Meeting Yan Yan: How the Objectification of Asian Women and Hate Go Hand In Hand

Robert Aaron Long shot and killed eight eight people in a hate crime spree in the Atlanta metropolitan region on Wednesday. Six of the eight victims were women of Asian descent and worked at massage parlors.

According to the New York Times: “Long, 21, told police that he has a sexual addiction, and that the shootings were an attempt to eliminate temptation. Mr. Long has been charged with eight counts of murder in the attacks on three massage businesses. Long belonged to the congregation of the Crabapple First Baptist  church which strictly prohibits sex outside of marriage. Long had previously checked himself into a Christian rehab clinic in order to combat what he perceived as an addiction.”

This killing spree comes on the heels of a year of increasing violence towards Asian Americans since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. NPR says “hate crimes against Asian Americans in 16 cities rose by 150 percent in 2020. These incidents range from violent attacks and verbal abuse to the vandalization of Asian-owned businesses.”

Advocates are attributing the spate of violence partly to xenophobic rhetoric that connects the COVID-19 pandemic with Asian Americans, which includes former President Donald Trump’s habit of blaming the virus on China.

The murder victims have also raised some awareness of the connection massage parlors of this sort have to the human trafficking of Asian (particularly Chinese) women into the United States.

My friend, Lys Fulda, a Chicago based publicist, relayed a story on Facebook to raise awareness about what some Asian women endure:

This incident happened about ten years ago.

One of my favorite places to go in Chicago is the Richland Food Court. It’s a Singapore style food court in the bottom of an office building in Chinatown. It’s basically an incubator for restaurants. Cheap eats, great food. I hold an annual event at  C2E2 (the Chicago Comic Con & Expo) there. It’s often referred to as a “hidden gem” by restaurant goers.

It is also often full of Asian college students and the office building upstairs once housed Chicago’s headquarters for K-Pop. More than a few non-Asians can often be seen walking in confusion as they try to make sense of the food court where businesses sometimes don’t even have names in English.

Every year my event brings 30-50 people to said basement there’s a liquor store two doors down. For convention life it’s the best food and drinks you can actually afford the entire show.

One summer night my ex-husband and I were having dinner there when a Chinese woman walked up to us and gestured to borrow a phone. She appeared to be in her late 20s and spoke very little English. We are the only white people having dinner down there. She’s extremely deliberately pantomime dialing a number over and over again. I asked one of the employees for help translating. 

This woman was speaking Cantonese and most of the people there spoke Mandarin.

She hands me the phone when a voice answers and its a coal miner in West Virginia who has no idea why she called. I gesture the numbers wrong she goes back to it.  Finally another voice comes through.  

She’s dressed clean. Physically looks OK.

“Oh my God, where is she? Is she OK?”

Her name was Yan Yan. 

She starts speaking a mix of Cantonese and English to the person on the phone. The phone is handed back to me. 

The friend on the other end asks me to get her to the cops. He relays the story: Two days earlier she was in New York and kidnapped into a slavery ring  with an offer of a restaurant job from a friend of a friend and was moved immediately to Chicago. She has been raped. 

She escaped. I assure him that we would help her. He tells Yan Yan what’s going on and that we are OK. 

We walk her to the police station which thankfully was a few blocks.  As the night air blows back her hair I can see the side of her face is covered in bruises.

The police call in the officer who speaks Cantonese who physically looked like the stereotypical Chicago cop. That fluency impressed me. 

They tell us it’s OK to go and they will make sure she gets home.

Staring at us the entire time through a brown plastic bag was the lenticular print we had just bought. It depicted an Asian girl in a bikini lenticular that transformed into a tiger when you walked by it. We’d bought it as kitschy art, something for a man cave blowing off the crude objectification. We couldn’t blow off the woman we had brought to the police station. Would she not have had this experience if she wasn’t Asian? Just one more unanswerable question to add to the pile of the entire evening.

Needless to say that was trashed and so were both of us for a good full day drunk after. Asian objectification and Asian hate go hand in hand. 

Lys Fulda is a pop culture publicist who’s been running Sphinx PR for 20 years. A DC metro transplant to the third coast, she’s known for her authenticity and transparency as well as the Adventures of  the Danger Twins: her two cats Lady Batman and Sir Cupcake.

Photo by Henry and Co.