Right next to the entrance to the Long Island Rail Road in the heart of downtown Flushing, is 40th Road, a 0.1-mile stretch of pavement, once known as “Restaurant Row.” The tiny stretch features more than 20 restaurants and food courts, attracting foodies from all over New York City.
But ever since the New York Times published an article last April on the death of Yang Song, a Chinese prostitute who fell or jumped to the concrete from a balcony during a police raid, 40th Road area has became widely known as the red light district of Flushing. But now all eight identified parlors have been closed.
For as long as Flushing residents could remember, a cluster of dingy massage parlors had been discreetly set up above restaurants and other businesses and their colorful signs on 40th Road. Sex workers, mostly Chinese immigrant women in their 40s and 50s, would stand in front of storefronts to brazenly complete for mostly non-Asian customers.
A playground is right beside the parlors. Some customers would camp out there, drunk and on drugs, making a scene next to the slides and swings where small children play. Locals and police say women would go in the playground to solicit the men and bring them upstairs to their workspaces. Inside the backroom of these parlors, they would offer “happy endings,” massages with a hand job, among other sexual services.
“We got so many complaints over the years that these customers would show up intoxicated and pass out all over the place,” said Scott Sieber, deputy chief of staff to Chinese-born Councilman Peter Koo. “One time I saw a guy throwing up blood and the ambulance had to come to take him away. Obviously this is not the environment that you want to expose your children to.”
Local politicians, community activists and law enforcement have considered 40th Road an eyesore for over a decade. Yang Song’s hard life and death, described in the NY Times, only made it worse, Sieber said. After the article led to community outrage against the NYPD, police officers were afraid to see another sex worker dying in a raid, Sieber said, and have begun to ignore the parlors. Both the women and the customers have grown even more brazen, he said, that is, until Koo and the police carried out a renewed campaign in late February to clean up the street of sex crimes once and for all.
“After the NYT article, there were a couple massage places closed down due to building violations. But in terms of police raids, until this February, whatever happened to Yang Song was the last time I’ve heard of one,” Sieber said.
At the height of activity on 40th Road, there would be over 20 women advertising their trade at the same time. Prostitution has attracted a criminal element to the area, according to Sieber. Harassment, assault, robbery, drug use, vandalism, rape and attempted rape… by the beginning of this year, criminal activities completely took over 40th Road, Sieber said.
Women sex workers are most likely to become victims of violent crimes, said Leigh Latimer, supervising attorney of Legal Aid’s Exploitation Intervention Project, a criminal defense practice providing legal representation for sex workers and trafficked people.
But because sex work is illegal, masseuses almost never seek help from the police. Latimer knows from years of experience that even sex workers who are U.S. citizens are reluctant to go to the police after being robbed, beaten or raped, because they are afraid they will be arrested or not taken seriously. “For people who are not citizens, there is one more layer of fear,” Latimer said.
In New York City, Legal Aid’s intervention project represents most people prosecuted for prostitution-related charges. A study by the Urban Institute, a think tank focused on economic and social policies, finds that 87 percent of all the project’s clients charged with unlicensed massage are Mandarin speakers, and 91 percent of them are non-citizens. Arrests are especially problematic for these clients. Even the lightest prostitution-related charges, like loitering, can put them in a database kept by federal immigration agents, according to the study.
Latimer added that President Trump’s anti-immigration policies created an even more hostile environment for immigrant sex workers. “Right now, immigration status is taken into account in any arrest, in a way we didn’t see in any prior administration,” she said.
Chel Morena, 25, nicknamed “Maya,” is an undocumented immigrant from Honduras who said she found employment as a sex worker at a Chinese-owned massage parlor in Queens. The parlor she worked at was a small operation with a male owner and about eight women masseuses. Unlike most Chinese-owned parlors in Queens, which hire exclusively Chinese workers, Morena’s place had non-Asian masseuses and they spoke English at work.
She agreed with Latimer that sex workers do not report crimes against them to the police. “You don’t want the police and the state to find you regardless of how much you are abused,” she said.
“I’ve had clients where I passed out and I was raped. My face was red because I was on a rug. They were doing stuff to me and I couldn’t remember anything,” Morena said. “But I couldn’t go to the police for help because then they would ask me why I was there and I would be penalized.”
But for her, working at the parlor made economic sense. Morena’s parlor was open 24 hours a day and the women there could decide for themselves how long she wanted to work. On an average workday, Morena could take around 8 customers, she said. Unlike traditional escort agencies where women were always expected to provide full sexual services, at these parlors only a “happy ending” hand job was required. The money she earned from the happy endings, about $100 per person, was split between her and the owner. But profits from other sex acts—blowjobs, penetration or anal— she kept for herself.
“I made more money and had more control at the parlor,” she said. “The more you do the more you get paid. It’s about selling and customer service.”
While Morena sees her parlor as just another place of business, Koo’s office does not treat sex work so leniently. For the nine years that Koo has been a council member, he has been playing a whack-a-mole game with sex workers like Morena.
If his office gets a complaint from a local resident or business owner, his staff would immediately forward the information to the police. But it could take months before the vice squad conducts an investigation. Even then, Sieber said, the police action does not yield results in the long run. As soon as the police hit one location, another pops up.
On Feb. 2, fed up with illegal activities taking over 40th Road, Koo hosted a press conference in front of the Bland Playground, where sex workers had been picking up clients. Along with police officers and Flushing-based anti-trafficking organizations, he pledged to crack down on sex work and help the police arrest any customer who dared to visit the parlors.
A week later on Feb. 9, the police followed up on Koo’s pledge and closed down a parlor at 135-25 40th Road. Throughout February and March, the NYPD kept shutting down these businesses until eight of them—all the parlors they knew of on 40th Road—were gone.
Now, restaurants and stores have replaced illicit massage parlors on the 40th Road. Women sex workers can no longer be spotted at the storefronts as undercover police continue to patrol the area.
Koo’s office sees it as a great success. But Morena and other sex worker advocates consider Koo a villain in the Flushing community.
Kate Zen is a Chinese-born organizer at Red Canary Song, a Flushing-based activist group advocating for the rights of migrant sex workers.
Zen revealed that more than a few Chinese women were arrested on prostitution charges when the police shut down the parlors on the 40th Road.
“Police cars have been parked for long stretches of time outside of building before they started arresting customers and some workers,” Zen recalled. Arrests at the parlors are usually violent and come out of nowhere, Morena added, and women inside the parlors would start crying out of fear of arrest or deportation.
Zen further disclosed that masseuses who were not arrested back in March are now working at more discreet spots in nearby blocks. “They are less safe now because there is no established mutual protection from the community working together on 40th road,” she said.
The NYPD did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Advocates like Morena and Zen have been critical to Koo’s every move. On March 29th, as a follow up to the crackdown, Koo organized an anti-trafficking seminar at the Flushing Library to educate the community on how to identify trafficking activities and report them to the police.
Enraged by Koo’s initiative to close down the 40th Road and his continued effort to smoke out sex workers, Morena, Zen and dozens of other sex workers and allies organized a demonstration outside the library. Holding protest signs that read “Rights and raids,” “#DecriminNY” and “Solidarity with massage workers,” they tried to remind the Flushing community of Yang Song’s tragedy and condemned the recent crackdown for making their lives even more difficult.
Despite the heated exchange in front of the library, Koo’s office did not seem to get their message.
“People on the advocacy side really got under our skin,” Sieber said. “It boggled our mind the there are people out there who think what’s going on the 40th Road is okay.”
“They say it’s dangerous for the massage workers now that the 40th Road is cleaned up. But what about other people in the surrounding community? What about businesses whose property was vandalized, people in the playground who were harassed, and residents disturbed by the drug dealing and the assaults?”
Sieber does not understand why the advocates never reached out to them to have a genuine conversation. “All they did was yelling at us at the forum,” Sieber said. “None of them ever called us or came to our office. If you ask me, it’s a really poor way of being an advocate.”
Morena said she could not trust or work with politicians like Koo because they would never understand her perspective. Law enforcement only talks about immigrant sex workers in two ways, she said, either illegal aliens mooching off the system or perfect slaves forced into prostitution. “Neither is true,” she said.
“I’ve heard police say that they have to continuously arrest us before we learn our lesson,” she continued. And people like Koo have made the arrests possible by continuing to feed information to the police.
Sieber seems perplexed when asked how Koo’s office plans to protect these women from future arrest and prosecution. “We understand their fear for encountering the police,” he said. “But if you’re doing something illegal, there’re going to be consequences down the line if the police catch wind of it.”
He repeatedly emphasized how the office is funding local outreach organizations like Garden of Hope, Restore NYC and Womankind that provide job trainings, English classes and counseling services to sex workers and victims of trafficking.
“If someone is an undocumented immigrant and doesn’t take the help to find a different line of work, she is playing with fire,” he said. “At some point, our hands are tied.”
Mingli Chen, a criminal defense attorney in Flushing and Song Yang’s lawyer back in 2018, weighed in on the debate. Originally from Beijing, he has been representing sex workers in massage parlors since 2005. He revealed that over 90 percent of these parlors do not have a legitimate business license, making women who work there extremely vulnerable to arrest and prosecution.
If his client is arrested and he was able to get her case dismissed, theoretically it would not impact her immigration status, he explained. But an immigration officer could still deny her application for a visa or green card on the ground that she does not demonstrate good moral character.
Morena strongly objects to this reasoning.
“I’m not doing anything wrong,” she said. “I’m not a bad person. I have a little sister and a family that loves me. But the police don’t view me as a human being. I just wish the system would change so it can help more people.”
Yilun Cheng, originally from Tianjin, China, is a master’s student in political science at Columbia University. In her reporting work, she focuses on human rights, immigration and other issues pertinent to social justice.
NOTE: Names were changed after publication of this story, in order to protect the identity of some sources.