AJR  The Beat
From AJR,   February/March 2007

Shining a Light   

Liz Chow’s exposé of human trafficking for the Chinese-language Sing Tao Daily chronicled an often-overlooked tragedy.

By Raechal Leone
Raechal Leone (rleone@ajr.umd.edu) is an AJR editorial assistant.     

"Thank you" is one of the first things reporter Liz Chow remembers saying to the 17-year-old girl who became a critical source for Chow's award-winning story on human trafficking in the United States.

Chow commended the woman for revealing how she was lured from her home in rural China at age 14 with the promise of earning $3,000 a month. The scared victim--whom Chow called "Sara" (a pseudonym) in her story--told of being locked in a basement in New York City and assaulted, then forced to work 14-hour days, six days a week for meager wages to pay off her captors.

After three years, in 2005, "Sara" escaped.

Last year, "Sara" shared her story with Chow, a 30-year-old crime reporter for the Chinese-language Sing Tao Daily in New York. Chow used "Sara's" story to add a human element to a piece inspired by statistics from the State Department's Trafficking in Persons report.

"The irony is, everybody longs to come to the United States," Chow wrote in her story, but these women lose "their freedom once they arrive here. It is only then that they realize freedom is priceless."

Chow's rendition of the problem earned her the top prize in the women's issues category of the New America Media awards, which recognize outstanding work in ethnic media outlets around the country. The piece "really moved me," says judge Indira S. Somani, an adjunct lecturer at the University of Maryland. "It's such an important story and, you know, we don't do enough to cover these communities."

Another judge, Peggy Kuhr, who holds the Knight Chair on the Press, Leadership and Community at the University of Kansas, says, "We were struck by the sweeping nature of the piece, that it really addressed a broad topic, but it had an individual story." Chow was among 51 recipients of the awards bestowed by New America Media, a San Francisco-based non-profit that supports work by the fast-growing ethnic media. Sandy Close, the group's executive director, describes ethnic media outlets as "a critical bridge for communication" and says the awards are a way of bringing them into the mainstream. Her organization translated Chow's piece into English and posted the story on its Web site (newamericamedia.org).

For Chow, the award was the latest in a series of honors she's received for her coverage of New York's Chinese community. Last year her editors selected her as the 10-person newsroom's outstanding reporter, and she won a second-place 2006 Ippies award from the Independent Press Association of New York for her human trafficking story. In 2005, she won her first Ippies award for a story about 70 men who shared a house in Chinatown while they scrimped to save enough money to send for their wives and children.

"She's got the potential to be one of the very good reporters if she keeps..working like that," says Lotus Chau, Chow's supervisor. Chau notes that Chow has sharpened her writing skills significantly since she came to the paper. From the start, Chow has been brave, street-smart and resourceful, Chau says. That's why Chow was assigned to the police beat in the first place. Her best work is done out of the office, her supervisor says, dealing directly with sources instead of sitting at her desk, poring over documents.

Chow was born and raised in Hong Kong, where she studied anthropology at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, and later worked as a writer and researcher for documentaries on Chinese culture. One film about women who practice the ancient Chinese custom of foot binding, and another about people in Yunnan, China who eat insects, were purchased by the Discovery Channel and translated into English. Chow also spent some time in Hong Kong writing scripts for a televised news program. She moved to New York a little more than three years ago to work for Sing Tao Daily.

The human trafficking story evolved from what started as a piece on domestic violence among Chinese immigrants. During her reporting, Chow came across a State Department report on human trafficking and its startling array of statistics. The latest report released in June said there were an estimated 600,000 to 800,000 human trafficking victims worldwide. Of those, 80 percent were women and girls.

In her research, Chow found that human trafficking is one of the fastest growing criminal activities in the world, and it's the third largest transnational crime, generating an estimated $10 billion in revenue each year. The sex trade accounts for the vast majority--$7 billion.

Chow says the most difficult part of reporting the story was finding "Sara." In the article, she quotes the director of the Asian American Women's Center, Li An Qi, who says her organization receives numerous calls from victims of sex trafficking. "Some women call for help," Li told Chow, "but the line gets cut off after a few sentences are spoken. They worry that once discovered, they will be beaten, sexually abused, and may be putting their families in danger."

After three weeks of searching, Chow found "Sara" through the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, another group that works with the victims of human trafficking, and even then "Sara" did not want to disclose her real name. She did, however, want to publicize her plight. Before she escaped, "Sara" read about human trafficking in a Chinese newspaper, where she found a phone number she could call for help. "Really, her story has come full circle," says Ivy Suriyopas, who works with the legal defense fund.

Chow hopes her story will help other victims. Since its publication in late June, she's heard that at least one person who had read it contacted a victims' rights group for assistance. She also wants her piece to help dispel a pervasive misconception in the Chinese community. Many people, she says, confuse human trafficking with illegal immigration. They don't understand the distinction between those who come to the United States freely and those for whom life here has become an incarceration.

Human trafficking "is a crime," she says, adding that she would like her story to raise awareness and prompt people to call the police or a victims' rights organization if they learn of suspicious activity that might indicate human trafficking.

Ethnic media are really important because often new immigrants "don't know English, and they should know what happens in the city," Chow says.

Suriyopas agrees. Many immigrants wouldn't know how to seek help or even understand how serious the problem is, she says, without stories like Chow's.