Officials Struggle to Regulate Legitimate and Nasty Massage Parlors (2023)

During the day, a team of massage therapists offer to ease the pain of a predominantly elderly and female clientele at one of the many foot massage companies in the San Gabriel Valley.

As the sun sets, bright red paper lanterns are lit in another part of the facility, where a younger female massage staff treats mostly male clients.

The question of what is going on at such facilities and what, if anything, local authorities can or should do about it has taken on a new focus as California cities decide how to take advantage of the new regulatory tools handed to them. they provide by changing the state massage law that went into effect this year.

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The move follows a 2011 change that, after lobbying by the massage industry, eased restrictions and sparked a national proliferation of new businesses.

The number of state-certified massage therapists has increased 13% since 2014 to 51,885 this year, according to the California Board of Massage Therapy, a nonprofit organization the state established in 2009 to certify massage therapists, sanction schools and standardize The study plan.

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Nationwide, the massage industry is growing as medical facilities increasingly embrace the therapeutic benefits of massage, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which estimates massage therapist jobs will increase 23% between 2012 and 2022. .

Relatively cheap and easy to start, massage businesses have proliferated especially in places with large numbers of immigrants from China, where massage is as common as haircuts and the practice has a long history.

In the predominantly Asian San Gabriel Valley, for example, massage shops flourished. Since California relaxed its law in 2011, a dozen new massage parlors have opened in Arcadia. South Pasadena, a 3.4-square-mile community of 25,000 people, now has 19. Monterey Park has gained at least a half dozen, and surrounding cities have seen similar increases.

According to the council, more than 5,400 massage technicians list homes in Monterey Park, San Gabriel, Rosemead or Alhambra, 10% of the state's massage technicians.

Now that cities have more authority over massage parlors, officials are weighing how to balance the rights of a growing profession of legitimate massage therapists with the responsibility to fix problems caused by less savory companies.

An athlete in pain or an office worker with a crick in the neck couldn't surf the Internet for long without coming across sites offering Yelp-style reviews of sexually oriented massage parlors. The cartels exchange information, using abbreviations and acronyms to mislead authorities. One page lists 44 erotic massage establishments in San Gabriel alone.

Ahmos Netanel, executive director of the nonprofit council, said the vast majority of masseuses provide legitimate services to a predominantly female clientele.

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Netanel said his organization supports any effort to curb prostitution. However, he argues that it would be unfair for authorities to regulate an industry based on a distorted negative stereotype. It doesn't help, he says, that California law has oscillated between accepting massage as legitimate therapy and demonizing it for the sins of a few.

“You can't prevent prostitution with a conditional use permit or a prostitution zone,” Netanel said. "You can't run a criminal enterprise."

Lieutenant Brian Kott has led the San Gabriel Police Department's massage enforcement team for two years. The number of massage shops in the city has more than doubled to 59 in an area of ​​about four square miles, so many new massage parlors that the city recently hired an additional compliance officer to keep up with inspections.

"A lot of them are hard-working people," Kott admits. "But the prostitution continues."

He said his department has made 25 prostitution-related arrests in the city since 2013, eight of them at massage parlors. Last year they performed 13 stitch surgeries and two massage shops closed as a result.

Targeting prostitution is particularly difficult, says Clayton Anderson, manager of neighborhood improvement services in San Gabriel. Many Chinese massage companies, he says, operate as loose collectives. Property owners charge fees to massage therapists but rarely show up to run the business themselves. Masseurs hop between stores depending on where the foot traffic is best, so they are often one step ahead of the police, he says.

A study by the Urban Institute, a think tank, described a highly organized sex trafficking ring centered on a chain of massage parlors in New York City, Seattle, San Francisco and Los Angeles.

In January, the San Gabriel Valley city of Montebello closed the U-Spa massage parlor after police made an arrest for prostitution there. Local authorities have never charged its owner, Estella Xu, with any crime, but she and two relatives face charges of prostitution and human trafficking in Delaware.

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Among the people most upset by the influx of massage parlors in the San Gabriel Valley are practitioners who complain that the flooding has reduced their hourly rates to less than $20 an hour.

"This is the cheapest place to get a massage in America," says Xiao Chen, a masseur at Shangri-La Day Spa on Valley Boulevard.

Chen became a masseur seven years ago to earn money. He paid about $3,800 for classes at a Chinese-run massage school, then changes in the law invalidated his certification a few years ago, she says. She invested two months and another $3,800 in courses at a state-approved school.

However, he says he only takes home $10 a day.

"We can't make money and we have to pay our boss," Chen says, holding up his arms to show off his elbows, which have been rubbed shiny black from countless massages. "hun-ku' he said, using a Chinese expression meaning bitter, miserable and painful.

Massage therapists argue that the new laws are too restrictive.

For example, the 26-page St. Gabriel's Massage Ordinance specifies what parts of the body clothing must cover, the width of padding on tables and chairs, and how bright a room must be, down to the lumen, a unit of measurement of light. The City conducts quarterly compliance checks.

Meng Shi, a massage therapist at Enjoy Spa, says regulations are stifling the life of her business. He points to the sun streaming in through the open front door: the store has been fined $100 for closing light-blocking curtains. The company was fined an additional $100 because their massage certificates were propped against the wall instead of hanging. Name tags not displaying correctly, customers use back entrance, plus fines.

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"It feels like we're being targeted," Shi says. “We got the certificate, we went to the schools and we got all the certificates. But we can't work if we don't get fair treatment."

Shi's shop is located at the intersection of San Gabriel Boulevard and Broadway Avenue, where at least six massage parlors, three with "Grand Opening" signs, cluster around a tea shop, an army recruiting center, two restaurants and a grocery store. arrangement shop

Edible Arrangements business owner Manny Serrano says he has no doubt that some massage businesses are legitimate. But in the massage parlor next door, he says he saw women touching their genitals to attract passersby.

"I understand that there are therapeutic reasons for massage, but when you have eight or 10 in the same block, you have to think of something," Serrano said. "My clients always comment on that."

Across the street, David Huynh has just opened a new window and door installation shop. There is a massage room on both sides. Huynh says he believes his neighbors will help increase foot traffic.

"Homeowners like massages, too," says Huynh.

frank.shyong@latimes.com

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