SHORTLY before midnight on a moonlit corner of Valley Boulevard in San Gabriel, a crowd waited impatiently outside a store with a yellow banner advertising one-hour foot massages for $9.99.
Inside the dimly lighted business decorated with Chinese bamboo screens, a room full of customers sank into black leather armchairs while uniformed masseuses rubbed their feet with lotion. As a Mandarin-language film beamed from a flat-screen television, the workers carefully pressed their fingertips on pressure points believed to promote better circulation and improve overall health.
There was a poker dealer from a nearby casino who needed the tension lifted from her muscles after a day on her feet, a nail salon worker who visited because he believed the therapy boosted his fertility and an investment analyst who injured himself jogging and wanted the scar tissue rubbed.
"It's cheaper than my insurance co-pay," said Johnson Li, an avid runner who chose not to receive therapy for his ailing feet through his insurance company. "If I'm in the neighborhood, I always stop by."
The Oriental Natural Treatment Center is at the hub of the hotly competitive world of foot massage in the San Gabriel Valley -- home to the nation's largest Chinese American community.
About 20 foot-massage businesses can be found on this small stretch of Valley Boulevard between Del Mar Avenue and San Gabriel Boulevard, and dozens more are popping up in neighboring communities. Square foot by square foot, it is the foot-massage capital of the country.
When the first foot-massage parlors opened, therapists charged $70 an hour. But competition has pushed the average price down to well under $20.
The price war has made foot massages available not just to the well-heeled who can afford the luxury, but to waiters, busboys, store clerks and hair stylists -- the working-class version of the Burke Williams Spa for people who spend their days on their feet.
It's hard to miss the foot-massage wars when driving through such cities as Rowland Heights, Alhambra, Temple City and San Gabriel. Some strip malls house up to three foot-massage business, each offering a variation of the standard foot soak and one-hour massage with banners and neon signs advertising the latest price cut.
"I'm still scratching my head," said San Gabriel City Planner Mark Gallatin. "It's amazing how people can make a living as prices continue to drop. You would think it would be better to open up where there's less competition."
Though relatively new here, foot massage is a staple of China's growing middle and upper classes. The businesses, which range in quality from rotten to exclusive, saturate cities such as Beijing and Guangzhou.
The practice, said to be thousands of years old, runs on the belief that different nerve endings in the foot correspond with the body's internal organs. Masseuses ply away on these pressure points to give the organs a jolt. It's the human equivalent of a tuneup, but with a cup of tea and a shoulder rub thrown in.
There are no studies proving that foot massage -- also known as reflexology -- benefits overall health. Experts say patrons shouldn't place much stock in the medical claims made by parlors. Still, some people who study Eastern medicine say that if foot massage reduces a person's day-to-day stress, it could be beneficial.
"It's for relaxation," said Ka-Kit Hui, director of the UCLA Center for East-West Medicine, who travels once a week from the Westside to San Gabriel to get a massage. "There's very little science so far, even in China."
"Everyone can use a massage," said Ching Lau, the owner of the Oriental Natural Treatment Center. "And at these prices, why not?"
THE craze began three years ago when George Liu, an entrepreneur from Beijing, opened Tibetan Herbal Feet Soak in a shopping plaza attached to the Hilton Hotel on Valley Boulevard. He hung Tibetan posters on the wall and bought cream-colored reclining chairs. The herbs that he said extracted toxins from customers' feet were imported from Tibet.
At first, the city did not know what to make of Liu's business application. Asian massage parlors had developed a seedy reputation, and foot massage sounded like an exotic variation. Liu said he won City Hall over by offering an official a massage.
"He felt really relaxed afterward," said Liu, who immigrated to the U.S. five years ago.
Still, it took awhile for some in the city to get used to the idea of foot massage -- especially at $70.
It helped when movie star Jackie Chan stopped by for a rub. Perhaps the biggest seal of approval came when Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca visited the store with his then-wife, who is Chinese. A framed photo on the wall shows Baca looking dazed as he sits with his legs stretched onto an ottoman.