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Reviewed by:
  • On the Move for Love: Migrant Entertainers and the US Military in South Korea
  • Meredith Ralston (bio)
Sealing Cheng, On the Move for Love: Migrant Entertainers and the US Military in South Korea (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press 2010), 291 pages, ISBN 978-0-8122-4217-1.

This is one of the best, most nuanced books I have read on militarized prostitution and sex trafficking. The author Sealing Cheng successfully contrasts the thought-provoking individual stories of Filipino entertainers in South Korea (and their motives, resistance, and experiences) with the structural, rhetorical, and sometimes well-meaning impediments to migration, security, and a better life.

Writing as an ethnographer, Cheng explores the experiences of several Filipino women working in the bar areas surrounding gijichon (US military bases in South Korea). Their experiences, which come to life over several chapters, clearly point to the ambiguous circumstances of their employment, of their status as migrant workers, and of their motives. These [End Page 879] are not trafficked women, in the common meaning of the phrase, i.e., persons who have been coerced or forced into prostitution. These are women who, for a variety of personal reasons, mainly economic but also for reasons of personal autonomy and freedom, chose to work in the bars in the hopes of a better life for themselves and their families. They live with the hope in many cases, though not all, that they will marry a US serviceman and escape the poverty of their homeland. Cheng effectively argues that we need to look carefully at the women's actual lived experiences in order to determine the interplay of their victimization and agency, and that a more nuanced view of Filipino women working in the bars of South Korea is needed.

Cheng accomplishes this difficult feat by starting with the stories of several Filipino bar girls who "escape" from a gijichon bar outside a US military base in South Korea. At first glance, the story seems depressingly familiar: exploitative bar owners taking advantage of poor helpless Filipinas. As the story progresses, however, we discover a richly detailed backstory to these women's plight that helps us to contextualize and complicate a seemingly straightforward case of victimization. These women may be considered "victims" of the dire economic situation of the Philippines, but in nuanced, individualized definition of the term. They come across as smart and savvy; they have long-term goals and adapt as needed when circumstances change. Cheng brings to life the contradictory motives, desires, and successes of each of the bar girls, showing both their agency and their resistance to victimization.

Chapter one sets the context for the women's experience with a macro analytic examination of the gijichon in South Korea. US forces have been stationed throughout South Korea since the Korean War and a bar culture has arisen surrounding the bases, similar to those around the former American air force and naval bases in the Philippines. Although South Korean women were once the primary entertainers, since the 1990s, with the development of the South Korean economy and labor shortages for unskilled jobs, the bar girls have been mainly Filipino or Russian. The migrant experience, concentrating on the experiences of Filipino bar girls, is also a prime theme of the book. Not only are the bar girls stigmatized as prostitutes, but also as migrants from a poor underdeveloped nation.

Chapter two shows how South Koreans construct the gijichon women as foreign and fallen, and how the very existence of the bar areas embarrasses South Koreans and their notion of nationhood. Cheng also begins to unravel the story of the bar girls running away from the bar: the contradictions about why they left, the ambivalent nature of their relationship with the female bar owner, and the genuine inability of the bar owner to understand how the Filipinos could do this to her after she had treated them as daughters. Their story provides a good example of how Cheng weaves the personal narratives of the individuals with the global political and economic contexts, and the disciplinary regime of the state.

Chapter three describes the motives of the women themselves and how they hope for a better life...


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pp. 879-882
Launched on MUSE
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