“A lot of my friends think Asian women are very attractive,” Billy said. “That’s what I think myself. The girls are beautiful. They are thin, in shape. That’s why American guys like that.”
Indeed, on one of my first nights on the island, I was sitting at a hotel bar, working up the courage to crash a reception for alumni of the Harvard Business School, Kraft’s alma mater, that had already begun out on the deck. An older gentleman approached me and asked where the function was. I pointed to the deck. He told me he couldn’t hear what I was saying. I suggested he try the deck. He became upset and walked away.
Later, the man approached me again, this time to apologize for having behaved rudely. By way of explanation, he told me that he had thought I was a member of the hotel’s service staff. I introduced myself as a reporter in town on a story, and we began chatting about Kraft and Jupiter. Suddenly, he leaned toward me—this older man who only moments earlier had treated me with disdain—and began making sexually explicit comments. “I had all these fantasies about you,” he confessed.
On the island, there were only two preordained roles for a young woman of Asian descent. Being a reporter was not one of them.
V. THE MADAM
Lulu, the co-owner of Orchids who allegedly attended to Kraft, lives a world away from her clients. From Palm Beach, you drive through West Palm Beach, past the South Dixie Highway, past laundromats advertising weekday deals and pawn shops after your gold. If you hang a right and drive north until the turnpike narrows, past billboards advertising plastic surgery and personal injury lawyers, past state prisoners performing hot, humid labor, you enter Martin and Port St. Lucie and Indian River counties, where the rest of Florida lives.
There, upstream from the source, the story of Kraft and the massage parlor raids has grown muddied. Flora Vera and Sean Williams, who live next door to Lulu, told me they had heard the sex workers had been kept naked so they wouldn’t run away. Another neighbor chimed in, telling me it was all part of a complex global conspiracy involving President Trump, full of byzantine connections that I found impossible to follow.
Flora laughed. “Next thing you know, we are saying I saw a UFO,” she said.
“Well, I did see a UFO,” her husband said.
He told me that it had appeared above a Kmart parking lot at dusk, “hovering above the pines,” on his way to church. He had been 12 years old. Later, Flora told me that she has precognitive dreams.
Lulu, who had been arrested at home and released after posting a cash bail of $75,000, declined my request for an interview. She has pleaded not guilty to all charges, including soliciting others to commit prostitution. But her business partner, Hua Zhang, who owns the other half of Orchids, agreed to speak to me.
Zhang was born into a “not rich but respected” family in Guangzhou, China, in 1960. After marrying and giving birth to a son, Zhang applied for a U.S. visa in 2001. Five years later, the visa came through. Zhang hesitated. She was making a good living in China as an esthetician. She knew every bend of every road in Guangzhou. The new country would be full of unfamiliar roads, and strangers who wouldn’t know how to pronounce her name.
But Zhang was a mother before she was anything else, and she decided to emigrate for her son. After the family moved to Los Angeles, Zhang learned there weren’t many opportunities for a middle-aged woman with no professional expertise. A friend Zhang made from her English as a second language class suggested she go to work at a massage school run by Jet Li’s personal masseuse.
At the school, Zhang made another friend who later moved to Florida to work at a massage parlor there. The friend soon began calling Zhang, pleading with her to join her. Zhang was reluctant, but by that time her son was grown, and she and her husband were filing for divorce. Florida is the land of second acts, and in 2010, Zhang moved to Jupiter to begin her life anew as Mandy.