Getting your nails done at a secret brothel: The rise of Asian ‘falangmei’ in Madrid

Authorities in the Spanish capital are having a hard time cracking down on the dozens of beauty parlors that offer sex services on the side

A beauty parlor on Leganitos street in downtown Madrid.
A beauty parlor on Leganitos street in downtown Madrid.Claudio Alvarez

The young Asian woman shyly pronounces her name, “A-vril,” pausing between a very open “a” and a very vibrant “v.” She has dark hair and is wearing short ripped jeans and Converse sneakers. Avril spends entire days in front of an establishment that says “Nails” on the outside. It is located on Leganitos Street, in the heart of Madrid, running parallel to the Spanish capital’s great hub, the Gran Vía. If women walk by, Avril says nothing, but if men come along, she asks: “Massage?” The price is €20 for half an hour, plus an additional €20 for a “happy ending.”

Behind closed doors, unsuspecting female customers are in for an unpleasant surprise. On a recent morning, Almudena M., 52, who moved late last year to a street near Leganitos, was getting her nails done for the first time in one of these nail salons when she noticed a bustle of older men going to and fro. The last to arrive was a man in his 70s who was forced to wait in line because the massage booths were all occupied. This man greeted Nieves, the young Asian woman doing Almudena’s nails, as though they were old acquaintances. “This is my friend,” Nieves told Almudena with a laugh. The man sat in a pedicure chair and got his feet soaked while he waited his turn.

Realizing what the scene was all about, Almudena felt disgusted and thought about walking away, but Nieves seemed nice and she didn’t want to offend her. “The manicure lasted about 45 minutes, but it felt like forever. It’s the first time in my life that I’ve accidentally found myself getting my nails done in a brothel. Without expecting it, I found myself financing a place where women are being trafficked,” she notes.

There is no shortage of clients innocently getting their nails done, like Almudena. The premises are open from 10am to 10pm, Monday through Sunday, and there is a large influx of female clients, both local residents and tourists. For the locals who live in the area, clandestine prostitution in these salons is an open secret, and many seem to take it in stride. For decades, they have lived alongside strip clubs and nightclubs operating as brothels. But for some clients of these newer establishments that operate as beauty parlors and hair salons – in the Leganitos area but also in other parts of Madrid – it comes as an unpleasant surprise.

A beauty parlor that offers sex services on the side in Madrid.
A beauty parlor that offers sex services on the side in Madrid. Claudio Alvarez

Leganitos is a small Chinatown where supermarkets and Asian restaurants coexist with these clandestine businesses. Considerable pedestrian traffic passes through there, as it runs parallel to Gran Vía, the busiest thoroughfare in Spain. For many years, Gran Vía had a B-side, a network of side streets where women exercised prostitution. But it used to be street prostitution, so brazen that it could be seen from the McDonald’s restaurant on Montera Street. These days it is somewhat more discreet: it takes place in apartments, erotic massage parlors and beauty parlors such as those in Leganitos, which are located a stone’s throw away from a Starbucks, a five-star hotel and the world’s largest Zara store.

At least five premises on this narrow, 300-meter-long street are clandestine brothels that advertise themselves as manicure or massage parlors. It’s what is known in China as falangmei. The anti-human trafficking association Apramp suspects that the women in these salons may be victims of organized crime networks, but notes how difficult it is to prove it under current Spanish legislation. To make arrests for trafficking, law enforcement needs proof that the women are being forced into prostitution. There is even a police station on the same street, Leganitos. “We know about these kinds of places, but it is very difficult for an association like ours to talk to them and get them to have a new life in freedom,” says Apramp’s director, Rocio Mora. “As long as Spain remains an easy place for the putero [person who solicits prostitutes] and for the mafias, this will continue to exist.”

There are precedents of police raids against these front businesses. In 2009, 14 Chinese hair salons were shut down in Barcelona. Another 40 were closed in 2013. In Madrid, the police arrested two people in 2016 for forcing women recruited in Colombia into prostitution in apartments and hair salons.

Two premises on Leganitos, at numbers 5 and 18, were reported in late December “for engaging in activities not authorized by their license,” following a joint operation by city authorities and the National Police, according to a municipal spokesperson. However, both premises have remained open and continue to carry out their clandestine activities. A spokeswoman for the National Police Headquarters in Madrid said that there are currently no open investigations into beauty parlors offering sex.

Venues all over Madrid

For Madrid’s puteros, Leganitos has been a reference for the last 15 years. Back then, there used to be a hair salon named Wanli, where a staircase located at the end of the establishment led up to another floor with two massage booths. Ever since then, these clients have been playing a game of uncovering all the beauty parlors in the Madrid region that secretly offer sex services. An online forum called Spalumi has a message thread under the heading “Chinese hair salons that come with a surprise.” The thread begins with a message posted in December 2007 about establishments on Leganitos Street. “I encourage you to continue this thread, Chinese girls really turn me on and I can’t help it,” it says. On Monday, there were nearly 4,600 messages in the thread. Users have been locating new establishments in an effort that they ironically term “R&D”. Each new discovery is hailed by other forum users, who try out the new venue and share their experiences.

The puteros also spend time enlightening one another with their knowledge. As one user explains to the rest of the community (based on an article that he found) prostitution in hairdressing and beauty salons is common in China, where it is known as falangmei, one of the most humble types of prostitution. According to an academic article citing Shanghai police, falangmei is the fifth tier of the sex trade on a poverty scale where the first level is made up of mistresses of wealthy men and the seventh is slum prostitution.

Antonio Chacón, a lawyer for an Asian woman who owns two beauty parlors on Leganitos with the commercial name Edina, denied that these businesses provide sexual services, but EL PAÍS witnessed how their workers recruited men who passed by, openly offering their services on the street. Some nail salons advertise massages, but without specifying that they are sexual, which leaves bona fide nail clients wondering. “I saw a man who came out looking happy and said ‘great as always’ on his way out. I was a little bit suspicious,” says Mercedes Espinosa, 45, a local resident who has chosen not to go to these Leganitos businesses anymore.

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