Dan Barry knew little of the inside world of immigrant sex workers in 2017 when he embarked on a story about a Chinese woman named Song Yang who worked in a massage parlor in a Chinese enclave of Flushing, New York. He knew little of the exploitation by johns, or of so-called respectable businessmen who profited from illegal trade. He knew little of the cycle of arrest, jail, and release that defined life for sex workers, of the endless nights on street corners, or of garnished wages that make it near impossible to break free.
But in fall 2017, Barry — a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and columnist at The New York Times — came across a headline in a local tabloid: “Prostie Death Jump As She Flees Police.” His reaction was immediate and visceral: “This really pissed me off,” he told me in an email exchange for The Poynter Institute last fall. That anger led, after nearly six months of meticulous reporting and writing, to the Oct. 16, 2018, publication of “The Case of Jane Doe Ponytail.” Barry felt driven to find out who the unnamed “prostie” was, and to explore the deeper circumstances behind her life and unexplained death.
The story was reported by Barry and Jeffrey E. Singer, written by Barry, and presented in an eight-page special section wrapped around darkly evocative photos by Pulitzer and Emmy winner Todd Heisler. Online, Heiser’s cinemagraphs — still photographs transformed into video clips — bring to life the neon-lit world of the victim, Song Yang, a 38-year-old Chinese immigrant whose street name was SiSi.
The subtitle — “An epic tragedy on a small block in Queens” — is far from journalistic hyperbole. The death of Song Yang, as this relentlessly fatalistic 9,500 word narrative unfolds, is the byproduct of a wretched, Dickensian system. In an impressive blend of immersive and investigative journalism, the Times reporters uncovered an underworld that exploits poor and vulnerable immigrant women: sex workers who are routinely rounded up on the streets and in police stings, while the johns who use them for pleasure and the powerful men who use them for profit go unpunished.Times metro editor Clifford Levy selected it as among the top five stories of the 2,000 stories the metro staff produced in 2018. New York’s Society of Silurians awarded Barry and Singer its 2019 Medallion for feature writing. And in April, the American Society of News Editors gave the pair its prestigious Deborah Howell Award for Writing Excellence. According to the judges’ citation:
An outstanding narrative about a woman from a remote Chinese village who came to the United States with dreams of American citizenship, and ultimately died on a street in Queens outside the seedy massage parlor where she worked. The writing flows seamlessly; the scenes come alive in remarkable detail. A heartbreaking piece that continues to haunt long after the last word is read. Amazing work.
Indeed, I challenge any reader to get through “The Case of Jane Doe Ponytail,” without feelings of sorrow and rage. And I challenge narrative writers and editors to read it without enormous respect for the dogged efforts and extraordinary craft skills of those who created it.
From the first sentence — A woman begins to fall. — of the prologue, to an elegiac epilogue that follows Song Yang’s bereaved mother down the street where her daughter died, “The Case of Jane Doe Ponytail” uncoils in eight chapters etched by Barry’s stylistic powers. He and Singer spent days and late nights documenting life on 40th Road, the seedy block in Flushing, Queens, where Song Yang lived — and then died after a vice squad targeted her in an undercover sting operation. Whether she jumped or fell remains a mystery to this day.
By its nature, much of the account had to be reconstructed. So Barry and Singer took painstaking steps to report out the story with such granular detail — bolstered by official records, text messages, emojis, family photos, and other poignant private records — that it leaves no doubt about its credibility. Rather than disrupt the narrative with an overflow of attribution, a lengthy source note appears at the bottom of the story.
The story sparked a public outcry. But change came slowly to 40th Road, the reporters found in a follow-up, wiping out the signs — or at least the visible ones — of the sex trade that had ensnared Song Yang. A summary fails to do justice to this story, which reveals the tragic life of women like Song Yang, and paints a dispassionate portrait of a system in crisis. So we asked Barry to reflect on the search for stories that otherwise go untold, and to annotate the process of reporting and writing “Jane Doe Ponytail.”
So much of what you write focuses on untold stories. Why are you drawn to these subjects?
It’s something instilled in me years ago, partly by my parents, and partly through a Franciscan education, which is always recognizing the worth of all people, to be particularly aware of the most vulnerable among us, and to see them as among us rather than apart.
My mother was from Ireland. Orphaned at 15, she was sent to the United States to live with relatives. That was a difficult experience back in the early 1950s, going from a third-world country in a farm in the middle of nowhere to Brooklyn, New York. I inherited that perspective, and her gift for telling stories. My father grew up impoverished in New York during the Depression, and it certainly shaped his worldview. I inherited the perspectives of people on the outside forever looking in.
Then I went to a Franciscan high school, St. Anthony’s, on Long Island, and then to a Franciscan college, St. Bonaventure University. I don’t embrace a lot of Catholicism, but I do embrace the Franciscan ethos, which is simplicity and meeting people where they are and trying not to pass judgment. This would be the case, say, with Song Yang and men with intellectual disability, who are usually ignored, or seen through and not seen at all; they are often seen as collective, rather than as individual men and women.
What were the most important lessons you learned about reporting and writing “The Case of Jane Doe Ponytail” that might help other journalists who aspire to this kind of work?
I suppose the lessons that we continue to learn over and over and over again. And that includes being there, spending time, and just lingering. Not rushing to and from your interview appointment, but rather you arrive early and leave late. You just sit or stand — and watch. Then you employ your senses so that you’re able to recreate it. And you do your homework and make sure that you don’t make assumptions, particularly about another culture or another world.
We worked hard, definitely, to talk to a lot of experts about sex work, about the Chinese immigration experience, and to make no assumptions. My assumption was that I didn’t know anything. It’s recognizing that you don’t know anything — and then trying to find out everything.
What was the greatest reporting challenge you faced writing this story?
To get to a point where we understood the culture and the street sufficiently enough to be able to write about it with some authority. I’m not saying we understand that completely. But through the work of Jeff Singer mostly, by hanging around and doing interviews and reading and digging up old records — the hardest part was having a more thorough understanding of a place, what it’s like to work in a massage parlor on 40th Road, having the illusion of at least some authority.
Initially, I thought it’d be just a fairly quick story. But that didn’t turn out to be the case. It took a lot of time.
And the biggest writing challenge?
Structure. There are a lot of moving parts. There’s the court, the law enforcement, the reality of sex work, and the business of massage parlors where power brokers were either making money off the situation, or looking the other way. The police investigation. And the brother and mother who are consumed with grief — the brother so much so that he believes that his sister was killed. And then, most of all, who was Song Yang?
The challenge in writing was how to structure the piece in a way that made sense so you could get from the beginning to the end. The beginning when you’re on the street and the woman is falling, to the end when you’re back on the street. And that woman’s mother is leaving a bag of sweet potatoes — an offering — at the end.
It’s all that stuff in between that was extremely difficult to put in a proper order.
How many drafts did it go through?
God Almighty! Certain sections, certain paragraphs, and then the entire piece would go through draft after draft. An earlier version was about 15,000 words and it wound up being 9,500 — a third shorter. It’s been a blur of drafts and revision, debating a single word here and there, sitting in a room with Christine Kay and (senior staff editor ) Lanie Shapiro. That’s about as happy as I get in journalism, when I’m with people who care about every word, and they’re trying to figure out how to maximize emotional impact of what you’re trying to convey through the arrangement of words.
How did you manage to win the trust of Song Yang’s fellow sex workers who don’t talk to people, especially cops and reporters, to tell you their stories?
This is where we talk about Jeff Singer. Jeff is a freelancer, or, in the parlance of The Times, a “stringer” who gets called if there’s a fire or murder. He gets paid either a per diem or by the hour. That’s unfortunate because Jeff’s skills are extraordinary. In another life, he learned fluent Mandarin, sold Chinese-English phrase books he put together, and taught English to Chinese immigrants.
I’m an awkward, lanky, bald white man and I don’t speak Mandarin. To the women, I might have looked like a cop, or a potential john who couldn’t get up the nerve to do something about it. Jeff is in his mid 40s, a regular-looking guy, and he is fearless. He would talk to the women in Mandarin, small talk. Sometimes we brought them bubble tea in the summer, or hot tea in the winter. But we were making very little headway.
One night, Jeff is talking to a couple of women, and a third, older woman came over and says somewhat aggressively, “If you’re so good, where am I from?” He asked her to say a few more words, and she did. “Okay, you’re from Long Island. But you’re not only from Long Island, you’re from Suffolk County, south of the Long Island Expressway, you’re from the town of Babylon.” Only he was speaking of a certain urban region in China. I didn’t understand, but the other women began to laugh. He had nailed it. When that happened, something broke. The women would talk more. One night, they invited him up into one of the rooms, where they would entertain men, for some hot pot. They were that comfortable with him.
And so that’s how he learned where they were from, their dreams, why they were doing this, what the job was really like, how dangerous, that there’s no protection from their “bosses.” Intimate details. None of the cops and very few of the outreach workers had gotten to this level of detail.
That was a huge moment for us because it gave us authority. It was a great leap in reportage and it’s all due to Jeff Singer.
The principal editor on this story, Christine Kay, died in February at 54 from metastatic breast cancer. I know this is a huge loss for the paper and you personally. Can you describe her role on “The Case of Jane Doe Ponytail.”
Absolutely indispensable. When I first saw that tabloid article, a news brief really, I went to Christine and told her I wanted to do this story and she was all in. She was very dedicated to giving voice to the voiceless, allowing women to tell their own stories, to seeing what others choose to ignore. She was a force in the newsroom, particularly in long-form narrative journalism at the Times. She was my biggest champion in explaining to other editors what the hell Dan Barry was up to. And she was very intimately involved in reporting — even went out to the scene — and then endured draft after draft after draft.
Towards the latter part of 2018, her cancer returned. She was not feeling well, many, many, many days. But she would come in, or sometimes I would go to her apartment, and we would go over the words. I think it gave her oxygen to be lost in a story, lost in that never-ending pursuit for the proper word. It was the last story she worked on. I’m bereft without her.
The annotation: Storyboard’s questions are in red; Barry’s responses in blue. To read the story without annotations, click the ‘Hide all annotations’ button, which you’ll find just below the social media buttons in the top right-hand menu, or at the top of your mobile screen.
The Case of Jane Doe Ponytail
An epic tragedy on a small block in Queens.
By Dan Barry and Jeffrey E. Singer
Photographs and video by Todd Heisler
Oct. 16, 2018 ~ The New York Times
A WOMAN BEGINS TO FALL. With her long dark hair in a ponytail and her black-and-red scarf loose around her neck, she is plummeting from a fourth-floor balcony, through the neon-charged November night. Using present tense, vivid details and a stomach-churning verb, you captivate the reader by starting in the middle of intensely dramatic action. There would seem to be many possible entry points for this narrative. Why did you choose this one? If I’m thinking in terms of story, thinking cinematically and how to lure the reader, it was one of the very first things that struck me: this poor woman falling. It was very tempting to explore that metaphor of the fallen woman, but I decided that was kind of nonsense. And we didn’t need to. Certain images or certain moments rise to the top and I’ll often consider them as a way to begin a story.
Below awaits 40th Road, a gritty street of commerce in the Flushing section of Queens. Chinese restaurants and narrow storefronts, and dim stairwells leading to private transactions. Strivers and dawdlers and passers-by, all oblivious to what is transpiring above.
But before the pavement ends the woman’s descent, a few feet from a restaurant’s glittering Christmas tree, imagine her fall suddenly suspended — her body freeze-framed in midair. If only for a moment. Why did you stop the action mid-fall and then end the section with 11 additional paragraphs of background? One, because I could. The writer controls his or her narrative. It’s up to the writer to figure out how best to tell the story. If you think of it that way, if you stay within the parameters of fact, you can adopt this almost omniscient voice if the device isn’t too mannered. And it just came to me — imagining this woman just stopped in midair and then saying, ‘Okay, who is she? Why this is happening? And this is why you should care.’ Believe me, I’m very sensitive to the violence and the harshness of what happened here. It’s a difficult scene, a human being falling to the pavement from a few stories above. I don’t want to come off as unfeeling. But in trying to make you care about this anonymous woman in Flushing, I thought here I could stop it and say this is who she is, this is why you should fucking care.
She toils in the netherworld of Flushing massage parlors, where she goes by the street name of SiSi. A youthful 38, she is in a platonic marriage to a man more than twice her age; harbors fading hopes of American citizenship; and is fond of Heineken, Red Bull and the rotisserie chicken at a Colombian place on Kissena Boulevard. Among her competitors, she is considered territorial and tireless.
It is the Saturday after Thanksgiving, and SiSi is in a shabby building’s top-floor apartment, for which she pays her “boss” a hefty fee. She has returned from a market with provisions. She has tried calling her younger brother in China, but he is asleep. She has been on the phone with friends and clients, unaware that she is in the sights of a 10-member police team working vice.
She heads downstairs to stand at her building’s entrance, a necessity of her job. Soon she is leading a man back upstairs — an officer working undercover — as her closely held cellphone casts a glow about her face. Their awkward conversation in her apartment convinces him that SiSi has broken the law, just as it convinces SiSi that he is a cop. She pushes him out and closes the door, though not to the inevitable. She knows from experience what comes next:
More police. Tromping through the dusky vestibule of her building, across the worn scarlet rug and up the 50 tiled steps. Past the Chinese sign that says if you’re looking for the driving school, you’re in the wrong place. Then right to her door.
The handcuffs. The hurried escort to a police vehicle. The humiliation. Again.
SiSi watches the officers ascend on the video monitor she keeps near the door. Under the fixed gaze of one of those lucky cat figurines perched on a table, its paw raised in a wish of good fortune, she begins to pace.
Now they are pounding on the door and shouting Police! Open up! SiSi rushes to the apartment’s north balcony, with its panoramic view of the street hustle below. Day and night, sun or sleet, this is where she and her sister competitors sing their plaintive song to passing men: Massage? Massage?
On the narrow balcony, barely two feet deep, she keeps a broom, a bucket and a small blue stool. Up she steps — and now she is falling, plunging toward the hard tenth of a New York mile that is 40th Road.
A tenth of a mile. Where Mandarin trumps English and a glance trumps the spoken word. Where sex is sold beside cloudy tanks of fish and crabs. Where seedy quarters controlled by local powers are rented to illicit massage operations, and the police make sporadic sweeps, and immigrant women are arrested again and again, and few in this city take notice. The repetition and alternating sentence lengths is a very powerful device. You use it once again, later in the story. What were you trying to achieve? I’m very conscious of the rhythm and there are rhythmic patterns where you do short, long, really long. Or you do really long, long, short. A “tenth of a mile” is a short, then “Where Mandarin trumps …” is a little longer and “where sex is sold…” is a little longer, and then “where seedy quarters and…and…and…” I hope to begin to create an almost fluid feeling of what kind of place we’re in and where the reader understands that all these disparate pieces are at play at the same time. Then it ends with “…and few in this city take notice.” All this craziness is occurring in one little place and this city is so large and so complicated, and so distracted by everything else, that it doesn’t even see this. Is this the theme of the story? It’s one of the themes: the wonders and tragedies that are occurring on every block in this massive metropolis all the time. There’s a beauty and an energy and an excitement to that. But at the same time we all are living in our own movies and become inured to the assault upon our senses when you live in a place like New York. And then you don’t see certain things. On top of that, because Song Yang was a Chinese immigrant working in sex work, there is a tendency to look past her or through her because she’s an anonymous cog and we don’t really care. We never consider the fully realized life inhabited by this one person.
The undercover officer, his job done, exits the building and turns right — at the very moment that the woman who has just offered him intimacy for money hits the pavement at his feet. A woman known along 40th Road as SiSi, but whose given name was Song Yang.
IN THE GOOGLE MAPS OF THE MIND, pull back from this tiny street to take in the borough’s 178-square-mile sprawl: a pulsating hive of parkways and boulevards, apartment buildings and single-family homes, two airports, a major league ballpark, remnants of a world’s fair — all bracketed north and south by ocean, river and bay. This is such a creative, contemporary way to ask readers to follow directions. How and why did you settle on the metaphor of Google Maps to take the reader on a journey through Song Yang’s neighborhood? I was trying to have the reader up above looking down. It went through several rewrites. Early attempts were addressing the reader in the second person: ‘Imagine that you’re looking down from above…’ All this tortured prose. I wasn’t trying to echo what happened to Song Yang, above and falling down. I was trying to invite the reader to hover a moment above the scene to begin to imagine where we are: Queens, New York. It’s an extraordinary place. I was born in Queens. I understand its importance. I wanted to very quickly convey, ‘Yeah, you might see Queens, New York, and, and dismiss that, but let’s pause for at least a minute to say, ‘Check out fucking Queens!’ I was doing a lot of Google Mapping because I was zeroing in on 40th Road and making printouts and jotting down who owned which building on this one road. It occurred to me that that might be a quicker, as you say, more modern, way to invite the reader to imagine looking down — as if you’re looking down at a Google Map.
A striving borough of comity and contradiction, Queens is both the birthplace of the American president — elected in part on an anti-immigration platform — and home to 2.3 million people, nearly half of them foreign-born. With hundreds of languages spoken here, it may be the most linguistically diverse place on Earth.
Every day, airplanes alight at Kennedy International Airport in southeast Queens, their passengers including many immigrants who join the borough’s anonymous, aspirational ranks. They chop the vegetables, wash the dishes, clean the toilets, mow the lawns, drive the hired cars.
And some wind up in the commercial sex trade. Making money for a pimp in an airport motel in South Jamaica. Waiting for the next client in a dingy building along Roosevelt Avenue in Corona. Or, like Song Yang, standing on a Flushing street on a cold November night, hiding behind her cute nickname, calling out to men. Playing her role in a shadow economy that benefited others through the exorbitant rent she paid.
“I hear she was No. 1: young, pretty, and her service was great,” said Michael Chu, a travel agent and community advocate who worked across the street from her on 40th Road. “People just lined up for her.”
For years now, Flushing has been an ever-replenishing repository of immigrants entangled in the underground sex economy. The commonplace raids of illicit massage operations across the country routinely lead to the arrests of women with Flushing addresses.
These parlors disappear and reappear with regularity, undermining the police crackdowns often prompted by neighborhood complaints. The industry’s opaqueness adds to the confusion. Some parlors have legitimate state licenses; some legitimate operations have masseuses making sex-for-money side deals; and some are illegally unlicensed, with no interest at all in addressing someone’s sore neck.
Emotionally manipulated by their bosses, ashamed of what they do, afraid to trust, the women rarely confide in the police or even their lawyers about their circumstances. They might be supporting a family in China, or paying back a smuggling debt, or choosing this more profitable endeavor over, say, restaurant work. No matter the backstory, the police say their collective silence further complicates law-enforcement efforts to build racketeering and trafficking cases against the operators.
But society has become increasingly aware of the complexities and inequities of the commercial sex economy, including a criminal justice system that has tended to target the exploited — often immigrant women and members of the transgender community — while rarely holding accountable their customers and traffickers.
In early 2017, New York’s police commissioner, James O’Neill, announced at a news conference that he would redirect his vice division to address prostitution and sex trafficking. This would include training intended to alter what he called the “law-enforcement mind-set.”
“We’ve already switched much of our emphasis away from prostitutes, and begun focusing much more on the pimps who sell them and the johns who pay for their services,” he said. “Like all crime, we can’t just arrest our way out of this problem.” Tone, voice and attribution to sources in this passage signal a shift from narrative to traditional news writing style. What was your aim as you composed it. Is it, in effect, a nut graf? I never saw it as a nut graf. If there was one, I think I delivered it in the prologue. The reason for being of the story was in the 12th graf — “A tenth of a mile..and few in this city take notice.” What I was trying to do here was begin to provide more complexity to what we understand when we refer to a sex worker and one of these massage parlors — the reasons why they are there. There are all sorts of pressures and realities in each individual’s life that brings them to this point to stand on the pavement of 40th Road, saying stuff to strangers. And I wanted to not necessarily invite the readers’ sympathy so much as their empathy. And also it’s to anticipate the question about why isn’t law enforcement cracking down on these places and on the pimps? There are many forces at play here, including cultural forces. These women do not talk to the authorities. I wanted the reader to understand who these women are as best as I could, quickly, and also to convey why this is so hard for outreach workers and the police and others who are dealing with it.
Since the establishment of this new “mind-set,” the police have continued to struggle at building criminal cases against the operators. But prostitution arrests in New York City have dropped more than 20 percent in the last year, while the arrests of customers have spiked.
Still, this change in attitude at Police Headquarters in Lower Manhattan had not necessarily crossed the East River to benefit an immigrant now lying on her side, unable to speak, gazing up at a plainclothes officer trying to calm her until an ambulance arrived. Beside a spent cigarette, her blood pooled on the pavement she had so often worked.
By morning, Song Yang would be dead, shattering a tight Chinese family that would never accept the police version of events. Her death would also come to reflect the seemingly intractable nature of policing the sex industry, and cast an unwelcome light on the furtive but ubiquitous business of illicit massage parlors.
In the epic of Queens, this stretch of 40th Road is little more than an asphalt hyphen. But along its short expanse exist worlds within worlds within worlds.In 2004, when I interviewed you about your memoir, “Pull Me Up,” you said you found yourself “more daring with language and less concerned with having a nut graf.” How did that freedom influence the writing of “The Case of Jane Doe Ponytail?” Some of that came from the book. Some came from writing the “About New York” column; that was freeing because that was my own real estate. Every story has an internal nut graf. There’s always some kind of reason for being for the story — usually some kind of tension, something that needs to be overcome or something that is complicating a flow. The complication is the nut graf, and when you’re telling a short story in the form of a column or, in this case, a long story about a woman and her death and the community that she inhabited, the complexities provide the nut graf. The complexities are the travails of immigrants, the realities of sex work, the challenges to the police, depression. If you stipulate it’s about the human condition, there are complexities, and those are your nut grafs in storytelling.
BABA, I WANT TO GO, I WANT TO GO.
I want to go to work, the little girl would say to her parents. I want to pick ginseng. She was a born worker, their Song Yang.
She and her younger brother lived with their parents in a remote village in China’s northeastern province of Liaoning, where they grew crops on land allotted to them by their local village committee. Little Song Yang was especially efficient at harvesting the family’s ginseng crop, her mother, Shi Yumei, recalled. “The more her father praised her, the harder she worked.”
Her father, Song Xigui, eventually found moderate success selling construction-grade sand he bulldozed from a nearby river, and by the 1990s the family had replaced its thatched-roof home with a modern brick house that included two “kang” bed-stoves, heated slate platforms that provided warmth during the severe winters. Still, they continued to work the crops, with Song Yang often responsible for running home to light the stove, cut the vegetables and mind her brother.
As she grew older, she began to collect specimens of the enchanting butterflies zigzagging down by the river, and became meticulous in preserving their fragile iridescence. When friends came for boisterous sleepovers, they would marvel at her book of butterflies, and take turns asking to keep one.
Butterflies became Song Yang’s gift.
At 19, she moved 2,200 miles south to Saipan, the largest of the Northern Mariana Islands, an American commonwealth, where she became one of the thousands of young Chinese women who labored in sweatshops to produce apparel bearing the guilt-absolving label “Made in America.” Sharing a room with five other women in a dormitory, she covered her bottom-bunk bed with a silken cloth curtain, and adorned her small rectangle of privacy with family photographs. You’ve moved backwards in time to tell the origin story of Song Yang. How do you go about organizing your materials for such a long story? An outline? Timeline? The Good Witch in “The Wizard of Oz” says it’s always best to start at the beginning. The paramount thing is the opening, whether it’s a 700-word column, or a 9,500-word heave like “The Case of Jane Doe Ponytail.” The way my mind works is that I am in competition with you, the reader, and if I don’t make you care within the first couple of paragraphs, then I’ve lost. How do I get you to stay for the first 10 seconds to read the first paragraph? If it’s powerful enough, you’ll stay with me for another 10 seconds. Maybe now I’m beginning to create topspin, and you are making the calculation: I could watch “Game of Thrones,” or I’ll give this another 10 or 20 seconds. And if you give me 30 to 40 seconds, maybe I have convinced you to stay because of the power of the language, or because I’ve created a scheme that intrigues you. I don’t have an outline. I sit and try to figure out: How do I entice you?
Saipan’s garment industry was shrinking by the early 2000s, and Song Yang left to become a waitress on the island. She married a worldly divorced father named Chau Chuong, an American citizen who had worked for years in New York’s restaurant grind. He was so much older — 67 to her 27 — that her family was slow to accept him.
In 2006, the couple opened a small Vietnamese restaurant on Saipan that became so successful they opened a second place, with 150 tables. He worked the kitchen and she worked the front. “She attracted a lot of friendly customers,” her husband recalled.
Her brother, Song Hai, joined her after his high school graduation, eventually opening a henna tattoo parlor with a friend. When their mother came for a visit, she posed for photographs beside her daughter’s well-stocked restaurant bar, her smile radiating pride.
“We had a real sense of accomplishment,” Mr. Song said in Mandarin.
But a catastrophic earthquake and tsunami struck Japan in 2011, disrupting a main source of tourism to Saipan, as well as the fortunes of Song Yang and Song Hai. The restaurants were sold, the tattoo parlor shuttered.
Photographs from her brother’s wedding in March 2013 capture the last happy times that Song Yang spent with her family. Here she is back home, posing with the bride and groom. Here she is, sharing a restaurant meal with the growing family. Here she is. An intriguing elliptical close, but a perhaps less knowing reader might wonder if something has been left out. Why end the paragraph this way? Because it means here she is in life and it’s the only remaining manifestation, now that she’s dead. And the reader knows that. I imagined people sitting around a table sharing family photographs and saying, ‘Who’s that guy? Who’s that person?’ Echoing that language. ‘Oh, here she is right there. He or she is at the wedding, remember? Here she is.’ And so I was definitely playing with the way we talk when we’re looking at photographs. Then it just struck me. Here she is living in these photographs. I saw those photographs, so I know how much they meant, and how much they mean now to her brother and her mother and father. So I just liked it. ‘Here she is.’ And I was hoping that Christine wouldn’t cut it. But she liked it too. So I lucked out.
A month later, Song Yang joined the hundreds who arrive daily at Kennedy Airport, direct from China. Straight to Flushing she went, like so many before, where she hoped that she and her husband would succeed again as restaurateurs.
With her husband now too old for kitchen work, Song Yang became their sole source of income. A waitressing job failed, as did a short-lived Chinese fast-food venture on Main Street. So she became a home health aide, and took a massage-therapy course in the hope of earning additional money. Then a friend told her of a more lucrative opportunity, to be found along 40th Road.
The understanding of her parents and brother was that Song Yang worked in reflexology. They knew that gifts arrived from New York. That she called regularly for video chats while sitting in a black office chair, sometimes eating a bowl of porridge. That when her nephew was born, she proudly announced on social media that she had become an aunt — a “gugu.”
That she seemed happy, mostly. But there was that time when she refused to video-chat for several days, after which she explained that a man had beaten her about the face. And that other time, when she revealed that a man — a law-enforcement officer, she said — had held a gun to her head while forcing her to perform oral sex. Family members reassured her: She had no choice.
Song Yang told her family last fall that she had booked a flight to China for December, and was looking forward to meeting her nephew for the first time. So far she had connected with him only online, through the popular WeChat app, where her avatar sometimes featured a butterfly.
What kind of present do you want Gugu to bring home? she would ask the child, her image beamed halfway around the world from some exotic place called Flushing.
THE THOROUGHFARE known as 40th Road was Grove Street, once.
In the 19th century it had a volunteer firehouse, a nursery and residents with Irish surnames. Just in living memory, there was Harry Barlow’s auto garage, the mimeo graf services of Case the Printer, an appliance store proud of its color Zenith television sets and, of course, the Old Roma restaurant — famous for its veal cutlets on linguine, and that yellow sponge cake with pineapple filling. Bill Blundell, the Wall Street Journal writing coach, said that history was an essential ingredient of every story. Why is history such an important part of this story? To get a sense of place I want to know its history. When I was writing the “This Land” column,” and I would go to some place that I’d never been before, the first place I would go to would be the public library. I would read the local newspapers to see the chatter of the day. But then I would also go to the local history section. You would find these little details — why the name for the high school team was the “Pioneers”— which would help give you a sense of where a town found its identification. In the case of Flushing, it was especially important to quickly convey the evolution of place. Because a half-century ago, it was mostly a white, Jewish, Irish, working-class kind of place. Now, it’s almost entirely Asian and Asian American, almost entirely Chinese. So the reason I did all that history was to say what was then and what it is now. And also it’s a reminder, in places like New York, that the one constant is change. It’s always been this way.
It is all long gone, replaced by ginger duck rice casserole and a shaved ice treat called red bean baobing. The 40th Road of today is almost entirely Chinese, its restaurant signs often featuring no English at all — one more reminder that the only New York constant is change.
The street’s 20 buildings, including Song Yang’s, are mostly three- and four-story structures from the 1980s and ’90s that evoke a utilitarian, Soviet-bloc drabness. Narrow and claustrophobic, they loom like set pieces for a film noir.
The one-way street itself always feels like a wrong turn, an obstacle course of idling delivery trucks and construction equipment. One end elbows past a small playground; the other runs into the ever-clogged Main Street intersection, where plainclothes police officers can often be seen sitting in an unmarked vehicle in an attempt to deter quality-of-life crimes. Pickpocketing is so prevalent that a nearby grocery displays signs of a stick figure reaching into another stick figure’s handbag.
Above, looming airliners grumble as they approach LaGuardia Airport, across Flushing Bay. Just behind 40th Road, Long Island Rail Road trains grind and whine along the raised tracks. Up and down the block, the earthy aromas of produce stands and restaurant waste commingle with the classical Chinese instrumental music emanating from a soup-dumpling restaurant. Throughout the story you employ the five senses to recreate Song Yang’s world. A sense of place also suffuses the story. Why is it so important to you? Places are characters in and of themselves. They can be animated through your language and be given a heartbeat. Beyond that, I think that the reader subconsciously needs to be grounded somewhere, anchored in the world you are trying to create. The way to do that is to begin to describe what it looks like, what it smells like, what it sounds like. There’s no trick here, no clever idea on my part. It’s reporting 101: to activate all your senses to create a world so that the reader can be there beside you.
And here, beside the upturned fruit crates and the overloaded garbage bags, stand the women of the massage parlors. In their 40s and 50s, mostly, they check their cellphones, drag on untaxed Korean cigarettes bought in bulk, and chat, but with eyes scanning for unattached men lacking a law-enforcement vibe.
Aromas from produce stands and restaurants commingle with strains of classical Chinese music.
The offer is understood, if not explicit. If the man consents, he is led up the stairs of one of the dull buildings, where massage operations are often crammed amid barbershops, driving schools and employment agencies.
Massage parlors offering sex are hardly a recent phenomenon, and business models vary. But the trade along 40th Road is especially audacious. The women stand on both sides of the street — five, 10, a dozen at a time — as ubiquitous as the delivery trucks. In the merciless heat and cold, they sweat and shiver on staked ground, prompting resentful neighborhood complaints about lost business and children exposed to the seamy daily spectacle.
A common arrangement on 40th Road is one in which a “boss” rents an apartment or office from one of the building’s tenants, then provides space to women for a $20 cut of whatever they charge each client. The general expectation is that each woman will generate at least $100 a day for the boss.
But the bosses provide no meaningful protection. The women are at the mercy of the street, where they have been robbed, beaten, raped, thrown down stairs. The surveillance cameras nearly always present are intended less for security, perhaps, than to provide the boss with a way to count the clients who walk through the door.
Over several months, the women along 40th Road shared in Mandarin the stories of how they came to be standing here, offering sex to strangers. They use names like masks. Some have chosen Americanized names — Jenny, for example — while others have been rechristened by bosses with nicknames that sound like Lala, or Kiki, or Yoyo.
They came from all over China, and from myriad backgrounds. One woman said she used to clean houses. Another said she was a former reporter who covered Chinese real estate. Several described the circumstances that left them in economic straits: a failed bus company, a bankrupt jade dealership, a gambling-addicted husband.
One woman often positions herself near a standpipe at the corner of Main Street, so as to be the first to approach any man venturing west. She is in her 60s, small-framed and usually dressed in layers, with long hair dyed black. She said in a raspy voice that she was from the southeastern Chinese province of Jiangxi, and that she was trying to pay off a debt incurred by her adult son in a business deal gone wrong.
She had visited two job agencies on 40th Road, looking for work as a nanny, but nothing panned out. And now she was here, on the corner, where her half-joking refrain — “I’m too old” — did not seem to deter clients.
Another woman, who gave her name as Xiao Li — or Little Li — said she was from the city of Dexing, in Jiangxi Province, home to a well-known copper mine, where she once was a welder. Thin and often wearing a simple black dress, she said she had briefly left the street to study legitimate massage — “So my heart could have a little bit of peace” — but had concluded that the classes were a waste of money. Back she came to 40th Road.
“My body can’t take it,” Ms. Li, 50, said. “My body can’t take so many men.” The story is sparing in its use of quotes, but those that appear pierce the heart. How did you decide what to use? I made the conscious effort not to say, “Meredith Dank, a professor at John Jay College, who is an expert in in sex trafficking, said that women are often afraid to speak to the police.” It was consciously stripped of those kinds of narrative intrusions. The voices are either Song Yang, through her texts; her husband; Song Hai, her brother and their mother, and the other sex workers who used street names. They get voice. Some people can argue about that. I back it up with a note on sources. How do you know readers will trust you? I think about it. But in a story like “The Case of Jane Doe Ponytail” I think it’s evident early on that we have worked hard to have authority in what we’re telling. The reader just has to trust us. And I think that The New York Times has earned many people’s trust. Christine Kay, who was as rigorous as any editor here, said, yes, let’s do it this way. I was fine with it.
Others were even more expansive, including a stocky, 40-ish woman with cropped black hair and a lazy eye who called herself Rachel. Eating a sweet baked potato at a dumpling stall on Main Street, she recalled that while working at a job she loathed — waitressing at a Chinese restaurant in Seattle — she began hunting through WeChat forums for leads on other work, and came across an offer that she recalled saying:
Massage Woman to Stand on Street. $20,000 a month. Flushing, N.Y.
Rachel called the number to ask what the job entailed. The boss replied: Everything.
After her first day, Rachel said, “I got home and took a shower, and cried.”
She paused at the memory, and added, “But then I just thought to myself, ‘I have to keep thinking positively.’”
Michael Chu, the longtime neighborhood advocate, has befriended some of the women who stand outside his building on 40th Road, and occasionally offers them assistance with police matters. His office, where an old dog named Scout is usually napping on some cardboard, is furnished with desks left behind by an accountant who moved rather than work beside a massage parlor.
A bespectacled man of 65, Mr. Chu has listened to the travails of these women, whom he calls “sisters.” The beatings, the robberies, the harassment from teenagers in the playground, the pressure to attract enough clients to cover their “rent” to the boss. The hopes they harbor for permanent residence, for having enough money, for finally not doing this.
“They also have an American dream,” Mr. Chu said. “The sisters have an American dream.”
After Song Yang’s death, her brother would post fliers pleading for information.
THE MAN SPOTTED HER on the street one night after stopping at a 40th Road restaurant known for its cheap and plentiful food. She was pretty, younger than the other women and conversant in English, so he paid for a session. She said her name was SiSi.
His name was Paul Hayes. Single, in his early 40s and living in Queens, he carried himself with a seen-it-all air — but she beguiled him. They gradually became lovers, then good friends with vague plans to rekindle their romance someday. But she lived with her husband in an apartment a block away. It was complicated.
She had a good sense of humor, and often solicited his advice — although she ignored him when he recommended bolstering the building’s security system. She also confided about the dangers and vagaries of her work life.
“She really hated doing it,” Mr. Hayes said.
Even so, Song Yang established herself as a fierce competitor in the circumscribed world of 40th Road. Fueled by coffee and Red Bull, she toiled nearly nonstop, as if facing some self-imposed deadline. Word was that she was trying to save up to open her own Vietnamese restaurant, or to buy a house in New York for her aging parents, or to just move on.
Her sharp elbows and inexhaustible style irked some of the other women, leading to arguments, shoves and occasional hair pulling. One competitor recalled that if a man chose another masseuse, Song Yang would tease the client about preferring older women.
But another woman remembered a gentler, more generous Song Yang. She said that when she arrived at 40th Road, Song Yang insisted that she accept several pairs of pants to ward against winter.
Song Yang’s domain was a fourth-floor apartment at 135-32 40th Road, directly above another massage operation. The apartment door faced a boiler room and a makeshift gate that was intended to keep vagrants from sleeping on the roof, but also to protect the hot pepper plants nurtured there by the aged custodian.
As were most things on 40th Road, her rental arrangement was convoluted.
The building was constructed in 1992 by Jentai Tsai, 85, a prominent, even revered, banker in Flushing, and is owned by a real estate company overseen by his son, Eugene Morimoto Tsai. In a brief conversation last month, the younger Tsai, 42, said that he did not know that a woman had fallen from his building last year, or that his building had long been a hub of illicit massage activity.
They both said, and city records confirm, that the building’s managing agent — responsible for collecting rent — was another man of local distinction: Peter Tu, 62, the longtime director of the Flushing Chinese Business Association, a member of Community Board 7 and a district leader for the Democratic Party. Louise Kiernan, the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer and editor, once observed that the best journalism is a blend of investigative, explanatory and narrative writing. Your investigation of the men who underwrite the sex trade in Flushing takes over here. How did you decide what to use? We knew way more than we published. Jentai Tsai was in commercials for a local hospital. Peter Tsu runs the annual New Year’s parade in Flushing. We knew who the other bosses were. Christine and I would talk about what is essential, how do you tell this stuff without disrupting the flow of the story. Simply because you found out something doesn’t mean that it warrants a place in your story.
Outside his office around the corner, Mr. Tu at first denied that he was involved with the 40th Road building, but then said that he had merely tried to assist the Tsai family by collecting the $18,500 monthly rent from the main, first-floor tenant, the Shi Li Xiang seafood restaurant. He said he no longer served in this role, had never taken any payment “from the street,” and had no idea what arrangements the restaurant had with the tenants and subtenants upstairs.
“I’m always in the middle,” Mr. Tu said.
A man identifying himself as the boss of the first-floor restaurant began to shout when asked about the tenants upstairs. “How am I supposed to know the names of the people to whom I rent?” he asked in Mandarin. “You want me to go up and ask everyone who they are?”
Above the restaurant, in this building owned and managed by Flushing men of stature, Song Yang paid a flat fee for her apartment — as much as $400 a night, competitors say — to a square-headed, elusive “boss” who goes by Lao Li, or Old Li, a kind of avuncular nickname conveying familiarity with the women who work for him. But the particulars of his subleasing arrangements are as difficult to pin down as he is.
One spring midnight, Lao Li made a rare appearance on 40th Road to mediate a dispute over clients that had erupted among the women. When a reporter approached and called him by name, Lao Li looked up — and bolted. He dashed east down the center of 40th Road, dodging cars, before vanishing into the dark Flushing night.
Although Song Yang and other women often quarreled, they occasionally gathered with Lao Li at the restaurant downstairs, or at a nearby karaoke bar. They’d watch him blow out a candle on his birthday cake, or sing along to a song popular in his native northeast China. At the Chinese New Year, he would hand out red envelopes containing small cash gifts.
In cellphone videos and photographs of these get-togethers, the participants could easily be mistaken for co-workers at an accounting firm, making a night of it. They seemed untroubled by their profession’s many perils, including robbery, bodily harm — and, especially, arrest.
Arrest attracted unwelcome attention. It jeopardized applications for permanent residency. It magnified the humiliation. And it usually meant an appearance at the Human Trafficking Intervention Court, held on Fridays in the basement of the Queens Criminal Court in Kew Gardens, where Mandarin sometimes seems as common as English.
Established nearly 15 years ago, the court set out to treat women in the commercial sex trade less as accused criminals than as victims of trafficking and exploitation. They are told that charges will be dismissed and records sealed if they complete several individualized counseling sessions — focused, say, on job training, or education — with Garden of Hope, Restore NYC, Womankind or another outreach organization. A group called Sanctuary for Families is also on hand to provide immigration services.
Song Yang went through this process more than once. In addition to expunging the arrests from her record, these court appearances provided pause, forcing her to confront the consequences of her work life.
Song Yang’s mother and brother would cling to the possessions she left behind.
In the summer of 2016, Song Yang began frequent WeChat dialogues with a Flushing lawyer, Chen Mingli, that at first focused on acquiring permanent residency — a process that he repeatedly told her could take months and months. Still, she fretted that her arrest history would thwart her application for a green card.
I am having a lot of anxiety, she wrote in Chinese.
Gradually, though, their conversations came to reflect the darker realities of her 40th Road realm, with sobbing emoticons peppering her messages.
Good morning, Lawyer Chen, she wrote in mid-October 2016. A police officer put a gun to my head today and forced me to perform oral sex.
At the insistence of a friend, she had filed a complaint with the 109th Precinct. Investigators spent the day in her “shop,” looking for evidence and checking the building’s surveillance video, which had captured a heavyset bald man in a suit ascending the stairs.
Mr. Chen assured her that the matter would not affect the status of her immigration case, and implored her to cooperate with the police. But her intense desire to avoid attention, coupled with fear of retaliation from her attacker, overshadowed everything.
The police said that this won’t affect me in any way, but I’m afraid that it will … Lawyer Chen, what am I going to do now? …
The police circulated a wanted poster based on a hazy photograph of the man lifted from the surveillance video. A retired United States Marshal, who surrendered after someone mentioned him as a possible suspect, participated in a lineup.
But Song Yang identified another man, wrongly, as her attacker. In addition, a DNA sample from the retired marshal did not match samples taken from Song Yang’s clothing. The case was eventually closed.
Several months later, in late September 2017, she was arrested a third time on a prostitution charge. Handcuffed, led away from 40th Road, held overnight. The cadences of your sentences often scan like poetry. Are poets role models? I’m constantly thinking about word choice and rhythm and the rhythms within sentences and the rhythms within paragraphs. I’m always either trying to avoid or trying to evoke alliteration, or something that sounds both natural yet striving towards — stumbling, let’s say — something approaching literature. I have Seamus Heaney on my iTunes. When you’re writing poetry at that level, if Seamus Heaney is using “of” and “and” and “the,” for example, in “Digging” he has thought long and hard about that. The economy of language that we need in journalism oftentimes is best represented in poetry. I always look to getting the biggest bang for every word.
A few days later, Mr. Chen asked, You’ve been arrested again?
Song Yang answered:
Yeah.Observation, interviews, official records, private records such as family, photographs, cell phone videos and text messages sources stud the story. How important is it to vary the sources of documentation when writing long-form narrative? The various sourcing makes the account richer and more complex and gives the reporters more comfort in the tone of authority that they’re trying to adopt. It signals to the reader why they should trust you. Trust isn’t only found with an attribution; when you begin to cite records, both private and public, trust is solidified. What did some of the private records provide? The WeChat conversations Song Yang had with her lawyer give Song Yang her voice. Maybe she was not always in the best frame of mind, but you get a sense of who she was, and what was worrying her and a little bit of her sense of humor.
She explained that she had been forced to make hard decisions and that it had been difficult to suppress her feelings while married to a much older man who seemed increasingly removed from her day-to-day life. She felt “morally depraved,” and sometimes thought about giving it all up and going home — or worse.
I’ve been having thoughts of jumping from a building, but what should I do? she wrote early one morning.
Mr. Chen was never formally hired by Song Yang, but now his central role seemed to be to buoy her spirits.
Don’t be scared, he wrote hours later. Don’t think that way.
Song Yang only sank deeper.
I’ve fallen so low I can’t be saved.
Without purpose, without direction, what meaning is there to keep on living?
I used to be a woman who was very strong in her life. I strove for perfection in everything I did. I never thought that my life would turn out this way. I’ve truly failed. You’ve said that when you were writing you had in mind Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town,” and its faint melancholy of the inevitable? Is this what you meant in this very sad section? Yes. Even though you already know that she has fallen from the window, I hope that in this section there is still a sense of foreboding. Even though you know what’s happened, you’re still kind of hoping that it doesn’t end up that way somehow. There is that inevitability, BUT at the same time a hoping against that inevitability.
At the end of October, Song Yang made one last visit to Mr. Chen’s office. She confided that another client had badly beaten her a couple of weeks earlier — an assault she had not reported to the police — and showed him photographs of her bruised and swollen face.
“Why am I so unlucky?” he remembers her asking.
The tiny street is almost entirely Chinese, its restaurant signs often featuring no English at all.
THE CASE BEGAN with an anonymous complaint: Several women were said to be “selling intimacy” at the building at 135-32 40th Road.
The tip hardly came as a revelation, since shady activities at this address had generated scores of 911 calls over the years. To some, the building even had the aura of being cursed, following a horrific crime in 2010, in which a deranged stalker stabbed a woman in the second-floor hallway and removed her heart and lungs.
Forty-three arrests had taken place in the building over the last decade, more than a few sex-related, the most recent that of Song Yang. Ensnared in an undercover sting in late September, she had tried but failed to hide in the cramped boiler room across from her apartment, and was charged with offering sex for $70.
Her case, which had prompted those despairing messages to the lawyer Mr. Chen, was one of 91 massage-parlor-related arrests in the 109th Precinct in 2017, and one of six along 40th Road. According to court records, none of those arrests were for pimping, solicitation or operating an unlicensed massage parlor.
A few nights after the anonymous complaint, a sergeant and a detective ended a brief surveillance by venturing into the notorious building. The only thing they found suspicious was a handwritten sign in Chinese on the second floor, which they believed to say, in effect, There are no girls on this floor; please go to the third floor.
The police later determined that the sign actually said, “Attention, the driving school is on the third floor next door.”
An undercover officer then telephoned a woman associated with the building who was known as SiSi. They arranged an appointment for the next evening, Saturday, Nov. 25. Her price: $120.
On the appointed day, members of the Queens North Vice Enforcement Squad met at their base in College Point to discuss the seven locations they planned to hit that night. The closest target became the first: the bleak building at 135-32 40th Road.
The vice officers went over their safety plan. They chose their identifying color of the day. They agreed upon the mission’s assorted distress signals and code words, including what the primary undercover officer would say to indicate that sex had been offered for money. Now they were ready.
The 10-member team headed out into the evening, unseasonably mild for late November. They parked along Prince Street, across from the White Bear dumpling place and just short of where the one-way street bends east to become 40th Road. The team leader and two arresting officers sat in the first car, with two more arresting officers in the second car. The third vehicle was for prisoner transport.
The team tested its recording device, which used Bluetooth to transmit one-way audio. No problem. The green light was given: Go.
Minutes later, the undercover officer approached his target, Song Yang, just inside her building’s entrance. He wore an olive-green jacket, jeans and a cap. She wore a short winter coat, a red-and-black scarf, leggings and one of her signature headbands — with a small bow that resembled a butterfly.
The officer could not have known that this woman had just attempted a video chat with her younger brother, who was still asleep in China. That she had plans to fly home in December. That she had kept her court-mandated appointments with Restore NYC, a nonprofit organization that helps foreign-born victims of sex trafficking. That her fifth and last session with Restore was four days away.
About all he knew was her police nickname for the night: “JD Ponytail.”
Jane Doe Ponytail.
She led him up the worn stairs. She gave him a peck of a kiss in the hall, and opened her apartment door. Another woman, brand-new to Flushing and known as Momo, was already occupied with a man in the second bedroom.
Song Yang walked her client to her bedroom, where, according to the police, she offered sexual intercourse for the reduced price of $80. He consented to the arrangement and, heading to the bathroom, managed to utter the code word into his transmitter that a positive — that is, illegal — agreement had been reached. He also hoped to signal to colleagues that it was time to move in, but a wary Song Yang prevented him from having privacy, telling him to keep the bathroom door open.
“This is bad service,” the officer said. What made it possible for you to reconstruct all that happened to Song Yang that night? Jeff and I already had a draft because there were things that we knew from talking to the other women, the lawyer, her brother, and an old boyfriend — and there had been a cursory police report. What allowed us to be so granular in our detail was that in the early summer the Queens District Attorney’s Office issued its own report. A death in the midst of a police action automatically trips an investigation by the police and the local DA. And so in the midst of us thinking that we’re done, not only did they issue their report, they released 23 minutes or so of surveillance video, with all sorts of footnotes that tell exactly what the police did and why. In an early draft, I had the undercover officer going up the stairs. I had walked up and down the stairs many times, so I could recreate what he had passed or seen. But now the surveillance video shows Song Yang leading the undercover officer up the stairs. She’s holding her cell phone close to her face; it’s lighting up her face. All these details are a gold mine for descriptive reporting. It just has to be put together in the context of the moment. (Editor’s note. The report and surveillance video are no longer online; only a press release remains.
Once in the bedroom, Song Yang became even more suspicious. Why aren’t you taking off your clothes? she asked. Are you a cop?
No, he answered. But he complained again about the service and grabbed his hat, prepared to leave. She pushed him out and closed the door.
Responding to the undercover officer’s signal, the three idling police vehicles turned onto 40th Road, smack into its everlasting gridlock. Four officers got out and hustled to the building. Climbing the dreary stairs, they passed their undercover colleague, who pointed to Song Yang’s door as he descended — and as she watched on the monitor in her apartment.
With the police demanding that she open the door, and preparing to break it down, a panicked Song Yang hurried to the apartment’s north balcony. The other woman, Momo, emerged naked from her bedroom to investigate the noise, but hustled back to hide when she realized it was the police. The balcony was not equipped with surveillance cameras, leaving what happened next to the imagination. It is possible that Song Yang was hoping to escape, perhaps by reaching for a wire that ran vertically past her balcony. It is possible that she was trying to land on the protruding metal sign of the restaurant below. It is also possible that she intended to kill herself.
It is fact that she hit the pavement directly in front of the undercover officer she had pecked on the cheek just five minutes earlier. His supervisors say that the officer remains shaken to this day.
Later that night, while Song Yang was lying in a hospital bed with multiple fractures to her face, head and body, the police placed her under arrest. She died in the morning — and the arrest was, in the parlance of the police, “voided.”
IN THE DARK of an early December morning, two weary travelers shuffled through the multicultural scrum of Kennedy Airport. One was a tall, reedy man named Song Hai; the other, a slight, older woman named Shi Yumei, whose protracted weeping on the long flight from Beijing had concerned an attendant.
Song Yang’s mother and brother had traveled 7,000 miles to better understand the how and the why of her death.
A telephone call from her husband several nights earlier had disrupted everything. Song Yang is dead, he had said. Police say she jumped from a building.
Her distraught parents had telephoned their other child, Song Hai, to deliver words so heavy that he dropped his smartphone, cracking its glass. Not accepting what he heard, he sent a WeChat message to his sister that depicted a pair of clinking coffee mugs, along with a gentle request to please call home.
The lack of an answer was the answer.
The mother and brother spent their first two weeks in Flushing tending to the affairs of death. Then, on a dismal day of late December rain, they made their way to the Chun Fook funeral home, a few blocks from 40th Road. Though some had recommended a modest ceremony, the family had insisted on a more elaborate service, in a spacious room with a chandelier.
The dark wood coffin sat at the front before rows of chairs that would remain empty. No women from 40th Road. No Lao Li. A pair of vertical scrolls with parallel aphorisms written in Chinese calligraphy — “Put Down Your Burdens and Return to the Lord” and “Take Up Tranquillity and Celebrate Everlasting Life” — hung on either side.
One minister delivered prayers in English, while another repeated those prayers in Mandarin. The few mourners included Song Yang’s close friend Paul Hayes; the community advocate Michael Chu; Chen Mingli, the lawyer who had tried to help her seek permanent residency; her husband, Chau Chuong, now 78, who had come from California, where he had been living for his health; and her mother and brother, their heads bowed and hands folded. Do I assume correctly that you reconstructed the funeral and the emotional scene at the crematory? We interviewed the boyfriend, Paul Hayes many times. We interviewed Michael Chu, the brother, the lawyer, many times. Two people who were are the funeral held up their cellphones and swept the room. Only a minute or two, but you freeze frame and see everything: the empty chairs, the coffin, the banners hanging on either side of her portrait. That scene at the crematory where he punches the wall. We know that because he told us, and Paul Hayes told us, without our asking: “Song Hai punched the wall he was so mad.” Jeff Singer spent eight hours one night not only transcribing what it said on those banners but then giving me a lengthy explanation of the interpretations. That’s where you get “Put down your burdens and return to the Lord.” Hours and hours just to get those nine words.
The ceremony ended with the reading from the Book of Common Prayer that we are all from dust, and to dust we shall return. Alleluia, the mourners mumbled. Alleluia.
Song Yang’s funeral service drew few mourners, and none of the women from 40th Road.
Then it was a short drive along the Grand Central Parkway to the All Souls Chapel and Crematory at St. Michael’s Cemetery. This is where Song Yang’s battered body was returned to dust, and where, in his frustration and grief, her brother vowed justice and punched a wall.
The official explanation for his only sibling’s death made no sense to Mr. Song. After all, she had already paid for her flight home to celebrate their mother’s upcoming birthday and to meet, for the first time, his 5-year-old son. Suicide was not possible, he reasoned. Darker forces might be at play. He had already begun his own investigation.
One snowy night soon after arriving from China, Mr. Song appeared at his sister’s 40th Road building with Mr. Hayes. Their plan was to break into her apartment, collect her belongings — and, if possible, retrieve any surveillance video.
Mr. Song, a learning specialist by trade, and Mr. Hayes, a computer consultant, crept up the 50 tiled steps to the fourth-floor door, which was secured with a locked chain. Fearing the noise of the hammer and small acetylene torch they had planned to use, Mr. Hayes hustled to a Home Depot a mile away and returned with a hacksaw.
After a few minutes of sawing, the chain gave way, and the two men pushed open the dull-gray door to enter the setting of a life interrupted. The police had taken the surveillance equipment, but everything else made it seem as if Song Yang might return at any minute.
In the two bedrooms, rumpled sheets. In the kitchen, a Pepsi and a half-empty bottle of Bacardi, sliced carrots and apples, and the black chair that Mr. Song recognized as the one his sister sat in while video-chatting with her family. In the living room, a raised table with a red curtained skirt, on which sat a CD player, a pair of sunglasses and a lucky cat figurine. Placed neatly on the floor, a pair of pink shoes.
On the snow-dusted front balcony, a broom, an upside-down bucket, a stool, a few plastic bags containing fruit and eggs. And, just beyond, the beckoning lights and shadows of the street below. This is one of the most understated but powerful scenes in the entire story? How did you craft what was happening? Both told us about that night and we went back at them several times. An example: I knew that Paul Hayes had gone to a Home Depot to get something that would cut the lock. ‘Oh, you went to the Home Depot at this location. Because it was about three-quarters of a mile from the apartment.’ He said, ‘No, I went to the other one in College Point.’ I have my Google Maps, and I’m trying to imagine his walk from 40th Road. I also know what the weather is like because I’ve looked it up. And so you begin to be able to recreate that moment. Beyond that, when Song Hai went into the apartment, he filmed it. He went from room to room recording the condition of the apartment. So you see the good-luck cat, the stereo, the half bottle of Baccardi in the kitchen, rumpled sheets on the bed. You see, on the balcony, the bucket and other details, including the bag of eggs and fruit. And I had another video taken by somebody else — about the same day or the next day or the day before — showing the exact same thing.
SONG HAI RETURNED OFTEN to 40th Road, a spectral presence in his dark hooded coat and black cap, a cigarette cupped in his hand. He cajoled and confronted the sidewalk’s denizens, asking questions, taking photographs, recording conversations. He saw himself as a lone-wolf investigator, working to prove that corrupt officers of this strange city had thrown Song Yang over the railing.
His ever-evolving theory:
That his sister had been sexually assaulted by a police officer. That she had filed a complaint. That the subsequent police lineup was fixed to protect the assailant. Then it was payback, which explained why, of all the women along 40th Road, only Song Yang was arrested in September, and was about to be arrested again in late November.
As is standard when a death occurs during a police action, the Queens district attorney and the police department’s Force Investigation Division were investigating. But Mr. Song was already beginning to believe that nearly every corner of the American criminal justice system — from the police to the medical examiner — was colluding to hide the truth.
He patrolled downtown Flushing. He interrogated women and shopkeepers. He plastered the streets with leaflets featuring photographs of his sister and promising a “Big Reward!” The plea appeared in Chinese and in fractured English:
Hello! When you saw the photo, SiSi (Song Yang) was no longer alive. She fell from and died on 11/25/2017 at 135-32 4FL in Flushing. Families as well as the NYPD Internal Affairs Bureau are eager to find out the truth of her death. If you have ANY CLUES, please contact me ASAP. Absolutely Confidential … (Her brother Song Hai)
The dozens of responses yielded little. One man called to say that Song Hai’s sister was a whore — a word he did not quite understand, and so he continued the conversation: Yes, yes. And do you have information?
His sleuthing occasionally paid off. One evening, amid the Main Street crush, Mr. Song spotted a man he recognized from his sister’s WeChat photographs: short, solidly built, and with a distinctive, block-shaped head.
Excited, Mr. Song crossed the street and, right at the Roosevelt Avenue intersection, near the subway entrance, grabbed the man by the arm. Mr. Song recalled what happened next:
Are you Li? he asked.
You’re mistaken, replied the startled Lao Li, the boss who controlled Song Yang’s apartment. My name is not Li.
Mr. Song waved down a passing police car, as a crowd gathered and the agitated man in his grip implored him not to involve the authorities. Let’s resolve this ourselves.
The two officers understood Mr. Song’s intentions, he later recalled, but they explained that this was America, not China, and that he was unlawfully detaining a man who wasn’t present when his sister’s fall took place. They separated the men, and Lao Li floated away in the rush-hour stream.
Later that evening, an angry Lao Li telephoned Mr. Song. In the conversation that Mr. Song duly recorded on his phone, Lao Li vented about the audacity of summoning the police — “If you don’t have evidence, how could you say I’m the boss?” — before giving his version of the realities on 40th Road. It’s striking how technology has changed the way we report, the way we document and tell a story, isn’t it? Yeah, these are all details, all ways to recreate a scene in text.
He said that he rented the apartment to Song Yang for $3,100 a month — hardly the $12,000 that was rumored on the street. “She and I really didn’t have any employment relationship,” he said. “Just that at the start of the month, I would take the rent.”
Lao Li said she called him her “boss” so that others wouldn’t bully her, but he insisted that she was her own boss: prone to arrest, sure, but also smart, tenacious and tough.
Throughout the conversation, Lao Li characteristically remained at a distance — even when describing that fateful night. He rushed to 40th Road after receiving a call that “SiSi had jumped from the building,” he said, but by the time he got there, “your sister had already been taken away.”
As Mr. Song conducted his frustrating investigation, his mother spent her days in the numbing cocoon of grief. Once so proud of her entrepreneurial children, Shi Yumei was now a sorrowful woman in a foreign world, gingerly navigating a small cart down crowded Main Street, her pale gray knit cap pulled low, her mind occupied with worry. How, for example, would she and her son, here on temporary visas, survive on the little money they had brought with them?
An encounter with a bellowing street evangelist eventually led her to St. George’s, the old Episcopal church on Main Street whose steeple has long been a Flushing landmark. Its congregation embraced her, smothering her with food, clothing and compassion. Locking hands and forming a prayer circle one day, strangers asked God to grant peace to this new person among them, who felt so blessed that she began to volunteer at the church’s food pantry as a way of giving back.
One cool April morning, she donned an orange apron and joined 40 other volunteers, nearly all of them immigrants, as they prepared for the ritual that unfolds every Wednesday along the old church’s north side, opposite a Lucille Roberts fitness center. They unloaded the crates from trucks, bagged the fruit and vegetables, and established an assembly line of food down the sidewalk: turnips and fennel, lettuce and apples, onions and melons.
The decade-old operation had gradually adapted to the ways of Flushing, with organizers taking note of the tensions caused by different understandings of personal space among ethnic groups. The solution: two alternating lines — one that was entirely Asian, and the other a mix of black, white and Latino.
On this morning, the Asian line ran alongside the church’s cemetery wall, and the other line stretched down to a firehouse. But things moved apace, thanks in large part to the high-spirited efficiency of the volunteers — including Shi Yumei, who smiled at her sense of belonging as she proffered bags of onions. The prose, its voice and tonality, is limned with such care. Do you read your stories aloud? Absolutely. When I was writing the “About New York” column, my deadline would be Tuesday evenings and Friday evenings. And one of those nights, right around 6:30, my wife would be driving down South Orange Avenue, bringing my older daughter home from ballet. I would call Mary up and I would read the column aloud while she was in the car on speakerphone. I would always read my column aloud rather than send her a copy. That may have been torture for her, but it was instructive for me because when you read aloud your sentences or your pieces you hear the unnecessary words and the unintentional repetition of words. You hear things that land flat.
Each evening, after long days of volunteering and investigating, mother and son returned to a worn apartment catering to transients, not far from 40th Road. Some lodgers paid $20 a night for a narrow bed in the living room. But with some financial help from the church and a few nonprofit organizations, Mr. Song and Ms. Shi managed to pay $1,000 a month for a cramped bedroom and first dibs on a shared kitchen.
They slept beside a closet packed with clothes and accessories that Song Yang left behind. Tears were shed over a single strand of black hair found on a coat. They lived in the presence of her absence.
To find sleep, the mother would hold a small audio device close to her ear and listen to lively recorded stories about historical Chinese triumphs, cuddled beside one of her daughter’s plush teddy bears. This way, Ms. Shi said in Mandarin, “I know my daughter is here with me.”
Two feet away, her son would lie in his twin bed near the window, cigarettes on the nightstand, spent beer cans under the bed, another Long Island Rail Road train clattering in the distance. Here he would try to piece together the stray bits of his investigation.
He had found a grainy photograph from his sister’s WeChat feed of the stocky, bald man who had supposedly sexually assaulted her, and convinced himself that a bald police detective, appearing in cellphone videos taken on the sidewalk after his sister’s fall, was the same man.
He had also obtained photographs and forensic notes from the autopsy. Poring over the graphic images, he decided that the discoloration around his sister’s face came from a beating, and that her broken fingernails suggested some kind of struggle — and, therefore, a cover-up.
This was America. Not China. Exactly.
ON A SUNNY SPRING DAY, those invested in the proceedings of the human trafficking court filed into the basement courtroom in Kew Gardens. Among them were Song Hai, in a black blazer and brown work boots, and Shi Yumei, her blue-and-orange scarf recalling the colors seen on the Staten Island Ferry, on Knicks uniforms, on Mets baseball caps — the colors of New York.
They took their seats among the defendants, including a woman in glasses often seen calling out to men on 40th Road. Mr. Song sat with his hands clasped and back erect; his mother was bent forward, as if in prayer. They waited.
An air of empathy defines the court, which is intended to encourage women engaged in the commercial sex trade to avail themselves of counseling and other diversionary programs. On most Fridays, the judge, the prosecutor and the defense lawyer are women, and the lanky head court officer is determined to make the defendants feel safe and respected. He does his best to dissuade any pimps or bosses from taking a seat.
Prominent in the dozen pews are Chinese women facing the usual massage-parlor-related charges of prostitution or unlicensed massage. Court-appointed lawyers from the Legal Aid Society or Queens Law Associates usually guide them through the process, along with a Mandarin-speaking interpreter and advocates from one of the nonprofit groups specializing in sex-trafficking outreach and immigration services.
Defenders of the program maintain that until a better approach is developed, arrests — followed by appearances in trafficking court — provide the best chance for intervention. Even if a woman returns to 40th Road, they say, she will at least have the names of people to contact if she needs help.
Others, though, counter that for many women caught in the commercial sex trade, an arrest only exacerbates their trauma. Besides, they say, one doesn’t need to be arrested in order to receive helpful contact information.
Judge Toko Serita, who has presided over the trafficking court for a decade, summons the defendants, one by one, to stand before her, as a court officer calls out, “Mandarin interpreter required, and present.” The judge has short black hair, glasses and a welcoming, even reassuring demeanor, whether it’s the defendant’s first appearance or her last.
How are you today? … Are you studying English? … This is a really good streak … I want to congratulate you for completing all your sessions with Garden of Hope … Stay out of trouble, lead a law-abiding life for the next six months, and the record will be expunged … Good luck to you.
On this morning, several cases were heard before a court officer finally called out: “03585 dash 17. Yang Song!”
Even though she was five months dead, Song Yang still had an open criminal case: the arrest on a prostitution charge two months before her fatal fall. The sprawling New York City judicial system may seem overwhelmed, even chaotic, but in the end its books must be balanced. This meant that a formality known as an “abatement by death” — a dismissal, in effect — was required to close the short chapter on Song Yang, or Yang Song, as the system sometimes rendered her name.
Judge Serita was informed that the deceased defendant’s mother and brother were present and would like to thank the court. The request stilled the courtroom. The judge sighed in sympathy.
“Thank you,” she said. “Um. All right. This case is now going to be abated by death.”
She went on to tell Song Yang’s mother and brother that everyone involved in the trafficking court was deeply saddened by their loved one’s “tragic and untimely death.” She expressed hope that they “somehow find peace with these unfortunate circumstances.”
Mr. Song and Ms. Shi acknowledged her words with nods. They walked out of the courtroom, past an “Exit Only — No Re-Entry” sign, and into the late-morning brightness. He lit a cigarette. She adjusted her backpack. They continued on in silence. Todd Heisler’s photo of the court is taken from outside through the glass doors? Is the court open to observers? We were there, it’s public, but photography is at the discretion of the judge. Todd ultimately received permission to photograph, only not to show the faces of the defendants. He decided to photograph from outside the door. Todd was very much a partner every step of the way. Oftentimes it would be Todd, Jeff and me wandering around, trying not to get in each other’s way — and then Todd would go off by himself. He really worked hard to capture the mood just so.
Two weeks later, the mother and brother returned to Kew Gardens for a long-awaited meeting with investigators from the Homicide Investigations Bureau of the Queens district attorney’s office. With everyone seated around a dark-wood conference table in a windowless room, the investigators shared the results of their monthslong inquiry, including 22 minutes of video culled from cameras positioned both inside and outside the building at 135-32 40th Road.
In these images, their beloved daughter and sister appears in the fullness of life. Here is Song Yang, leading the undercover officer up the stairs. Here she is, kicking him out of the apartment, watching the officers ascend the stairs — rushing in alarm toward the balcony.
Here, from street level, something falling, and then a beloved daughter and sister, crumpled on the pavement. Watching the video again a few days later, Ms. Shi noticed the headband that flies off her daughter’s head.
“She especially loved butterflies,” the mother said.
The video over, the investigators laid out their sober findings: The police involved in a bust-and-buy sting on 40th Road the night of Nov. 25, 2017, did not cause the death of Song Yang. To begin with, no officer was even in the fourth-floor apartment when she jumped or fell.
Her brother scoffed at this conclusion. He said something rude in Mandarin. Meeting over.
NIGHT COMES TO 40TH ROAD.This may well be the most lyrical section of the entire story, an elegy for Song Yang, her family and the other women on 40th Road. Was the tone deliberate? There has to be a way to sum up everything. I wanted to use that night as a way to say that if you had any delusion of glamour or romance to this world, let me dispel it for you right now. This is the reality. I have these particular details that allow me to give you a sense of how brutal it is.
The fruit and vegetable peddlers have boxed up and boarded up, and the last patrons of air-conditioned restaurants have stepped out to evaporate in the late June warmth. But the women are here, as always, calling out an invitation that sounds almost like a plea.
They stand outside the same doorways, including the one for 135-32, where Song Yang once lingered. Very soon after she died, her fourth-floor apartment became the address for a new massage business. Its name: Heaven on Fourth.
A few steps away, at the entrance to another of the gloomy buildings owned and operated by prominent Flushing businessmen, a thin woman in a brown dress sits in a metal chair with a square of Styrofoam for padding, studying her cellphone through the smoke of her cigarette. Then she pulls out a bag of overripe cherries from the building’s broken mailbox and, between the repeated offerings of her services, spits out the pits and tosses them into the street, not far from a lamppost adorned with a poster bearing the face of Song Yang (“Big Reward!”).
To the woman’s right, roasted duck carcasses hang in the window of the Corner 28 restaurant, where a man is mop-swabbing the sticky floor. To her left, sorrowful creatures loll in a seafood restaurant’s murky tank. Above her head, scaffolding provides protection from the stucco that city officials say has been coming loose from the buildings. Rain begins to fall.
A nearby tanker truck groans as it sucks away a restaurant’s used cooking oil through a large hose that snakes across the sidewalk and into the bowels of a building. The women adapt: They step over the hose, ignore the smell, raise their voices.
One of the women leads a potential client to a building’s threshold, but he keeps walking; she mutters an epithet in Mandarin. Then a buzz-cut junkie, who just hours before was asleep on the pavement, begins to harass the women, disrupting their business by hovering, touching, dropping his sweatpants and simulating sex acts. He enters one of their buildings and urinates in the hall.
The rain hardens. The whoosh of a shuttered metal gate resounds. A kitchen worker emerges at the end of his shift and wishes the women a good night. They wish him the same.
It is all ephemeral, of course, a realization reinforced daily by the laborers trudging down this street to the subway, bone-weary from working another of the construction projects that are redefining Flushing. Few today remember the Old Roma restaurant that once thrived on 40th Road, just as few tomorrow will remember a Chinese immigrant who once died on 40th Road.
For now, at least, if you linger on the street, you will encounter those who remember her — including, occasionally, clients still looking for SiSi.
You might see Lala, and Kiki, and Yoyo, along with other women who competed with Song Yang. You might see her lanky brother, Song Hai, who still struggles to understand why no one will be brought to justice for all that his sister went through in her adopted country. His grief smolders, as does his distrust of America. But then it switches from third to second person and supposition: “if you…” Why the shift? To allow me to get away from this moment and look at it in a more universal way. Not only to invite the reader even more intimately onto the street, but also to do a bit of a roll call with the other women. And I knew that Song Hai, still smoldering with anger, and his mother would constantly return.
Lastly, you might see Song Yang’s mother, Shi Yumei.
One evening, Ms. Shi paused outside a building where some women were offering massages to passing men. Raising the drooping bags held in her hands, she explained that she had just left the food pantry at the Episcopal church on Main Street, where she had recently been baptized. She said the pastor had emphasized the importance of sharing what you have.
The mother placed a bag of sweet potatoes in the doorway that had once been Song Yang’s domain. It was an offering of sorts, a gift to women like her daughter. Then she was gone, assumed into the Flushing blur.Can you talk about the composition of the ending? If I’m going to take a reader through 9,500 words, the last sentence better be goddamn good. It has to be worth the journey. Christine and I were hanging out in front of Song Yang’s building when her mother showed up with the bag of sweet potatoes. She offered us some, we declined, and she left them in the doorway. There was something sacred about that moment, as mundane as it seems. I struggled with the verb of the last sentence. “Then she was gone, blending into the Flushing blur.” I didn’t like that. “Received into the Flushing blur.” We thought about that for a while. Did it make sense? I’m an old Catholic boy, and so: “assumed into the Flushing blur.” I like the word and the imagery. Feast of the Assumption.
Among those providing information for this story were: Assistant District Attorneys Suzanne Bettis and Robert Ciesla and Chief Assistant District Attorney John M. Ryan of the Queens County District Attorney’s Office; Karlin Chan, community advocate; Yvonne Chen and Lori L. Cohen of Sanctuary for Families; Margaret M. Chin, associate professor of sociology, and Nancy Foner, distinguished professor of sociology, at Hunter College; Meredith Dank, research professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice; Anne Foner; Kenneth J. Guest, professor of anthropology at Baruch College; Richard Hourahan of the Queens Historical Society; Molly Kalmus, lawyer; New York Assemblyman Ron Kim; Inspector James Klein and Deputy Chief Kevin Maloney of the New York Police Department; New York City Councilman Peter Koo; Julia Kuan, lawyer; Leigh Latimer, Legal Aid Society lawyer; Susan Liu of Garden of Hope; Kate Mogulescu, assistant professor of clinical law at Brooklyn Law School; Chris Muller of Restore NYC; Ross Perlin of the Endangered Language Alliance; and New York State Acting Supreme Court Justice Toko Serita.
Other sources included: “Investigation Into the Police-Involved Falling Death of Yang Song,”the Queens District Attorney’s Office (June 2018); “Estimating the Size and Structure of the Underground Commercial Sex Economy in Eight Major U.S. Cities,” by Meredith Dank, Ph.D., et al., Urban Institute (2014); “In Our Own Backyards: The Need for a Coordinated Judicial Response to Human Trafficking,” by the Honorable Toko Serita, N.Y.U. Review of Law & Social Change (2013); and “Human Trafficking in Illicit Massage Businesses,” by Polaris, a nonprofit organization dedicated to ending slavery (2018).