There are three kinds of work for a foreign journalist in Beijing: state media, such as China Daily; international bureaus, which are sparsely staffed and tough to crack; and freelancing. With no desire to reenter the state media and no job offers in international media, I reluctantly resumed my career as a freelancer.
The staff of Asia Weekly continued to go into the office after the magazine folded, a way to provide us newly unemployed a semblance of routine. One of the magazine’s editors was Tom Mackenzie. Tom was the same age as me, from the United Kingdom, Jude Law– handsome and with a good reporter’s instinct. We had met through friends on my first weekend in Beijing, a year and a half earlier. Tom had arrived in the city in early 2006 and, like me, had put in his time in state media before joining Asia Weekly. Tom and I got along well and had become good friends over the summer.
Only minutes after Jasper told us he was closing the magazine, as the staff absorbed the news in silence, Tom popped his head over his computer and called my name from across the office.
“Mitch,” he said. “Trip?”
I didn’t know what he had in mind—or how I would pay for it— but I didn’t care. I was in. We decided we would report a few stories while on the road, but which stories, and where, we had no idea. After a few brainstorming sessions, we were still without a plan.
Tom and I realized this trip would have to be more than just an adventure. We were both in our late twenties and not where we wanted to be in our careers. Tom wanted to be in broadcasting; I wanted to be writing features for international publications. We both knew that to take our careers to the next level we needed to establish names for ourselves, and we felt like we were running out of time. Whatever stories we were going to report, they needed to be good.
A week after he shuttered the magazine, Jasper took the Asia Weekly editors for lunch. He apologized for what had happened and said he was confident we could all make it as freelancers if we resold our stories in different markets.
“Don’t look for stories that all the foreign press is doing,” he told us. “Make sure to repackage the stories and sell them three, four times. And remember, sex sells.”
Sex sells . . . Back at the office after lunch, Tom and I thought about sexy stories we could sell. And then it came to me: Maggie’s—the nightclub frequented by lonely expat businessmen, certain China Daily foreign experts, and Mongolian prostitutes.
Maggie’s, which had recently reopened after being shut down throughout the Olympics, had never brought me anywhere near sexual temptation. The few times I’d gone there left me feeling depressed and guilty, but ever since the night of Potter’s birthday party, I had been curious about the club and the Mongolian women who frequented it. I had never spoken with any of the Maggie’s girls about anything substantial, but I wanted to know their stories. Why, with so many available Chinese women, so many poor Chinese women, were the working girls who populated Maggie’s, the Den, and other hookup bars in Beijing frequented by expats Mongolian? How did they end up in China? What brought them? Maggie’s had been closed during the Olympics, and rumors had surfaced about several murdered Maggie’s regulars, all Mongolian prostitutes. It was a story waiting to be written.
Tom and I did some research online. We found the U.S. State Department’s Trafficking in Persons report and read that trafficking was a growing problem, with between 3,000 and 5,000 Mongolian women and girls lured or forced into prostitution in foreign countries each year. Many were recruited by deceit, often by friends and relatives, and the vast majority ended up in China. Many came to the bars and karaoke rooms of Beijing, Shanghai, and other major Chinese cities; others ended up farther south, in the saunas and casinos of Macau, the Las Vegas of Asia.
We found a story posted online by a nongovernmental organization about human trafficking in a city on the Chinese side of the Mongolian border, called Erlian. Neither of us had heard of it. We learned that Erlian was known for dinosaur bones discovered in a dried salt lake in 2006, and that it was the city in which the trans-Mongolian train—en route to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia’s capital, and Moscow—stopped to switch gauges.
According to the story, Erlian, a thriving oil town, was also a major human trafficking hub, the first stop before victims traveled farther inland, and the last stop for human trafficking victims, who, fearing discrimination at home, had no other place to go after being trapped in brothels abroad. The article told of streets in Erlian lined with brothels and of abused trafficked women who lived and worked in tiny, filthy apartments.
Tom and I searched the Internet for any similar articles written in the mainstream press. We found nothing. This was a great story, we thought, and we started plotting our strategy to report it. We drew up a list of potential contacts and threw out a few possible dates for a trip to Erlian, where we would, somehow, get into the brothels and find trafficking victims.
Tom and I contacted several NGOs to find out more. They confirmed the problem and filled in some of the blanks. Most of the victims were uneducated and desperate for a way out of poverty. Some were already prostitutes but had been misled about pay and conditions; others were enticed by advertisements in local newspapers promising overseas scholarships or vague offers of employment. Recruiters usually had contacts in destination countries—often women who had once been trafficked themselves.
As soon as the women reached their destination countries, NGO workers told us, they were routinely abused, physically and mentally. Many were beaten, forced to take drugs, raped, and repeatedly sold. Trafficked women often found themselves in a system of “trapped bondage,” in which employers demanded repayment for travel and other costs. The debts could be crippling. Some girls ran away, but most, lacking money, travel documents, and help of any kind, were forced to stay for several years.
Some women who found their way back to Mongolia continued to suffer. Many needed counseling for depression and treatment for sexually transmitted diseases. They were shunned by their families. With no work experience and few options, some returned to what they knew, becoming traffickers themselves or returning to prostitution in cities like Erlian.
Our plans continued to move forward. Tom contacted a friend of his named Esso, a former Mongolian journalist who lived in Beijing, where she was raising her two teenage sons. She would come along as our translator.
We got in touch with a photographer, Jim Wasserman. Jim was a forty-six-year-old from Philadelphia who had worked for news outlets around the world. He’d been freelancing in Beijing for three years. We decided to meet at a bar in the Holiday Inn in Lido, a place known as a hangout for Mongolian prostitutes. Over beers, we told Jim about our idea—travel to Erlian and later south to Macau to write a story we hoped to publish in a major American outlet. He was up for it.
In an attempt to get a head start on our reporting, we tried talking to some of the Mongolian girls who had gathered in the bar. They were happy to chat, but not about their stories.
“This could be tough,” Tom said.
In truth, I wondered if we would be able to get the story at all. We didn’t know what we would discover in Erlian, and I was skeptical that we would even find trafficking victims, let alone get them to talk to us. But jobless and broke, I figured we had nothing to lose.
“Don’t worry,” I lied, taking a sip of my pint. “We’ll figure it out.”
The night bus from Beijing to Erlian smelled of feet and body odor and cigarette smoke. Passengers sprayed cans of air freshener to mask the cocktail of odors, but to no avail. It was after midnight and outside it was cold and black.
There were about fifty other passengers on board, most of whom were speaking Mongolian. They carried with them large red, white, and blue plastic sacks wrapped in masking tape and packed with cheap goods bought from Beijing markets to sell back home, across the border.
Everybody was crammed into rows of bunks. I couldn’t sleep. Lying at awkward angles trying to squeeze my stretched frame into the tiny bed, I tried to read a book to the glow of a pocket flashlight held between my teeth.
We arrived in Erlian at 5 a.m. in the dark and cold, still in China but barely. A cabbie took us to a hotel. When the night attendant showed us a room, cockroaches scurried under the beds. I had stayed in hostels with cockroaches and worse in my travels, but after the long and sleepless bus ride, I needed something more comfortable. We all did. The second hotel the driver showed us was passable, with clean rooms and hot showers. Beside the beds in our rooms was a sex kit with condoms and various pleasure enhancing ointments—the first sign of Erlian’s sex trade.
After a few hours of sleep, we set off for the city’s market. Within minutes, we were approached by two gnarled old Inner Mongolian women with black teeth who asked if we were looking for girls. It was before noon. We told them no but asked where we would find them. On the north side of town, they told us, on Golden Bridge Street.
We continued walking through the city. In Erlian’s center square was a statue of a naked woman with flowing hair holding a globe extended in a palm, the paint chipped and yellowing. It’s the kind of kitsch you expect to find in China’s forgotten cities, but this one stood apart from the statues of Mao and other heroes of Chinese history. We asked locals what it was supposed to symbolize. The beauty of Mongolian women, they told us.
Around the corner from the square was the town market, a heaving place where dozens of Jeeps were parked, loaded with goods, drivers standing nearby, smoking, waiting to make one of the many daily trips across the Mongolian border. We hired a taxi driver to take us around town for the day, a thirty-three-year-old ethnic Mongolian named Havar. We asked him questions and he answered in Mongolian, via Esso. Yes, there are Mongolian girls here, he said, “many, many girls.” Havar said the girls cost about 300 yuan—fifty-five dollars—for the night, but the price drops significantly depending on the their age and “experience.”
We asked Havar to take us to the brothels. He pulled up outside a police station around the corner from the red-light district, Golden Bridge Street. A large arch marked the street’s entrance. We decided that the four of us together would attract too much attention, so Esso and I would go in first to see if we could talk to anybody, and Tom and Jim would go in later.
It was a bright afternoon and Golden Bridge Street was showing signs of life. In glass-fronted rooms, women of varying ages were curled up on couches, yawning and watching television. Some swept floors and cleaned windows lined with dolls and stuffed animals; others walked over to a grocery store down the street to buy cigarettes and bottles of green tea. Every few minutes, a taxi pulled through the tall archway at the mouth of the street, next door to the police station, to drop off a girl who had worked through the night.
I was nervous walking down the street, very aware of my own presence. We had not seen any Westerners in town, and there I was, tall and obvious, walking down a street lined with brothels in the middle of the day. I felt as though everybody was watching me, but when I looked around at the women in the windows, and the groups of men in leather jackets smoking and talking, I noticed that nobody was paying attention at all.
Esso, young-looking in her late thirties with long, straight black hair, stopped in front of a room where several girls lounged on stained couches.
“Do you want to talk to them?”
I hesitated. “I don’t know. Do you think they’ll talk?” “Come on.” She grabbed my arm and swung open the front door.
The room was littered with ashes and cigarette butts. A puppy played with a chunk of chipped drywall on the floor and drank from a bowl of curdled milk. Sitting under a poster of a half-naked American blond, three young women smoked Esse Light cigarettes on two small couches.
The girls inside barely looked up when we walked in. It seemed as if they had just gotten out of bed, hair disheveled and wearing baggy sweaters and sweatpants. Esso told them we were journalists working on a story and that we wanted to ask them a few questions.
One of the women—chubby, with heavy makeup, green nail polish, and dyed auburn hair—shrugged. “Okay,” she said.
Her name was Alimaa. She was twenty-three. She told us she worked late the night before and was exhausted today. Two years earlier, in Ulaanbaatar, she and a friend were recruited by two men to work at a karaoke bar in Beijing. When she arrived in the Chinese capital, her recruiters told her she had to work as a prostitute. They made it clear she didn’t have a choice.
“They took us to different rooms in a hotel and showed us Chinese girls who had been raped,” she said as Esso translated and I wrote in my notebook. “They said, ‘Take a look, this is what will happen if you don’t do this.’ ”
I took notes furiously, trying to capture all the details. This is exactly what we needed for our story, and we were getting it in the first interview. There is a certain numbness a journalist gets when reporting a story like this. You’re transcribing horrors into your notebook, but not really processing it; it’s like a surgeon desensitized to blood. I could hear Alimaa’s story, but I couldn’t feel it. Later, I would feel terrible for her and others like her, but for now I was focused on one thing: getting the story.
She went on. After Alimaa was brought into the hotel in Beijing, she slipped her passport in her boots and, later that night, escaped. For two days and nights, she hid at a construction site before a Mongolian contact in Beijing brought her to Erlian. Broke and with no place to go, Alimaa started working in a brothel. She had been in Erlian ever since.
Another woman in the room, named Gerlee, a twenty-two-year-old with a round face, rosy cheeks, and a faded tattoo of a heart on her shoulder, explained the economics of the job. She gave 30 percent of what she made to her boss, a pint-size Chinese man who came in and out of the brothel throughout the conversation, seemingly oblivious to our presence. The boss paid the rent and the girls lived in the back room. When I asked her if she felt trapped, Gerlee, who came to Erlian after a falling-out with her Inner Mongolian boyfriend, said, “I’m just looking for money. It doesn’t make it good or bad.”
Esso and I thanked them and walked back to the car.
“That was incredible,” I said, sitting down in the backseat of Havar’s car. “We got it.”
I relayed Alimaa’s story, and when I was done, Tom and Esso went back into Golden Bridge Street to do more interviews while Jim and I went for a walk. Jim was eager for the soft afternoon light to hit so he could go back and get photos. I pushed out the uneasy feelings from what I’d just heard; I was experiencing the rush of knowing we had a good story. During our walk, I fell partway into a sewer and thought for a minute I’d broken my leg.
We spent that afternoon making trips in and out of brothels, and Jim went back alone to take photos. The rest of us sat in Havar’s car, driving slowly up and down Golden Bridge Street, watching the scenes unfold on the street and inside the windows. The women posing, trying to lure customers. Men strolling by, hands in pocket, checking out the selection. It felt like we were undercover cops, and it was both thrilling and shaming.
Later, Havar drove us to the outskirts of town. There were dozens of apartment blocks, brand-new, sprawling, and bought with oil money. A high school had just been built and looked as though it belonged in Orange County, complete with a soccer field made with artificial turf. Erlian was a strange town, wealthy and depraved, and I felt the twisted pride of a traveler who has somehow ended up in a place he doesn’t belong.
The next morning, while we were walking around the town square, the same two black-toothed Inner Mongolian women approached us. They had dark, leathery faces and sucked on sugar cubes.
“You want girls?” one of the women asked us via Esso. “I can get you some for three hundred yuan each. They can go to your hotel room.”
We said no and asked her if she knew how the girls ended up here. She said that trafficking was getting harder; in the previous year, border police had stopped traffickers bringing twenty-four women into China. Still, she said, the trade was thriving. “Many, many girls work here. Some girls know they will be working as prostitutes,” she said. “Some don’t.”
The second woman brushed up beside Esso.
“Are you Mongolian?” she asked. “Can you find us girls? It’s good business. If you can find us five girls, the brothel owners will pay you two thousand yuan each.”
Esso politely declined.
None of us wanted to take the night bus back to Beijing. We agreed to pay Havar 1,000 yuan—about $160—to drive us back to the city, an eight-hour trip. We drove past the Statue of Mongolian Beauty downtown and continued out by the new apartment buildings and the high school. Outside of town, we passed crude statues of dinosaurs—a brontosaurus, a T. rex, a triceratops—built to commemorate the bones found in the bed of a dried salt lake.
We talked excitedly about how good a story we had, congratulating ourselves on a great job. Later, when telling friends about the trip, I would feel guilty about not feeling guiltier while I was in Erlian, speaking with women with crushed lives—guilty about the life I led compared to the lives of the women we interviewed.
Havar drove us to Beijing in his shitty little car—some Chinese brand I’d never heard of, a rust bucket that felt on the brink of collapse at all times. The seats were too small, but I was used to this after a year and a half in China. I rested my knees on the dash and watched the sun set over the grassy Inner Mongolian plains.
A few weeks later, Tom and I took the train to Guangzhou, in the Pearl River delta, twenty-four hours from Beijing. We spent the train journey reading books and talking about our story and trip and future plans. We were embracing new identities as freelance writers abroad. It felt like we were the stars of our own films.
Jim flew down and met us in Guangzhou, and the three of us took a two-hour bus to the gambling mecca of Macau, the former Portuguese colony turned Las Vegas of Asia. We came to report the second half of our trafficking story, but we had no idea how to do it. NGO workers had warned us that Macau could be a violent place, and nobody with a vested interest in the sex trade would be pleased with three foreign journalists wandering around town asking too many questions.
Macau is an odd town. For centuries it was a Portuguese colony, but it had been handed back to China in 1999. Because of the same “one country, two systems” policy that allowed Hong Kong to retain relative independence from the mainland, Macau had flourished as a gambling destination. About five times more money flowed through Macau than Las Vegas.
But Macau lacked much of the fun of its American equivalent. The major hotels—the MGM, the Wynn, the Venetian— although flashy and just as impressive as their Vegas counterparts, felt soulless. The restaurants and bars they housed were quiet; the casinos were for serious gamblers only. The bars out on the streets downtown, lit up with neon signs and housed on the ground floors of nondescript office buildings, pumped freezing air-conditioning and brutal European club music through their open windows.
The three of us checked into a fleabag hotel on narrow street in Macau’s old city. We were on the main island, a few miles but a world away from the glitzy hotels on the Cotai Strip, and we spent the first day wandering our neighborhood.
The buildings were in disrepair. Air conditioners leaked onto the sidewalks below, staining the walls of buildings as the drops of water snaked their way down. There was a rustic feel to the old city, where people ran small shops at street level and gathered on benches to talk and smoke. It was a mix of Portuguese and Cantonese. The food was delicious—we ate at a Portuguese restaurant that served chicken with rice, salted fish, warm bread; and at a Cantonese hole-in-the-wall offering dumpling soup and slices of duck. The city seemed stubbornly nostalgic, proud of its past and unsure of the new reality of gambling dollars and private jets.
We walked through thick crowds on the cobblestone streets of Senado Square in the center of the old city, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, not far from churches and houses of worship from several different faiths. From certain streets in the old city, we could see the Grand Lisboa, the gold-windowed, lotus-shaped abomination that served as a line in the sand between the old, quaint, charming old city and Asia’s Vegas.
We walked over to the Grand Lisboa, through its packed casino floor, and across a sky-walk to its predecessor, the Casino Lisboa, a Macau institution built by gambling magnate Stanley Ho in 1970. The Casino Lisboa was a gaudy, shiny, sparkly freak show, with garish chandeliers and men in terrible suits and women with big hair wearing too much perfume. The Lisboa felt like the set of a Coen Brothers’ movie.
“This place is like a shag carpet,” Jim commented as he snapped photos, “or like your aunt’s house, where everything is covered in plastic.”
Signs of the sex trade were everywhere in Macau, ranging from freelance prostitutes trolling the casinos in major hotels to entire floors in smaller hotels dedicated to “saunas.” The young women who staffed the saunas came mostly from the Chinese mainland, as well as from Southeast Asia, Taiwan, South Korea, and Mongolia. Many of them were sold to sauna owners and were forced to work. Their passports were confiscated and they were housed in tiny dormitories. If they complained, they would be threatened with violence or rape. The year before, according to one of the NGO workers we’d interviewed, a fifteen-year-old girl’s tongue had been cut out by her captors after she sent text messages pleading for help.
In Macau, we arranged to meet a Mongolian woman named Naran, an outreach worker from Ulaanbaatar doing an internship with an international NGO in Hong Kong. She was twenty-four years old, tall and slim, with long black hair and prominent cheekbones. She had spent the previous four months seeking out Mongolian sex trade workers in Macau and Hong Kong, attempting to learn their stories and, if possible, offer help.
“They don’t want to speak to me,” she said over Cantonese food during our first night in the city. “They worry about getting killed.”
Tom asked how she was able to meet the women at all.
“I pretend to be one of them.”
“A prostitute?” he asked.
“Yes. I tell them I’m on a visa run from Hong Kong, and when we talk, I ask them about their health and if they feel safe.” She went on. “Traffickers control everything about the girls. They threaten to call their families and say they’re working as a slut in Macau. The pimps treat the girls as moneymaking machines, and they control them by any means to keep them in debt.”
After dinner, Naran walked us around to bars and saunas where she knew Mongolians worked. She stopped outside Eighteen Sauna, attached to the Golden Dragon Hotel. Lights in rainbow colors danced up and down above the entrance next to an illuminated dragon in gold and red. At street level, young men in suits tried to lure customers passing by on the street.
We talked about how we were going to report this. Clearly, it wasn’t going to be as easy as Erlian, and the prospect of violence came up when we mentioned to Naran that we were going to try to interview the women. We decided that Tom and I would go into the sauna first and pretend to be customers, and Jim would enter later and try to get photos with a concealed point-and-shoot camera.
Tom and I climbed the stairs inside to Eighteen Sauna. We were greeted by an attendant—twenty years old at most, with a brush cut and a baggy suit—who handed us laminated menus with peeling corners. A “Taiwan Model Massage,” the most expensive item on the menu, went for $1,914 Hong Kong dollars— about $250—followed by Korean, Chinese, and Filipino massages, at varying prices. About halfway down the list was a “Mongolian Massage,” for HK$1,705.
“We want to see the girls first,” Tom said.
“No problem,” the young attendant replied.
He grabbed Tom by the elbow and escorted us down a short hallway to the dimly lit bathhouse. The circular room, lined with shower stalls along the wall, smelled of soap, while steam rose from a large, peanut-shaped hot tub in the center of the room, where a few dozen men—mostly Chinese, with a few foreigners—waited, wrapped in red towels.
To electronic music, a line of about seventy women wearing lingerie were paraded before the men, circling the hot tub. Each woman had a number pinned to her bra. I was surprised at how beautiful some of them were. Others seemed drained and withdrawn, and several had bruises on their legs.
The men were quick to choose, walking down the line to stand opposite their preferred girl. They touched and flirted. They had one hour.
Tom and I watched from the doorway, the attendant standing behind us.
“This is even more depressing than I thought,” Tom whispered.
The attendant leaned in between us.
“Fifteen percent government tax,” he said, tapping his thin index finger on the menu. “Hand jobs are cheaper.”
We spent a few more days in Macau, visiting more saunas posing as customers and attending a conference on human trafficking, at which Naran spoke. We had everything we needed and decided it was time to go back to Guangzhou, where we planned to report another story.
On our last day in Macau we took a cab to the Cotai Strip, home to most of the major casino-hotels, including the Venetian, the biggest casino on the planet. We walked around the hotel’s cavernous halls; I bought a magazine from a souvenir shop and ate a fifteen-dollar slice of lukewarm pizza from the food court. There was a fake canal snaking through the hotel, with depressed-looking Middle Eastern men rowing gondolas. They offered us rides to nowhere, and we politely waved them off.
For a few minutes the three of us stood on a bridge over the canal and watched it all happen. I thought about the women we’d seen over the last few days. What were they doing right now, I wondered, the girls from the saunas? Did their parents know where they were? Did they have friends here? They were young girls. Did they have plans for the future? Where would they go next—to one of the brothels of Erlian? To Maggie’s in Beijing?
I took some coins—a few Macau pataca—from my pocket, made a wish, and tossed them in the water below.
Excerpted from “Apologies to My Censor” by Mitch Moxley. Published by Harper Perennial. Copyright 2013 by Mitch Moxley. Reprinted with permission of the author and the publisher.