddled in a corner, a middle-aged man, also Asian, on the edge of the mattress. Next door, agents found another woman trying to escape out a window; the third bedroom was empty.
In the kitchen, Desmond noticed Poon fidgeting in a chair and ordered her to get up. On the seat was a journal decorated with flowers, its food-stained pages filled with names and phone numbers—the women she employed as prostitutes and their johns. In another room, Desmond found a Hello Kitty address book with more names and numbers. Poon was indignant. "Why are you here?" she protested again and again. "This is a waste of time. Give me the ticket so I can pay the fine!" Over the next five hours, the agents detained 12 men who knocked at the front door, expecting business as usual.
For all the comings and goings that night, Poon was hardly San Francisco's version of Heidi Fleiss or the Mayflower Madam, servicing the city's rich and famous. She was just the brothel owner next door—running a small business catering to an almost exclusively Asian, middle-class clientele, earning enough to pay the mortgage on a beige and blue town house in the outer Mission and put away some cash. (The day after the raid, agents found $112,000 in mostly hundred dollar bills in two safe-deposit boxes at Bank of America's Chinatown branch.) Nor was she unique; at almost the same time Desmond and his colleagues were searching her apartment, teams of agents were descending on four other unassuming houses on ordinary streets in the Sunset and Cole Valley—every one of them allegedly a bordello frequented by Asian men and staffed by Asian women mostly brought here illegally to work as prostitutes. In all, nine people were arrested that night: Poon and another brothel owner, six prostitutes, and one of the johns at Poon's flat—a big enough tally to titillate the neighbors but hardly enough to make a dent in the Bay Area's flourishing prostitution scene, which has seen dozens of raids on brothels from Antioch to San Jose, nearly all of them located in homes and storefronts in neighborhoods as unsexy as the Sunset. In San Francisco alone, 1,540 arrests were made last year (1,512 for prostitution and 28 for "promoting prostitution").
When people think about the sex trade in the Bay Area, they think of the Mitchell Brothers and the strip clubs on Broadway; they think of transvestites in the Tenderloin and escort-service ads in the back of the Bay Guardian. They think of the bacchanalia of the Barbary Coast and a citizenry so tolerant that San Francisco's former district attorney publicly advocated legalizing some forms of prostitution. For the most part, they do not think of brothels operating out of nondescript apartments and strip malls in the fog belt. Yet according to investigators, small-time sex entrepreneurs like Poon account for a major—and growing—part of the region's prostitution industry, which has strong ties to immigrant communities and Asian organized crime. The Poon story—how she got into the business, how she got caught, what happened to the women who worked for her—is really the story of the Bay Area's booming Asian sex trade: extremely lucrative, largely invisible, and, despite what many people want to believe, far from benign.
Through her attorney, Poon declined to be interviewed for this story. But she has insisted that she became a madam pretty much by accident. Poon told investigators that she started out as just another young Asian immigrant who saw the beauty business, not the sex business, as her entrée to the American middle class. After arriving legally from Hong Kong in 1995, she obtained her hairstylist's license in 2000 and began running the Hong Kong Art Salon in 2001. But she had more space than customers, so she began renting rooms in the rear of the salon to women she thought were massage therapists. A few weeks later, she told police, she was shocked—shocked—to discover that some of the masseuses were turning tricks. In what she described as a lapse in judgment, Poon decided to let her tenants continue selling sex in return for a cut of the profits. These must have been substantial; neighbors reported that a steady stream of Asian men visited the salon for 45 minutes at a time, and since many of them were nearly bald, they obviously had something besides haircuts on their minds.
At some point, Poon admitted, she crossed another line, from passive profiteer to eager entrepreneur. Business was so brisk that in mid-2003, she decided to rent out the larger and cushier 19th Avenue apartment, but even it wasn't big enough, so when another room became available, she grabbed it. She started sending customers to the new location by writing the address and her cell phone number on the back of salon business cards. And to keep clients coming back, Poon made sure she had a regular supply of new inventory, replacing two of the three prostitutes who worked for her every couple of weeks. Some of the new girls came directly from Asia, investigators say; others worked an Asian sex circuit that included brothels and massage parlors across the United States.
This is what makes the feds so interested in Poon and people like her. According to investigators, virtually all the prostitutes in this circuit were brought into the country illegally by a worldwide network of recruiters and agents who target Asian women for the sex trade. Some came here knowing what they were in for. "The lure is incredible," Desmond says. "You can make $30,000 a month, easy." But others were forced into virtual sexual slavery to pay off their debts to smugglers and traffickers. "They're brought here on false promises," Desmond says. "They have no English skills; they need to eat." Even when they gain their freedom, many believe prostitution is the only viable option that is open to them.
No one has charged Poon with being a major player in this international network, much less a trafficker, and her attorney, Bill Fazio, denies that any of the prostitutes at her brothel were coerced. "People were working for [Poon] as independent contractors," he says. "They could come and go. She provided a place for women already predisposed to this work. None of the girls were mistreated in any way. I'm not saying it doesn't happen, but my client wasn't engaged in any of that."
Indeed, one of the women arrested that night, a 23-year-old named Ming,* seemed more than satisfied by her arrangement with Poon. She told agents that she earned about $800 a day at the brothel (ten men at $120 each, minus Poon's one-third cut). When investigators offered to help her get out of the business, she declined. Instead, she made a phone call and a young Asian man who said he was her boyfriend picked her up from the police station and whisked her away.
But another woman, a 30-year-old Korean named Jihyun,* who had been working for Poon since she arrived in the country in 2001, told agents she had been lied to by smugglers and was not at the brothel by choice. Her attorney, Kavitha Sreeharsha of Asian Pacific Islander Legal Outreach in San Francisco, declines to offer details of her client's experience with Poon, other than to say, "Jihyun did not have the kind of freedom and self-determination that she has today." Indeed, Jihyun has been certified as a trafficking victim under a four-and-a-half-year-old federal law that grants social services and immigration visas to people who help prosecutors nail their exploiters. She recently graduated from a program for trafficking victims and is trying to learn English.
Whatever the truth about Jihyun and Poon's relationship, one thing is certain: places like the 19th Avenue apartment are where many trafficked Asian women end up, whether they want to be there or not. Ask the typical resident of fun-loving, sex-positive San Francisco whether the city should crack down on prostitution, and you'll hear how hypocritical it is for society to get in the middle of arrangements between consenting adults. But what should we do when one of the parties is not consenting freely but is too afraid, or just too powerless, to speak up?
About four and a half miles from the Sunset, a hulking brown brick building at the corner of Stockton and Sacramento Streets in Chinatown stands as a testament to the enduring mistreatment of Asian women in San Francisco. In its basement, a secret passageway leads to a narrow alley—a portal to freedom for thousands of Chinese girls who had come to America expecting to work as domestics during the gold rush era, only to be sold into brothels once they arrived.
White Methodist missionaries opened the building in the mid-1800s as a safe haven for Chinese prostitutes who had been duped into the trade, and it was eventually named the Donaldina Cameron House, after a woman who dedicated 40 years to this kind of work. When changes in the law seemed to end the problem of forced prostitution, the House turned to helping the Asian community in other ways. Now, though, the trafficking issue has percolated to the surface again, and the House has decided to resume its earlier work. Says Executive Director Doreen Der-McLeod, "It's like déjà vu."
The federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act, enacted in 2000, defines a trafficked person as someone who is forced to work against his or her will through fraud, physical violence, or psychological coercion. "Typically," Sreeharsha says, "these mechanisms include holding their passports, making physical threats to their safety and their family, threatening their deportation, and holding a debt over them." (She claims that her client, Jihyun, "faced some of these challenges," though Fazio denies it.) No one knows how many people fall victim to this modern-day form of indentured servitude, but the Justice Department estimates that 14,500 people were trafficked into the United States in 2004. According to the CIA, the largest number come from Asia, and most are believed to be women. Not surprisingly, California's immigrant centers—Los Angeles and San Francisco—are where many end up.
Trafficked people have been found working as maids and nannies, as busboys and sweatshop seamstresses, and as laborers in pesticide-strafed fields. But the most lurid cases involve women forced into sex work. They don't fit a typical profile, other than being desperate to make money and coming from hopelessly poor circumstances in countries such as China, Ukraine, and Mexico. Some know they will be prostitutes when they arrive in the United States but find that they aren't able to stop turning tricks when they want to. Others are completely misled about the work they'll be doing and only discover the truth when it's too late. Most arrive here owing $15,000 to $40,000 to the people who transported them.
In a liberal place like the Bay Area, you'd expect trafficking to be something that no one would defend—and no one does. But scarce resources give law enforcement officials an excuse not to act aggressively. "Police departments don't allot the same resources to these brothels as they do to things they consider more serious crimes," Desmond says. "They view brothels as a nuisance crime." Former Assistant U.S. Attorney Steven Gruel notes that another Sunset brothel, raided the same night as Poon's, had been raided before by the SFPD, only to resume business a day or two later. "[Historically there's been] no prosecution and no further investigation," he says. "[The result has been] a continuation of the problem."
The area's sexual politics also means that public attitudes toward the trafficking issue are mired in ambivalence. Some people argue that the forced-prostitution issue has been exaggerated by conservatives with sex on the brain. (Indeed, at a time when many other programs are being slashed, the Bush administration has earmarked $120 million to battle sexual slavery this year alone.) Others—including some groups that advocate on behalf of sex workers—insist that the way to curtail trafficking is to legalize prostitution, which they claim would reduce the leverage of international syndicates and organized crime on the sex industry and make abuse of women less common.
Norma Hotaling, founder and executive director of a local organization that works with current and former prostitutes, is hardly a right-winger, but she's disturbed by the increase in the number of trafficking victims in San Francisco in recent years and by what she sees as the public's willful ignorance about the issue. "Women have been victimized in the most horrendous ways possible. The men don't care. They just want girls."
Neither decriminalizing prostitution nor raiding brothels will put an end to trafficking, Hotaling says. She thinks authorities need to intervene much earlier—ideally while the women most vulnerable to traffickers are still in their home countries. "Rescuing [the victims] is a good thing," she adds, "but it's like crisis care—it comes after a lot of things have really gone wrong. What we need to look at is prevention."
But for federal investigator Michael Desmond, cracking down on the brothel owners who keep the international syndicates in business is one of the few available ways to attack the trafficking problem. A San Francisco native whose parents immigrated from Ireland, Desmond has spent much of his career working for the Immigration and Naturalization Service (now part of the Department of Homeland Security), battling drug traffickers and human-smuggling rings originating in China. He was the guy who masterminded last year's simultaneous raids in the Sunset—taking the first tips about the goings-on at Poon's apartment from an informant, staking out the flat, even sifting through the garbage and building a case out of hundreds of Crown-brand condom wrappers, empty packages of breast-firming cream, and exhausted tubes of Super Glide lubricant. Desmond has come to see raids on small-time brothels as a vital first step in reining in more serious crime. "If there's prostitution," he says, in what has become something of a mantra, "there's money laundering or extortion or drug smuggling."
Steven Gruel, who has prosecuted a number of Desmond's cases over the past 15 or so years, is, in many ways, his perfect foil. Unlike Desmond, who always wanted to work in law enforcement, Gruel was a free-spirited artist before law school. But he had dreamed of becoming a federal prosecutor ever since reading a biography of onetime Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy in his teens. To get his foot in the door, Gruel applied for a job prosecuting INS cases in San Francisco, far from his Midwest roots. ("In Wisconsin," he jokes, "the only illegal immigrants are Chicagoans coming to the Wisconsin Dells.") Eventually, he was promoted to the organized crime and racketeering strike task force, where much of the focus is on Asian mobsters.
The two men bonded in 1989, when Desmond needed the help of the U.S. Attorney's Office in an illegal reentry case he was investigating. The first prosecutor he talked to said, " ‘That case is not prosecutable,' " Desmond recalls. "She was very rude." Gruel took the case—and won.
Back in the early nineties, when the two began collaborating on the human-smuggling problem, such cases usually involved cramped and filthy "misery ships" ferrying hundreds of people at a time across the Pacific. Over the years, trafficking methods changed. "More and more, people were brought in by plane for indentured servitude," Desmond says. They came one or two at a time, frequently accompanied by a "jockey"—someone hired by the smuggling ring to pose as a boyfriend or tour guide. Instead of hiding the people being smuggled, the ring would obtain passports and tourist or student visas that allowed them to enter the country legally—or so it appeared. (In fact, many of these visas probably weren't legit.) Gradually, Desmond and Gruel began to focus on smuggled women working as prostitutes, an issue that until then had been mostly ignored.
Their break came in the late nineties, when Desmond began looking at an organized crime ring whose enterprises included a busy brothel in an inconspicuous house in San Jose. Desmond turned his evidence over to Gruel, who got a judge to order wiretaps, and the investigation quickly expanded to bordellos in more than 20 cities around the country, including several in California. As "Operation Night Crawlers" soon revealed, the women—in this case, all Malaysians—agreed to pay $40,000 each to come to the United States via Los Angeles. Once there, jockeys delivered the women to a domestic agent of an international syndicate, who, in turn, would help place them in brothels. Northern California was a frequent first stop. Every two weeks or so, the women would pack up and move, traveling a circuit that stretched from Las Vegas to Seattle to Atlanta, both to evade law enforcement attention and to satisfy johns' demand for new thrills. Most of these brothels were in innocuous single-family homes in sleepy suburban neighborhoods resembling the Sunset.
The wiretaps revealed that many women were willing participants; some continued working the circuit after they had paid off their smuggling debts. Yet others clearly had been tricked and exploited.
During a series of simultaneous raids that led to the arrest of 17 people, agents confiscated a prostitute's journal whose words remain seared in Desmond's memory. "Oh God, please help me," the woman had written. "Somebody help me."
To gain a fuller understanding of life on the brothel circuit, I had hoped to speak with the two women picked up at Poon's apartment. But Ming had disappeared, and Jihyun's attorney didn't want her to talk. Instead, Desmond put me in touch with two other women who had been smuggled from Asia and discovered during raids on Bay Area brothels.
I met the first woman, Lily,* at a café near the federal immigration building on Sansome Street last summer, while she was in town to take care of some immigration paperwork. Skinny but curvy in tight black pants and a designer tank top, Lily traveled the national underground circuit for four years; now she works at a legal brothel in Nevada, where she makes about $100,000 a year.
Lily grew up in rural Thailand, where her sister and brother, a cattle farmer, still live. Her father had been an army doctor before he lost his vision, plunging his family into poverty. At 13, she began working in garment factories, earning the equivalent of maybe $50 a month. There wasn't much money in sewing jackets, and when Lily turned 20, her sister convinced her to go to Japan with her to turn tricks. Lily stayed until she got pregnant, then returned home. She was working in a hair salon in Bangkok when international recruiters found her one afternoon and coaxed her into returning to the trade.
The cost of getting to the United States: $35,000. "But they tell me, you don't need money. After couple months, five months, you're paid off."
The details of how Lily entered the country are consistent with what Desmond and Gruel learned in the Night Crawlers case. She was given a real passport with someone else's name and photo. For a week, she practiced copying the other woman's signature. She flew to San Francisco accompanied by a female jockey from Korea who helped her through immigration and customs, then handed her off to a domestic agent. Her first stop was a brothel in Dallas, where she had to turn tricks on the floor. The day she started, police raided the place, but she claimed she was at the house because she had been invited to a party, and she wasn't arrested.
Next the agent sent Lily to Miami, where she worked in a single-family house with three other girls. She had her own room, and she could watch TV between customers. A Korean cook prepared their meals, and a Chinese guard watched over them, even when they slept. Lily didn't seem to mind that she was never allowed to leave the apartment. "I paid [the domestic agent] everything," she says. "Every tip, I give him." True to what she'd been promised, after about four months, she had paid off the entire smuggling debt.
Free to go, she landed at a brothel in Philadelphia someone had told her about, where she routinely serviced 8 to 11 customers a day. A New York massage parlor was next. In both places she was robbed, most likely by Asian gangsters, who often collect "protection fees" from brothel owners.
By the time she ended up back in San Francisco, Lily had been on the circuit for about three years. She bounced around between houses and massage parlors throughout the Bay Area, making $3,000 to $5,000 a week. About five years ago, she was arrested in a San Rafael raid overseen by Desmond, but she avoided getting deported by agreeing to act as an informant. Soon after, she decided to move to Nevada, where brothels are legal. That's where she met her husband, a bartender from a nearby club, who gave her the showy diamond ring that glimmered in the sun as we talked. Though she seems to relish her current job, Lily, who loves to cook, dreams of opening a Thai restaurant one day.
May* has a very different story. When I met her last summer, she wore a black Tommy Hilfiger jumpsuit with tan stripes and carried a silver purse. Petite, with shoulder-length hair, she had driven in from the East Bay, where she lives with her husband. She laughed nervously as she spoke.
May, who is also from Thailand, says she was tricked into coming to America by recruiters on the streets of Bangkok. "Whenever I go out at nighttime, to nightclub, bad people are talking to you," she recalls in the broken English that helped isolate her in this country. "Talk to you every day. They say, ‘You can have better life. You can do something better. Find a job, get money.' It make you think. ‘What I have to do? How much I need to pay you?' They say: ‘Easy money. You go to nightclub. Sit in bar and talk. Couple months, you pay off.'"
The job sounded easy enough, so she accepted the terms: a $20,000 IOU. She flew to Singapore, then Los Angeles, where she was taken to stay with a man named Mike* who was supposed to help her find a job. After a week, Mike took her to an empty apartment.
At first, she was confused. Then the first man came to the door, expecting sex. "The customer tell me I have to do this. I say, ‘What? Crazy!'"
She called Mike, hysterical, begging: "I want to go home."
But she didn't have a passport and her English wasn't even passable. So when Sam refused, she had no choice but to stay. Despite her protests, the men kept coming—several every night. Every penny they paid her went to Mike, even the $10 or $20 bills they left as tips. Increasingly, the men complained that May never smiled. During sex, she lay limp and passive. "They are not happy with me," she says. "They mad. Make my life crazy." But she could not force herself to act any differently. "How can I accept myself?"
Fed up, Mike took her to New York, where she turned tricks in a massage parlor with about a dozen other girls. She had been on the job just a few nights when police shut the place down and another Thai woman took her under her wing. May went to Houston with her, and she kept calling Mike, pleading with him to return her passport. He refused.
May followed her friend to Tennessee, where she worked as a prostitute for about four months before returning to New York. Wherever she went, Mike seemed to find her.
"I don't know how he know where I was. I say, ‘I want to go back to Thailand.' I talk nice to him. I say, ‘Please give passport or give me my money.' Mike, he say, ‘No, you still owe me. Give me $3,000 more, I give you passport.'"
May finally came up with the money, and Mike handed over the passport, never bothering her again. But May still felt trapped; sex was the only way she knew how to make money. She eventually returned to California, where she was arrested during a raid on a Walnut Creek massage parlor about five years ago—before there were any human trafficking laws that might have helped her. Instead, May has rebuilt her life on her own. She recently married a man she met at a nightclub, and she attends community college to learn English. She hopes to become a hairstylist one day.
When Desmond and Gruel were still partners on the trafficking beat, they'd sometimes grab a corner table at a café. As they sipped coffee, they'd try to tally the number of Asian brothels, massage parlors, and other inconspicuous businesses that were peddling flesh around the Bay Area. Invariably, they'd give up. "There are many, many houses of prostitution in this city," Desmond says. Gruel jumps in: "It's impossible to quantify. There are brothels in residential areas—Walnut Creek, Oakland. They can be housed in relaxation centers, acupuncturists' offices, hair salons. Any front and any residence can be used as a brothel."
If coming up with an accurate number is difficult, imagine how hard it is to figure out which ones are exploiting trafficked women. Desmond estimates that in the past decade or so, feds have raided 40 to 50 brothels in the Bay Area—the tip of the iceberg. In the bust of a SoMa massage parlor in October, investigators found 17 Asian women who may have been trafficked. Multiply that by the number of brothels hidden in plain sight and it's clear why authorities are increasingly alarmed.
Around the Bay, there are signs of a renewed focus on prostitution. In San Francisco, D.A. Kamala Harris has begun charging johns and pimps who deal in underage prostitutes with child abuse. Oakland has begun posting photos of johns on billboards and bus shelters. At the federal level, the Justice Department has established a local task force on human trafficking and is distributing millions in grants to law enforcement.
Poon, at least, is out of commission. This winter, she pleaded guilty to failing to register noncitizen prostitutes with the U.S. government, under a rarely used 19th-century law regulating brothel owners. She faces up to ten years in prison, a $250,000 fine, and deportation.
Dusting off the long-forgotten statute—Gruel's innovative idea—could give the feds a lot more muscle against the brothel owners who work hand in hand with smugglers and traffickers. But with the close of the Poon case, Gruel and Desmond have cycled out of human trafficking crimes. Desmond was recently transferred to Homeland Security's Arms and Strategic Investigations Technology Unit. Gruel has packed up the framed painting of Robert F. Kennedy that used to hang above his desk at the federal building to start his own law practice and private investigation business.
In doing so, they've left a number of investigations behind. "I don't pretend to think that we're going to stop trafficking in persons by taking down a couple brothels," Gruel says.
"This is such a big international operation," Desmond adds. "You take somebody out, and the competition moves right back in to take his place. It's never going to go away."
* Some names have been changed.