Two immigrant paths: One led to wealth, the other ended in death

Owners and employees at the spas attacked last week were immigrants with similar dreams, but were separated by a vast gap in money and power.

Sue-ling Wang prided himself on being a self-made businessman.

The son of a farmer in Taiwan, he attended a vocational school that trained students at a factory producing zippers and ballpoint pens. But he made his ascent after arriving in America on a scholarship and obtaining a doctorate, then starting his own company in the Atlanta area three decades ago.

He appeared at civic events, donated to Republican candidates and ensconced himself in an exclusive country club community northeast of Atlanta where he bought two stately homes, each valued at about US$1 million.

Later this year, he will assume the role of head of the World Taiwanese Chambers of Commerce. It is a prestigious post; Taiwan’s government recently produced a 14-minute video of him discussing his life that included a photo of him with the island democracy’s president, Tsai Ing-wen.

“When we go abroad, we are not afraid of hardship, because we must raise our children, we want to glorify our ancestors,” Wang, himself a father, said in the video.

In telling his immigrant success story, Wang, 68, did not mention his tie to a business whose employees had little opportunity to follow his path: Gold Spa, one of the three Atlanta-area massage businesses where a gunman last week killed eight people and wounded another.

Six victims were of Korean or Chinese descent, fuelling outrage and despair about the surge of anti-Asian violence, particularly against women, in the United States.

But as details about the employees emerged, so too did another narrative: the story of the wealth divide among people of Asian descent in America — a community often viewed by outsiders as monolithic and whose economic disparities have long been misunderstood.

The income gap between the rich and the poor in the United States is, in fact, greatest among Asians, who are considered the most economically divided group in the country, according to the Pew Research Center.

That chasm exists on a grand scale, where the rise and affluence of some Asian Americans have painted a false history that hides the trials of their own blue-collar communities. But it can also play out in the universe of a single business, where those at the top prosper, far removed from those doing the day-to-day work.

In addition to Wang — who is the CEO of Gold Hotlanta, one of the companies that operates Gold Spa — there are others with financial ties to two of the spas, as landlords or operators.

Wang, who did not respond to multiple efforts to contact him for comment, was not present Friday when a reporter tried to reach him at Color Imaging, his printing toner business at an industrial park in Norcross, Georgia.

However, his business partner, Wan Sih, was there. Listed on corporate documents as the point of contact for Gold Hotlanta until this year, Sih, 49, said he had simply prepared the documents registering the company and was not familiar with Gold Spa or its employees.

“Look, what happened was a tragedy,” he said, “but I don’t know anything.”

Dreams of opportunity

They were immigrants who had arrived, as so many do, with dreams of what could be.

Suncha Kim had left South Korea around 1980, landing in a country whose language she would never master. Still, she found odd jobs over the years, sometimes holding down more than one at a time, and did not complain about washing dishes for a restaurant or the late hours cleaning offices to pick up extra cash, according to a community advocate supporting the family. Kim, 69, and married for more than 50 years, believed the trail would improve for her two children. “When you’re happy, I’m happy,” she liked to say.

She worked at Gold Spa alongside Soon Chung Park, who at 74 was the housekeeper and cook, making meals for her co-workers. Park was a widow with five children when she arrived in America. She spent time in New Jersey and New York and sold jewellery before moving to Georgia a decade ago. She began working at Gold Spa in 2018, 9am to 9pm, said her new husband, Gwangho Lee.

Lee, who recently began driving for Lyft, said that together they made about US$30,000 ($43,000) last year when he was painting houses. He said his wife looked forward to retiring soon. She had made plans to move to New Jersey to be near family once her apartment lease expired.

The stories of the victims reflect much of the Asian American experience, where first-generation immigrants enter unknown worlds in which they strive not for themselves, but for the upward mobility of their children. Their limited English and lack of US educations often lead to low-wage labour.

Yong Ae Yue, 63, left South Korea in 1979, having met her American husband, Mac Peterson, while he was serving in the Army. They settled in Fort Benning, Georgia, and Yue worked as a cashier at a grocery store while raising two sons, one of whom would go on to attend Morehouse College.

“She preached education. She preached hard work. She preached opportunity,” said her son Elliott Peterson, 42.

After the couple divorced in the early 1980s, Yue worked several jobs, sometimes seven days a week, according to one of her close friends. Two decades later, she managed to buy a townhome for US$138,000 ($197,000) in an Atlanta suburb. She had been grateful to find work during the pandemic.

None of the three spas targeted in last week’s shootings were large operations. Nearby business owners familiar with the facilities counted only a handful of employees entering each one. It was not clear how much they were paid. While several spas in the area advertised rates of US$60 ($85) for an hour long massage, for example, the masseuses would get only a cut of that. “A secret of the trade,” said an employee at Top V Massage in Norcross, an Atlanta suburb, when asked what one could expect to earn.

A taxi driver who knew four of the victims said that they called him to shuttle them between home and work, and that their job locations changed over the years. Sometimes they would bring him water and roasted sweet potatoes. He said the women tended to go by English names at work and would refer to one another as imonim, which, in Korean, is a respectful term for an aunt or an older woman.

Among them was Hyun Jung Grant, a 51-year-old single mother whose long hours working were intended to help pay her children’s college tuition, although she found ways to treat them to designer sneakers.

Grant preferred to tell people she had a job at a makeup counter and often spent the night at work; when she was home, she would nap from exhaustion. “I just think it’s enough that she cared for us,” said her son Randy Park, 22, who works at a Korean bakery and said he never resented his mother’s absence.

Grant told her sons she had been a teacher in South Korea before arriving in Washington, where she found work as a waitress. She and her children relocated to Atlanta more than a decade ago. They had recently moved from an apartment to a modest rental town house, one step closer to becoming the homeowner that Grant had envisioned.

The only thing she ever said about her job was that she hoped to one day do something else. “She never had time to pursue much of her passions or figure out what she wanted to do in her life,” Park said.

It was Xiaojie Tan, owner of Young’s Asian Massage, who had a clear idea of what she hoped to achieve.

The daughter of a bicycle mechanic, she left China intent on mastering a trade. Working first as a manicurist, she eventually opened two spas, including Young’s. Tan, 49, worked 12-hour days, a memory that her college-educated daughter would proudly recount.

Among Tan’s employees was Daoyou Feng, 44, who appeared to have worked at the spa for only a few months and has no known US address. A spokesperson for China’s Foreign Ministry said that the Chinese Embassy in the United States was “providing assistance to family members of the deceased.” Feng is the only victim for whom no one has come forward to say that she, too, was loved. Her life has since remained in the shadows.

Young’s is in a shopping centre known as Cherokee Village in Acworth, about 45km northwest of Atlanta. Business owners in the plaza recall employees arriving in taxis and taking breaks in the parking lot, where they talked on the phone or listened to music. On occasion, someone would be spotted bringing in groceries or clean clothes.

“They’re just trying to do good by their families and make a good living,” said a business owner who knew some of the employees and asked not to be named.

It was at Young’s spa where last week’s massacre started, where Tan and Feng were shot and killed, along with two other people. Robert Aaron Long, 21, who police said described himself as a sex addict and claimed he was trying to remove temptation, has been charged in the deaths.

Long’s roommate said the gunman had told him he frequented massage businesses for sex, and while authorities in Atlanta and the surrounding suburbs have made prostitution-related cases in recent years against workers at massage businesses, there is no independent evidence that he received sex at the spas he targeted in his rampage.

Delaina Ashley Yaun, 33, a Waffle House server who bought eggs and grits for the homeless, had been visiting the spa for the first time, along with her husband, when she was killed. Another victim, Paul Andre Michels, 54, was a handyman for the spa, according to the owner of a neighboring business. He was an electrician, an Army veteran, a workaholic, his brother said. A passerby, Elcias R. Hernandez-Ortiz, 30 — the only person shot who survived — is a father and a mechanic who sends money home to family in Guatemala.

Three more people would be killed less than an hour later at Gold Spa. Then, the gunman would cross the street to Aromatherapy Spa and take one more life before fleeing.

Aromatherapy, like the other two massage businesses, has since been closed. From the front, it is a drab building trimmed with neon lights and garish signs.

Down the sloping drive to the back and beyond the gravel are terra cotta pots, tomato cages and gardening tools. A small patch of earth has been tended, where okra grows alongside red leaf lettuce and perilla leaves — ggaenip in Korean. Nearby, five white buckets that once held laundry detergent are filled with water, a hose dangling from one.

It seemed that there had been community, there had been resourcefulness, there had been hope.

Layers of control

Wang, whose companies are affiliated with Gold Spa, has long been a public figure in Atlanta and active within the local Taiwanese community.

He has been photographed at gatherings sponsored by the Taiwan government’s office in Atlanta, including a whiskey tasting with a former Georgia Republican Party chair and a banquet where the guest of honor was Tom Price, the briefly tenured health and human services secretary under former President Donald Trump.

In 2003, Wang was appointed by Sonny Perdue, then the governor, to the Asian American Commission for a New Georgia. Since 2004, he has given more than US$32,000 to federal candidates and parties, overwhelmingly to Republicans. He donated to Trump-affiliated campaign committees in both 2016 and 2020, including multiple small-dollar donations in the run-up to the November election, Federal Election Commission records show. Amid the pandemic last year, one of his companies running the spa received a US$50,500 loan under the federal Paycheck Protection Program to aid small businesses.

A chemical engineer, he has a history of entrepreneurship, from synthetic leather coatings to fast food franchises before starting his toner business, which had more than 100 employees at one point.

In 2013, Wang ventured into a new line of business when he became CEO of Gold Hotlanta, which along with Golden Limited Enterprises runs the 24-hour Gold Spa. The same year, company records show, Wang and an associate opened Gangnam Sauna in Norcross. That spa was on the former site of a similar business where a quadruple murder had taken place in 2012.

Wang did not respond to multiple requests for comment. When a reporter visited one of the country club homes he owns, a woman, speaking Mandarin, said he did not live there, then called private security who alerted the police.

The building that houses Gold Spa is owned by Ashly Jennifer Smith, a 34-year-old veterinarian in Virginia who purchased it for US$850,000 in 2012, according to Fulton County property records. Smith, who did not respond to requests for comment, wanted to change the lease and took Golden Limited Enterprises to court. Two employees, one of whom was Suncha Kim, were caught in the conflict and named in a suit compelling them to vacate the building. The case was settled, though, and Kim continued to work there until her death last week.

Gold Spa had some history of trouble. In 2012, a security guard there was shot and killed when he went behind the building to investigate a suspicious person.

Atlanta police records show 11 prostitution arrests there between 2011 and 2013. Some of those arrested gave the spa as their home address. The vice squad that had conducted raids was disbanded in 2015 so that more resources could go toward addressing violent crime, the Atlanta Police said. The Georgia Department of Public Health said it does not inspect or regulate massage businesses, a job that falls to the Georgia secretary of state. But that state office said it licenses individual massage therapists — not the businesses.

Long, the gunman, told investigators he had previously visited the Gold and Aromatherapy spas, according to police.

Aromatherapy is affiliated with Galt & Roark, a company that appears to take its name from characters in novels by Ayn Rand, the author whose work has been embraced by libertarians and the American right.

The spa’s ownership is not clear. Aromatherapy’s landlord is the real estate firm of William Meyers, 85, who owns a sprawling US$1.5 million lakeside home in Buford, 65km northeast of Atlanta, according to public records.

In a brief phone interview, Meyers said he had heard about the shootings but would not answer whether he knew anything about the spa itself.

“I probably shouldn’t say,” he said.

Written by: Corina Knoll, Michael Forsythe, Frances Robles and Linda Qiu
Photographs by: Chang W. Lee and Jeenah Moon,
© 2021 THE NEW YORK TIMES

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