Red Canary Song on Making Migrant Massage and Sex Workers Visible

By Youbin Kang
February 15, 2024

Currently on view at Storefront for Art and Architecture, “Flower Spa: Solidarity Outside In” stands as both a manifesto and a cultivation of collectivity. Organized by the Flushing, Queens-based collective of migrant massage workers, sex workers, and AAPI diasporic allies, Red Canary Song, the exhibition builds on their explorations of the massage parlor as a site of sanctuary.

The gallery is inconspicuous from the street—its black-painted door, a piece by Amanda Williams, appears nondescript. Once inside, visitors are met with the familiar aesthetics of Asian massage spas, adorned with red lights and pink floral wall-decals.

Camouflaged onto the walls are lines of text, proclaiming , “Rights not Raids” and “Resources not Rescue.” To the right, a parlor screens Fly in Power, a 2023 documentary produced by Red Canary Song. On the left, visitors are led through a winding, lace-divided hallway to a translucent door embellished with a tattered New York City Department of Building summons.

From there, one enters a space featuring portraits, an interactive oral history multimedia piece, and various household appliances, ending with a massage bed where recorded audio of poetry loops endlessly. “나이가 드나보다” (It must be the age), a poem penned by a Korean massage worker, is particularly arresting. Its repetitious monologue describes a tired heart craving colorful clothes, homemade meals, and a rekindled appreciation for her mother.

Through these intimate moments, the exhibition successfully interlaces the activism against state-sponsored violence, stigma, and oppression of sex workers with the intimate subjectivities of massage workers, creating a space that is as unsettling as it is comforting.

In the following conversation, I spoke with two organizers at Red Canary Song, Yin Q and Chong Gu, on art as activism, institutions, and marginality.

Youbin Kang: What prompted the collective to turn to art?

Yin Q: The first people to come together for Red Canary Song were all sex workers from the Asian diaspora. Most of us were born in the United States, and many went to school to be artists or writers. Our individual practices have always been rooted in the arts. It’s interesting to see how our gatherings, whether for a vigil or Lunar New Year celebrations, have always looked towards art to engage and activate our community. Our inaugural fundraiser featured performances by drag kings and queens of the Asian diaspora, alongside performance art contributions from kink artists and practitioners. There’s also a real overlap between sex work and artists, highlighting the long lineage within history. Many artists turn to sex work as a means of survival, since they can’t sustain a livelihood solely through their art.

Also, sex workers have often been the muses and the models for art itself, although they are never named. Institutions are filled with sex workers and whores. This is something that RCS has always contended with. Many of us are also members of Kink Out, a group that brings queer leather art to museums. Being part of these two organizations that look towards art, we are always asking ourselves, “How do we gain entry into these institutions and raise awareness through these spaces?”

Installation view of the exhibition, “Flower Spa: Solidarity Outside In,” at Storefront for Art and Architecture. Photo by PJ Rountree.

Chong Gu: The first “art event” that I got involved in was the one year anniversary vigil for the Atlanta spa shootings in 2022. At that point, RCS had been hosting vigils, both in-person and virtual, not only for Yang Song, but also for Atlanta. To me, these events were about creating space for collective grieving that was needed in those times for our community.

When we did the pop-up exhibition, [“Archive as Memorial”], with a few other groups in Chinatown last January, a visitor reflected that she didn’t realize she needed physical space to grieve until she walked into our vigil. I think that’s what’s been driving me to offer myself, as an architect, to help create these spaces.

It’s rewarding to work with our community members, too. They love doing these art projects together. For this show at Storefront, our outreach team members Lisa, Lin, and Charlotte, all generously contributed during the process. Their presence is in our installations.

YK: Yes, I love that. As you spoke, it made me think about the contribution of queerness and how it influences, or perhaps doesn’t, your motivations and aesthetic choices.
CG: As Yin mentioned, our group started with a group of kink and sex workers in the city, and so this identity has inherently been in our collective. But also, in the words of Cathy J. Cohen, I believe solidarity is not built on our different identities, but on our relationship to power that we all share across different marginalized groups, whether it’s due to gender, race, sexuality, or otherwise. To me, this is how queerness becomes embedded within everything we do.

YQ: I would reiterate what Chong just said in terms of our shared struggles in relationship to power. I also think a lot about how many of the Asian American sex workers who first came together to form RCS were queer.

Coming together has transformed how we ourselves relate to our Asian Americanness as well. Being in a queer body within America, a BIPOC body, is inherently a migrant feeling. You’re always seeking a home and your body is never at rest until you find it. Your chosen family and community provides a space where you can finally rest, feel safe, celebrated, vulnerable, and able to grieve. I feel like queerness and migrant identities constantly involve a feeling of seeking a space to call our own. Survival involves creating it for ourselves, which has been really important. The aesthetic is something we bring with the histories of our lived experiences.

“I’ve always thought about how massage workers are invisibilized by their own within Asian communities, by the people who know them best.” —Yin Q
YK: That’s so beautiful. Thank you for sharing. I also wanted to talk about labor. The use of a workspace as a stage in this exhibition caught my attention—the assemblage of furniture, tools, and interviews. The poetry too, was remarkable. Listening from a corner, I found the incantations profoundly moving and intimate, set against a backdrop of drapery and screens, like Chong’s door. It seemed to intentionally blur private and public spaces. Could you elaborate on how workspace features in the installation?

CG: The liminal space is a key concept for us and it is articulated in multiple layers. The liminal can refer to the space in between identities experienced by queer people and migrants alike. It also refers to the ambiguity between labor and self-care. What you see is not just a space of labor. It’s also a space of domesticity. We intentionally chose to display the massage parlor with its inhabitants removed because the uncanny nuances reflect the systemic marginalization of Asian migrant massage workers without revealing their identities.

We curated contradictions in the exhibition to represent these struggles. For example, we juxtapose a bedroom pillow and a client’s foot pillow on the massage bed, highlighting the difficulty of living where one works. Authorities exploit this overlap as evidence to criminalize their labor. The police use the presence of household appliances, like those you see in the gallery—the rice cooker, the fridge—alongside condoms and lubricants also displayed in the gallery, to frame workers as victims of trafficking. They use these items to suggest their unwilling involvement in transactional sex. The criminal data that the cops collect (using violence in the name of rescue) feeds into the problematic narrative of white saviorism, and the US campaign to end sex trafficking.

By putting hot stones in the rice cooker, towels in the fridge, and so on, we aimed to make these everyday objects appear uncanny, highlighting the intersections and layers of this community’s experience told from workers’ perspectives. This is an alternative viewpoint to what the mainstream media tells the public.

YK: Relatedly, there is a performance and ritualistic aspect to the work. We talked a little bit about grieving space. Could you expand on this theme? How does it figure in the work? How did it come about?

YQ: Ritual has always been part of our collective work, particularly because we came together as a reaction to the tragic death of Yang Song. Our aim has been to create a space that not only promotes the performative aspects of grieving, but also to elicit the effect of grief. We reached into all our members’ cultural heritage, exploring ways that we connect to grief in different ways and adapting customs from our families and generational traditions to fit our collective practices. Everyone brought an element of what they saw in grieving, and we built altars together. The beauty of these altars has not only been the inclusion of traditional pieces that you would see in a Buddhist temple or at the heart of Chinese family homes, but also incorporating objects we use for our work, such as condoms and money.

We think very intentionally about what we are bringing to honor those who have passed. Putting money out for your ancestors is very different from putting money out for those who passed due to violence against sex workers, people who were trying to survive. So that money transforms spiritually as it’s on the altar, according to who is offering and who is receiving. These storylines become vivid once they are transformed by identifying the participants.

CG: Oftentimes in our installations, showing the space with its inhabitants removed is a compromise to protect the privacy of our community. So, the performances and rituals became activations of these constructed spaces to resurrect the bodies in situ, rehearsing these topics that otherwise would’ve been very corporeal.
Installation view of the exhibition, “Flower Spa: Solidarity Outside In,” at Storefront for Art and Architecture. Photo by PJ Rountree.
YK: I heard you guys are planning a karaoke night at Storefront on February 17th?
YQ: We’re calling it Red Canary Sings, which is a perfect play on words. I think that it’s a fun way to gather people to come together. It’s a fundraiser, so it’s a way for people to come and learn about our mutual aid work, eat delicious food from Charlotte, and have some drinks. There’s going to be a raffle and art that’s going to be auctioned. I feel like it’s a perfect way for people to come celebrate. Because our work is often crisis work, we’re always dealing with tragedies and real hardships. There are constant raids, robbery, and violence within the communities. So it is really important for us to be able to celebrate one another, to be able to bring each other together. Joy is an important part to keep us human.
YK: Lastly, I wanted to ask what you hope the audience will gather from this work.

YQ: I think it’s so important that the space is on the edge of Chinatown. I am hoping that massage workers will be drawn into seeing the show, and we’ve been promoting it via Chinese WeChat groups to attract workers from Chinatown into the space. When you see your story and your struggles reflected back at you through art by someone with similar experiences, there is so much relief. Being able to feel seen does wonders for mental health.

I’ve always thought about how massage workers are invisibilized by their own within Asian communities, by the people who know them best. They don’t speak about their work except for with one another, whether at church or in other community settings. I think that being able to validate their experiences is really important. We actually see you and, not only do we see you, but we’re also providing a space where you can come and get different kinds of assistance. Connecting one person’s story to the more global context of what’s happening within immigration and racialized policing helps ensure that no one feels their trauma and stress are isolated experiences.

CG: A lot of the workers lack formal education and have never been integrated into institutions or the inner core of this city. Collaborating on art projects with institutions like NYU and Storefront offer our sisters a chance to be part of cultural production. Inclusion and voice is empowering in ways that never happened in their lives before. Their voices are important, especially as we confront powerful, state-endorsed narratives perpetuated by the anti-trafficking movement. We hope that the audience can take a moment with our sisters’ life stories, amplified by RCS, and take away a more nuanced understanding of the roots of the trauma we share.
—Youbin Kang is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the School of Industrial and Labor Relations, Cornell University.

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