Zhao Xuezhong motioned to the 20-year-old college student to take off his shoes, lie flat on the freshly made bed and keep still.
"My eyes are like X-rays," Zhao said in Chinese, looking up and down the body of the young patient, Gary Chang. "I'll scan you and see what's wrong with you."
A few moments later in the Hacienda Heights clinic, Zhao rattled off a list of ailments: abdominal cramps, lower back pain. Loss of memory and liver problems. Periodic shivers.
Chang, a business major at Cal Poly Pomona, gasped in surprise. " Dui, dui le ," he said. "That's right, that's right."
Then, Zhao proceeded to treat his patient. Extending his right arm, he crossed his middle finger over his index and passed his hand over the length of Chang's body, never touching him.
"I feel something going through my body, through my feet," Chang said quietly. "I feel especially cold on both my feet. . . . Geez, I'm sweating."
After 20 minutes, the session was over. Chang's mother, who had been waiting quietly in the lobby, wrote Zhao a check for $100.
So went a typical morning in one of the San Gabriel Valley's qi gong clinics, devoted to the practice of an ancient Chinese method of healing that relies only on controlling and channeling one's qi (pronounced CHEE), or internal energy, for good health.
As implausible as it may sound to some, self-described qi gong masters like Zhao, 51, a Beijing native, claim to have cultivated the power to project their own energy onto another person or a roomful of people and impart physical strength--all without touching.
Although it seems to have elements of religion, philosophy and even the supernatural, Zhao explained it to Chang in dry terms: "I'm pushing the coldness out," he said matter-of-factly. "I have the power to open up all the meridians in your body and give good energy to your body."
Qi gong , which contributes to the practice of martial arts, acupuncture and traditional Chinese medicine, has been practiced for thousands of years in China. It blends Taoist and Buddhist philosophy, standard breathing exercises and superstition, and it is fast becoming popular in Southern California.
And profitable. While practicing the art in America, Zhao has reaped the fruits of capitalism. Since last October, when he opened his Hacienda Heights clinic, he said he has been taking in several thousand dollars a month, and during particularly good months, $10,000. He just bought a new Cadillac Sedan de Ville.
Western experts studying the fad say qi gong, like Chinese herbs, homeopathic preparations and other alternative treatments, has its merits. But some practitioners have made fantastic claims for qi gong , touting it as a cure-all for everything from the common cold to impotence to deadly diseases. Such claims can be dangerous, skeptics say, especially if critically ill patients forgo standard treatment for the far-fetched promises of qi gong.
"It's terrible to make these claims," said Barbara Bernie, a licensed acupuncture specialist and president of the American Foundation of Traditional Chinese Medicine, a San Francisco-based educational organization. "Sometimes it's very misleading to a person who goes and doesn't get any results."
Zhao is just one of several qi gong practitioners who hold court in the San Gabriel Valley, home to Los Angeles County's largest concentration of Chinese-Americans--many of them immigrants who have believed in qi gong 's healing powers since childhood.
But increasingly, qi gong 's popularity is spreading beyond Chinese enclaves to upper-middle-class neighborhoods of the Westside, Orange County and San Diego.
In Santa Monica, 38-year-old Wu Baolin practices the White Cloud Monastery strain of qi gong, which he learned as a small child in a Taoist monastery in China. In a small clinic, he sees mainly " waiguoren "--white patients--who say they turned to qi gong as a last resort after standard health care failed them.
One such patient is Julie Eidsvoog, 43, a music copyist for Paramount Studios. Eidsvoog went to two internal medicine specialists before looking to qi gong for relief from chronic fatigue.
"I wasn't getting help from Western medicine," said the Los Angeles resident. "My original doctor said I was just depressed, I should take tranquilizers. I said no way, and walked out."
Since seeing Wu every Saturday--at $65 for a one-hour session--Eidsvoog said she's been more alert, energetic and doesn't get sick as often. In spite of her new-found faith in qi gong, she said she's hesitant to spread the word for fear of alienation from older, more conventional colleagues.
"I have some friends I would not mention this to," she said. "My boss doesn't know. I'm not sure how he'd take it. He'd probably think I was a hysterical woman. It's part of the yuppie crowd that's doing it. Most of the people I know going (to qi gong clinics) are in their 30s and 40s."
In Monterey Park, one can enroll in qi gong classes--at $220 for a series of four--to learn the tricks of self-treatment under Lin Housheng, 51, a master from Shanghai whose claims to fame include using qi gong to anesthetize patients during surgery. (He said hospital regulations prevented him from repeating the practice in the United States.)
Lin's teaching method is dramatic, almost like a magician performing tricks for a roomful of dumbstruck observers.
"Watch this," he told a reporter. Staring straight ahead intensely, Lin held up his hands, palms facing his audience of 20 students.
Lin began moving his hands back and forth, like a conductor directing his orchestra or a puppeteer pulling the strings of mannequins.
A few moments later, a woman cried out as her body vibrated uncontrollably. Others jumped up and down, twirling on their toes, bobbing their heads up and down.
At the back of the class, a young man started shaking violently. He fell to his knees, writhing on the carpet, collapsing into a fetal position. Then, he got up and started scratching his armpits, much like he was imitating a monkey.
After several minutes, it was all over. The man, a 32-year-old Baldwin Park resident, came to.
"It was the qi ," he announced proudly.