CULTURE & ARTS

'Law & Order: SVU' Spins NYPD's Massage Parlor Raids Into A White Savior Fantasy

In reality, the crackdown on Asian-run spas leads to the criminalization of migrant sex workers.
Shuya Chang as Mei Mei Li and Kelli Giddish as Detective Amanda Rollins on "Law & Order: SVU."
Shuya Chang as Mei Mei Li and Kelli Giddish as Detective Amanda Rollins on "Law & Order: SVU."

It’s been two years since 38-year-old massage worker Yang Song fell four stories to her death from an apartment window during a police raid on an illegal parlor in the Flushing neighborhood of Queens. The New York Police Department’s Queens North Vice Enforcement Division conducted the raid on Nov. 25, 2017, just two days after Thanksgiving, and Song died from her injuries the next day at New York Presbyterian Hospital. Just before her fatal fall, a vice officer attempted to arrest her under suspicion of engaging in sex work

Recently, an episode of “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” played out an eerily similar scene. The episode, titled “Counselor, It’s Chinatown,” centers on an anti-trafficking rescue mission under the plainly Orientalist name “Operation Dragon Slay.” The SVU team, with help from Sergeant Joe Chin from the human trafficking task force, are spying on massage parlor workers — who they suspect to be undocumented and victims of sex trafficking from China — and a spa called Sweet Joy Relax Spa in Manhattan’s Chinatown that employs them.

Altar at a candlelight vigil for Yang Song.
Altar at a candlelight vigil for Yang Song.

As the swaths of police officers descend on their raid of the spa, triggered by Sergeant Fin Tutuola going in undercover as a john, one woman, Mei Mei, attempts to flee by climbing out of a window to a fire escape. Former detective Dominick Carisi Jr. (now an assistant district attorney) pursues her, and Mei Mei slips as she tries to evade him, leaving her dangling several stories high. In this story, though, the Chinese massage worker is saved by Carisi, who tells her “不怕,” or “Don’t be scared” in Mandarin. 

In every step along the way, the show feeds us a white savior fantasy version of the very real crackdown on Asian-run spas that offer sexual services in New York City and across the country. The same savior narrative fuels the real-life raids and busts, in which Asian migrant massage workers are suspected to be victims of some massive sex-trafficking ring in need of rescue. Most notoriously, a number of sting operations in Florida were carried out earlier this year as anti-trafficking missions, one of which led to the arrest of Patriots owner Robert Kraft. Meanwhile, no suspects arrested have been charged with human trafficking but rather with various prostitution charges or racketeering and money laundering 

The fact that the migrant sex worker survives on “SVU” isn’t the only way that the show’s fictionalized retelling of Yang Song’s story is pure revisionist history. Viewers are also not spared from the graphic imagery of a dead Asian sex worker, as the episode later shows another woman from the massage parlor, Lily, jump to her death from a courthouse window after receiving a threatening text message right before she was meant to testify.

In the start of the episode, Captain Olivia Benson briefs her team on the case, in which women are being trafficked from China and then forced to work as indentured sex slaves in massage parlors in order to pay off the smugglers. She specifies that they are not to arrest the trafficked women: “If they talk, great. If not, then offer them immigration, legal and medical assistance, and take them to social services.” 

In reality, the crackdown on illicit massage parlors — often under the guise of anti-trafficking rescue missions — leads to the criminalization of the “victims,” and the city’s human trafficking intervention courts reportedly don’t have a system in place to screen whether or not the workers are indeed trafficking victims. Being thrown into the criminal justice system puts undocumented migrant sex workers and trafficking victims at risk of deportation

The police raids “end up leading to the imprisonment of the women with ridiculous amounts of bail,” Daphne Chang, director of outreach for Red Canary Song, an organization that advocates for the rights of migrant sex workers, said. “They also tend to get pressured in long interrogations to admit that they are a trafficking victim, and their economic livelihoods get taken away.”

Song was fearful of contact with law enforcement. She had been arrested for prostitution before and told her family she had been sexually assaulted by a plainclothes police officer and asked to become an informant just earlier that year, The Appeal reported. Of course these grittier elements of Song’s experiences didn’t make it into the “SVU” episode inspired by her story. Instead, the NYPD gets valorized as empathetic heroes who save trafficked women, and the other Chinese characters — all the way up to the highest rungs of Chinatown — are painted as the villains responsible for the exploitation of their own people. (A Chinese-American power couple, Arthur and Christine Chang, turned out to be the ones facilitating the trafficking, while Margaret Cho’s character, Evelyn “Mamasan” Lee, acts as the brothel’s madam.) 

“I stopped watching halfway because I couldn’t deal with the white saviorism narrative and Asian-American stereotypes,” New York State Assemblymember Ron Kim, who has been vocal about fighting for justice for Song, said in an interview. “If the producers were courageous, they would’ve done a show about undercover vice cops sexually assaulting, raping and extorting sex workers.”

Commonly known for storylines that are “ripped from the headlines,” “SVU” often takes national news stories and either closely mimic the real stories or reimagine them completely. In the same month as the second anniversary of her death, the show did Yang Song’s story a disservice by relying on racist tropes, absurd dialogue in broken English (“Like Mamasan say, money talky”) and the same stereotypes of all Asian sex workers being trafficking victims that police fall back on.

Last weekend, Kim, a longtime Flushing resident, was among the community members and advocates who gathered on 40th Road for a rally and candlelit vigil held by Red Canary commemorating the second anniversary of Song’s death. Both he and Chang called for the defunding of NYPD’s vice squad and for transparency from the 109th precinct on its interactions with Song. 

“The new Queens district attorney must reopen this case and seek the truth behind what happened to Yang Song. What happened to months of her filed complaints and reports of sexual assault by an undercover police officer and targeted raids and bullying by vice officers?” Kim said. “Immediately, we must decriminalize sex work, diverting the much needed resources and funding toward supporting, empowering, and organizing the workers.”