The day after Robert Aaron Long killed six Asian women as they were working at a series of massage parlours in Atlanta, Georgia, I spent the day thinking of my mother.
She is a nail technician, a different kind of care worker. But like massage workers, she tended to people’s bodies. Cutting, buffing, filing, polishing. I grew up familiar with the smell of acetone. I eavesdropped on the women in her salon speaking to one another in Vietnamese while massaging the feet of wealthy white women.
I imagined what would have happened if Long entered my mother’s salon, looking for more businesses where Asian women worked, and shot up the place. The glass decals shattering, the leather seats punctured by bullets, water from the pedicure fountains spraying all over the bodies that littered the floor.
And then I remembered a former client of mine, in the years I was in the sex industry. A middle-aged man who told me he loved pedicures, because he could fantasise about the women putting down their tools and pulling down his pants to give him a blow job.
Long was a patron at two of the massage parlours he shot up. He blamed his acts of murder on a ‘sex addiction’.
In the 24 hours after he killed eight people, six of whom were Asian women, I didn’t have it in me to do anything but cry. That night, I decided to drink, in the comfort of my apartment, hoping the company of a man I met on a dating app would be enough to take my mind off of grief. Like me, he wasn’t sure either about how to process the violence that happened. But we talked and drank and I laughed every now and then.
Instead, he said, “I let my attraction to you get the best of my judgment.”
Eventually, he made advances that I didn’t want. “Okay,” he’d respond. Then, he tried it again. And again. And again.
Each time, I said some variation of no. “I don’t think I can do that.”
“It’s not happening.”
“Stop trying to enter me.”
At his last attempt, I told him I needed to use the bathroom. And there I hid, trying to find safety within my own home. I stalled, not sure what to do. When I finally opened the door, I was relieved to find he was preparing to leave.
Five days later, I texted him to tell him what had happened from my point of view.
“I’m really sorry,” he kept repeating.
But I wasn’t asking for an apology. I just wanted to hear him say it: that I was Asian and trans and woman. That it meant, even subconsciously, he didn’t see my body as worth listening to. That he didn’t hear it when I told him no.
Instead, he said, “I let my attraction to you get the best of my judgment.”
And I heard Robert Aaron Long in the back of my mind say his sex addiction was what led him to harm six Asian women. Long was giving voice to not only his personal feelings, but a commonplace perception of Asian women’s bodies. He isn’t the only one. He decided to act upon the long-standing relationship between the American empire and Asian women.
The violation of Asian women is embedded in American history and culture. Before I was even born, countless women and children in Southeast Asia were raped at the hands of American service members. Part of the conquest of countries was the conquest of women.
The war that my mother tried to escape, the one that led my parents to leave their beloved homes, was one of the many wars that built the present-day United States. Just like the original wars on Indigenous territories across North America, the American War in Southeast Asia—inaccurately dubbed the Vietnam War—attempted to expand the US empire while treating the lives of people across Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos as disposable.
During the decades of American intervention in the region, the US killed up to 3.8 million people. Countless homes and an unimaginable amount of land were destroyed through bombs and chemical weapons.
What’s lesser known about the war is that US bases in nearby Thailand offered ‘Rest and Recreation’ (R&R) facilities, where over 70,000 men visited between 1966 and 1969. The facilities offered soldiers sex with local women. As attorney Dr Sunny Woan wrote in the Washington and Lee Journal of Civil Rights and Social Justice, “R&R facilities [are] a vital component of the US military policy. With pervasive disregard for human rights, the military accepts access to Indigenous women’s bodies as a ‘necessity’ for GIs stationed overseas.”
Earlier in the 20th century, the US occupation of the Philippines led to a sex industry catering to American soldiers. “It was the imperialistic conquest of the islands… that jump-started the sex entertainment industry in the Philippines,” Woan wrote.
Many decades after these wars supposedly ended, the cultural perception of Asian women as sentient sex toys persists. In the late 20th century, a mail-order bride industry was created out of US demand for an obedient Asian woman who would submit to the white man’s sexual advances. Men could order brides from countries like Vietnam and the Philippines for several thousand dollars. These women were positioned as a respite from American feminists.
In 1990, a GQ article entitled ‘Oriental Girls’ described the American male fantasy: “She doesn’t go to assertiveness training classes, insist on being treated like a person… She’s there when you need shore leave from those angry feminist seas.”
As the porn industry grew its digital presence at the turn of the century, so did access to images of Asian women enduring sexual violence. In her analysis, Woan cites a 2002 study which found that “out of 31 pornographic websites that depicted rape or torture of women, more than half showed Asian women as the victim”.
But the violence isn’t contained to just pornographic media.
In 2005, the Los Angeles Police Department arrested the ‘Koreatown rapist’ who was charged with the sexual assault of seven women, though police believed he was involved in the attack of six others. All of his victims were Asian women ranging from 17 to 55 years old.
In 2014, the murder of a Filipina trans woman became international news. Jennifer Laude was killed by US marine Joseph Scott Pemberton, who was in the Philippines for required training exercises. His ship was docked at Subic Bay, which used to be the largest US naval base overseas. Laude was a sex worker and the primary breadwinner for her family. She was 26 at the time, confident in who she was, never fearing violence for her gender identity, according to her friends.
“She was full of joy. She was selfless and did not get on bad terms with anyone,” her friend, Roann Dollete Labrador, told Rappler magazine.
Laude was found in a motel bathroom unconscious, her head hanging over the toilet bowl. Her life was stolen by lance corporal Pemberton after he discovered she was transgender. Meredith Talusan, an award-winning journalist and a Filipina trans woman herself, reported to Vice that when Pemberton arrived back at Subic Bay, he made a confession to his shipmate that he choked and killed ‘it’, referring to Laude.
“I think I killed a he-she,” Pemberton said. His shipmate later confirmed this in his court testimony. An autopsy ruled the death as asphyxiation by drowning.
Laude was a sex worker and the primary breadwinner for her family. She was 26 at the time, confident in who she was, never fearing violence for her gender identity, according to her friends.
Pemberton was only the second person who was tried for a crime under the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) between the US and the Philippines. Despite decades of Filipino activists demanding an end to US presence in the country—the US first declared military rule over the archipelago in 1898—the VFA was established between the two nations in 1999. The agreement allowed US military operations on the islands but with greater regulation from the Philippine government.
Yet, over two decades since the enactment of the VFA, the only American service member tried prior to Pemberton was another lance corporal named Daniel Smith. In 2005, he was accused of raping Filipina Suzette “Nicole” Nicolas. While she was drunk, Smith allegedly abducted her and raped her in a van as other soldiers cheered him on. He then left her on a nearby pier. He received a life imprisonment sentence but only spent three weeks in a Philippine jail, after which he was kept at the American embassy. He was never required to return to jail while appealing his case.
In 2009, Nicolas unexpectedly recanted her accusation and left for the US, with a settlement from Smith worth USD2,260, to be with her fiancé of two years. She had trouble obtaining a visa until that point and activists have suspected that the US offered her a residency visa with the condition that she recant.
Like Smith, Pemberton was protected by the American military, who hired an attorney, paid all of his legal fees, repeatedly denied requests to transfer him to Philippine custody, and requested a delay in the trial. Under the VFA, prosecutors had a year to win a conviction before Pemberton would be freed.
On 1 December 2015, just shy of a year after his arrest and 14 months after Laude was killed, the Olongapo Regional Trial Court found him guilty of homicide with a sentence of six to 12 years in prison. Pemberton had invoked the ‘trans panic defence’, alleging he acted out of heightened emotion upon discovering Laude was transgender. The judge agreed he acted out of ‘passion and obfuscation’, allowing him to avoid the harsher murder charge. The reasoning also helped reduce his sentence from the usual 20 to 40 years for homicide in the Philippines.
Pemberton was incarcerated at an air-conditioned military base guarded by Philippine Bureau of Corrections and a steady rotation of his fellow US service members. He retained his military ranking and received his monthly salary of about USD2,300 throughout his time in prison. After serving under six years of prison time, Pemberton was granted pardon by Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte. On 13 September 2020, a US military aircraft flew him home. Human rights advocates internationally decried the decision as yet another incident wherein the US eludes justice through power imbalances that it deliberately maintains.
Human rights advocates internationally decried the decision as yet another incident wherein the US eludes justice through power imbalances that it deliberately maintains.
The US has the third-highest rate of anti-trans murders each year, following behind only Brazil and Mexico. A dearth of resources in healthcare, housing and employment opportunities entraps trans people in a cycle of poverty that makes them vulnerable to acts of violence. The US government’s consistent antagonism against both Asian and trans people —like calling COVID-19 the ‘Chinese virus’ and encouraging healthcare providers to discriminate against trans patients—has inflamed existing hostility against both communities. For Asian trans women, the effect is compounded.
Like Laude, I have gone out with men, not disclosing that I’m trans, in the hopes of finding temporary self-worth. I have quieted career ambitions, telling myself that being a trans woman meant not amounting to anything notable. Though I am afforded a lifetime of privilege as a US citizen, I have calculated similar risks that she had to, in the search for some validation of my value when it was nowhere to be found.
Whether formally written in law or fomented in American culture, Asian women are seen as inherently violable—whether we’re cisgender or transgender women only determines the degree of violation.
After the six Asian women in Atlanta were reported dead, the sheriff ’s spokesman said the killer was having a “really bad day”. The police did more to illustrate the complexity of the killer’s humanity than they did for any of the slain. The lives of Asian women are inconsequential in the eyes of law enforcement. We are reduced to body parts, only useful for often exploitative service economies rife with inequality that is maintained by government policy.
In order to end violence against Asian women, and all Asian people, consider the violence that places us in the crosshairs in the first place. Immigration policy, labour rights, the gender wage gap, ongoing imperial ventures and limited perceptions of Asian humanity all contribute to a life of precarity. Noticing the violence Asian women face only when we’re murdered is much too late. We must hold to account the institutions that created the conditions for the murders to be possible. The Asian massage parlour workers were victims of violence long before they were murdered.
In order to end violence against Asian women, and all Asian people, consider the violence that places us in the crosshairs in the first place.
Laude and the six Asian women spent their last moments caring for the bodies of others, tending to their needs. They worked to pay for their parents’ housing, to send their children to college, to make meals for hungry people. They worked so they could travel, host parties, to go dancing, to get married.
On days I miss my mother, I go to my local nail salon. Melissa, my regular nail technician, calls me “baby girl”. Her hair is dyed a gunmetal grey and she carries a smug look on her face always.
I watched her one day as she delicately skimmed the surface of my fingernails with the polishing brush, starting with my pinky finger.
“How are you doing?” I asked her.
Without hesitation, she responded, “Good.”
“How’s your family?” I asked.
She smiled and looked at me out of the corner of her eye. “Good, thankfully,” she said. “My husband just got the vaccine.”
She returned to the task at hand. I fought back tears, thinking of my mother, thankful that my mask covered half my face. A moment so ordinary and yet so precious to me, between two Asian women, alive, safe, breathing.
IllustrationPenn Ey Chee