Escaping Global Slavery, Almost


Njong Emmanuel Tohnain, imprisoned in a Chinese factory that produced shopping bags for Saks Fifth Avenue, wrote notes (some in English and others in French) inside five bags pleading for help from the wealthy consumers on the other side of the world. In September 2012, Stephanie Wilson purchased a pair of boots at the luxury store and discovered one of Njong’s letters. She soon contacted the Laogai Research Foundation, an advocacy group founded by Chinese prison camp surviver Harry Wu, to authenticate the letter. His story checked out.

Njong, a Cameroonian national, was released and returned to his native country by the time DNAinfo first wrote about his plight this past April. The New Yorker‘s, Emily Greenhouse tracked Njong down in Dubai.

Njong told me that he was discharged from prison last December, escorted to Beijing, and put on a plane to Cameroon. He got a two-month tourist visa to go to the United Arab Emirates—renewable once—after borrowing five thousand dollars from a cousin. Over the phone, I asked Njong why he didn’t stay in Cameroon after his return from China. He explained that he left in the first place because of his home country’s swelling corruption. “Dubai was the place I could obtain a visa as fast as possible,” he said.

Njong now works for a contract cleaning service. He, so far, remains unpaid.

Ian MacAllen is the author of Red Sauce: How Italian Food Became American (Rowman & Littlefield, April 2022). His writing has appeared in Chicago Review of Books, Southern Review of Books, The Offing, 45th Parallel Magazine, Little Fiction, Vol 1. Brooklyn, and elsewhere. He tweets @IanMacAllen and is online at More from this author →