In a secluded section of Queens, New York, almost an hour's walk from the nearest subway station, a four-story building with a façade the shade of orange sherbet rises above a grim collection of auto-part shops and dusty warehouses. Inside, past a pair of faux castle doors, there's a kaleidoscopic array of pools and fountains and bubbling hot tubs and saunas, including a sauna lined with gold-color tiles and another encrusted with candy-color stones.
If this marvel of plumbing is the "Disneyland of Spas," as Susie Ellis, a spa industry analyst, has called it, then its Walt Disney is Steve Chon, a small, terminally unsatisfied man of 56. Chon can occasionally be seen stepping out onto the penthouse balcony overlooking Spa Castle's rooftop pools, scanning his realm of relaxation through a pair of sunglasses. He sometimes dresses a bit like an ersatz Beat poet, in a black turtleneck, black slacks, black-rim glasses, and shiny black shoes. He has a flair for drama. "I always see something bad," he says. "Why is the customer service so bad? Why is this thing falling apart? The water coming down in the shower feels hot. All of a sudden it's becoming cold. Why?"
Chon may have a hard time relaxing, but his intense devotion to work has helped make Spa Castle a modern New York City institution. People have flocked by the hundreds of thousands to bathe in its all-nude single-sex pools, to sprawl on the heated floor of the nap area, and to submit to the merciless Korean exfoliation technique known as the body scrub. Spa Castle is described as a jjimjilbang, a Korean bathhouse, but Koreans make up only a small percentage of the guests. At $40 for a full day during the week, $50 on weekends, the Queens Spa Castle location draws enormous crowds from all over the city and beyond. The hinoki bath, which is said to be paneled in slats of the Japanese cypress dating back 300 years, is as close as anything you'll see to an actual human melting pot.
Chon claims he always knew the spa's eclectic amenities would bring him a mainstream American following, even as friends and family assured him he would fail. People who know him say he is daring and headstrong--a "warrior type," as one friend put it--and for years, these qualities served him well, steeling him against his peers' skepticism as he charged into a series of risky ventures: first the original Spa Castle in Queens, and later a second branch, opened outside of Dallas in 2012.
Then, in December 2014, he unveiled his boldest project yet, a sleek temple of leisure occupying floors seven through nine of the nine-story Galleria Condominium on Manhattan's East 57th Street, mere blocks from the world-class spas of the Peninsula Hotel, the Four Seasons, and the Waldorf Astoria. To make it there could catapult Chon into the tiny class of breakthrough immigrant Korean-American entrepreneurs, such as Do Won Chang, the billionaire founder of retailer Forever 21.
Within a few months, however, the project was facing ruin, and Chon had become convinced that a cabal of powerful operatives was conspiring to destroy him. The king of Spa Castle, who had started with nothing and established what he had hoped would be the foundation of a dynasty, was suddenly in danger of losing it all. "I'm so anxious," he said in February. "I can't think of anything else."
Chon came to New York from South Korea in 1980, when he was 21, for the same reason that most immigrants do--the chance at a better life. The previous year, South Korean president Park Chung-hee had been assassinated in a coup. "Korea was not in good shape, politically and economically," Chon recalls. "I didn't see my future."
When he got here, Chon, like many Koreans of his generation, saw relentless work as an unavoidable prerequisite of the success he craved. But he also understood that hard work was not enough. To truly make something of himself, he would have to take risks that his fellow Korean expats generally avoided. Becoming an engineer was the first of those risks. Back in the 1980s, few Koreans went into trades that require a professional license, though many had them in Korea. Rather than try to negotiate a foreign bureaucracy in a foreign language, they opened groceries and other small businesses. "There was a lot of group thinking," says Ron Kim, a friend of Chon's and a state assemblyman from Queens whose father, licensed as an electrician in Korea, ran a grocery store and then a string of nail salons in New York City. "When they immigrated here, they were told, 'There's an opportunity to open this type of business and everyone else is doing it.'"
Chon believed he was a different breed. "I'm a gambler," he says, striking his chest with his hand. "I have big guts." So rather than going to work for his parents' laundry full time, he joined the Army Corps of Engineers. But he still stacked newspapers at a stationery store on weeknights, and spent his Saturdays working as a shoe salesman in the Bronx.
He eventually studied engineering at the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn (now part of New York University) and got his engineering license in 1990. Then, to expand his range of opportunities even further, he became a licensed plumber. Over the next two decades, he parlayed these skills into a contracting and construction empire, specializing in the construction and renovation of Korean-run businesses, like laundries and nail salons.
He was also partly responsible for transforming the section of West 32nd Street that runs between Broadway and Fifth Avenue in Manhattan from an inconsequential block of loft buildings on the edge of the fading garment district into Korea Way, the buzzing commercial nucleus of Korean New York. He became one of the most successful men in the city's community of more than 100,000 Koreans. But the thrill of this achievement quickly wore off. Success, for Chon, is like an "addictive drug," he says. The more he gets, the more he wants. He dreamed of creating something unique, something that would make him a success in the eyes of all Americans, not just his fellow Koreans. The only question was what. A laundry? "Too small," he says. A restaurant? "No experience." Then he had his eureka moment, which occurred, fittingly, in a bath.
On a visit to Korea in 2003, some of his friends took him to an extravagant new bathhouse, where he noticed a group of American servicemen among the bathers. He saw that they were enjoying themselves. This surprised him. It had not occurred to him that something as uncommon in the States as public bathing would appeal to Americans. And not just public bathing, but public bathing in the nude. In other countries, the spa or its local variant--the hamam, the banya--is ubiquitous, but for most Americans, "taking the waters" has never been part of everyday life.
Convinced that a Korean mega-spa would nonetheless do well in New York City, he bought a dilapidated warehouse in College Point, Queens, a bulge of postindustrial real estate protruding into the East River. The view was less than spectacular. Across the water stood a sewage plant. Chon, however, was sure that everything would work out.
Few agreed. "My brothers said I'm stupid," Chon recalls, grinning proudly. "Even my own wife said I'm stupid." When he applied for loans, every bank officer he approached turned him down. In the end, he covered the costs of the $25 million project with his bank financing, a second mortgage, and his own money, nearly depleting the fortune he'd amassed over two decades, to create an opulent relaxation destination for the city--importing pink salt blocks from the Himalayas, yellow mud cakes from the Korean wetlands, and 40 shipping containers of bamboo flooring from China.
But, from the start, Chon's first business foray into the world beyond the city's close-knit Korean-American enclave proved difficult as none of his other endeavors had. City approvals dragged on for months, and Chon's hard-driving style turned off some neighbors. Along the way, members of the local community board and several elected officials tried to block the spa from opening. They were worried about the traffic it would bring--or at least that's what they said in their formal complaints to the city. Some neighbors thought the spa would serve as a front for a brothel.
Chon appeared at community board meetings and tried to make it clear that he was building a family-friendly establishment. But the board remained unanimously opposed to his plan, and would probably have succeeded in killing it had he not made a direct appeal to the borough president, who took the unusual step of overriding the community board. On the opening day, neighbors picketed outside. Queens has the city's largest Asian population, but College Point was still a bastion of working-class whites. It seemed obvious to Chon that his neighbors wanted to keep it that way.
Even after it opened, Spa Castle's success was far from assured. But through luck or skill, his timing was good. Between 2007, when the first Spa Castle opened, and 2013, more than 5,800 new spas opened in North America. "Spas are no longer perceived as the exclusive domain of the wealthy," says Beth McGroarty, the research director for Spafinder Wellness, a company that publishes an annual Global Spa and Wellness Trends report. In the U.S., spa revenue rose 35 percent from $12 billion in 2007 to nearly $16.25 billion in 2013. Korean-style spas constitute only a sliver of the U.S. spa sector, but their numbers are growing. There are at least nine Korean bathhouses in Los Angeles, and others in the Bay Area, the D.C. area, Chicago, New Jersey, Colorado--really, wherever Korean immigrants have settled down.
In the end, Chon's persistence paid off. Today, about 300,000 people crowd into the Queens spa each year, according to the company. Chon would not disclose specific annual revenue but says the Queens spa's sales have hit "more than $20 million in recent years." The Texas location, opened in 2012, is meant to suggest an Egyptian temple, with towering statues of pharaohs flanking the entrance and a pyramid-shaped sauna coated in 23-karat gold. Chon expects that location to take in $14 million this year.
Having fulfilled his dream of creating a business that transcends ethnicity, Chon set his sights on ensuring that his business will secure his legacy. "In Korea we say, 'When a tiger dies he leaves his skin,'" says Chon. "'When a man dies, he leaves his name.' The name is Chon. I want to leave my name."
After his success in Queens and Texas, Chon decided to start a business in Manhattan, an area that hadn't seen many ambitious Korean immigrant entrepreneurs succeed outside of the industries they had traditionally dominated. In May 2013, after several false starts, he took over the top three floors of the Galleria, a condo building just a few blocks from Central Park. At first, he says, the renovations went smoothly. But in September 2014, just as the project was nearing completion, he got his first taste of the difficulties to come.
He had already spent close to $8 million on the construction and was just waiting for the Department of Buildings to send over an inspector for a final review, a key hurdle before he could open to the public. That's when he learned that the board of the nearby Ritz Tower was suing him and the Galleria's owner. In a caricature of old-money prudishness, the board fretted that the "nudity-friendly" baths in the gender-segregated areas would violate "public morals." It also argued that the spa's rooftop pools, cabana, and new walls would interfere with the Ritz's views. Unfortunately for Chon, the latter complaint carried legal weight.
As it turned out, a previous landlord of the Galleria had signed an easement agreement back in 1974 promising to never raise the height of the roof without the Ritz's consent. Chon claims he wasn't aware of this, and argued in his formal response that installing hot tubs was not the same thing as raising the roof's height.
Besides, the previous tenants, the New York Health & Racquet Club, had often held parties on that very same roof. Why hadn't the Ritz complained about them? To Chon, the lawsuit smacked of snobbishness and racism. It reminded him of the prostitution rumors that had dogged him in Queens, but, arguably, this situation was worse. Unlike the working-class people and small-business owners who had rallied against him in College Point, the Ritz tenants, on the whole, were wealthy and presumably very well-connected. Chon says his landlord urged him to back down. Just surrender the roof and move on, he recalled the landlord saying--Chon had no chance against them. Chon barreled ahead anyway.
In October, Chon's legal problems multiplied. A Spa Castle employee had filed a class-action suit accusing Chon of forcing "bath servants" and other employees to work without proper compensation for 11 hours a day, six days a week. It is one of several suits that have been filed against Chon by his employees since 2012. Chon is fighting back against these accusations (the legal process is now in the discovery stage), and he says it's the company's policy not to comment on pending litigation. But he makes no apologies for his management style, a likely culprit in the continuing litigation. "I have to yell for my health," says Chon. "If I don't yell, I get sick. I can't digest my food. I can't drink water."
In December, as the New York State Supreme Court collected documents from both sides of the Ritz case, the Department of Buildings issued a temporary certificate of occupancy for Premier 57, allowing it to open pending a pool permit from the Department of Health. Every week, Chon says, he asked the Department of Health when the inspector would come; every week, he got the same answer: "One more week."
Bureaucratic delays are not uncommon in New York City. Although Joel Trace, an architect who has worked as a pool designer for more than 40 years, says he rarely has had to wait more than three weeks to get an inspector, State Assemblyman Kim says a two-month wait is not unheard of, especially for small businesses.
"It's not just him," says Kim. "I've seen a lot of small businesses struggle to get the inspector to come out to give them the green light to open up. But two months for a small business is bankruptcy."
Chon knew this as well as anyone. After all, it had taken him nearly two years to get the green light to build his palace in Queens. But in Queens, the property belonged to him. In Manhattan, he was a renter. He'd already spent hundreds of thousands of dollars just to hold onto the space. If the Department of Health kept putting off the inspection, he'd eventually be forced to break his lease. "I couldn't wait," says Chon. So he gambled, just as he'd done so many times before. Even though he knew that some of his neighbors wanted him gone, even though he believed they would take advantage of any opportunity to get him in trouble, he went ahead and opened the spa without a pool permit. "It wasn't the right thing to do," says Stephanie Chon, his daughter and the company's director of operations. "But we were pushed to the point where we lose money or maybe go bankrupt, or we open."
If Chon was worried about the possible repercussions, he didn't show it. In November 2014, just before the spa's grand opening, he strolled across the roof deck with his head held high, showing off the mineral pools infused with ginger, rose, and lavender. Standing there at the literal high point of the Spa Castle kingdom, he took in the majestic view of the Manhattan high-rises all around him.
"I'm going to build a Spa Castle in every state," he proclaimed. "Last will be the one in Anchorage, Alaska. The coldest area! Then we go abroad."
Spa Castle Premier 57 opened its doors in December 2014. By then, the Ritz lawsuit was already going less well than Chon had anticipated. A few days before the opening, a judge had tentatively sided with the Ritz, issuing an injunction that indefinitely barred Chon from letting customers onto the roof. Chon had spent half a million dollars to build those pools. He vowed to appeal the decision and, if that didn't work, he'd sue his own landlord for letting him build there in the first place. One way or another, he'd come out on top. He always had, hadn't he?
Two weeks later, a dead body turned up in one of the pools in Queens.
As omens go, it could hardly have been more troublesome. And yet, to Chon, the death was nothing much to worry about. After all, the dead man, Hock Ma, was in his 80s. According to the city's medical examiner, he had died of natural causes. It wasn't Chon's fault. It wasn't his staff's fault. It was an isolated incident. There was nothing anyone could have done. It could have been worse, he thought.
It got worse.
Just after Ma's death, on January 13, the Department of Health shut down the pools and saunas in Chon's new flagship. The department said the closure didn't have anything to do with the death. Chon's crucial error, a Department of Health spokesperson said, was opening the Midtown location without permission. That kind of omission happens in New York City; the sin is getting caught. How did the Department of Health know? It received a tip from a concerned citizen, according to the spokesperson.
Premier 57 continued to operate its massage and treatment stations, which didn't need Department of Health approval. But, by then, the department had discovered other violations. "They were throwing all the regulations at us--every little nitty-gritty, small, minute thing," says Stephanie Chon. "There was no end in sight."
Now the authorities had Chon's full attention. Chon and his daughter tried to make amends. They bought a wheelchair lift to meet the requirements of the Americans With Disabilities Act, and had the facility's pipes coated in color-coded paint, per Department of Health instructions. They called the department and left messages begging for permission to reopen the pools, spas, and saunas. But no one called them back, they said, and they began to wonder whether the bureaucrats were screening their calls. They prevailed upon elected officials to write letters on their behalf. They hired a lobbyist to talk to the Department of Health. At one point, they went down to the department's headquarters themselves and waited hours for the inspector to emerge. When he finally appeared, he told them exactly what they didn't want to hear: Just keep waiting.
But Spa Castle without pools and saunas was unlikely to attract big crowds. Attendance suffered. Chon had little choice but to shut the whole place down, and that's what he did, in February. He laid off dozens of employees, telling them they'd get their jobs back whenever the spa reopened.
Privately, he worried whether that day would ever come. When asked at that time to explain exactly what would happen if he didn't get the Department of Health permit, he stared blankly for a moment before cracking an unexpected smile.
"Then we're fucked," he said.
Stymied, frustrated, and verging on panic, Chon began to nurse a theory that allowed him to avoid some of the blame for his predicament, at least in his own mind. He became convinced that a certain player in the Manhattan real estate world, a very successful one, was waging a secret battle outside the court system to keep his project shuttered. He had--still has--no hard proof, just hearsay from contacts inside the city government about the identity of the supposed enemy. But that didn't make him any less real in Chon's mind. And there were, demonstrably, powerful people allied against him as part of the Ritz lawsuit. "They think I am going to bring down the property values," Chon scoffed. "You know, 'Asian,' whatever."
The lawyers for the Ritz declined to talk. Chon, meanwhile, could not stop talking. One day in late February, he dropped by Kim's Queens office. According to Kim, he seemed to be fixated on the idea that he had been wronged. Kim tried to encourage him to move on. "When I hear people constantly blame others, to me, that's not thinking rationally," Kim says. "I've never seen him at that point before. No matter how difficult it was, he always took it on the chin." Chon, he said, seemed to be at "a breaking point."
For months, the spa remained shuttered and empty, its hot tubs drained, its fate unclear. Chon, who had been so eager to tell his tale, was suddenly unavailable to answer any questions about how things were progressing. Toward the end of March, he stopped returning calls. He was just too busy to talk, his publicist said. The months dragged on. And on.
Then, on June 13, the New York blog Gothamist had the news: "Midtown Spa Castle Will Finally Reopen!"
Shortly thereafter, Chon was at the Spa Castle Premier, dressed sharply in a dark blue suit. It was early, around 7:30 a.m., and the spa had not yet opened for the day. Sitting in a cushioned nook in the TV lounge, he said he'd learned a valuable lesson from his recent travails. After months of demanding a permit from the Department of Health, he deployed a tactic reserved for the most dire situations--like when the Queens Spa Castle faced defeat. "I changed my tone," he said. "I tried to be more polite."
Chon had personally appealed to the commissioner of the Department of Buildings to write a letter to the Department of Health on Spa Castle's behalf. It worked. In May, the Department of Health allowed him to resume using every part of the facility except the roof, which was still off limits due to the judge's injunction in the Ritz case. Then, a few days later, the judge vacated the injunction, permitting Chon to use the roof with the Department of Health's approval. As of presstime, Chon was still trying to get that approval, but he expected it soon. The Ritz litigation was still unfolding, but Chon sounded more optimistic than he had in months. For the first time in a while, he could "see the hope," he said.
Chon still believed his enemies had somehow orchestrated the months of bureaucratic delays, but now, finally, he was ready to take Kim's advice and move on to other things. Although not quite resolved, the Spa Castle Premier debacle had already begun to recede in Chon's mind. What he wanted to talk about, as always, was the next big challenge. His architects are working on plans for a 291-acre, $250 million Spa Castle resort in the Pocono Mountains in Pennsylvania. It will have an indoor bowling alley and a runway for planes and gliders.
There, too, he is encountering opposition from the locals. In fact, the approval process has already dragged on for five years. And yet, Chon is, true to form, completely confident that he'll triumph--somehow. He is sure his opponents will come around. And if it looks like they won't, he might even try being polite. "Come there," he says, addressing his imaginary critics in the Poconos, his mind already in the mountains. "Enjoy the woods area, fresh air, nice facility. You know, relax."