On the Move for Love: Migrant Entertainers and the U.S. Military in South Korea

On the Move for Love: Migrant Entertainers and the U.S. Military in South Korea

On the Move for Love: Migrant Entertainers and the U.S. Military in South Korea

On the Move for Love: Migrant Entertainers and the U.S. Military in South Korea

Synopsis

Since the Korean War, gijichon-U.S. military camp towns-have been fixtures in South Korea. The most popular entertainment venues in gijichon are clubs, attracting military clientele with duty-free alcohol, music, shows, and women entertainers. In the 1990s, South Korea's rapid economic advancement, combined with the stigma and low pay attached to this work, led to a shortage of Korean women willing to serve American soldiers. Club owners brought in cheap labor, predominantly from the Philippines and ex-Soviet states, to fill the vacancies left by Korean women. The increasing presence of foreign workers has precipitated new conversations about modernity, nationalism, ethnicity, and human rights in South Korea. International NGOs, feminists, and media reports have identified women migrant entertainers as victims of sex trafficking, insisting that their plight is one of forced prostitution. Are women who travel to work in such clubs victims of trafficking, sex slaves, or simply migrant women? How do these women understand their own experiences? Is anti-trafficking activism helpful in protecting them? In On the Move for Love Sealing Cheng attempts to answer these questions by following the lives of migrant Filipina entertainers working in various gijichon clubs.

Excerpt

One August morning in 1999 Winnie and six other Filipina entertainers ran away from the Angel Club in Dongducheon (known by GIs and Filipinas as “TDC”), the largest U.S. military camp town (gijichon) in South Korea, with about thirty clubs and approximately two hundred foreign entertainers. They made a two-hour southward journey by train and subway into Seoul to seek refuge with a Filipino priest, Father Glenn. Their plan was to stay with the priest for a transition period. Five of them would return to Dongducheon to find jobs at other clubs, and the other two would find jobs in one of the small factories that had been hiring a large number of migrant workers over the previous decade. As it turned out, Father Glenn not only provided shelter for them but also persuaded them to file reports at a Seoul police station against the owner of the club. They spent an entire night, until early morning, giving testimonies at the police station with an interpreter. Armed with charges of forced prostitution, the withholding of salaries, physical assault, and other abuses, the Seoul police went up north to Dongducheon. They raided the club and arrested the fifty-six-year-old club owner, whom I will call Ajumma (Aunt) Lee, and her thirty-year-old son, Mr. Lee. They also took possession of the women’s passports, which had been kept by the club owner.

Ten days after the Filipinas had taken refuge with Father Glenn, I met them in the capacity of interpreter-cum-mediator, at the behest of the Filipino priest. Mr. Lee, the son of the club owner, who had been released by the police, and his sister wanted to get their mother out of detention. They had called one of the Filipinas, who was staying at Father Glenn’s shelter, to suggest meeting for a settlement. Father Glenn had called me at about 1:00 P.M. and said that he needed my help to meet with the women and the “club owners” at 3:00 P.M. in downtown Seoul. He wanted me to be the interpreter and to negotiate for compensation for the women in his place . . .

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