“Fly in Power” Gives Voice to Asian Migrant Massage Workers

By Kathy Ou
July 25, 2023

When the 38-year-old Yang Song fatally fell four stories onto the sidewalk on 40th Road in Flushing, Queens, on November 25, 2017, she was working at a massage parlor in the building. The police had just raided the place, an occasion that Yang—like many other massage workers—was all too familiar with but never ceased to fear. A year later, in November 2018, a group of friends, allies, organizers, and advocates for massage parlor and sex workers gathered for a vigil for Yang in Flushing. Out of this community grew Red Canary Song, a New York-based, all-volunteer grassroots organization of Asian and migrant massage and sex workers and part of the larger coalition for the decriminalization of sex work called Decrim New York.

In March 2021, when Robert Aaron Long went on a shooting spree at three spas in the Atlanta metropolitan area killing eight and injuring one, six of his victims were Asian women—Xiaojie “Emily” Tan, Daoyou Feng, Yong Ae Yue, Soon Chung Park, Suncha Kim, and Hyun Jung Grant. These women quickly became immortalized at public mournings. Meanwhile, the incident came to symbolize a rising trend of anti-Asian violence that had emerged since the onset of the pandemic and has since continued.

“We allow grief as part of our movement building,” an offscreen voice says in Fly In Power (2023), a feature documentary about Red Canary Song that will be playing at Quad Cinema at 12pm on July 29th as part of this year’s Asian American International Film Festival. “What grows from your grief?”

Co-directed by Yin Q and Yoon Grace Ra, Fly In Power (2023) is the feature-length follow-up to a short film of the same title, which Q spearheaded after the death of Yang Song and which was released on YouTube in 2019. In the feature-length film, we see the filmmakers develop their aesthetics of collectivity, for example, by incorporating crowdsourced images and outsourced phone footage as alternative perspectives to one scene

If we can agree that the bodily is essential, why should massage, sex, or body work be invalidated, discriminated against, or criminalized?

We also see the added perspectives of the massage parlor workers themselves. One of the main characters, Charlotte, is a Korean massage worker, who tells about her upbringing in a big Korean family that prioritized educational and developmental opportunities for boys while the girls learned to care for the boys’ needs. Initially skeptical when Q—the film’s co-director and leading member of Red Canary Song— first approached her, Charlotte recounts slowly opening up after seeing Q’s persistence and genuine care for her. Q treats her like a close friend even though they met not too long ago. Charlotte is now a core organizer of Red Canary Song’s outreach team.

Khokhoi is another fascinating character. Hailing from the Philippines, Khokhoi holds the spirits of the film. She identifies herself as a body, plant, and cultural worker who has lived in occupied Lenape land (New York) for the past 10 years. Land acknowledgment has a significant presence in the film—Q powerfully declares early on in the film, “Our care evolution must include remembrance.” Indeed, from mourning Yang Song to Indigenous land to the victims of the Atlanta shootings, the film is a thoughtful meditation on loss in both public and private spaces.

Throughout the film, we see abundant footage of foodmaking, massaging, and other acts of body contact, all filmed in close proximity that emphasizes the tenderness and dexterity of the women’s hands. As Q thanks Charlotte for the food and altars she made for the one year anniversary memorial of the Atlanta shooting, the film seeks to make visible the often hidden and unrecognized labor performed by women. It’s in scenes like these that we see the inevitability and sensuality of our physical existence. If we can agree that the bodily is essential, why should massage, sex, or body work be invalidated, discriminated against, or criminalized?

Elena Shih, a scholar and organizer at Brown University, and Red Canary Song lead member Esther K, who works on the policy front to help advocate for the passing of Stop Violence in the Sex Trades Act in New York State, provide additional historical context on the systemic oppression faced by Asian and migrant massage workers. They explain the lack of institutional support available to these women when they were mistreated by the police and the inaccessibility of obtaining a massage therapist license that would make their work “legal.”

Shih also explains how sensationalism and saviorism work in the anti-trafficking narrative against these women workers’ interests as they help justify the police raids, as well as the ways in which violence against this type of work is entangled with anti-Blackness. Cementing her authority, Shih makes these arguments all while breastfeeding her newborn.

A stunning feat of mourning, loving, and community-building, Fly In Power stands alone in its unique aesthetics of care and collectivity. In order to protect the massage workers’ identities, the filmmakers never show us their faces, which is an enormous creative challenge that was accomplished beautifully. The dazzling audio includes multilingual conversations and subtitles, poetry reading and meditative utterances, rhythmic drumming, and composer Mel Hsu’s original, ritualistic melodies. In one scene, the filmmakers, Red Canary Song members, and organizers sit by a bonfire near the woods and a lake, looking up at the dark sky and chatting about the next season of harvesting persimmons. All is peaceful and everything seems to be just as it should have been: in abundance and unapologetic ease.

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