In a dark room on Valley Boulevard, the foot massage chairs sat ready — but there were no customers to fill them. “It’s almost 4pm and we only had five customers today,” the slight middle-aged owner explained in Mandarin, pointing to a wall with a mostly blank whiteboard where they recorded customer visits. At $15 a massage, she needs a lot more to break even on the $5,000 a month rent.
Foot massage parlors have boomed in the past decade, with San Gabriel, where her parlor is located, at the epicenter. The city of just 40,000 has become home to 25 registered foot massage parlors, a roughly 250 percent increase since 2005. The profession is a go-to job for unskilled Chinese immigrants, considered one step up from washing dishes. But the industry is now feeling the pressure of the recession and increased local and state regulation. And massage parlors, and the scores of low-skilled laborers they employ, are suffering as a result.
“We call up our old customers and they tell us they have no spare money to get a massage,” the Valley Boulevard owner said. She refused to give her name, and asked the name of her San Gabriel salon be kept secret because she breaks city code to remain afloat. She is only certified to offer foot massage, but like most other San Gabriel salons, in private rooms full-body massages are also offered. “The foot massage license doesn’t allow us to touch the customer’s body above the knees,” said the massage parlor owner, “but we have to offer full-body massages in order to compete. We have been fined many times for that.” Raising price is not an option because price has always been astoundingly low since the industry started to grow in San Gabriel five years ago. “We use cheap labor to compete with Americans,” she said.
San Gabriel placed a moratorium on new massage parlors in 2009, with the official reason being that they wanted to make sure they were compliant with new state laws. But local lawmakers have also raised concern that that foot massage, or any massage, is code word for prostitution. “You always have a concern because you don’t want to see what they ultimately, develop into and that’s common knowledge” Alhambra Councilwoman Messina said. “Different types of salons and prostitution. So we’re always on the lookout for that.”
But others argue that foot massages are Chinese healing as much as acupuncture or herbs, and that by providing obstacles the city is suppressing a growing industry and preventing people from exercising a good tradition. “As a Chinese, I have been to foot massage parlors and understand that foot massage is not only a relaxing activity but also good for the body,” Alhambra Councilman Stephen Sham said in Mandarin.
My first visit to a foot massage was in an effort to find the estranged girlfriend of the former mayor of San Gabriel Albert Huang. He was arrested when they got in a late-night fight on Valley Boulevard that included his girlfriend tossing soup dumplings at him. In news reports that followed it was revealed that she owned that the girlfriend, Chen Lu, owned a San Gabriel spa, and that she might have slipped through the regulation that was passed in 2009 putting a moratorium on new spas. At Senses Spa, I found a relatively upscale massage parlor with electric heating blankets and a full-body massage permit. But only two customers were visible on a Saturday afternoon. “Business wasn’t very good to start with,” a middle-aged masseuse told me in Mandarin, “and it has gone down since the scandal.”
When I recently returned to find out how the economic downturn and increased regulations were affecting workers, I learned a hard job that has become much harder. On a Friday afternoon, I started at a foot massage parlor that appeared to actually be doing well. A handful of customers were receiving full-body massage at Sole So Good Massage Spa. It has an elegantly decorated interior design with light jazz music playing in the background. The masseuses and masseurs wearing identical white T-shirts talked quietly among themselves while massaging their customers. Sole So Good is a more upscale salon, and charges $20 rather than the standard $15, and some generous customers would give $20-30 tips. But Even Sole So Good has been struck by the economic slump. Sole So Good’s owner said that their business has gone down by 60% since 2008.
Workers also say it is not easy. “This is a tiresome job,” said Kevin, a middle-aged masseur told me while massaging my feet. He has a family and a 20-year-old son still in China. “Without English skills, my family will have to do the same kind of job after they come over.”
The foot masseuses that he knows are predominantly Chinese immigrants in their 40s and 50s who came to the United States in search for a better life, Kevin told me. “We choose the job because it doesn’t require many skills and is less physically demanding than working at a restaurant,” he said. Working 12 hours a day, six days a week, Kevin said he earns only $7 to $9 plus tips per customer, totaling about $2000-$3000 a month.
The job is also physically demanding, and many of the workers are women. When I left Sole So Good, I went to SF Beauty on Valley Blvd. A masseuse held out her gnarled hand, which after five years of massaging, has severely inflamed arthritis. “They hurt so much that sometimes it’s hard to sleep,” she said, looking at her deformed finger joints.
Without English skills, the Chinese massage workers often live a life disconnected from the mainstream society, and their contacts are limited to the small community where they work and live. “When we first come here, we talk heroically, the second year we talk less, the third year we talk to ourselves,” she said with a bitter smile on her face. “We came for the kids, but now my daughter says I’m unenlightened and tells me to go back to farm.”