In November of 2020, i.e. in the “before times,” I was in Amsterdam. I had just finished a soul stirring visit to the Anne Frank Museum — and if you’ve never been, go.
For those of us who grew up reading “The Diary of Anne Frank,” it’s a must see. Standing in the little annex room she papered with photos of American movie stars shook me to my bones — even more so in reflection, now that we’ve endured our own, lesser version of lockdown. Because of course Anne was a Jew hiding from the Nazis while we’ve been hiding from a much less particular villain, a virus.
But that day, I left the museum full of emotion, my mind spinning, and headed for the Centraal Station where I was planning on taking a train out into the country to visit a friend. As I walked along on the cobblestones in the dim sunshine – this was Amsterdam after all - something caught my eye. I stopped, my eyes locked on the eyes of a woman in her underwear staring up at me from a basement window. What the hell. I was completely confused. What was she doing standing in front of the window in her underwear? Why wasn’t she reaching for a robe or stepping back into the shadows?
I took a closer look — she was at least my age, and her underwear on second glance was a bit more festive than most women wear in the middle of the day.
And then I remembered where I was — Amsterdam, where sex work is legal and a lot of it is corralled in De Wallen, an area abutting the train station. I’d apparently wandered into the “red light district” by accident.
I’d never been to De Wallen. It just seemed sad to me. I’d made the mistake of visiting a “peep” show on Eighth Avenue in Times Square with a group of drunk friends back in the ’80s and it was the most depressing place I’d ever been. The girls — because that’s what they’re called — stood on a curtained stage behind a wall of glass and they were as far from the Hollywood ideal of “hookers with a heart of gold” as possible. They looked like drug addicts pushed out on stage in someone else’s pasties, emaciated, hollow-eyed, pasty-faced and utterly joyless.
The woman in the window in Amsterdam, however, looked like someone’s mother in a push-up bra. As I realized what I was seeing — and she saw the understanding cross my face — she gave me a look of complicity, one woman to another, and then a wry smile and turned back to her magazine.
There’s obviously more than one type of sex worker. This range of experience is beautifully laid out in an episode in the third season of the Danish television series “Borgen.” “Borgen” for those of you who haven’t discovered it, follows a female politician as she rises, falls and rises again, and a female reporter whose career path is equally full of ups and downs. In this particular episode, a trafficking ring is arrested, the girls paraded before the cameras, and the self-righteous politicians and avaricious reporters chime in. Our heroines are a bit more perspicacious and take the time to explore the issue and the opposing arguments — that prostitution exploits women vs prostitution is a trade that women freely choose.
I’m afraid I don’t have the answer beyond acknowledging that I’ve seen both extremes in action. But I’ve been thinking about it more since the mass shooting of half a dozen Asian sex workers at three massage parlors in Atlanta. As has been widely reported, Cherokee County’s Captain Jay Baker — who has since been removed from the case — relayed what they’d discovered about the suspect: that he was a sex addict who’d had a bad day and took it out on the women who tempted him.
All of that may be true, however it misses the point. While all women are subjected at one time or another to male ideas about what they represent, Asian women have been particularly fetishized and depicted as sex objects, from the desperate prostitute in the film “Full Metal Jacket” who promises soldiers she will “love them long time” to a peer of mine who admits with a wink that his son, who’s dated a string of Chinese women, has “yellow fever.”
So while it might be true that the shooter in Atlanta has a sex addiction, it’s also true that he went out of his way to shoot up Asian massage parlors, driving past massage parlors featuring other sorts of women to find his targets.
And it just adds to the suffering of Asian Americans this past year. Not that bigotry toward Asians is anything new. Just look at the internment camps set up after Pearl Harbor. And the merciless conditions suffered by Chinese workers who built the railroad that connected our country. And now the belief that Asian Americans are somehow responsible for something that happened in Wuhan.
We may love “Chinese” food and “kung fu” movies and lust after “yellow” women but still, deep down, many of us apparently don’t think of our Asian American neighbors as Americans. In the last Ip Man film — a brilliant series of films that tells the story of the Wing Chun master who taught Bruce Lee – an area of “Chinatown” in San Francisco is raided by police and parts of it burnt to the ground. One of the heartbroken Chinese masters wonders aloud why, after so many gave their lives to build the transcontinental railroad, are Asian Americans treated so badly?
It’s a good question, especially now. Why after they have contributed so much to this country — intellectually, spiritually, artistically, financially — are they blamed and persecuted?
It’s a question Anne Frank might ask and I’m afraid the answer is the same. Because a demagogue used them as a scapegoat.