When Olivia Li saw the news about the shootings at three Asian spas in the Atlanta area on Tuesday, she felt fear.
Although she was more than 700 miles away in a Chicago suburb, Li saw similarities between her own life and the spas where an alleged lone gunman shot and killed eight people.
Like her, six of the eight victims were Asian women.
Like her, at least one of them owned and worked at her own spa.
Like her business, Asian Essence Spa in Lombard, Ill., the spas in Georgia are located largely in strip malls. Li’s business shares a building with a sandwich shop and a printing center.
“It’s scary,” Li, 37, says of the shootings. “It’s horrible for all of my workers.”
When Li, who is Chinese and emigrated from Beijing four years ago, first heard of the killings, she says she called a friend of hers in Georgia who works at an Asian spa five minutes from the location of one of the shootings. Li told her not to go to work. She says her friend is shaken and probably will not return to the spa until next month.
Officials have said it is too early to determine a motive for the shootings, but the killings of six Asian women at three Asian spas have sent a frisson of fear and anger through Asian American communities across the country, especially during a year of escalating verbal and physical attacks. Advocates say workers at Asian spas are particularly vulnerable, given that they are usually low-wage workers who are often monolingual in a language other than English. The hypersexualization of Asian and Asian American women puts female spa workers at even greater risk.
Asian spas have been stereotyped and stigmatized, and they are often associated with sex work or sexual exploitation. The Human Trafficking Institute cites a report estimating there are at least 9,000 illicit massage businesses in the United States that generate more than $2.8 billion in annual revenue. But as The Washington Post reports, the circumstances of the people who work at such spas vary: They may be employed there by choice, forced into sex work out of desperation or sex-trafficked by someone exploiting them.
Li, who estimates that 50 percent of her clients are men, 25 percent are couples and 25 percent are women, says her spa does not provide “special services.”
Still, at least a few times a week, she says she fields phone calls and questions from walk-in customers asking if she and her Asian staff — in addition to herself, she employs four Mandarin-speaking therapists — perform sexual favors. Li says depending on the tone of the person, she will either try to convince them to try a professional deep-tissue or hot stone massage, or hang up on them.
“When you’re tired, we’re very happy to see you,” she’ll tell them, “but if you’re looking for something else, we won’t service you.”
Kathy Khang, author of “Raise Your Voice: Why We Stay Silent and How to Speak Up,” says regardless of whether the spas in Georgia offered anything sexual, the critique should not fall on the victims. The three sites of the shootings — Gold Spa, Aromatherapy Spa and Young’s Asian Massage — have been identified online and by police as places where sex work and possible sexual exploitation occurred, but police have given no indication whether any of the victims were sex workers.
“My main concern right now is that this turns into victim shaming and victim blaming, and blaming the owners of these businesses,” Khang says. “The other question would be how do we make this industry safer for people who choose to go into sex work or who find themselves forced into these circumstances?”
Letticia Neria, 31, works the front desk at Bluebonnet Massage, an Asian spa located in a strip mall in Irving, Tex. According to Neria, men frequently ask if she or other staffers at the spa will perform sexual services.
“They ask if we do the happy endings,” she says, referring to a common euphemism used to describe sex work at spas. (This is illegal in the United States.) “And they ask weird questions, like, can they have four people massaging them? Or they’ll want the hot stones between their legs.”
When Neria, who’s Latina, tells potential clients that “we don’t do stuff like that,” sometimes they’ll ask her why, and they’ll go back and forth until her questioners — who she says are always men — leave.
“I do get disgusted,” Neria says, “and my friends always tell me, ‘I hope you don’t start hating your job.’ It’s just annoying sometimes.”
After the shootings in Georgia, Neria says, her boss at Bluebonnet, which employs five Mandarin-speaking massage therapists, told her to “be careful who I let in and pay attention to body language.” (Her manager could not be reached for comment.)
Deep-seated stereotypes are to blame for these types of assumptions and interactions, experts say. Lisa Chung, a former columnist for the San Jose Mercury News who frequently wrote about race and identity, says Asian spas have carved out their own category, with an economic ecosystem largely composed of immigrant workers.
“It’s easier to exploit labor when people are monolingual,” says Chung, 65. “You don’t have to know the language to do certain types of physical labor, whether it’s landscaping or construction work. And so therefore, you’re more vulnerable.”
Li worked for a large massage and salon chain in the Chicago area prior to opening her business. She says she devised a marketing plan and leaned on a network of Asian spa owners for advice before opening Asian Essence in February with her boyfriend, who’s a co-owner.
Despite her intentional marketing, so far in running her business, Li has witnessed stereotypes about Asian spas play out.
“Some clients are very surprised,” she says. “They think all Asian spas do the same thing, and their service is sex.”
In reality, Li says, she and her therapists specialize in services like trigger-point massage; they’ll even walk on people’s backs, a technique with origins in East Asian countries dating back centuries. Li wishes potential clients focused on these services: “We can really fix your sore spots,” she says.
A few days after the shootings, after Li and some of her staff called their parents to assure them of their safety, she was still trying to absorb what had occurred at the three spas in Georgia.
“It’s so crazy,” she says. “I don’t know the real reason why this happened, but maybe he hated Asian people. It makes us very nervous.”