Archrivals in foot massage

SHORTLY before midnight on a moonlit corner of Valley Boulevard in San Gabriel, a crowd waited impatiently outside a store with a yellow banner advertising one-hour foot massages for $9.99.

Inside the dimly lighted business decorated with Chinese bamboo screens, a room full of customers sank into black leather armchairs while uniformed masseuses rubbed their feet with lotion. As a Mandarin-language film beamed from a flat-screen television, the workers carefully pressed their fingertips on pressure points believed to promote better circulation and improve overall health.

There was a poker dealer from a nearby casino who needed the tension lifted from her muscles after a day on her feet, a nail salon worker who visited because he believed the therapy boosted his fertility and an investment analyst who injured himself jogging and wanted the scar tissue rubbed.

"It's cheaper than my insurance co-pay," said Johnson Li, an avid runner who chose not to receive therapy for his ailing feet through his insurance company. "If I'm in the neighborhood, I always stop by."

The Oriental Natural Treatment Center is at the hub of the hotly competitive world of foot massage in the San Gabriel Valley -- home to the nation's largest Chinese American community.

About 20 foot-massage businesses can be found on this small stretch of Valley Boulevard between Del Mar Avenue and San Gabriel Boulevard, and dozens more are popping up in neighboring communities. Square foot by square foot, it is the foot-massage capital of the country.

When the first foot-massage parlors opened, therapists charged $70 an hour. But competition has pushed the average price down to well under $20.

The price war has made foot massages available not just to the well-heeled who can afford the luxury, but to waiters, busboys, store clerks and hair stylists -- the working-class version of the Burke Williams Spa for people who spend their days on their feet.

It's hard to miss the foot-massage wars when driving through such cities as Rowland Heights, Alhambra, Temple City and San Gabriel. Some strip malls house up to three foot-massage business, each offering a variation of the standard foot soak and one-hour massage with banners and neon signs advertising the latest price cut.

"I'm still scratching my head," said San Gabriel City Planner Mark Gallatin. "It's amazing how people can make a living as prices continue to drop. You would think it would be better to open up where there's less competition."

Though relatively new here, foot massage is a staple of China's growing middle and upper classes. The businesses, which range in quality from rotten to exclusive, saturate cities such as Beijing and Guangzhou.

The practice, said to be thousands of years old, runs on the belief that different nerve endings in the foot correspond with the body's internal organs. Masseuses ply away on these pressure points to give the organs a jolt. It's the human equivalent of a tuneup, but with a cup of tea and a shoulder rub thrown in.

There are no studies proving that foot massage -- also known as reflexology -- benefits overall health. Experts say patrons shouldn't place much stock in the medical claims made by parlors. Still, some people who study Eastern medicine say that if foot massage reduces a person's day-to-day stress, it could be beneficial.

"It's for relaxation," said Ka-Kit Hui, director of the UCLA Center for East-West Medicine, who travels once a week from the Westside to San Gabriel to get a massage. "There's very little science so far, even in China."

"Everyone can use a massage," said Ching Lau, the owner of the Oriental Natural Treatment Center. "And at these prices, why not?"

THE craze began three years ago when George Liu, an entrepreneur from Beijing, opened Tibetan Herbal Feet Soak in a shopping plaza attached to the Hilton Hotel on Valley Boulevard. He hung Tibetan posters on the wall and bought cream-colored reclining chairs. The herbs that he said extracted toxins from customers' feet were imported from Tibet.

At first, the city did not know what to make of Liu's business application. Asian massage parlors had developed a seedy reputation, and foot massage sounded like an exotic variation. Liu said he won City Hall over by offering an official a massage.

"He felt really relaxed afterward," said Liu, who immigrated to the U.S. five years ago.

Still, it took awhile for some in the city to get used to the idea of foot massage -- especially at $70.

It helped when movie star Jackie Chan stopped by for a rub. Perhaps the biggest seal of approval came when Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca visited the store with his then-wife, who is Chinese. A framed photo on the wall shows Baca looking dazed as he sits with his legs stretched onto an ottoman.

For a while, business was booming. Customers regularly requested the same two talented masseuses, a former nurse from China and an immigrant from Hong Kong who has been massaging feet for more than a decade. Liu, 48, a former herbal medicine manufacturer who had dabbled in various businesses through the years, was beginning to feel he had found his calling. Around the corner on the second floor of a U-shaped mall, he opened another branch that was twice the size of his original store.

But competitors quickly opened in neighboring strip malls. One even landed a few doors away from him in the same plaza.

Some of the newcomers built swanky spaces resembling mini-spas, with plasma TVs and plush chairs. Others were cheap and dingy.

As the businesses multiplied, prices took a dive. Liu dropped his hourly charge from $70 to $50 to $40 to $30 and, as of March, to $20. Even after that, he remains one of the most expensive options on the boulevard. Last month, Liu decided to cut his losses and sold his second branch.

"Twenty dollars is as far as we can go," said Liu. "We've lost about 75% of our profit." He vows he won't be run out of town. "We're clean and we have good masseuses, so we're going to survive."

THE man behind the price war is the owner of the Oriental Natural Treatment Center, Ching Lau, a former jewelry setter from Hong Kong who is trying to build a Chinese foot-massage empire in California and Nevada.

Lau immigrated to the United States eight years ago and made his living selling leather belts and belt buckles at Orange County swap meets before opening a neck and back massage stand at the Ontario Mills mall.

But Lau knew he wanted to open some kind of business in San Gabriel.

"When Chinese people smell an opportunity to make money on Valley Boulevard, they go for it," Lau said. "This place is the center."

The store opened last August in a 3,500-square-foot space. Lau filled it with custom-made armchairs from China and hired a full-time staff of 35 masseuses found through Chinese-language massage schools in cities such as Monterey Park and Rosemead.

All that San Gabriel required was that they hold a cosmetology or manicurist license from the state. Once hired, Lau decked them out in black polo shirts with his company logo.

When he started, massages in the area were in the $30 range. Lau figured that if he cut prices in half, he'd not only steal customers from the competition but also attract people who thought foot massages were too expensive.

"I was the first to do $15 an hour," said Lau, 35. "Before, foot massage was only for the rich. Now the whole market is following me."

His store was a sensation. Lines formed on weekends and most weekdays after 10:30 p.m., when Lau drops his price to $9.99. His staff gives about 5,000 massages a month, and he said a quarter of his customers are non-Chinese.

"You can't beat the price," said Sara Naraio on a recent weeknight after a long shift dealing cards at the Bicycle Casino in Bell Gardens. "It keeps me relaxed and free of tension."

Lau, whose black Hummer is usually parked outside his San Gabriel store, has made few friends among his competitors since his arrival. He said somebody called the police and accused him of running a sex business.

(San Gabriel Police Chief David Lawton said his department had received several complaints about prostitution at various foot massage locations, but undercover officers found no evidence. Asked if he had tried a foot massage, Lawton said, "I can't say I've indulged in it, but I'm told it's worth a try.")

AS competition grows, Lau and Liu both agree that some parlors are cutting corners. Two masseuses at a Rowland Heights parlor recently filed suit against the owner, accusing him of withholding back wages and creating an abusive work environment.

That lawsuit also claimed the masseuses were forced to work in unsanitary conditions. Officials at the L.A. County Department of Health said they've received no complaints about the massage businesses but said masseuses could be exposed to fungal infections from customers' feet if equipment isn't sanitized properly.

And though Lau and Liu can say they're making a profit, many smaller, newer outfits are still struggling to break even.

Lucy Luo opened Foot Spa near Valley and Del Mar a year ago and doesn't know when she'll start seeing a return on her investment. Her place is decidedly more spartan and no-frills. She started out charging $30 but has now lowered the price to as low as $12.99.

All the price cuts and competition have Liu, who brought foot massage to Valley Boulevard, shaking his head. But he believes not everyone wants the cheapest massage.

On a recent weekday, Alice Phung and her mother were enjoying a Tibetan foot soak and some careful kneading on the balls of their feet at Liu's parlor.

"We walked by a few places and didn't feel comfortable going in because they didn't look professional," said Phung, 35, a manager for a pharmaceutical company. "This place is clean. That's very important. It's not necessarily about price."