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Point of Excess : Acupuncturists Struggle to Make a Living in Crowded Field


SAN GABRIEL VALLEY — For an acupuncturist recently arrived from China, Taiwan or Hong Kong, the San Gabriel Valley holds the promise of a healthy business with its multitude of cities rich in Chinese-speaking residents.

But many who have set up shop with those thoughts in mind are struggling to make a living, facing off with hundreds of acupuncturists who have been plying their trade here for years.

For those who speak little or no English, the prospects of moving out of the San Gabriel Valley to lure a broader clientele are slim. Some newcomers are giving up altogether, putting their clinics up for sale and making plans to return home.

"Our association has about 300 members (in California), and there are about 200 in the San Gabriel Valley alone, so obviously the competition is great," said Alex Chen, president of the California Acupuncture Medicine Assn., which is made up solely of Chinese members.

Setting up a business next to dozens of established acupuncturists in cities like Monterey Park or Alhambra--where those who don't speak English think they can attract the most Chinese-speaking clients--can be tremendously discouraging, Chen said.

"Those acupuncturists located in the Chinese community, probably 5% or 10% can speak English," Chen said. "We have a newsletter. Probably every other month we have somebody trying to find a job. Every other month, members are trying to sell their clinics because they want to go back to Taiwan or Indonesia. They are here doing their best, but it's still very difficult."

The practice of acupuncture--wherein thin stainless steel needles are used to stimulate and adjust energy flows at points believed to correspond to specific body organs or regions--has a long history. An early version is believed to have been practiced in the Stone Age.

The American Medical Assn. has no official position on whether acupuncture works.

California requires all acupuncturists to be licensed and meet state standards, and the state is cracking down on practitioners who promise unrealistic cures.

As of March 1, there were 979 acupuncturists licensed in Los Angeles County--more than a third of the statewide total, said Sherry Mehl, executive officer of the state Department of Consumer Affairs Acupuncture Committee, which regulates the field.

"You open the Chinese Yellow Pages, you can see there are really a lot," said Pei-Li Zhong, an acupuncturist who has had a successful practice in Alhambra for six years.

"Even though they get a license, they are stuck in the Chinese community because they don't speak good English," Zhong said of her struggling colleagues.

Even Chen, a Taiwan native who teaches acupuncture at a Garden Grove school and set up a clinic in La Puente six months ago, is having trouble attracting customers.

But Chen is one of the fortunate ones: His language skills have enabled him to set up outside the heavily saturated western San Gabriel Valley, or the increasingly crowded business districts of Hacienda Heights and Rowland Heights in the eastern valley.

Although he is optimistic that La Puente will prove to be a good location, his business is moving at a crawl.

"I put my ad in the GTE (phone book). I paid $261. Since last November, I received no call: nada, nothing, zip," said Chen, clearly adapting to Southern California's multicultural idiom.

Herbal stores are also proving to be tough competition for Oriental medicine specialists in the San Gabriel Valley, Chen said, sometimes diagnosing illnesses and selling herbal packages for half the price acupuncturists charge.

Some big herbal stores have started to hire licensed acupuncturists and charge a diagnosis fee of $5 to $10, which is much cheaper than going to a private acupuncturist, Chen added.

Another complaint of some acupuncturists is that poorly trained competitors are spoiling acupuncture's reputation.

"Some people will say, 'For $15 I will take care of you.' Then the patient will try it a few times and nothing will happen, so they'll say (acupuncture) doesn't work, and they won't go to anyone," said Sophia Peng, who has practiced in Alhambra for eight years.

The false promises are hard to regulate, said Kexin Bao, trained in China in Western and Oriental medicine, who set up an office in Arcadia in May in an effort to draw a diverse clientele.

"There's no clear line between crime and no crime. Some ads, you can't say it's a crime. Sometimes it's just a verbal promise: 'I can cure this,' " Bao said about the inflated assurances of some acupuncturists.

A slight man with tiny hands and a serious face, Bao has spent many days alone in his small Arcadia office awaiting patients.

For now, most of his clients are Chinese. But he said he is hoping that his location will begin to diversify his clientele.

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