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Asian spa workers reflect on the Atlanta shootings, one year later

The March 16 shootings put massage work, which has long been stigmatized, in the spotlight

(Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty)
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This week, Asian Americans across the country gathered to mark the first anniversary of the Atlanta spa shootings, which left eight people dead — six of whom were Asian women and spa workers.

For Jenny Lim, a 52-year-old Chinese immigrant who came to the United States in 2005, the shootings hadn’t been a surprise last year. A former spa worker who spent more than 15 years of her career in New York City, the tragedy was a reminder of the all-too-familiar violence she faced during her entire career in the spa industry, she said.

“I dealt with mentally unstable men at work all the time and I constantly felt unsafe,” Lim said. “When I was on the clock, I always felt like I had to protect myself all the time.”

According to Lim, she was harassed and stalked — particularly if regular clients suspected she had a male romantic partner in her life. Clients figured out where she lived and would wait for her there, she said.

A year after the Atlanta shootings, Asian women live in fear: ‘How are we all going to stay safe?’

But going to the police to report the harassment didn’t feel like an option. Every day, Lim feared that law enforcement would come to her workplace and raid it on suspicions that it offered illegal sex work.

“I always explained very clearly to my clients before providing any services that the scope of the services I offered were limited to a regular massage. I never did any sex work,” she said. “But I was constantly afraid the police were going to come to give me trouble. It was extremely stressful.”

When the pandemic hit, Lim left the spa industry “and changed all of my phone numbers,” she said.

The shootings at Young’s Asian Massage, Gold Spa and Aromatherapy Spa on March 16, 2021, put massage work in the spotlight. It was reported that suspect Robert Aaron Long had a sexual addiction and said he went on the shooting rampage to “punish” sex workers. Six of the eight victims — Hyun Jung Grant, Soon Chung Park, Suncha Kim, Yong Ae Yue, Xiaojie Tan and Daoyou Feng — were Asian women, and spa workers.

Massage businesses have long been stigmatized because of their association with sex work, though many spa workers don’t engage in sex work. As The Lily reported last year, workers at such spas may be migrant workers, trafficked or undocumented, which means they may lack protections when faced with exploitation or harassment — another reason so much harassment and discrimination goes unreported.

Long later pleaded guilty to four murder charges in Cherokee County, where the prosecutor said investigators saw no evidence of racial bias. In September, he pleaded not guilty to four additional murder charges in Fulton County, where the prosecutor said she plans to seek a hate-crime sentence enhancement as well as the death penalty.

Mourning and organizing: 3 activists on the impact of the Atlanta spa shootings

Amy Phan, a spa worker in New York City who has been working in the industry for more than 30 years, said she shares similar experiences to Lim. In 1989, when the now 55-year-old immigrated from Malaysia and started working in Chinatown to support her family, she feared being targeted by organized crime networks.

“I had to pay exorbitant fees to organized crime just so that I would not be targeted by them. When they cleared out, I was so relieved,” she said.

But the pandemic brought back her old fears, she said. Seeing headlines about the “Chinese virus” and rising resentment against Asian Americans made her extremely worried. In 2021, the Pew Research Center found that 81 percent of Asian Americans said violence against them was increasing. And earlier this year, preliminary data from San Francisco’s police department showed the number of people who reported being the victim of an anti-Asian hate crime in the city last year increased by 567 percent compared with the previous year.

“People have this perception that we Asians aren’t strong and can’t defend ourselves, so they target us,” Phan said, adding that she has seen other Asian Americans get robbed and stores vandalized near her workplace in the past two years.

Aware of her perceived vulnerability as an older Asian American spa worker, Phan said she has taken multiple precautions throughout the pandemic. For instance, she seldom sees new clients outside of the trusted client base she has built over decades, and has stopped accepting walk-in bookings.

“My colleagues and I used to work until 7 or 8 at night. Now, we leave work a little after 5 p.m., because we’re afraid that later on, it wouldn’t be safe for us to ride the subway home alone,” she said. “Nearly all Asians are back home before dark because we are afraid to be out.”

Phan is glad to see that the Asian community has gathered to protect people like her. She has received pamphlets from Welcome to Chinatown, a local advocacy organization that advertised a free walk-home service in Mandarin.

“I can just give them a call when I want to leave work, and a young Asian volunteer from the organization will come to pick me up to accompany me to the subway,” she said, adding that she has used the service on several occasions.

Others are also rallying around the Asian American community. The Cosmos, an organization that focuses on advocacy for Asian American women, has held multiple events and activities to help the community cope with reports of the escalating violence.

“We’ve always had to be hypervigilant, but in the past few years, it’s gotten a lot more terrifying,” said Cassandra Lam, the group’s co-founder and chief executive, adding that it is particularly bad for those like Lim and Phan, who are older and who have limited English proficiency.

Part of the group’s work has been talking about and understanding the roots of the hyper-sexualization and marginalization of Asian women in the United States, Lam said: “We have to understand that many of us were in some way displaced from our homelands as a result of U.S imperialism in the Asia-Pacific region.”

The United States has a long history of discrimination and exclusion against Asian Americans. Throughout U.S. history, Asian American women have been barred from entering the country under pretexts of “lewdness” and fears that they were welcoming in “prostitutes.” These discriminatory policies have informed racist and misogynist stereotypes that stretch into the present, experts say.

On the first anniversary of the shootings, Lim believes the most crucial piece is securing better workplace protections for spa workers.

“I hope the owners of spas take the time to understand the reality of their workers and put in place policies to help us deal with difficult customers,” she said. “It would have helped me feel more safe at work.”

Now that she’s out of the business, she just hopes other spa workers will “keep their eyes open and their ears alert.”