The Saipan-pan

I don’t think I was prepared for Saipan. Most of the places I’ve been in the Pacific have been….well, Pacific. There has been a common thread to them. They are all sort of laid back and underdeveloped to various degrees. They take pride in local customs and languages, even if they are only used to show tourists.

Saipan can best be described as Vegas 50 years ago run by the Chinese.

Everywhere around the central business district in Garapan there was prostitution. I’d say 30-40% of the business were massage parlors or “clubs” where they didn’t even try to pretend they were anything else. I have never been propositioned by a prostitute in my life, but I was several times within 10 minutes of entering the downtown area.

People who are legitimate masseuses probably have a difficult time distinguishing themselves from less reputable people who claim to share their profession. You can usually tell them apart by how they present themselves. A legitimate masseuse will advertise themselves as “therapeutic” or will specify what type of massage they offer. Moreover, their offices will have things like windows and look like a legitimate business.

Most of the massage parlors in Saipan confused things by saying they were “therapeutic” or advertising specific Chinese foot massages. However, I really can’t believe that an economy can rest on foot massages. Moreover, foot massages by young, attractive, scantly clad Chinese women who aggressively pander their massages to all male (and only male) passers by.

Another thing I noticed in Saipan were karaoke bars. I’ve actually noticed them before. I’ve seen them in LA, Auckland, Guam and anywhere you find a decent sized Korean community. I’ve never really thought twice about them actually, I just assumed they were bars where they sang karaoke. I did notice that none of them ever had windows. Well, on Saipan I think I figured out what karaoke bars really are. There were a few on the main shopping plaza that had lots of girls in mini-skirts out front trying to bring people in. I think they are really nothing more than a different twist on the massage parlor which cater specifically to Asians.

The reason why there is so much prostitution in Saipan is an interesting one. The Northern Marinas Islands are a territory of the United States. They have a status similar to Puerto Rico, USVI and American Samoa. Because they are not full blown states however, they have more freedom from federal laws than most states do. In the 80s and 90s, they took advantage of the loophole in laws and set up garment factories in Saipan. They imported cheap labor from China and the Philippines (almost all women) and were able to ship garments into the US avoiding tariffs but also avoiding federal minimum wage and labor laws. They basically created sweatshop industry within the US and made a killing off of it. Moreover, the methods used to get Chinese and Filipino were really shady. They were basically indentured servants. The women shipped over would have to work off their transportation from the small wages they were getting.

The garment factories were eventually shut down as the loopholes were closed, but many of the women stayed behind because they hadn’t worked off their passage yet. (Saipan has the largest ratio of women to men in the world). Saipan is a big tourist destination for Japanese and it didn’t take a rocket scientists to see what would happen when you mix large number of Asian male tourists with large numbers of unemployed Asian women. Prostitution exploded. (the Asian part of the equation isn’t there by accident. Japanese men are notorious for their trips to places such as Bangkok for sex tourism. Obviously, it’s the world’s oldest profession so it happens everywhere, but the proximity to Japan I think ended up making the industry bigger than it would have been if it had been located in the Caribbean or the South Pacific).

Despite everything I’ve just said, I got the impression that the future for for the CNMI and Saipan in particular might be very bright. Prostitution aside, there is a dynamism to the island I haven’t seen elsewhere in the pacific. I think it mostly comes from the Chinese, but it’s there nonetheless. If Macao is becoming the Vegas of Asia, then Saipan could become the Tahoe, or at least the Foxwoods of Asia.

I think the prostitution is also a classic example of the law of unintended consequences. Shutting down the garment factories led almost directly to the growth of prostitution (I wasn’t here before, so I don’t know how big the prostitution business was when the factories where in full swing, but I have believe it is much larger now). The desire to shut down the garment factories came from good intentions, but the plight of some of the women certainly became much worse than it was before.

Outside of getting propositioned by prostitutes on the way to getting sushi, I also visited the National Park on Saipan dedicated to the Battle of Saipan and Tinan (a smaller island south of Saipan). I didn’t really know much about the Marinas campaign in WWII, so everything was brand new to me. The Marinas campaign had two connections to the use of atomic weapons on Japan, one direct and one indirect. The direct link is that that Tinan was where the Enola Gay took off to bomb Hiroshima.

The indirect link really stunned me….

Sapian was Japanese territory before the start of WWII. They got it from Germany at the end of WWI. There were about 20,000 Japanese civilians on the island and it was the first time the US military had to deal with Japanese civilians. As the American forces took the island, the Japanese military and civilians were driven to the north of the island where there are very large cliffs. The civilians had been told that if they were captured by the Americans they would all be killed, tortured, raped, etc. As the civilians (mostly women) were trapped at the cliffs, most chose to throw themselves off and commit suicide with their children. Much of it was caught on film.

The decision to drop the bomb ultimately was a calculation based on how hard they thought the Japanese would fight to protect the mainland. The images of women beating babies with rocks and then throwing themselves off 800 foot cliffs had to be shocking to the people who saw it at the time. It, along with the suicide banzai charge the soldiers did at the end of the battle of Saipan, probably cemented the belief in American military decision makers that the invasion of the main island of Japan would be enormously difficult (this was later confirmed at the battle of Okinawa which was also had an enormous loss of Japanese life)

I should also make note of a symbol I saw all over Saipan and to a lesser extent on Guam. It is on their flag, the license plates, the highway signs, all the government buildings and even some of the hotels. It’s a very odd symbol. At first I thought that someone brought the Stanley Cup here years ago and the locals worshipped the cup as a god, but that story would be way too cool. In Guam, at first I thought it was an upside down bomb or torpedo. The one on the airport sign literally looks like a long, upside down torpedo. Turns out there are some ancient stone ruins on Tinan called a latte stone. The Chamorro have adopted it as their symbol. That’s why you only see it on Guam and CNMI, because that is where the Chamorro live.

Saipan was surprising because it seemed much more Asian than Pacific or American. I suppose as I’m moving further west that is to be expected. I’m only a few weeks away from being in full blown Asia now.

*The title of this post is taken from the term “pan-pan” which was used to describe prostitutes in post war Japan.

14 thoughts on “The Saipan-pan”


  2. Response to all:

    Some times it really makes my day reading what is here and has been posted by those who have never been here. This does not apply to those of you who have lived in Saipan or still do.

    A good frien of mine who is a high school teacher at Kagman High rolles it all up in a neat package. The locals of the CNMI(Saipan-Rota-Tinian) all have two things in common :they do not understand cause and effect,and planning for the future. These are the folks who run the country. Please do not forget that back in the sailing ship days these island were known as the isle of thievs. Now they are quickly reaching the level of those now in place in Washington DC. Here is a couple of little dittys which are true and make for some good reading.

    For cause and effect:
    A few years ago I was down at the sky diving operation at the Saipan airport doing some work on their aircraft. After I completed what was required,I went into the office to chat with my friens there. We were havcing a cold drink when a couple of CNMI offiicials came in at the request of the gov. to sak what they could do to make thing better for business on Saipan. They rattled on for a few minutes and I sat there shaking my head (Not too politicaly correct I guess) One then asked me what i thought.(bad decision) I replied the garmet industry is sick and you people are doing nothing to help. Your sugestions one replied. The cnmi has 5 different taxes they impose on the industry leaving a token proffit for them of less than 10%. Solution: cut a few of the taxes enough for them to pay the minimum hourly wage. Then being that workers will be getting more money, workers will make up what ever you loose in additional payrole taxes.(duh)

    The guy looked at me like I had jst spoken to him in some ancient language and did not have a clue as to what I just said. Gave no comment,they both left.

    Planning ahead:

    There are at any tine at least 100-120 street lights that do not shut off when the sun comes up, Dirty electric eyes. Money wasted enough annually to purchas a boom truck anf=d two locals to clean them. Also the government here does not pay their electric bill. Last time I heard it was close to aq quarted million. Amazing!!!!!!!!!!

    Even with all its faults Saipan is a great place to live.


  3. Hello:

    I have lived here on Saipan almost 7 years now and would like to make a comment or two about the Chinese women that live here. When I arrived to fly commercial pilot,I had been married two times and had children which are grown and on their own.(two lemons picked in loves garden) I had no intension or ever getting married again. After spending a little over a year in what that famous quots in “Top Gun” Its a target rich environment. I married a Chinese lady,and it was one of the best things I have ever done. Most of my friends here have done the same,and are happy and have a warm and loving home life. To put it in a few words,Chinese women are the best kept secret in the world. Their family always comes first(not the one back home in China) and they do take very good care of their husbands almost to a fault.

    My wife worked for MGM garmet factory,and when she lost her job she was ablt to secure a good position working at one of the larger hotels on the island. This was possible because she spoke japanese and english very well. We met while she was still working for MGM when they cut back her hours at the end she also worked at a beauty parlor giving hair cuts. We dated for a couple of months,and I got my education. Never in my life had I ever met a person who wanted nothing from me except love. Long story short we got married.

    Manny of her friends stayed in Saipan and a few went into the sex trade with out having any experience commercially. However many took this path just to stay alive and be able to send a little money home.(cant fault them for that)

    Alot of these ladies have married american men a little older that them selves and were married befor. They found out what I did about there women and ook the plunge. All of them that I know as my wifes friends who married americans did not do it for the golden passport called the green card. They found men who new what they had found,treated them with respect and now have a family. Of my wifes friend 6 are now mothers with their husbands and very happy.

    Also given the chance they have enrolled in the local college and are improving their english. This one thing will allow them to find reputable work. It is my belief that these women are of good heart and given the chance will always take the right path.

    There are many sides to the Saipan situation this is my point of view.


  4. I live on Saipan, and lived on Tinian. Frankly, the biggest issue is the crooked government here. It goes all the way to the Governor’s office. Crystal Meth “Ice” is a real problem. Not necessarily prostitution.

    Frankly, if they legalized it and regulated it, the ladies that engage in it (many of them by choice, because they can make much more on their backs than in other jobs) would be better protected. Most of the prostitutes do not want to leave because they have nothing in their home countries. Also it is a supply and demand issue. As long as there is a demand, there will always be a supply.

    If there was a way to put prostitution in a specific red light district. Have the women licensed and tested for STDs and allow them to form a union, to help ensure their rights. As long as they want to do that, then what is the problem? What two consenting adults do behind closed doors is nobody’s business.

    If this were legalized, then there could be a control over much of the exploitation end of it. As it stands, the average “Mama-san” takes between 40%-60% of what the ladies make.

    Of course this would never happen, even tough it works in places like Amsterdam, because the Church people would never allow it.

    I can say this. I have gotten to know some of these ladys. Most of them are just normal decent people. They just do this to survive because the way the economy is here. Wages are extremely low and for many of these people to get other work, legitimate work, such as waitressing, they can expect to have their Chinese of Filipino bosses make them work 12 hours a day, six-seven days a week for about $500.00 a month. If you are Chinese, then forget about finding a normal job, because the Filipinos and Koreans (who usually run most of the businesses and/or are supervisors) will not even hire you. Prejudice and discrimination is rampant. So, most of the prostitutes are Chinese because that is about all that they can find in many cases.

    Local Government has not helped, because they are inefficient and unable to do the job of keeping track of the labor and immigration in the CNMI, so you have tons of undocumented workers, many being exploited by their own people as well.

    Hopefully, come November, when the US Federal Government takes over, there will be a change. The only solution to this “Problem” is to simply re-patriate these women. Or do the logical thing and legalize and regulate it.

    But then again, I am a libertarian. I also think they should legalize marijuana too. (Not the hard drugs, just pot).

  5. I agree entirely with David. I had lived on Saipan almost all my life until quite recently. What he says is almost 100% accurate . I say almost because some of those women brought over as waitresses were truely suckered into it and their passports were taken away making it difficult to leave. I knew a few of them. Yet, with that said, many do still try to remain on the island for work even after they are given a chance to leave because they make more on the island than back home (even if a lot of it is retained by the boss or 'ma'ma san'). It was 'interesting' reading Meg's rants, though

  6. i’m shock what i’ve read from the columns. I’m against prostitution.The government must also care for their people (women). Those who are working with this kind of profesion, are victims of poverty but please think that money is not worthy, when your reputation is affected.We must preserve our values.Do something against prostitution!

  7. There are some valid points made in this discussion, but I think the major assumption behind it is wrong. I have lived in Saipan for 15 years, so have observed the situation here first hand.

    1. The decline in garment factory employment is very recent. The bars and clubs that you noted have been here for many years. Their existence has nothing to do with closure of the garment factories.

    2. Nearly all of the women working in them were brought to Saipan as “waitresses”, not as garment workers.

    3. Offering all of the workers a free ticket back home would result in — nothing. They don’t want to go home. They want to stay and work.

    4. No one intended to shut down the garment industries. The industry is declining because of competition from China under relaxed trade rules, in spite of efforts to keep it going. This is happening to garment industry factories in many countries including the United States.

    5. The minimum wage in Saipan was 3.05 for many years until this year, when it was raised to 3.55. The increase has only been in effect for less than six months and cannot explain the decline in garment factory employment.

    6. The minimum wage has been and continues to be low, however, comparing this to US wages is like comparing apples and oranges. Employers in Saipan are responsible for all health care costs for their foreign workers and many other costs including in many cases most or all of the food and housing as well.

    Prostitution in Saipan exists but certainly is not new — in fact it appears to have declined slightly over the last few years as the tourism industry is also suffering here. The existence of prostitution is not in any significant way a result of the decline in garment manufacturing.

  8. It doesn’t require hindsight. Any fool knows that simply eliminating an industry or significant number of jobs will lead to greater unemployment or increased employment in gray industries. So if you are planning to force changes that will shock an industry into lower employment (like an abrupt and large minimum wage increase) or shut the industry down, you need to prepare for that by creating additional employment opportunities. A focus on “key issues” like the garment industry in Saipan, or Nike elsewhere, to the exclusion of the greater economic context, is why targeted human rights improvement efforts won’t work. If you’d like, I can propose more specifics, but I was just commenting on your blog and didn’t realize you’d wanted a dissertation defense.

  9. You are proving my point.

    They wanted higher wages. They didn’t get it. Enforcing the minimum wage wouldn’t have solve any problem because those factories only existed there because they could charge wages comparable with the rest of Asia yet still avoid tariffs on imported goods.

    If you have to pay that wage, you could just have easily opened shop in the mainland US and avoid the shipping to Saipan.

  10. I agree with Meg. If I remember my feminist liberal recent history correctly, it wasn’t that people were trying to shut down the garmet industry. It was that they were trying to shut down the garmet industry at $2something an hour for wages. Bringing pay up to the $5something an hour minimum wage is currently set at would cause VERY little change to retailer or the customer in this industry. Paying $3 or $4 an hour more to create many pieces of work an hour, would only raise the price per piece by pennies (or possibly nickles). And that price could easily be passed on the the consumer. I’ve never thought, “I’d pay $30 for that, but it’s $30.05 so absolutely no way.”

  11. Which is great to say in hindsight.

    People focus on key issues. In the case of Saipan, it was the garment industry, not a general overall package of human rights and economic development.

    Centuries of laws and good intentions haven’t wiped out prostitution and crime, I don’t know why it would have done anything here.

    It is easy to talk in vague general terms about “employment”, “plans” and “strategies”, as if simpling having these plans will make reality what you want it to be.

    Saipan is an island. An island in close proximity to places with much much cheaper labor. There are no easy solutions. If there were, everyone would adopt plans and strategies and every place in the world would be prosperous.

    I am certain that regardless what plan or strategy would be put in place, the reality of the situation is if you have an abundance of unemployed females in a place in close proximity to a region of the world where there is sex tourism, this will happen. Look at any town with a military base.

    A far better and simpler thing would be to offer everyone a free trip back to China or the Philippines, free of any obligations to those who brought them to Saipan. Even then, they still could be hunted down by the organized crime element that demands payment.

    I stand by my original claim. You just can’t make some problems go awawy without shifting them somewhere else or creating entirely new problems.

    I do believe that what I saw in Saipan isn’t going to be there in 10 years. Women will stop coming there to work. I also can’t see how that level of prostitution can be supported in the long term (then again, I haven’t been to Bangkok yet, so I could be totally wrong).

    If the tourism industry in Saipan can grow (and I think it can), the problem will solve itself, but the answer is time.

  12. It’s not the law of unintended consequences, it’s the law of proper planning prevents pis poor performance. The transition of former female and child garment workers into prostitution in the absence of other gainful employment was completely forseeable, which is why strategies for improving human rights have to be combined with other economic development strategies to prevent that type of job “replacement.”

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