For most of her life, Rowena Chiu was conditioned to stay silent.
As a Chinese woman growing up in the United Kingdom, she kept her head down. At school, where she was bullied repeatedly for her race, she didn’t complain. She shrank into herself, did a good job, and never gave anyone an opportunity to say something negative about her. So years later, at the 1998 Venice Film Festival, when Chiu — then a 24-year-old assistant — found herself pushed against a bed by her boss, she felt that silence was her only choice.
During a late-night meeting with Harvey Weinstein, they discussed future projects and scripts, but Chiu also found herself repeatedly fending off his advances. Having been warned of his behavior, she had worn two pairs of stockings that night as a precaution. He had already removed them both.
As she kept making excuses — that she had a boyfriend, or that they should get back to work — she found herself confronted by twisted versions of the same tropes she grew up hearing.
As she wrote in an op-ed for the New York Times, Weinstein told her that he had never had a Chinese girl before.
He pushed forward. In the midst of this attempted rape, she remembers him saying, “Chinese girls keep secrets.”
So she did.
“It was this amalgamation of vulnerability,” she says. “Simply because we were young women working for Harvey Weinstein, we were already vulnerable, but add to that the fact that we weren’t big names in Hollywood. Even they were being preyed upon, so imagine what it was like to be a young woman with no name at all.”
In October 2017, as multiple women came forward with the first public allegations of sexual assault and harassment against Harvey Weinstein, Chiu stayed silent. Part self-preservation, part legal decision (Chiu, along with her colleague Zelda Perkins were both pressured into signing nondisclosure agreements after attempting to report Weinstein to his superiors in 1998), she had spent nearly half her life keeping this secret from friends and family. As journalists continued to reach out to her, she was paralyzed with fear.
“Every rape victim will tell you that coming out with your story is almost as terrible as the assault itself,” she says. “It feels like a second violation.”
It wasn’t until 2019 that Chiu, bolstered by the bravery of Christine Blasey Ford, came forward, breaking her NDA to write an op-ed for the New York Times. Now, Chiu is working with U.S. Rep. Katherine M. Clark (D-Mass.) to advocate for the BE HEARD Act — the first comprehensive piece of legislation to address workplace harassment in the #MeToo era. Chiu accompanied Clark to the State of the Union address earlier this month.
BE HEARD, or the “Bringing an End to Harassment by Enhancing Accountability and Rejecting Discrimination” Act, was crafted after Clark says she and her team met with survivors across multiple industries, from acting to domestic work, as well as Chiu to get input on the necessary provisions that could have helped them. Among other provisions, the bill would authorize grants for low-income workers in order for them to seek legal action in the event of harassment, eliminate tipped minimum wage (which Clark and others have argued makes servers vulnerable to harassment), and ban mandatory arbitration clauses as well as certain kinds of nondisclosure agreements.
For Chiu, it’s this final stipulation that would’ve made all the difference.
At 24 years old, she and Perkins were ushered into an office after working hours, being escorted to the bathroom, and provided with little to eat or drink. Crucially, neither she nor Perkins was allowed to carry pen or paper with them or keep a copy of the 30-page agreement that kept them silent for 20 years. The NDA, which made it difficult for them to seek any professional help from doctors or therapists, also prevented them from speaking about the assault to each other.
The agreement nearly destroyed her life. In her op-ed, Chiu says that she attempted suicide twice. She couldn’t face the prospect of telling her parents, who she says were traditional Chinese parents who hardly understood her desire to work in the film industry in the first place.
“Not being able to write down what you’re negotiating and ultimately being forced to sign a document that you can’t keep a copy of — there were some very difficult clauses in there for us to keep up with — it was inexcusable,” Chiu says. “It was absolutely unethical to do this to two young women, who, as far as we were concerned, wouldn’t be able to speak about this until our dying days."
Over half of the Democratic Caucus has signed onto the bill since it was filed in April of last year. The bill does not yet have any Republican supporters.
Clark, a co-sponsor of the bill, says it was important for her to bring Chiu and her story to the State of the Union, especially because the president has been accused of harassment and assault by multiple women.
“The State of the Union when it comes to ending sexual harassment is not well,” Clark says. “We wanted to be there to stand and say it’s long past time that we address these issues and go after the legal tools that have historically been used to isolate and silence survivors.”