From the Chinese head tax in the days of the British Columbian gold rush (look it up, it’s fucked) right down to the Filipino chap who holds an architecture degree from back home but now flips your cheeseburger for minimum wage in Montreal, Canada has a long and illustrious history of fucking Asian immigrants right in the ass upon their arrival to the Great White North. In no industry does this happen more literally than in prostitution, and right now women are pouring into Canada from all over Asia like, um, the choicest and most delicate plum wine being dumped into a scummy beer barrel at a logging camp in the Yukon.
One might think that in the 21st century, a wealthy liberal democracy would be able to squash its tendency to subjugate newcomers fresh off the boat. But unfortunately for a nation that prides itself on once having been a safe haven for African slaves, the rhetoric of social progress doesn’t hold up against reality—Canada has become a major transit point for a booming $10 billion a year human-trafficking industry.
The Mounties (Canada’s horsey-riding version of the FBI) have made conservative estimates that around 2,000 women and girls are illegally trafficked into Canada each year, but the reality is probably closer to around 10,000. From countryside rice patties to inner-city slums and then all the way to the freshly vacuumed arrival lounge of the Vancouver airport, traffickers use a deftly engineered system of exploitation to covertly import Asian girls into the North American sex market.
Incoming traffickees are processed in Vancouver and spat out across the continent’s vast labyrinth of massage parlors, hostess clubs, and underground micro-brothels. Within the industry, there are two broad categories of victims: older, street-smart semi-professionals who know what they’re getting into and younger girls who have no clue that they’re about to have their lives and their futures turned to shit by monsters.
I recently got to know some of the women suffering under the yoke of sex slavery and they’ve told me their stories. One of the first women I met, who goes by the name of Yo-Yo, shares a dingy ground-floor apartment with her sister where they sleep on couches in the living room and turn tricks in the bedroom. Hailing from a quaint village in rural China, Yo-Yo enjoys spending her extra dough on Hello Kitty paraphernalia. She told me that when she isn’t providing what she refers to as “girlfriend experiences,” she sits around and watches pirated DVDs because she’s not allowed to leave the apartment without her pimp’s permission.
The typical narrative of people who are trafficked through Canada’s underground railroad of sex slavery goes something like this: A transnational crime syndicate such as the Viet-Ching or the Korean Mafia, or an independent white-collar slaver, will set up a front through which they meet vulnerable young women. The fronts come in a variety of forms, the most common being moneylenders, travel brokers, and school liaisons. Slavers target girls who come from the poorer regions of East Asia and who are looking for a way out of a hopeless life.
One of the most popular recruitment ploys is the ESL dream holiday, where a girl is tricked into thinking that, for a relatively affordable fee, she will be able to travel to Canada or the US and comfortably study English at a posh institute while being hooked up with a good job and nice digs.
The front will offer the girls all-inclusive travel-study packages and will then organize and facilitate every aspect of the journey, from passport and visa arrangements to plane tickets and living accommodations. After touching down at Vancouver International, the girls are brought to a sketchy motel room or condo. That’s where things start to go very, very wrong.
They are told that they owe their benefactors much more than was previously arranged—a debt typically exceeding $30K. Their passports are stolen and they are coerced, through violence and threats of imprisonment, to not attempt any contact with Canadian authorities. After a period of brainwashing, abuse, and training, the girls are introduced to their only possible payment method: whoredom.
A couple of lucky cats sit in the living room of a condo brothel and beckon incoming johns.
Johns pay somewhere between $100 and $150 for an hour-long “girlfriend experience.” If they are lucky, the girls will get a 10 percent cut of the profits.
Yo-Yo has two kids in Taiwan and enjoys looking through photos of her family and friends whenever she isn’t pretending to enjoy having sex with Canadian scumbags.
The brothels are generally located in newly built downtown one-bedroom condos, each of which houses one to three girls, on call from midday until 4 AM.
The pimps depersonalize them by assigning them cartoonish names like Cherry, Apple, Bobo, or Gigi. The typical workweek tends to last around 84 hours. Many girls end up working for gangs that run numerous brothels within walking distance of each other. When a trick calls up for his weekly taste of strange, the mama-san will answer the phone, check a master schedule to see which girls are free, and then direct him to the corresponding brothel. When he rings up to begin his 45-minute session, it will be the first time he speaks to the girl. From that point on, she is responsible for delivering $120 to the management, no matter how creepy, abusive, or filthy her client happens to be.
When I met Candy, a 20-year-old girl from Taiwan, she had just come up to Vancouver from San Francisco the month before and was holed up in a brand-new condo downtown. She seemed elated to meet a Canadian who wasn’t planning on getting off, and gleefully agreed to meet me for a coffee at the Starbucks around the corner the next day. When we met, she was wearing a pink velour jumpsuit and looked like she hadn’t slept or showered.
Yvonne came from Hong Kong a couple of months ago. She was told she would able to get modeling work but has given up hope and resigned herself to lying around all day in her live/work brothel. Her pimp told her she will be moving to Calgary soon, so she wants to see the ocean once again before she leaves.
Although she had to make an abrupt exit after receiving a call from her pimp, Candy seemed relatively free to do as she pleased during downtime. Her disorientation and mental fatigue were painful to witness, as were the bruises on her wrists. She was proud of her Gucci watch and showed it off with a smile, and even though she wasn’t able to attend school like she was promised, she still studied English vocabulary in her spare time. We went for coffee once more the next week and chatted a bit about her favorite movie stars, but the next time I called, her phone was dead. I never heard from her again.
Vancouver’s ongoing development boom has been a windfall for sex slavers. Many new condos are gobbled up by rich Asian businessmen who view them as a minor investment rather than living space. With each trafficked girl bringing in an average of $100K per year, gangs can easily afford to buy up or lease multiple condos in the same building, turning a static investment into a moneymaking machine that runs on lies and STDs.
One day, after chatting with Yo-Yo for a while, I got up to leave. She panicked, begging me to phone her boss and explain why I didn’t go for full service (45 minutes of “anything goes” sex for $120). After calling up the management and voicing her plea, Yo-Yo passed me the phone:
“What wrong you no get full service?” a woman rattled out at me.
Not wanting to explain to her that I’m actually a journalist investigating her fucked-up slavery empire, I tried to sweet-talk her a little.
“Yeah… didn’t have time today, so I just went for a bit of a back massage. She’s a great girl though, I’ll definitely be back.”
“You call me next time before, OK?” she barked and then hung up.
Yo-Yo loves Hello Kitty and spends all her extra money on cutesy discount kitsch from the mall across the street from her apartment.
23-year-old Yumiko comes from a city just outside Beijing. She came to Canada to learn English and find a job but is now giving full-body massages out of a seedy motel room.