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.