By Julie Chen Zhu

SAN FRANCISCO – The Hong Kong Health Spa is located in a run-down building that resembles a cheap motel on Jones Street in the Tenderloin District. At the entrance, a rusty iron gate fends off visitors. On a recent night, a reporter came to investigate this mysterious establishment in the company of a friend. After pressing the doorbell several times, the pair were buzzed in.

Like many other massage parlors, a video camera is installed on the ceiling at the entrance. Another wooden door looms up at the end of the stairs leading to the basement, seemingly impregnable. After a few minutes, it too opens into a dim yellow light. A medium-sized man dressed in black sizes up the reporter.

Although not bulky, he is quite muscular, and seems well-trained in fist fighting, ready to launch an attack on any intruders. He is quite calm, but not friendly, perhaps trying to get rid of the reporter and her friend: "Sorry, we usually don't offer service for two."

The reporter's friend, who used to be a tourist guide in the city, asks the man whether the establishment could host a group of Hong Kong tourists coming to the city soon. The man's face changes.

He frowns but at last steps back and calls: "Madam!"

Down a narrow corridor is a large lounge on one side and four to five private rooms on the other. Suddenly out of one room comes Madam. A lady in her later 20s or early 30s, she greets us politely. A native of Taiwan, she is dressed in a gaudy scarlet two-piece dress with golden buttons. Recognizing the reporter's Chinese accent, she begins to chat in Mandarin Chinese.

"For 45-minute hot tub and oriental massage, it's $50 per person." That price is good compared with other massage parlors in the area. The Paris Massage and Sauna in the same district charges $60 for 30-minute massage and unlimited use of the sauna.

"We have great Vietnamese, Thai and Taiwan girls here. But sorry no Hong Kong ladies," the madam says apologetically. The Hong Kong Health Spa is just one of 20 or so massage parlors in Tenderloin District, a low-income area known for its illicit life, be it drugs or sex. The massage parlors here account for fully a third of the city's total. Most women working in massage parlors here are Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Chinese immigrants. In the 70s, Vietnamese and Cambodian refugees fleeing their war-torn countries flooded the Tenderloin. But there are no Hong Kong women working here. "It's a pity." sighs Madam. " Many young ladies from Hong Kong are quite wealthy, they won't engage themselves in this trade." "So why do you call yourself Hong Kong Health Spa?" the reporter asks.

"Well, I suppose it sounds nice," replies Madam without thinking. "You know, Hong Kong is the very place if you want relaxation and entertainment."

One reason for the name may be that a large part of the clientele here comes from the local Cantonese speaking population, originally from Hong Kong or Canton. Other clients include business people and tourists from Hong Kong and Taiwan. "Those from mainland China who come here on business are on the increase," Madam chuckles. After further discussions of prices on offer, Madam admits that she is not in charge here. Within a few minutes, another women, this one in her 40s, emerges from one of the private rooms. She has distinct Cantonese features -- short, skinny, with high cheekbones and darker skin. The two women talk in Cantonese for a while and the owner then disappears back into one room.

"Just remember," Madam resumes, "we only offer massage, nothing else." She winks at us, "Of course, the price is not rigid, and there may be some extra services. I cannot promise. You'll see when you come."

After a pause she comes closer. "Of course, we'll charge extra fees for extra service. See, it's reasonable. In this world, when you are given some certain services, you are supposed to pay more." The evasive answer convinces us that sex is offered here, if you pay more. Through the door, now the reporter can clearly see the lounge. It is a windowless spacious room, with large mirrors on three walls. A row of sofas in pink and light green flowery pattern are scattered around the wall. No customers are here. All the doors to the private rooms are open, or half-open.

Last September, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors passed a measure that bans new massage parlors in the Tenderloin and places restrictions on the existing ones, limiting the opening hours from 7 a.m. to midnight. According to Madam, the Hong Kong Health Spa opens every day until 3 a.m. But due to the crackdown in recent months, most businesses have scaled down. Officer Larry Chan of SFPD Tenderloin Station says that although prostitution in this area had been overshadowed by drug dealing in the 1990s, they still watch these massage parlors closely. And the Vice Squad of the SFPD makes random inspections or undercover investigations.

Two young girls cautiously peek out of two separate rooms. They look alike – with medium-length hair dyed dark brown. The strips of their black nighties cut into their smooth, powdered skin, revealing half of their plump breasts and nearly all their backs. Madam says proudly, "All of them can speak fluent Cantonese, though no one is from Hong Kong. It's a must to work here. Most of our clients speak Cantonese, as I told you. Yankees are not interested. They have other places to go."

As she jabbers on, the reporter is attracted by a young girl sprawling on one of the sofas in the lounge. Her raven hair conceals her face, but from the smooth skin in her neck and knees, one can tell that she is quite young. The girl is humming a broken tune, following the Cantonese pop song on a TV set hanging from the ceiling. Karaoke is a popular form of entertainment here.

Her voice is childish and unsteady, but a trace of hoarseness can be detected. She is painting her toe nails with purple enamel. Slowly, meticulously, she paints them one by one, as if she is performing some artistic work. Then she puffs on the toes to dry the enamel. She does not lift her head once during the conversation, totally indifferent to what is happening. The reporter takes one more step and peeps into the half-closed door of one room. All that can be seen is part of a large bath tub. "Come on," the body guard intervenes: "you'd better get going. We give you too much time, cuz we have no clients today."

"Yes, I think you'd better leave." Madam says politely, "business is bad in recent months."

As she shows the two out of the door, Madam is gracious again: "Do come over when your friends arrive in San Francisco. We are listed in the yellow pages, or better yet, here is a business card. Our prices are good. You can find no better place in San Francisco."

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Coming soon

In late May, journalism students from
UC Berkeley will travel to
Hong Kong. Watch for their reports.

The Pacific is produced by students at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism