It was a seemingly unremarkable painting in a terrible condition.
Many people could have been forgiven for walking past it, as it lay slung over a chair at an antique fair in Avignon, France. After all, its colours were muted by years of grime, paint was peeling off and the canvas had been pierced in the corner by a piece of limestone.
But the painting, depicting the resurrected Christ appearing to three Marys, caught the eye of Stephen Hibberts that day and so began a fascinating 11-year journey worthy of a Da Vinci Code plotline.
And the twist in the tale? Science suggests this worn, damaged canvas that sold at a market for just 350 euros (£270) could be a priceless work of art from the Italian High Renaissance.
Even more curious are the clues hidden within the painting which bear a striking similarity to the hallmarks of one of the period’s Grand Masters, Raphael.
It was the size of the canvas, at 7ft by 4ft, that first attracted Mr Hibberts, originally from Stoke-on-Trent, to the painting on that day in 2005 at an Italian dealer’s pitch.
The former Royal Naval submariner had for the last 30 years frequented antique markets looking for furniture pieces to renovate and sell.
Art was not usually something he was drawn to, or had much knowledge of, but he thought the painting would look good on his kitchen wall.
“It was big enough and I liked its gothic and rustic appearance,” Mr Hibberts said.
“But it wasn’t in the best of nick, it was just slung over a chair and people were walking over it to look at other bits and pieces – one person actually trod on it and a piece of limestone pierced it in the corner,” he added. “I didn’t think it would be worth much at all.”
After some light haggling, he walked away with the artwork and fashioned a stretcher for the piece to hang on the wall at his Bordeaux home.
And there it stayed for several months before one day, Mr Hibberts spotted an anomaly at the bottom of the painting on Christ’s right foot – it had six toes.
“It took me aback when I saw it,” Mr Hibberts said. “It made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up, it was exciting. And I realised this was something unusual, it was more than just an ordinary religious depiction.”
His investigation into six-toed, or Polydactyl, Holy figures led him to a seemingly preposterous theory. Could this old, damaged canvas actually be a forgotten Renaissance masterpiece? And could it even be the work of the great Raphael?
Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino and some other Renaissance artists including his teacher Perugino, known for their attention to detail, have long baffled academics for their depiction of Polydactyly subjects in their works.
Indeed it was something of a trademark for Raphael with six toes found on St Joseph in The Marriage of the Virgin, the infant John the Baptist in La Belle Jardiniere, Christ in Madonna and Child and Christ, the Virgin and St John the Evangelist in Mond Crucifixion to name just a few.
Some theories suggest that the presence of Polydactyly Holy subjects is symbolic of their ‘sixth sense’ or higher power.
This, and the appearance of Raphael’s beloved Florence in the background of the painting, a medieval scene of the Arno river, convinced Mr Hibberts further that this was a work of art by Raphael.
“I’m a realistic man,” he said. “I’m aware that it is sometimes tempting to see things that aren’t there, that you see things you want to see.
“But if someone or something had convinced me that this was nothing to do with the Renaissance, or Raphael, I would have dropped the subject years ago.”
He added: “But to me it has been a bit like the Da Vinci Code as every time I look at the painting, I discover something new that I have not noticed before.”
As the years went on Mr Hibberts noticed the figures in some of Raphael’s accredited artworks bore similarity to his painting.
For instance, the figure of Christ appears to share the same hairline and nose as the male figures in Raphael’s Madonna with the Christ Child (1502).
Raphael was known for using the same models – perhaps one of them had Polydactylism.
The scene of the painting, entitled Noli Me Tangere (Don’t Touch Me), portrays Mary Magdalene as the central figure in awe of Christ as Mary Salome and Mary, mother of James, look on.
The unusual scene has inspired some 15 artists, mostly in the 16th and 17th centuries and many appear to be share significant similarities with the one in Mr Hibberts’ possession.
In fact, an engraving and painting by 16th century Flemish painter Maerten de Vos is almost a carbon copy of it. The placement of the figures, complete with square gardens bordered by a balustrade and doorway against a mountainous city-scape background match the painting almost exactly.
It is possible, Hibberts deduced, that his painting is the original Noli Me Tangere which was copied by these later artists.
Enthused by his discovery, Mr Hibberts approached various experts from the Louvre, the UK’s National Gallery, Sotheby’s and academics from Oxford and Cambridge universities. Perhaps unsurprisingly his theory was met with derision.
And they scoffed at his assertion that his painting was by none other than Raphael.
Many claimed the piece was Victorian copying the Renaissance style and that it was worthless both in monetary and historical value.
One expert even told him: “Stop wasting my time, you are chasing a dream.”
But Mr Hibberts, 61, clung on to that dream and now, with the help of scientific analysis, he is one step closer to unravelling the mysteries of the masterpiece.
He contacted Professor Howell Edwards, a specialist at Bradford University with expertise in archaeological and art materials to help him answer, once and for all, whether his painting could belong to the Renaissance period.
It was the untouched condition of the fittingly named Noli Me Tangere that allowed Professor Edwards to use Raman Spectroscopy, a sophisticated forensic test, commonly used for testing drug hauls or finding evidence in crime scenes.
Taking up to 35 microscopic pigment samples, Professor Edwards and his team used Raman Spectroscopy, a process that uses laser radiation to analyse the materials and their composition or layering – its “molecular fingerprint” as he describes it.
And they found that all the pigments analysed were consistent with those used in the late 15th century, with no trace of synthetic materials used after that period.
In their research paper in the Royal Society’s ‘Philosophical Transactions A’ journal, published this week (Monday October 31), Professor Edwards and his colleagues Professor Peter Vandenabeele and Dr Mona Abdel-Ghani said that the pigments in the painting – cinnabar, haematite red lead, lead white, goethite, verdigris and azurite – were all commonly used in a Renaissance palette.
Also included organic material, found in the distinct red on Christ’s cloak, comprised of a mixture of carmine dye – a red colour made out of crushed cochineal insects – and cinnabar. Also present was Caput Mortuum, a vivid purple iron oxide pigment prized by the Romans.
“No trace of any synthetic pigment that appeared post-Renaissance has been found in our studies, which, when taken with the obvious lack of restorative procedures, implies strongly that the painting is correctly placed as an artwork executed in the Renaissance period,” the authors wrote.
The analysis also identified an “orange resin-like layer” found on the canvas substrate, thought to be made out of beeswax and linseed oil.
In fact this layer that sandwiched the paint between the outer varnish layer and the canvas was a favoured method by Leonardo Da Vinci.
The artwork, using some expensive pigments of the time would probably have been a commission by a generous patron and most likely was carried out by an established painter, perhaps one with his own school.
In other words, if this is a fake Renaissance piece, it would have to be a clever one.
The pigments sampled across all areas of the painting showed such a high level of purity suggesting that if forged, the artist would have had to have been knowledgeable enough to use Renaissance materials and methods to the letter.
But science can only go so far, Professor Edwards added.
“It can expose a fake but only if something synthetic is found that does not match the period,” Professor Edwards said.
“Analytical science, it can tell you about the pigments and whether they are consistent with a particular period of time, it can look at the composition and the mastery of the brush strokes. But what it can’t tell you is the exact time that paint was placed on the canvas, nor whether it was by a particular painter. That really is beyond the realms of what science can do.”
Indeed although the forensic analysis suggests the painting was created in the late 1400s, backing Mr Hibberts theory that his is the original Noli Me Tangere, the second part of the puzzle remains unsolved.
In other words, science tells us how old it could be, but can’t tell us who held the paintbrush.
But there is one thing that could. A signature.
Placed in a prominent position above Mary Salome’s head, in a doorway, is a smudge. That smudge could be a signature that could offer more information about the painter.
It would have solved the mystery many years ago if it wasn’t for the decades, or centuries, of grime that has darkened the hue making it illegible.
“We couldn’t make out any more detail on that at all,” sighed Mr Hibberts. “There is definitely something there, maybe some form of writing or depiction, but the level of degradation means we won’t be able to see anything there without professional restoration.”
With restoration – likely to cost hundreds of thousands of pounds – that signature could be revealed after years of hiding in the shadows.
“It is a tantalising thing,” he said. “There’s certainly something there and once it is revealed, it may tell us much more than science alone can.”
But at least for now, this early Noli Me Tangere, remains unclaimed.
In less than 10 days time, the UK will go to the polls to decide on whether it remains a member of the European Union.
We’ve had David Cameron and Jeremy Corbyn agreeing with each other to remain while Boris Johnson and Dennis Skinner eye-poppingly settle on a Brexit. And it was no laughing matter when comedians Eddie Izzard and John Cleese stepped into the debate. Add a £350m a week inaccuracy (which is only £100m out, to be fair) and the suggestion that ISIS would be jolly happy if we left the EU; the campaign has been as maddening as it is discombobulating.
And as neither side really knows what will happen either in or out, emotional topics such as immigration and British identity are at the forefront of the campaign… and could be the deciding factor on June 23.
So it is rather refreshing to look at how outsiders – or foreigners themselves – are viewing this moment in British history. And it was possible for me to do that by working with ABC Australia’s Foreign Correspondent.
London bureau chief Lisa Millar leads a 30-minute current affairs programme mostly set in Somerset, a county at the heart of England that can demonstrate the diversity of feeling towards Europe.
They don’t even have an imperial state crown. They’re boring dowdy people who wield the people’s power without so much as a by your leave. (Jacob Rees-Mogg on EU bureacrats)
I class myself as a Great Britainer through and through, but I’m a European. We’re a small island on the edge of a Europe with a population of half a billion, which we should be looking at as a customer base. (Farmer Derek Mead)
People are no longer as scared as they were in the 1960s and 70s because Europe no longer seems to be the lifeboat. If anything it seems to be the Titanic. (Historian Robert Tombs)
We’ve just had enough of being dictated to by Europe. We’ve lost the pride to say ‘Hi, I’m English or hi, I’m British’… I think we’ve lost that pride in who we are. (Publican, Simon Braun)
When I came over here I worked as a cleaner and I worked in a factory… I feel very special. I’m serving British Police and British people so basically I’m very proud of that. (Polish Police Support Officer, Iwona Kot)
Watch Foreign Correspondent’s ‘There’ll Always be an England’ here.
Debunking Donald Trump’s claims in his presidential candidacy campaign may on the face of it appear very easy.
But politicians (or wannabe ones) are increasingly using published statistics to back up their (sometimes hate-infused) speeches. The power of a good statistic – whether it is eight out of 10 cats or nine-tenths of the law – can be engraved in the public’s consciousness as fact, regardless of how skewed and misinterpreted they may be. Which is why politicians love them.
Take crime or employment figures. Prime Minister David Cameron recently lauded himself for employment going down in the UK under his government. But critics pointed out that wage growth is slowing. And crime figures have long been manipulated by politicians, according to police forces.
Asked to write an analysis of one of the several Donald Trump statements about British Muslims for ITV News (read it here), I was confident that scraping the surface just a little would prove him very wrong.
It quickly became apparent that while there are plenty of statistics available about the armed forces, we (obviously) rely on estimates for the number of UK citizens thought to have travelled to Syria to join ISIS. Already that makes for a rather skewed analysis.
I found that while 0.001% of the British population are thought to have joined jihadist groups abroad, 0.01% of UK citizens have joined the armed forces.
But, perhaps unsurprisingly, only 0.5% of those in the armed forces identify as Muslims. I say ‘unsurprisingly’ as I suspect any religion with peace at its kernel, would find it conflicting to join an organisation dedicated to war. For instance, how many Buddhists and Hindus are likely to have joined up?
With the data I had available, the answer to whether Trump was correct was rather grey.
- Was Trump right?
While there is a reduction in recruitment in the regular armed forces, the figures for last year alone far outweigh official and unofficial figures of the number of British citizens thought to have joined ISIS in the last three years.
Of these, approximately 0.5% of the total 194,570 armed forces personnel are identified as Muslim, an estimated 972 people.
If you agree with the official figure of UK jihadists, that means that there are more British Muslims in the UK forces than ISIS. If you believe in the other unofficial estimates, Trump is right.
Statistics of course can throw up many more questions. In this case, how can we be sure that the people travelling to Syria are all joining ISIS – some may be joining other factions to fight agains the government regime.
And comparing Muslims who join the UK army with those joining ISIS is akin to comparing apples and oranges and drawing conclusions from their number and not their taste.
Nevertheless, this mini study into the ‘facts’ picked up by Trump has taught me that while data may show us a picture, we should be wary of those who give it colour and form.
A documentary I worked on with Bearkatt Productions entitled The Last Secrets of 9/11 is to be shown in the UK tonight (14 August) at 9pm on Channel 5.
The film focuses on the work of the Chief Medical Examiners’ Office (OCME) in New York and the intricate and enduring work of scientists over the last 13 years in trying to identify the fragments of human remains of those who were lost on that terrible day. Some 8,000 small body parts of ‘unknown victims’ lost in the World Trade Center attack are still being tested or preserved in the hope that new technology can one day help identify the human identity from DNA. That means 40 per cent of those lost that day have still not been identified, potentially they never will, and some may have just been ‘vaporised’ into thin air.
Filming took place in New York between March and May this year, when the remains of those unidentified (and unclaimed) victims of the atrocity were returned to Ground Zero in a repository under the memorial. Although ostensibly a scientific documentary, my personal experience was to explore what it means for us to grieve. Why is it important for us to have the bodies of our loved ones buried or returned to us and how does that help us move on?
Indeed, grief is particularly unique for those who lost a loved one in one of the biggest global tragedies in our lifetime. I discovered that for relatives of some of the 2,753 official victims of the attack to receive fragmentary body parts of their beloved many years after the event can reopen an ever-bleeding wound. Meanwhile, some are “stuck in 2001” with nothing to bury and desperate to get something back from them even if they get the call 20 years later. Others, accepting their loved ones were “vaporised” believe that they don’t need a grave to move on, after all what matters most is preserving the memories they have of them.
I was very proud to be part of this documentary and very grateful to the families and loved ones of victims who had the courage to open up about the horror that happened to the people that they loved, and the literal and emotional pieces they had to pick up. And for that reason, I am sharing parts of my diary of that journey.
My first visit to the OCME:
The office is an unbelievably slick glass interior next to a gothic mental asylum. Apparently the road that runs between the two used to be a canal where the dead and the mad were transferred by boat as appropriate. Today, the gleaming labs analyse fragments of bones or semen and blood stains in over 20,000 cases a year. And then there is the 9/11 team, a team dedicated to testing and retesting 8,000 “and change” human remains that are yet to have a name. Our interview was very sciency and quite distanced from the remarkable job they do but our interviewee said that it was an incident that made them bend the rules a bit. When lab technicians work on a homicide or a rape, they are never connected to the families of the victims. With 9/11 connection is actively encouraged, technicians are invited to meet the families and tell them everything, warts and all, about how their loved ones died because that is what they deserve they say. So amid the clinical labs you could see the blurred lines of humanity.
My first visit to the September 11 Memorial:
It was breathtakingly moving in a way that I didn’t expect. A tourist attraction yes, with many foreigners doing ‘selfies’ by the names of the dead. Yet I was stunned by its beauty. The footprints of the towers and the fountains running down into ‘the pit’ where so many body parts (I know now) were pulled were majestic as the spray is caught in the wind. I looked at the tree beds, filled with ivy, and thought of an arm that had fallen there or a jumper that had fallen nearby. And I thought of where the man I had just interviewed ran when the South Tower fell.
The presence of absence was most compelling. The space made you look. The sheer size of the space made me feel most small in my fretting for a “proper British cup of tea”. Even the names carved into the memorial were ‘absent’ and made out of space. I found the names, quite naturally, of the relatives of people I have spoken to and felt the need to touch them all. They were lives and more than names and bones, and it felt pretty special to remember that.
An interview with the daughter of a firefighter:
She showed us the only things that were returned to her by the Fire Dept. A squashed fireman’s helmet in five pieces, melted and charred. The brass badge saying ‘disaster chief’ was curled like a burned sheet of paper… She said she hoped that was a sign he wasn’t wearing it when it was smashed to pieces and that it had fallen off as he ran. But we both knew that whatever the outcome it was horrific. He has probably been ‘vaporised’. The other items she had were rocks from Ground Zero and a box with his surname on it that had been found in his flattened car. She doesn’t open it for more than five seconds because you can “smell Ground Zero and it smells of death” but also because it is a piece of history, a time capsule of her father. It contained books, an empty packet of raisons and some smart shoes, all covered with dust from the Twin Towers.
An interview with the mother of a firefighter:
She spoke movingly and passionately about the museum… “Why should the City take custody of unidentified remains? They are not the property of New York…. There should be a memorial like there is in Oklahoma… an empty chair, because we are all living with an empty chair.”
A visit to the NY State Museum’s Rescue and Recovery exhibition:
In the museum was a burnt out firetruck, the arm and the seatbelt of one of the planes and items like melted floppy discs, keys and guns (the FBI and port police had offices in the World Trade Center). The director of the museum had spent 40 days documenting a piece of American history that nobody else was, the recovery of items and human remains for nearly a year after 9/11. Then on to a massive storage unit with more than 2 million artefacts from the museum. A huge chunk of them were from 9/11… pieces of planes, wrecked emergency vehicles, firemen’s boots ripped, steel and aluminium from the towers bent and melted…. it was a veritable Alladdin’s Cave of despair.
The day the ‘unclaimed and unidentified’ remains were returned to Ground Zero:
Outside the OCME there was a cluster of smartly dressed NYPD (not the usual uniform but the white gloves and stripes down their trousers). One by one the cars and trucks came. NYPD, FDNY and PAPD vehicles and motorbikes and they waited and got in order, flashing lights… An NYPD officer saluted to the Ambulance with the ‘unknown’ in and I felt a lump in my throat. It suddenly hit me that I was at a historical moment and I felt privileged to document it.
We followed the motorcade to the World Trade Center… we got there just in time as the first casket, draped in an American flag was taken out of the vehicle. Then another, then another. Just three military hold caskets for 8,000 remains.
The day after the dedication ceremony, the opening of the September 11 Memorial and Museum:
The barriers at the side of the memorial plaza were coming down when we arrived, opening the site out for public to come in off the street. Before they would have to queue to go through metal detectors and get tickets to prove they had gone through security. Now, with the opening of the museum, and 24-hour access to family members and first responders this week, they have made it completely accessible. The atmosphere at 8am was very different, it felt lighter, more beautiful. The only person who stopped me was a dog handler who asked if his sniffer dog could check the tripod bag I was handling… “Have you got pastrami at the bottom of your bag?” the cop joked. Truth is, it had been left on a New York street many a time so gawd knows what that dog was sniffin’…
Later in the day, we noticed a difference in atmosphere as more tourists were flocking to the site than before, milling about, some leaning smoothies on the brass plaques of names and others posing happily with their newborn babies next to the footprints of the towers. I wasn’t angry, why should I be? Who was I to be? But it felt odd and somehow ugly. This has been a tourist attraction for some time. But the atmosphere now the barriers and the queues are gone was markedly different today. This was throwaway tourism where people didn’t make a conscious decision to come here queuing patiently to be let in. Rather they found themselves here like they would at the Eiffel Tower or Trafalgar Square. They might have been pre September 11th 2001 when people came to ride the lift up to the Windows of the World restaurant to take pictures at the top. Perhaps in a strange way, the World Trade site becoming a tourist area is part of anew era returning the place to the public. For a long time it has been shrouded away and now it is open for all to see, a reborn site that is neither public nor private and therefore belonging to nobody and everybody for better and for worse.
I am aware of the statement by the non profit organisation Breaking Out alleging that Chong Kim’s story lacks credibility. I have also read Ms Kim’s response to these allegations. I understand that legal action may be taken and will await the outcome of any proceedings that may occur.
In the meantime, I will not be posting any further comment nor shall I approve any comments in relation to this development.
Wearing just their underwear, the girls line up with their backs to the wall, arms by their side, heads down, frozen to the spot. They dare not move.
Their captors walk up and down the line – picking them seemingly at random and tapping them on the shoulder – ‘You, you, you and you… come with me’.
In the back of a warehouse truck, they are driven for miles across the scorching Nevada desert until they reach a hotel. There, they are forced to have sex with up to 25 men one after the other.
This was life for Korean-born American Chong Kim who, at 19 years old, was sold as a domestic sex slave in 1994 to Russian gangsters and held captive for more than two years.
“The clients never came to the warehouse,” she recalled “That was just where we slept. There was nothing there but bed mats on the floor and we would just lay there.
“They would give us colouring books with fat crayons and we would colour. But then we would hear the knock outside the storage unit doors and have to all line up.
“If you were chosen, we would get in the truck and there would be a gallon of water between us. You could tell it was hot outside because it was made out of metal aluminium and it was too hot to touch.
“We were sweating when we got to the room and we’d get a make up bag and toiletries and they’d say ‘you have ten minutes to take a shower’. They would have lingerie laying on the bed.
“I remember sitting in the shower because it felt so good to be in water that I just cried. When I was done I had to basically lay in bed naked waiting for the customer to come in.”
About half of her clients were American and others were Russian but some had accents she wasn’t familiar with – they could have been British, Australian or European, she couldn’t tell.
“They all had one hour to spend time with us but most of the time they didn’t spend the whole hour, they just came in, raped us and then they would leave. And then we had to shower for the next client. That was pretty much our day.”
The traffickers would take up to 15 girls to ‘service’ hundreds of men in one day.
“One time, I could hear the screaming on the other side of the hotel room and I could tell another girl was being raped and she was screaming and it was really, really hard for me to concentrate.
“And when we got done throughout the day we would get so sore that I remember asking for a bag of ice and had to put it between my legs because it hurt so much.”
Sometimes the girls were returned to the warehouse, sometimes they didn’t. Any attempts at fighting back or escaping were met with brutal beatings and torture.
“I tried to escape numerous times,” says Chong, now 38. “I remember one time the warehouse truck stopped somewhere and we had to get out to get changed and use the bathroom and that’s when I started running.
“We were in the middle of the desert and I didn’t know where I was. The next thing I knew, I had what I think was a crowbar hit me in the back of the head. When I woke up, I was tortured. I was on a meat hook and beaten like a piñata. Other times they would bust both my knee caps or they would put me in a tub of ice naked.”
As time went on, she would witness as much cruelty as she was subjected to and she would regularly be transported with up to 50 other girls from warehouse to warehouse, state to state.
The girls were all ages and ethnicities, some having being trafficked through Europe or Russia before ending up in the USA.
“I witnessed murders, tortures, sodomy, rape,” she says quietly. “The youngest girl I saw there was just seven years old. They tied me down and made me watch her get raped by 12 adult men. It made me so sick to my stomach. I still see her face in my dreams.”
Forcefully injected with heroin, meth and cocaine and held in a dark, windowless warehouse, time ceased to exist.
“I never knew what time it was because we never had a window to look out. There were times when it would feel like forever,” she said.
“I turned into a puppet, I got tired of fighting back. There were moments where I asked for help and nobody helped me. The traffickers would say, ‘see you are nothing, that is why nobody is helping you’.
“We had no military guys or swat teams to come in and break down the doors and rescue us, that was a dream.”
Her only option was to gain the trust of her traffickers and rise up the ranks to find a way to escape.
“I felt that I would never get out and the other part of me was getting angry,” she says. “I kept looking at my situation, all the times I tried to escape I was unsuccessful. And so I wanted to know where were these people coming from, where were the parents? Why wasn’t anyone looking for them? And so the only way I thought at that time was to act like I was going to be a part of them so I could find out all of their secrets.
“I approached the head trafficker and I said ‘I could be the Madam, I am a woman, I can use my feminine charms and to manipulate and to get more girls. And I can help you make more money’.”
After gaining their trust, she soon found herself in the terrible position of recruiting young girls into sex slavery, just two years after the very same thing happened to her.
She was recruited into sex slavery in 1994 by the person she believed to be her boyfriend.
While studying Law at a technical college in Dallas, Chong met a man claiming to be a soldier in a bar who she knew as Keith, only later discovering that was not his real name.
She described him as chivalrous, adding: “He would say to me ‘you should smile more often you know’, he was very, very sleek. That’s what makes him poisonous.”
Estranged from her family, Chong was vulnerable and looking for her ‘Prince Charming’ and he manipulated this to recruit her, she says.
“It’s like a hunting game, they know how to hunt, they look for them, they watch, they observe. They’ll do a round of tests,: says Chong. “A man will go to the bar and he will say ‘who wants to get me a drink?’ and the first woman who says ‘I will’ without knowing him gives him the signal that she will do anything for him.”
After just two months of dating, he drove her to an abandoned house in Oklahoma telling her that he needed to help a homeless friend.
“I said I’d wait in the car and that’s when he grabbed me by the neck and said ‘you’re going to do as I say’. And my first thought was ‘what did I do wrong?’”
He chained her up in the basement and burned her passport and documents. There, she was raped and tortured before she was transported to the warehouse somewhere in an Indian reservation in Nevada.
“When I was taken to the storage unit and I saw the other girls, I was just shocked.” She says. “It was like a giant factory of children. And I literally thought I was in a different country because I was so Americanised that I thought it can’t be here.”
But when she became a Madam she learned about the scale of the operation and the so-called respectable people who were her customers.
“I learned about the corruption – there were politicians, judges, police officers that would buy a girl and pay the agency to keep quiet,” she says. “It scared me so much that I decided I need to run away.”
Her opportunity to escape came in 1997 when she was staying in a wealthy client’s hotel in a casino in Vegas.
“I remembered watching a James Bond movie with my father and he’d crawled out through the vent to escape,” she says. “I remember the vent being big enough and I thought ‘you know, it’s worth a try!’”
Making her way outside the building, a man pulled up in his car and spotted her escaping still wearing her lingerie.
“My heart was beating so fast,” she says, “I got in the car and took off my Stiletto shoes and beat him over the head. He was unconscious, I didn’t kill him. And I moved his body out and I stole his vehicle.”
For many years after her escape, she “lived like a hobo” fearful that her kidnappers would trace her if she used her social security number. After seeking help from a women’s shelter and with intense therapy, she slowly started to rebuild her life.
Her incredible story is now the subject of an independent film to be released this Friday (July 19) in selected UK cinemas, starring Hollywood star Jamie Chung.
And today, mum-of-one Chong shares her story to educate law enforcement personnel and attorneys all over the USA.
Her advocacy work for victims has been commended by campaigners including Academy Award winning actress Emma Thompson.
But despite helping scores of victims, Chong feels emotionally conflicted about her time as a Madam working for the very people that abused, raped and tortured her.
“I worry about being judged,” she says. “Even when I was a Madam I was still being held as a slave. I never kept any money, I was being monitored all the time.
“There’s not a moment I don’t think about the girls, their faces, their tears I only hope that they were able to be rescued or escaped.”
Chong is working with private investigators and members of the FBI to give as much information as possible to help bring her traffickers to justice.
But the organised criminals, who were also involved in drugs, arms and money laundering, were clever enough to use false names and move the girls from site to site to avoid being traced.
But by telling her story, Chong is speaking up for all survivors of sex trafficking, she says.
“I have people who say ‘I’m sorry this happened to you’ and I say don’t tell me you’re sorry, tell me that you’re angry and you want to do something.
“There are so many of these men who come to different countries whether it is in the UK, South East Asia or America and their intention is for paid rape. And the woman’s voices will always remain silent as long as the law enables these predators. So we need to find a way to say ‘No more.’”
* ‘Eden’ is in selected cinemas including the Brixton Ritzy and Empire Leicester Square from July 19. It is also available for download on iTunes. For more information, go to http://www.edenthefilm.com/
It was not too long ago that as News Editor of the Bexley Times, I ran a campaign to save the A&E at Queen Mary’s Hospital, Sidcup. The plans to slash services at the hospital were patently ludicrous. Its A&E services were award-winning as was its maternity unit yet it was put to residents that ‘streamlining’ services would be better for them. Of course in consultancy-speak streamlining meant cuts and closure.
There were obvious practical concerns. For instance, we worked out that if you happened to have a car accident on certain parts of the A20, it would take an ambulance an extra 20 minutes to get you safely to a hospital as opposed to under 10 if Queen Mary’s remained open. And further digging found that in the run up to the closure, the Sidcup A&E was taking in overflow patients from the neighbouring hospitals as they couldn’t cope with the high volume of emergencies. So why close it? It made no sense.
It soon became clear that the move may have had more to do with the terrible financial straits that neighbouring PFI hospitals, Princess Royal University Hospital in Bromley and Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Woolwich, were in – owing more than £100m to private investors. It sadly seemed to be the case of culling efficiency to pay the debt of inefficiency and all the more galling when we exposed the fees paid to executives hired to make the cuts.
The campaign ultimately failed, the emergency unit closed two years ago and the 80,000 patients who would ordinarily have used Sidcup’s A&E now go to other hospitals in Kent and London. Sometimes as a journalist you take on campaigns that are doomed to fail just to add your support to the community. We knew that Queen Mary’s would close because the signs were there in the consultation process. The quango, ironically called A Picture of Health, produced a consultation that was perplexing, confusing and full of jargon and despite the majority of respondents disagreeing with the plans (including hundreds of Bexley Times readers signing the petition which went to Downing Street) the plans were given the green light.
This alone seemed morally unjust. But the sinister PR machine made the business of closing an NHS A&E all the more murky. We would receive countless press releases ‘revealing’ how plans to close the unit were supported by hundreds of clinicians yet we struggled to find any who welcomed the plans. When challenged, A Picture of Health refused to reveal the names of those professionals who supposedly gave the plans their approval. After a year-long battle where I was forced to complain to the Information Commissioner, A Picture of Health admitted that no such list of people existed which exposed the PR as the propaganda it was.
I was shocked and frustrated at the subterfuge. On the face of it, the organisation was hired to create a fair and open consultation about the future of a local hospital. Instead it was misleading the public and gagging the staff affected by the changes.
When Sidcup closed, we feared that other wards would follow… and they have. Rumours that hospital land at the Frognal Road site was ringfenced for development have been proven to be true. Indeed the Trust supposedly managing the hospital has gone into insolvency whilst a significant chunk of tax payers money is being thrown into the bottomless pit of PFI debt. The future of Queen Mary’s is bleak.
Now, history is repeating itself with plans to close my local A&E at University Hospital, Lewisham. Out comes another jargon-filled questionnaire with such closed questions as:
To what extent do you agree or disagree that the efficiency of the hospitals that make up South London Healthcare NHS Trust needs to improve to match that of top performing NHS organisations?
Everyone wants efficient hospitals but the question above treats it as fact that Lewisham is failing. Where is the evidence that University Hospital, Lewisham is inefficient when figures suggest that approximately 750,000 people use its A&E alone? Just a fraction of those 750,000 hospital users made their feelings known last month but it brought Lewisham town centre to a standstill. In almost every shop window there are posters like the one below and there are people with petitions at my local GP and standing outside the shopping centre. It is plain to see the strength of feeling in the community, but will we be listened to this time?
The NHS should be healthcare provision for all at the point of need. Instead, it is being used as the family silver by generations of governments who sold vital services to private investors offering little return.
As Councillor Liam Curran, from Save Lewisham Hospital Campaign, said:
Hospitals should not be run as profit ventures – they are not supermarkets, to be closed if they don’t make enough money.
Although he will know that the blame for this lies with his own party under Tony Blair and previous Tory governments who decided to privatise the NHS chunk by chunk under the nose of the electorate.
My fear is that a deal has already been struck to strip us of our hospital and no matter how many times we ‘have our say’, it is the private companies who hold the power. However, people power should not be underestimated, especially in light of the so-called Starbucks apology. We have seen a good community hospital dismantled in Sidcup and we can’t afford to let it happen in Lewisham. So, please join the campaign and sign the petition here.