About a half dozen employees waited for customers to trickle in on a searing weekday afternoon at Ching Lau’s foot massage spa -- a long, open room lined with armchairs and stools from which masseuses knead pressure points across people’s soles.
The second-floor storefront near an Asian grocer in Rowland Heights is part of a wave of foot massage businesses that has saturated ethnic-Chinese neighborhoods in Los Angeles County over the last three years.
The popularity of foot massage has risen as cutthroat competition has sent prices downward. But now, business owners are dealing with a new problem: a crackdown by county and state officials who have ruled that they need licenses from the state Board of Barbering and Cosmetology.
A few weeks ago, investigators arrived at Lau’s business, closed its doors and asked that everyone produce certification.
“It was so unfair,” said Lau, who owns several other parlors and recently formed a foot massage business association. “They grabbed people without any explanation and cited two masseuses.”
Authorities have raided about a dozen foot massage parlors in recent months, from San Gabriel to Rowland Heights, charging operators and masseuses with fines of up to $1,000.
The scrutiny has roiled business owners and employees in an industry that has increasingly become a refuge for poor immigrants from China -- many of whom consider the relaxed environs and better pay a superior option to working at a restaurant.
The action has prompted complaints from some in the Chinese American community that the state is unfairly targeting immigrant business owners and their employees.
An attorney representing a new association of foot massage parlor owners has argued that the industry employs more than 1,000 people -- many of the poorest Chinese emigres hoping to establish a foothold in the United States.
But investigators said it’s the parlors that have to clean up their act, adding that they are concerned about the conditions they’ve seen.
Many masseuses aren’t making minimum wage, said Terri McLaughlin, a business license investigator for the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department who has spent recent months focused on enforcing the state law.
“There’s no [workers’] compensation,” she said. “There’s a whole realm of problems.”
McLaughlin said she has tried to explain the law to operators before citing them for violating the code but has found that some of the workers are not aware of their rights.
The Board of Barbering and Cosmetology, which deals mostly with manicurists and hairstylists, determined last year that the young industry fell under its purview because of a law that encompasses the beautification and cleansing of the feet. Many foot massage businesses soak customers’ feet in warm water and herbs before administering a massage.
Many foot massage operators abide by individual city rules that often require that masseuses complete several hundred hours of schooling and that a certified health professional -- such as an acupuncturist or massage therapist -- be on-site.
State officials are moving forward with the enforcement even though they acknowledge the jurisdictional issues are still unclear.
“It’s a gray area right now,” said Jim Jacobs, a supervising inspector for the state board. “Our legal [department] is looking at it. Either they’re going to say it’s not our jurisdiction, or there’s going to have to be a new statute written.”
Foot massage has been popular in Asia for decades, but has only recently arrived in the United States. The practice, said to be thousands of years old, is based on the belief that different nerve endings in the foot correspond with the body’s internal organs.
Masseuses target these pressure points to energize the organs. There are no studies proving that foot massage benefits overall health, but many customers swear by it.
Lau and others believe the state is cracking down out of concern that illicit sexual activities are occurring at the parlors -- something owners strongly deny.
“They think foot massage must be something to do with sex,” Lau said. “They don’t understand how popular this is in Asia. It’s part of Chinese culture.”
(Though she finds it curious that some businesses have private rooms with massage tables, McLaughlin said the suspicion of illicit sexual activity was not the driving force behind the enforcement.)
Business owners say that they should not have to face enforcement until lawmakers establish a separate set of rules for foot massage.
What’s worse, they argue, is that the schooling required for a Board of Barbering and Cosmetology license does not include any instruction on foot massage, but mostly hair and nail work.
Lau could stand to lose the most from the changes. The former gold setter from Hong Kong has built a foot massage empire of sorts with eight parlors in Los Angeles County and two apiece in Nevada and San Jose.
He recently opened a flagship spa in the same building complex as the San Gabriel Hilton, featuring a beauty salon, facial treatments and VIP foot massage rooms.
Lau was unpopular among his rivals for landing on the scene two years ago, offering foot rubs for $15 an hour. The standard price had been twice as much.
Yet he persuaded 19 other foot massage operators to join him last month to form the association.
Lau’s first move was hiring Daniel Deng, a prominent local attorney. Deng is arranging meetings with Assemblyman Mike Eng (D-Monterey Park), who has shown interest in establishing new guidelines.
Deng and Lau hope the association will encourage other foot massage operators to band together and establish standards that can boost their leverage the same way the acupuncture and Chinese restaurant industries have tried to do.
“They need to educate before they enforce,” Deng said. “These are legitimate businesses.”
Caught in the middle are some of the workers, who see foot massage as a path to a better life.
Jack Xia is a former marketing manager from Shandong province in China who now works at one of Lau’s establishments in Rowland Heights. The 44-year-old father of one hopes to secure a green card and bring his wife and 13-year-old son to the U.S.
“I used to work at a restaurant, but it was too hard,” said Xia through a Chinese interpreter.
“I’m doing this for my family. I miss them very much.”