County Shuts Down Massage Parlor in Menlo Park

Chinese massage parlor owner loses license for offering gifts; she says it was a cultural misunderstanding.


County supervisors ruled that the owner of a massage parlor in unincorporated Menlo Park must close her business as punishment for overstepping the bounds of acceptable business interactions.

Bao Ling Qi pled no contest to charges of repeated attempts to bribe county officials; in the aftermath, her license to operate Oriental Spa at 3365 Middlefield Road was revoked.

Qi, who communicated to the board through an interpreter, argued that the gifts were not bribes, but rather a misunderstood attempt to adhere to the proper etiquette standards of Qi's native China. Qi's attorney Robert Cummings claimed in a legal brief filed with the county that his client's actions were consistent with traditional Chinese cultural customs -- Zen-ping and Guanxi -- in which it is normal, if not expected, for a person to offer gifts to show appreciation for a service that is provided.

Cummings said Qi was acting out of a sense of obligation when she offered cash, movie passes, and $100 Shell gift cards to the county building inspector and sheriff's investigator who guided her through the licensing process prior to opening her massage parlor in 2009.  When they declined her gifts, she offered again.

"It's a fascinating cultural phenomenon," said Cummings, of the gift giving custom.

"It shocked me when I first saw it. But it has become almost an expectation. A formality," said Cummings, who admitted to have been offered many gifts himself in return for defending clients.

Qi spent five days in a detention center after pleading no contest to bribery charges, which Cummings argued served as punishment and an opportunity for his client to learn her lesson.  And though supervisors admitted that cultural differences were likely to blame for a misunderstanding between Qi and her county-employed accusers, they ruled against overturning an earlier decision by the county licensing board to revoke her rights to operate the massage parlor.

Supervisors Carole Groom and Rose Jacobs Gibson said sex crime in the local massage parlor industry did influence their decision, despite there being no indication that Qi's business was involved in such activity.

As well, board chair Adrienne Tissier expressed concern that allowing Qi to stay in business despite being convicted for bribery would send the wrong message to other local merchants.

"It's very hard for me to think that this won't set a precedent," she said.

She also noted that though cultural differences and language barriers may have caused Qi to misunderstand what is considered appropriate, she was still able to overcome those same hurdles and successfully obtain a license for her business.

Only Supervisor Dave Pine dissented in the 4-1 vote to uphold the revocation, which means that Qi will not be allowed to apply for permission to reopen her business until 2013.

A new state law is cracking down on massage parlors that serve as fronts for prostitution rings.  As of July 1, the county will no longer be responsible for issuing a business license to Qi;  that will become the duty of the state government.

Standing before the board Tuesday morning, which was also her birthday, Qi pled with the supervisors to allow her to keep her business open.

"I realize that in the United States, it is unnecessary to give gifts to officials," she said. 

Cummings said that in the future, he encouraged his client to contact him before considering to offer gifts to anyone in a business setting.  He also attempted to illustrate to the board that Qi was only guilty of a misguided attempt to be generous.

"Deep inside her heart, this is a good person. I know my client is very, very nice," he said.  "This was not a quid pro quo expectation, but rather an obligation that was hoisted on her by her culture."

But Qi and Cummings ultimately fell short in their attempt to persuade the board.  Going forward, Cummings said it is his understanding that in new state-run system, licenses are rarely granted to massage parlors that have been shut down.

He said that upholding the revocation would likely result in Qi moving out of the massage parlor industry, an act that will cost her the $60,000 she invested to get into it.  Cummings said that he and his client are considering filing an appeal to a higher court.

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