Ever since a photograph surfaced of President Donald Trump smiling with a Florida woman who owns a chain of Asian-themed massage parlors with a reputation for selling sex, cable news and social media have been overrun with theories about how Li “Cindy” Yang metamorphosed from an anonymous businesswoman in a sometimes unsavory industry into the selfie queen of GOP galas and Mar-a-Lago fundraisers.
Was Yang an ambitious political novice enamored with a brash new president? Had she possibly stumbled into a campaign-finance violation by promising to sell Chinese business executives access to Trump and his family? Could she even be working with Chinese intelligence?
Her mother has a simpler explanation.
“She likes to show off,” Guiying Zhang, speaking in Mandarin, told the Miami Herald in an exclusive interview late Monday. “She likes to make people jealous.
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“It was all because of the parties,” added Yang’s mother, who said she tried to talk her daughter out of getting involved in politics.
Now, Yang has encountered a broader fame — but perhaps not the one she had envisioned.
After the Miami Herald on Friday broke the news of her surprising political access — and the fact that she once owned a Jupiter spa now in the middle of a multi-agency human-trafficking investigation in Florida — Yang was dismissed by the national Asian-American Republican group where she proudly worked as a volunteer. Florida politicians and political activists who once happily posed for photos with her now say they don’t know her from Adam. And the media is reporting on internet reviews alleging that prostitution took place in the spas she continued to own.
Most serious of all: Some commentators are raising concerns over whether her activities posed a national security threat, noting that she belonged to groups with reported ties to the Chinese government.
Yang has not responded to messages from the Herald since a brief phone interview last week. No one answered the door at various properties registered in her name around South Florida.
Those who have encountered her say she seemed determined to be seen with Trump. Among them is Carol Brophy, the other woman in the selfie that Yang took at Trump’s Feb. 3 Super Bowl party at his golf club in West Palm Beach.
“While a dear friend of mine was taking a picture of me as I was speaking with the president, Cindy Yang swooped in and photobombed” the shot, Brophy said in a text message to the Herald.
Brophy said she did not know Yang well, although they appeared to be friends on Facebook before Yang deleted her account.
Online, Yang advertised her ability to introduce Chinese business executives to the president, his advisers and his family — for a price.
The fact that she was able to meet Trump at his clubs illustrates a “giant opportunity” for foreign intelligence services, said Michael Fuchs, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress think tank and a former deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs in the Obama administration.
“It is incredibly easy for wealthy individuals to gain access to the president via his business,” Fuchs said. “You can rest assured that the Chinese government and intelligence agencies — and any foreign intelligence agency worth its salt — is going to be exerting significant energies to try to access the president and senior officials through” his businesses.
Much of what is known about Yang comes from her prolific online presence.
Tami Donnally, a former Republican state Senate candidate who received a max $1,000 donation to her campaign from Yang, said she was familiar with Yang mostly from her constant Facebook posts.
“She would come to the [Republican Executive Committee] meetings. Maybe a couple times I saw her at the REC meetings. She was out of the country a lot,” said Donnally, the vice chairwoman of the Republican Party of Palm Beach County. “When she donated to my campaign it took me a long time to track her down to get her address so I could send her a ‘Thank You.’ ”
Deputy Press Secretary Judd Deere said the president does not know Yang. The White House declined to comment on what level of backgrounding Yang would have been subjected to before meeting the president. The Trump Organization did not respond to a request for comment. The Chinese Embassy in Washington, D.C., did not respond when asked if the Chinese government had any association with Yang.
Just a few years ago, Yang was famous only in South Florida Chinese communities as the queen of local Asian-themed day spas.
“She’s the girl that others would envy,” said Woody McLane, a former massage parlor owner in South Florida who now helps others buy and sell spas, including Yang. “She was sort of — I’ll use the word famous. She was well known in the massage community.”
But in China, the family was poor, said Zhang, her mother, standing outside her modest duplex in Palm Beach County.
Around 2003, Zhang, a factory worker with no political ties, said she decided to move the family to the United States, where one of her siblings lived. (A social media profile for Yang says she came in 1999 to study.)
Yang — who goes by “Cindy” — was just out of university at the time of the move. According to her mother, Yang started her life in the United States working odd jobs, mostly in the service industry, but around the time of the economic crisis, she decided she wanted to be her own boss and started what would become a large chain of South Florida massage parlors operating under the name Tokyo Day Spas.
Yang, who became a naturalized American citizen, always had the nicer spas, with richer customers, McLane said.
Part of her business strategy was to start spas and then flip them. The one she established in Jupiter would later become Orchids of Asia Day Spa — the massage parlor where New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, a close friend of the Trump family, was busted for allegedly getting oral sex this year. Yang said she sold that spa years earlier.
When she approached McLane about selling her remaining spas in December 2018, she told him it was because she was moving to Virginia on a new business venture.
“She was pretty guarded with what kind of business she was going into. I got the impression it had nothing to do with massage,” McLane said.
Zhang said her friend’s daughter originally introduced Yang into South Florida political circles sometime in 2015, but declined to give the name of the friend.
Yang’s political career seems to have started with this new group of friends, a crew of conservative South Florida activists, including members of the group the Trumpettes — an all-female Trump fan club that was founded in California in 2015 and spread across the country.
Yang wasn’t drawn to Trump for his politics, according to her mother, but because her new friends liked him. Her other contacts included political fundraisers and campaigners like Zhonggang Li, a conservative Chinese-American political activist, who was especially active in campaigning for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
Li, who goes by “Cliff,” is the executive director of a group called the National Committee of Asian American Republicans, based in Washington, D.C. He said Yang worked as the committee’s community outreach director in Florida, a volunteer position, but that she was dismissed on Friday.
“Although we don’t see proof of any wrongdoing on her part, we just don’t want our young Asian American Conservative Movement [to] get severely distracted,” he said in an email. “We do appreciate all her efforts as one of our top volunteers promoting public participation; and wish her well.”
Cliff Li is registered to vote at a home in Wellington, Florida, that Yang owns, and voted from that address in the 2018 general elections, according to voter registration records. It’s the same address where Yang lives with her husband, Zubin Gong, according to Yang’s mother.
Li did not respond to a question asking why he was registered to vote there.
The big stage
Yang has said she doesn’t know the president — and that he doesn’t know her.
But they have had more formal communications than a photo opportunity here or there.
In September 2018, she posted a Facebook photo of a card she appears to have received from Trump and first lady Melania Trump thanking her for her friendship and political activity.
“Leaders like you in Florida are key to fulfilling our bold agenda to Make America Great Again!” the card said.
Yang also attended events at the White House’s invitation in 2018 and was recently pictured with Trump’s two sons and one of his sisters at Mar-a-Lago, his private Palm Beach resort.
Her access raises potential national security concerns, according to some experts.
Yang has belonged to groups that are said to have ties to China’s government and Communist Party. Starting in 2016, she served as vice president of the Florida chapter of the Council for the Promotion of the Peaceful Reunification of China (CPPRC) and vice chairman of the Miami branch of the United States Association for Science and Technology, according to a Chinese-language social media profile.
The magazine Mother Jones, which broke news of those ties, reported that “both organizations have direct links to China’s Communist Party, and the CPPRC has been described as a vehicle for projecting Chinese influence in the West.”
In late 2017, Yang brought a group of Chinese businessmen to an event in New York City hosted by the Republican National Committee, according to one attendee who said he spoke with Yang. Yang identified herself as an official of the National Committee of Asian American Republicans. In the days before the event, she donated $23,500 to the political action committee Trump Victory.
Ten days later, Yang registered her own company — GY US Investments — that claimed to give Chinese businessmen looking for opportunities in the United States a chance to rub shoulders with high-level politicians. It’s not clear how much she charged.
It would be illegal for foreign nationals to pay for tickets to a fundraiser or to reimburse an American citizen who paid for their tickets.
The Yang episode may have echoes of a 1996 scandal when Chinese money was donated to Bill Clinton’s presidential re-election campaign. As that scandal ballooned, several donors were convicted of campaign-finance violations. The Chinese government was never conclusively proven to have been behind the effort and denied all such allegations, although some evidence surfaced to suggest that was the case.
The RNC denied any wrongdoing at the recent New York fundraiser.
“Trump Victory only accepts contributions from American citizens in accordance with the law. We vehemently deny any wrongdoing on the part of the RNC or Trump campaign,” an RNC spokesperson told the Herald.
Experts in China policy said it seemed implausible that the Chinese government was not at the very least aware that Yang had gained access to Trump and was promising to introduce business executives into his circle if they traveled from China to the United States.
“You look at how much surveillance China does domestically, and it would seem unlikely that the Chinese government at some point did not become aware of her activities,” said Peter Harrell, an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, a Washington, D.C., think tank.
However, Harrell said, there were no indications that the Chinese government had directed or even participated in Yang’s operations.
“This might have been a wait-and-see approach,” said Harrell, also a former State Department official under Obama. “If any of the individuals involved actually managed to build a bit of a relationship with Trump or members of the Trump family … that could become a useful source of information. On the other hand, if it doesn’t pan out, you haven’t lost anything.”
Yang does seem to have made connections with China’s diplomatic corps in the United States.
On Oct. 4, 2015, she was pictured appearing to interview Li Qiangmin, China’s consul general in Houston, and Florida International University President Mark Rosenberg at an event held at FIU commemorating China’s role in World War II. (The social media profile describes her as a former journalist in Silicon Valley.)
FIU said Yang was not on the university’s RSVP list and the event, which was organized by the Florida Shandong Fellowship Association, allowed for members of several organizations to attend. The president of the Florida association did not return requests for comment.
That year, Yang was also invited to attend a ceremony with Cui Tiankai, China’s U.S. ambassador, when Chinese warships visited U.S. Naval Station Mayport in Jacksonville in November 2015.
The photos of Yang with both American and Chinese officials would have been a valuable advertisement for her consulting business and aided her standing in China. Her clients would have similarly benefited from appearing with important politicians.
“If you can go back home and show everybody a photo that verifies your claim that you met personally with the president, you get some very significant credibility,” said Fuchs, of the Center for American Progress. “In China and many countries in Asia, a meeting didn’t happen unless there was a picture taken of it. You can hang it on your wall for all your visitors. It’s quite a boon.”
The Chinese consulate in Houston did not respond to a request for comment.
In addition to her national activities, Yang also participated in local politics.
Her name appeared on a list of recount volunteers in Palm Beach County for Rick Scott and the Republican Party of Florida in November. She attended at least one meeting of the Broward County chapter of the Asian GOP, according to recorded minutes.
But no one who spoke to the Herald — and that’s if they returned calls seeking comment — could say much about her, even though it was clear they knew her by face and name.
“She’s Asian. We know everybody. [The] Asian community isn’t big enough for anybody to hide,” said Xiaoqi Wang, who listed herself on Facebook last month as the Republican Party of Palm Beach Asian Outreach Chair. She and Yang appear in photos together online.
But she wouldn’t tell a reporter how she knew Yang, or what she knew of Yang’s company and political activities.
Wang, who parlayed her time with the Asian GOP into a newly opened consulting business, said Yang was not someone she worked with as an activist.
“I knock on doors. I make phone calls. She never did those things with me,” Wang said.
Wang said the Asian GOP, as an organization, tries to get Asian Americans involved in politics. She said the community is typically uninvolved, so the organization tries to register voters and encourage Asian Americans to vote. The Republican Party is a natural fit for the community, according to Wang, because the party values hard work and conservative family traditions.
Yang attended at least one meeting of the Broward chapter of the Asian GOP. But Broward GOP Chairman George Moraitis said he doesn’t ever remember meeting her.