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A Chinese Massage Story

Massage place, Beijing, 2008

I was introduced to Chinese massages by Ning, my boss in Hong Kong. Now, don’t go picturing inappropriate work incentives—Ning may have paid me a ridiculous wage and asked me to work all weekend way too often, but he wasn’t this kind of man. Besides, he was anything but attractive to me. He was in his fifties, bald, and he tucked his shirt into his pants. He was also married to Jojo, my very bitchy manager. All that also somehow explains why when Ning asked me to come with him for a massage, I didn’t bat an eyelash.

We were on a business trip in Shenzhen, the first Chinese city across the border. The entire weekend had been kind of crazy—I had just discovered we would be sleeping at the Shenzhen small office instead of at the hotel (and by “at the office,” I mean we literally ended up sleeping on the sofa in the reception area) and I had been introduced to about 50 people over a dinner featuring Cantonese delicacies like pig intestines and chicken feet.

After the culinary experience mentioned above, Ning and I had rushed into a taxi. It was close to midnight and I thought we were heading back to the office/hotel. But we stopped in front of a tall building.

“Relax time,” Ning sighed.

I paused for a split second, shrugged and followed him.

Don’t judge—I was 18 and didn’t speak much English, let alone Hong Kong “English.”

We were greeted at the front of the building by two Chinese women who fussed around us. One led Ning away and the other one motioned me to a different door which opened on a small bathroom with a shower.

“Please, take off your clothes and make yourself comfortable.”

“Great,” I thought, “Ning actually sold me to a pimp. I guess I should have finished the report that was due two weeks ago…”

Yet, I did what I was told. I took off my clothes and took a warm shower. I changed into the loose cotton clothes that were provided and waited at the door. Soon enough, the woman came back and led me to another room, where I found my boss similarly dressed and already lying on a massage table.

A light bulb switched in my head. Massage? Fully clothed? Sure!

A couple of minutes later, Ning started snoring and I was being massaged by two guys. “Quite surreal,” I thought, “but nice….” The massage itself lasted for a couple of hours but we ended up spending most of the night in the facilities. After the massage, we relaxed for a while in comfortable chairs sipping cold tea and smoking cigarettes (well, at least, I did. Ning was still sleeping). And then, I had a foot massage, followed by more tea and cigarettes. Best corporate meeting ever.

And this is how I was introduced to Chinese massages. In fact, I became quite addicted to them. I book a massage once in a while in Canada, but it’s a rare treat, as they tend to be the Spa kind… so I figured I’d get one in Beijing, where they are much cheaper.

A few days after we arrived, I found my way to a small Spa near the Worker Stadium in Dongzhimen—Bodhi (not a chinglish name!). It was well past 8 p.m., a perfect time for massage in China—most places open late, and unlike in the West, it is common to book pampering time after sunset.

I climbed a few steps and walked to the reception. The lights were dim, the voices were soft and hushed, and four Chinese women wearing traditional qipao were fussing over clients.

“Massage?”

“Yes.”

“Follow me.”

I was led to a small room at the end of a hallway. She closed the door behind me. Clean clothes were on the chair as well as a pair of slippers. I changed, hoping the Chinese-sized clothes would fit, and lay on my stomach on the massage table. Candles gave the room a warm yellow glow.

I yawned. Long day.

The tradition is to be massaged by the opposite sex and so a few second later, my masseur entered the room. I asked for a traditional Chinese massage, hoping to live the Hong Kong experience again. I closed my eyes and started to relax.

If you’ve ever had a massage in North America, you probably remember that the message is “your well-being and comfort come first.” You fill up a sheet with your medical history and must mention any condition that may affect your experience. You’re sometimes asked to circle the body parts to focus on an anatomy chart. The masseur will then double-check and ask questions like “is that okay if I massage your lower back/ neck, etc.?” And you are strongly encouraged to let the masseur know if anything makes you feel uncomfortable or hurts. In short, you’re in control and massages are very gentle since most people want to relax.

Well, let me tell you, traditional Chinese massages are quite different. A minute after closing my eyes, the masseur was kneeling on my butt, then he twisted my left arm in a way I didn’t think it could or should be twisted. He then proceeded to pinch my back (I didn’t even know I had fat in that part of my body!) and pull my fingers. Almost simultaneously, he stretched my back, my legs and pull my ears. He pressed, he tapped, he kneaded, he stroked. My eyes stayed closed but I didn’t exactly fall asleep.

The whole experience was surprising, to say the least, but I wasn’t in pain. I could feel my blood flowing throughout my body. It was… invigorating. An hour later, I left feeling light and happy. “How can such a rough massage achieve that?” I wondered.

I went back for another traditional massage before we left. This time, it wasn’t in a Spa but in a small hutong behind the hostel. The masseur was waiting outside. He was a young guy from Hunan who didn’t like Beijing that much because it was crowded and it didn’t have mountains and lakes, geographical features that Hunan apparently had. He gasped when I told him how much massages cost in Canada. He massaged me with as much zeal as the previous time but I was expecting it and enjoy it thoroughly. I walked out feeling wonderful, as if on drugs.

I haven’t had a massage since I came back to Ottawa. I’m not sure I want a “western-style” massage… and they also cost around $70, while in Beijing my two massages averaged $15. I may have to go to Chinatown for my fix. It’s pure masochism, but I like it rough now.

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