Jamie Wong

Project title: API Chaya Massage Parlor Worker Outreach project

Degree: MPH | Program: Environmental and Occupational Health (EOH) | Project type: Practicum
Completed in: 2018 | Faculty advisor: Arnold de Castro


Asian massage parlors are often stigmatized as sites of illicit sexual activity. In recent years, the Seattle Police Department has organized stings and  raids aimed at criminalizing the alleged sexual activity that take place in such massage parlors. The workers are often Asian immigrant women. Such events are sensationalized, and serve to ignite a round of moralistic discussion on the social status of sex patrons, or johns. In the meantime, the predicament and real life experiences of the predominant Asian immigrant women are simplified, casting them as helpless victims, and the networks they are recruited through, as mysterious Asian cabals, utilizing the racialized trope of orientalism. We do not often read about their aftermath of workers in such highly publicized raids and sting operations (Green, 2016). What we do know though, is that many Asian immigrant women who participate in the informal labor market, either as masseuses and/or sex workers, do not receive culturally relevant health services. Nemoto et al’s groundbreaking research on the HIV status and safety practices of Asian immigrant women offer sex work in massage parlors reveal the extent of insufficient outreach and access to healthcare of women who work under the table, in ethnic enclaves (Nemoto et al, 2001). This population is also known to have a variety of documentation/immigration status and susceptible to exploitation in the form of trafficking and abuse (Pat, 2014).

Language access and a culturally relevant knowledge of immigrant workers’ traditional medicine are important factors of offering culturally relevant health care and expanding access (Tsai, 2009) (Tsai & Thompson, 2015). In the case of a stigmatized profession such as masseuse, it is important also to utilize a harm reduction model that does not engage with the punitive state (Rekart, 2005). Workers should not feel stigmatized when engaging with health services, nor should they automatically be presumed to be sex workers for working at a massage parlor. A holistic health assessment ranging from occupational health, general physical health and sexual health should be offered in a culturally accessible manner.

API Chaya is an anti-violence organization based in Chinatown/International District of Seattle, Washington. The organization is committed to engaging in a grassroots manner, to offer community organizing and education as strategies to prevent sexual and domestic violence, exploitation and trafficking (API Chaya). This year, they are developing an orientation toward massage parlor workers in the Chinatown/International District, most of whom are recent immigrant Chinese individuals. The internship would serve to deepen an understanding of this industry and also expand access to health and well being for workers.