Politics

Trump cheered Patriots to Super Bowl victory with founder of spa where Kraft was busted

Who is Li Yang, the Asian spa founder who joined Trump’s MAGA movement?

Li Yang, 45, posed with Donald Trump during the Super Bowl while rooting for the Patriots. Two weeks later, authorities would charge the team owner, Robert Kraft, with soliciting prostitution at a spa in Jupiter that Yang had founded.
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Li Yang, 45, posed with Donald Trump during the Super Bowl while rooting for the Patriots. Two weeks later, authorities would charge the team owner, Robert Kraft, with soliciting prostitution at a spa in Jupiter that Yang had founded.

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Trump Tourism: Access for Sale

The Miami Herald is investigating how U.S. President Donald J. Trump has become a favorite target of a little-known Chinese industry peddling access to the rich and powerful. At the center of this “Trump Tourism” is Cindy Yang, a former Asian day spa owner, who sold access to Mar-a-Lago and the White House, raising concerns about national security. Read more:


Seated at a round table littered with party favors and the paper-cutout footballs that have become tradition at his annual Super Bowl Watch Party, President Donald Trump cheered the New England Patriots and his longtime friend, team owner Robert Kraft, to victory over the Los Angeles Rams on Feb. 3.

Sometime during the party at Trump’s West Palm Beach country club, the president turned in his chair to look over his right shoulder, smiling for a photo with two women at a table behind him.

The woman who snapped the blurry Super Bowl selfie with the president was Li Yang, 45, a self-made entrepreneur from China who started a chain of Asian day spas in South Florida. Over the years, these establishments — many of which operate under the name Tokyo Day Spas — have gained a reputation for offering sexual services.

Nineteen days after Trump and Yang posed together while rooting for the Patriots, authorities would charge Kraft with soliciting prostitution at a spa in Jupiter that Yang had founded more than a decade earlier.

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Yang says she had long since sold Orchids of Asia Day Spa, the massage parlor where authorities say they caught Kraft on camera paying for oral sex the morning of the Jan. 20 AFC Championship game — his second visit in 24 hours. (Kraft has denied breaking the law.) Yang, who goes by Cindy, was not charged in the multi-agency anti-human-trafficking operation last month that shut down 10 Asian day spas in Florida, none of which are registered to her or her family.

The Kraft bust brought global attention to the proliferation of Asian day spas across the country, some of which are thinly disguised houses of prostitution — and experts say could be engaged in human trafficking to fill demand.

New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft was charged with two counts of soliciting prostitution at a spa in Jupiter, Fla.

Yang’s family still owns several South Florida spas. The family’s Tokyo Day Spa branches have attracted the attention of at least two local police agencies over allegations of prostitution, and are discussed online as places where men can pay for sexual extras.

“If you’re just wanting to get a ‘rub and tug,’ this might be one of the best places in West Palm Beach,” one Internet commenter wrote about a Tokyo Day Spas’ parlor. A massage therapist at a different location informed police in late 2016 that some employees at the parlor were selling sex and said management encouraged the behavior.

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Cindy Yang poses with President Donald Trump at a fundraiser at Mar-a-Lago on March 2, 2018. She received a signed photograph. A flier for the event advertised a “reception, photo and two seats for a dinner with President Trump” for a donation of $50,000.

In a brief phone interview, Yang said she and her family have never broken the law, but did not answer questions about whether she knew of the allegations that therapists in her spas were offering sex. She added that she was out of the business, would soon be moving to Washington, D.C., and didn’t want any negative press.

Before the 2016 general election, Yang offered no evidence of political engagement. She hadn’t voted in 10 years, records showed. But she has now become a fixture at Republican political events up and down the East Coast. Her Facebook is covered in photos of herself standing with President Trump, his two sons, Eric and Donald Jr., Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, Sen. Rick Scott, Sarah Palin, the president’s campaign manager and an assortment of other high-level Republican operators she has met at charity events, political fundraisers and galas, many of which require hefty donations to attend. She sometimes carries a rhinestone encrusted MAGA clutch purse.

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Future Florida governor Ron DeSantis, center, attended a pro-Israel gala at Mar-a-Lago on Feb. 25, 2018. The event was also attended by Cindy Yang, far left. Tickets cost $1,000 per person, according to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.

Yang has shown considerable political largesse. Since 2017, she and her close relatives have contributed more than $42,000 to Trump Victory, a political action committee, and more than $16,000 to the president’s campaign.

In February 2018, Yang was invited by the White House to participate in an event hosted by the Asian American and Pacific Islander Initiative, an advisory commission Trump established by executive order the year before. Later in the year, she attended at least two more AAPI events in Washington, D.C., according to her Facebook page.

The White House, the Trump campaign and the Trump Organization did not respond to requests for comment.

Hangers-on

As some established political elites have distanced themselves from the president, a new group of people is filling open seats at political events.

Some are businessmen like Kraft who have always been influential because of their wealth but under Trump have gained added political status. (Months before the bust, Trump thanked Kraft for his role in a major international success: Clinching the 2026 World Cup for North America.)

Others in the Trump orbit are political novices like Yang, who came to the United States roughly 20 years ago.

In 2007, Yang started what would become a large chain of Tokyo Day Spas.

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Cindy Yang and her family members operate the Tokyo Day Spa & Massages parlor, as well as a nail salon, at a strip mall in Palm Beach Gardens. It is part of a chain of spas the family controls. Sarah Blaskey sblaskey@MiamiHerald.com

The first to open was her flagship, which is still in business and run by her husband, Zubin Gong, in Palm Beach Gardens.

The next was a Tokyo Day Spa in Jupiter that would later become Orchids of Asia after Yang sold it to another businesswoman, Hua Zhang, around 2013. Zhang, who was charged in February with racketeering and running a house of prostitution and has pleaded not guilty, declined to comment when contacted at her Martin County home.

Online reviews from prior to 2013 suggest sex was for sale at the Tokyo Day Spa Jupiter location even before it became Orchids of Asia. Although the name and ownership of the location have changed, the decor has not. A photo from a Tokyo Day Spa Yelp review shows the same couch, the same wall hanging and the same faux plant as now.

“Used to be known as Tokyo Day Spa and Massage — most of the same girls still work there,” a Yelp reviewer wrote of Orchids of Asia in 2013.

Over the past decade, Yang and her family members have opened at least six locations across Palm Beach and Broward counties, including a massage school established in 2011 and several nail salons. In at least three cases, online classifieds written in Chinese indicate Yang opened the spas and then flipped them, advertising sale prices ranging from $55,000 to $88,000.

Organized networks of massage parlors offering sex are common, according to Bradley Myles, CEO of Polaris Project, a nonprofit dedicated to ending human trafficking in the sex work industry. The parlors have licenses, allowing them to operate the illicit part of their businesses behind a smokescreen of legitimacy.

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“Having a school associated with several locations that are engaged in illicit massage business — It’s one more way of appearing legitimate,” Myles said, commenting generally rather than specifically on Tokyo Day Spas. He said the owners of such chains often use schools to recruit and groom women to work in their parlors, even giving them the answers to the licensing exams ahead of time if they are good candidates for sex work.

Nationally, the illicit massage industry is worth over $2.5 billion, according to Polaris.

Yang also owns several residential properties around South Florida, including a tiny $240,000 condo on Miami’s waterfront. She built her success on hard work and long hours, according to an online profile of Yang that was posted on dondonsex.com. The site also features classified ads for erotic massage services. It’s unclear who posted Yang’s profile there or why.

Sex for sale

When a female massage therapist started finding used condoms in the trash at one of Yang’s Tokyo Day Spas, she became concerned that the parlor was not what it seemed.

The woman, who spoke only Mandarin, asked an English-speaking relative to call police after she heard the sounds of sex coming from several private massage rooms. Her tip led a police vice squad to begin surveilling the parlor from a van parked outside, the woman told the Miami Herald in an interview. Cops hidden in the vehicle took photographs of the people coming and going. The woman said she went undercover, snapping pictures of receipts when no one was looking. After the trash was taken outside, she would call her relative, who would then ring up the cops.

“There should be some condoms out back,” the relative would report.

The woman, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation, slept on a massage bed in a back room during her time at the spa. She cooked on a hotplate.

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Cindy Yang poses with Sarah Palin.

On one occasion, the former therapist was giving a customer a massage when he exposed himself and demanded oral sex. She said she ran from the room crying. A manager was angry that the customer had been treated “badly,” the woman said.

“You cannot hurt the customers’ feelings,” the manager later said at a staff meeting, according to the woman.

No charges appear to have been brought as a result of the investigation. The Herald reviewed documents related to the case but is not naming the police department in order to preserve the woman’s anonymity.

That wasn’t the only Tokyo Day Spa location where sex was allegedly available.

On Feb. 7, 2014, a man called the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office. He had gone to Tokyo Day Spas branch in Royal Palm Beach, where a therapist touched him in an “inappropriate genital area” and continued to do so even after he said no, according to a police report.

Six spas within the Tokyo Day Spas chain show up on online forums like rubmaps.com and adultsearch.com, which are crowd-sourced review sites where users point each other to spas where sex is offered.

False positives on those sites are unlikely, according to the Polaris Project.

“I don’t think the guys have any interest in claiming a place was something it’s not,” Myles from Polaris said. “The guys have an interest in [identifying] where you really can buy sex.”

Online ads on obscure websites also raise flags about Yang’s businesses. In an ad written in Chinese recruiting masseuses, Yang stated that anyone over the age of 45 need not apply. Phone numbers associated with members of the Yang family are connected to various apparently old online advertisements for more explicit sex services. One advertises a masseuse who makes hotel visits.

In a 2016 Yelp review of the Tokyo Day Spa in Palm Beach Gardens, a woman wrote that her husband went in for a 15-minute, $40 massage, but was offered unwanted sexual favors instead.

“Stay far away unless you’re into that kind of thing,” she wrote.

In a reply to the review, the business posted an apology from someone identified as “Cindy Y.”

“We are very sorry to hear what happened to your husband,” Cindy Y. wrote. “We do not offer those kinds of service[s] and we will do everything necessary to make sure this does not happen again.”

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Cindy Yang appears with Donald Trump Jr. at a Mar-a-Lago gala in late 2018.

On rubmaps.com, one comment warns that “your mileage may vary” at Tokyo Day Spas, meaning sex may not be available depending on the therapist.

“Been here many times, some play, some don’t,” a man wrote in 2016.

But others raved.

“I had one of those toe curling experiences,” a reviewer said.

Political awakening

Around three years ago, Yang announced that she was pursuing a “new life” in a series of Facebook posts.

Her portfolio broadened to include an investment consulting business, a travel agency and a charity.

The charity, founded in 2015 under the name Overseas International Female Organization, was originally intended to promote cultural exchanges for women, according to its mission statement. A few months later, the name was changed to Women’s Charity Foundation. The foundation once hosted a beauty pageant at the luxury Biltmore Hotel featuring young women brought in by “entertainment companies,” according to one of the event’s co-sponsors, Li Yun, who told the Miami Herald the event was “embarrassing,” “unsuccessful” and “disorganized.” The nonprofit doesn’t appear in a database of active Florida charities.

At the very end of 2015, Yang began donating small amounts of money to Jeb Bush’s presidential campaign. In 2016, Yang posted Facebook photos from a Republican women’s event in South Florida with the caption: “The new life will start.”

Around that time, she appears to have pulled her name from the official business records related to Tokyo Day Spas, though her husband still manages at least one of the spas and other companies are now under her parents’ names. Recently, one of her businesses, now listed in her mother’s name, declared bankruptcy, listing more than $150,000 of debt.

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Cindy Yang posted a photo of herself with U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz at an event at President Donald Trump’s golf club in Jupiter during the summer of 2018.

When Donald Trump became a serious candidate for president, politics began to dominate her social media presence.

In January 2017, she was in the crowd at Trump’s inauguration in Washington, D.C. Later that year, she snapped a photo with Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway. In December, she attended her first elite event at President Trump’s Mar-a-Lago, a poolside steak lunch.

In September 2018, Yang received a personalized note from the president and first lady. It read: “Thank you for your friendship and dedication to our cause. Leaders like you in Florida are the key to fulfilling our bold agenda to Make America Great Again!”

Yang told the Miami Herald she doesn’t know the president personally, and that she doesn’t work for him, other than to volunteer for campaign events.

“I just come to some events. There’s nothing special,” Yang said. Although she has claimed online to be a member of Trump clubs, she told the Herald she does not in fact belong to any.

Yang opened an investment consulting firm in 2017 targeting Chinese businesses hoping to expand to U.S. markets. The website advertises her new political connections, and promises her clients pictures with the president and other high-level members of his administration. Much of its website showcases photographs of her own encounters with the Trump family and other high-profile conservatives.

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Cindy Yang posed with Eric Trump at Mar-a-Lago in 2019.

Over the past two years, Yang has racked up a who’s who of photos with politicians at more than a dozen political events. She has enough pictures of the president’s private clubs to fill an album.

In 2018, she attended a Safari Night at Mar-a-Lago hosted by the president’s sister, Elizabeth Trump Grau, as well as the White House’s celebration of the Lunar New Year at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building. She took photos with Florida’s soon-to-be-governor, Ron DeSantis, at a pro-Israel gala held at Mar-a-Lago, met U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao in Washington, D.C., and posed with Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale, U.S. Rep. Brian Mast, U.S. Rep Matt Gaetz and former Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam. She also posted a photograph of herself with DeSantis at a restaurant, saying she was having “brunch this morning with Florida’s next Governor.”

She was photographed with Donald Trump Jr. at a winter Mar-a-Lago gala for Turning Points USA, the conservative college organization, and met Eric Trump last month.

In January, she attended the Sunshine Ball in Washington, D.C., hosted by Rick Scott, snagging a photo with the newly elected senator.

She has also posted photos of herself meeting conservative celebrities, including former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, onetime Trump administration adviser Sebastian Gorka, Fox News host Jesse Watters, commentator Dan Bongino and actor Jon Voight.

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Cindy Yang attended Sen. Rick Scott’s Sunshine Ball in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 8. The event asked $25,000 for a photo opportunity with Scott.

Her Super Bowl selfie with Trump was captioned: “We love our president.”

It’s not clear exactly what level of scrutiny she was subjected to in order to get that close to Trump.

Anyone “expected to be within close proximity to the president for a planned purpose” at Mar-a-Lago must go through an “enhanced background check” by the Secret Service and other federal agencies, according to a January report by the Government Accountability Office.

No one contacted by the Herald said they recognized Yang.

Brad Stewart, deputy chief of staff for Mast, said the Republican congressman “doesn’t know Yang or remember meeting her” at the Palm Beach GOP Lincoln Day Dinner at Mar-a-Lago on March 16, 2018.

Chris Hartline, Rick Scott’s communications director, said the senator had “met literally hundreds of thousands of people over his eight years as governor. He doesn’t know this woman.”

“As a strong advocate for the Jewish people and the state of Israel, then Congressman Ron DeSantis and now Governor DeSantis attended many pro-Israeli events,” Helen Aguirre Ferré, DeSantis’ communications director, said. “The Governor frequently appears in photos with many guests at these events. Governor DeSantis does not know or have any connection to Cindy Yang.”

Gaetz was photographed with Yang at a DeSantis campaign rally in the summer of 2018, according to spokeswoman Jillian Lane Wyant. The event was open to the public.

“Congressman Gaetz took hundreds of selfies at this event and takes thousands through the year without vetting people,” Wyant said. “He has never set foot in any of Ms. Yang’s day spas or properties.”

Traffickers use coercion and fraud to lure their victims into forced labor and sexual exploitation in illicit massage businesses. Here’s a look into how that human trafficking system works.

Miami Herald writer Xinjun Li contributed to this report.
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Sarah Blaskey covers local government in municipalities across Miami-Dade County. She holds a master’s degree from Columbia University’s school of journalism and is the recent recipient of a Pulitzer Center grant for her work on shark fishing and human trafficking in Central America.


Nicholas Nehamas is an investigative reporter at the Miami Herald, where he was part of the Pulitzer Prize-winning team that broke the Panama Papers. He attended Columbia Journalism School and joined the Herald in 2014.


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