Jamie Chung arrives for our interview at a Los Angeles café bearing a gift for Chong Kim, the woman upon whom Chung’s latest film, Eden, is based. They hug one another warmly and sit side by side. Kim shares photos from her smartphone of her 12-year-old son and scrolls through some snapshots taken during the South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin, Texas, which both attended and where Eden won three awards: Narrative Feature Audience Award, SXSW Chicken & Egg Emergent Narrative Woman Director Award (Megan Griffiths) and Special Jury Recognition for Performance (Jamie Chung). There’s an ease and lightness between them that belies the gravity of the film, inspired by Kim’s horrific true-life ordeal.
Set in 1994, Chung plays Hyun Jae, a Korean American high school student in New Mexico who enters a bar with a fake ID. She leaves with a seemingly kindhearted fireman who turns out to be a wrangler for a sex trafficking ring, headed by a corrupt law enforcement official. Imprisoned in a storage unit with dozens of other girls, Hyun’s captor gives her the name Eden and forces her to become a prostitute. Tortured, raped and injected with narcotics, Eden escapes her two years of captivity by deftly rising through the ranks of the organization.
On this bright Sunday afternoon, Chung, based in Los Angeles, and Kim, who lives in Dallas, seem like friends reuniting over brunch, nothing to indicate the extraordinary circumstances that have brought them together.
Kim opens the gift box that Chung hands to her, revealing a purple enamel bracelet framed in gold. Kim immediately puts it on. Chung presses her arm next to hers, “See? They match.” Chung is wearing the same bracelet in orange. Her gesture drives home the point that whatever happens to Eden, these two women are bonded, not merely by the film, but by a cause.
That cause involves the rampant, yet seldom-discussed issue of human trafficking. Federal law defines victims of human trafficking as those induced to perform labor or a commercial sex act through force, fraud or coercion. Legislation passed in 2000 states that any child under age 18 who performs a commercial sex act is considered a victim of trafficking, regardless of whether force, fraud or coercion is involved.
Within U.S. borders, its victims are American-born and immigrants alike, the common denominator being that the most vulnerable in society often suffer the greatest risk: the teenage runaway who falls prey to a pimp for shelter and protection; the rural peasant from China who incurs debt for passage to America and gets trapped in indentured servitude at an illegal sweatshop; the young woman from Korea, duped by a recruiter, who finds herself forced to perform sex work in a massage parlor in Los Angeles’ Koreatown.
There are as many as 27 million men, women and children involved in forced labor, bonded labor and forced prostitution around the world, and upwards of 100,000 people live in bondage in the United States, according to State Department estimates. Some 600,000 to 800,000 people are trafficked across international borders each year, with 14,500 to 17,500 trafficked into the U.S., according to a 2005 U.S. State Department report.
Sex trafficking, in particular, is believed to be the second most lucrative organized crime, experts say.
“Drugs can only be sold once,” explains Kathleen Ja Sook Bergquist, associate professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas’ School of Social Work and a licensed clinical social worker. “But a person can be sold over and over again.”
Bergquist co-founded Bamboo Bridges, a Las Vegas based grassroots organization that seeks to raise awareness about human trafficking in the Asian community and also provides resources for victims. According to the group’s website, Asian Pacific American women represent the largest segment of persons trafficked into the United States, and Las Vegas has been identified as among the top 17 destination cities for human trafficking.
But given the hidden nature of the crime, “no one knows exactly what the numbers are,” says Bergquist. She notes, however, in the Asian American community, in particular, this so-called