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Stop Being Scared of China (and Get a Chinese Massage!)

Chinatown, Toronto, JUly 2019
Chinatown, Toronto, JUly 2019

My life is better with a bit of China in it—Feng, Chinese food I cook most nights, my favourite Chinese bakery treats, Chinese massages

“Oh, my… what do you do to your body?”

“I live.”

My tongue-in-cheek humour doesn’t work well in Mandarin. Never mind. The 60 minutes of indulgence just started. I can let it go, relax, enjoy… gee, I might even fall asleep.

Just kidding. I signed up for a Chinese massage, after all. If I pass out, it’s from pain—the art of 推拿(“tuīná”) is a treat for masochists.

Last June, on my way back from the gym, I noticed a new business in a strip mall I usually don’t stop at because I don’t need a payday loan or takeout. Stuck between “The Curry House”—suspicious odourless, I suspect money laundering—and “MunCheese,” a pizza-and-subs hole in the wall riding the legalization wave, there was a spa. Or rather, the sign said “spa place” in English but “foot massage” and “massage” in Chinese.

I paused. Was it an Asian massage place or an Asian “massage” place?

There is a few “Asian spas” on Bank Street and other commuter corridors that offer “relaxation massage” to “relieve tensions.” I don’t have the proof but I believe they are part of the “rub’n’tug” industry—no penetration, everything else negotiable. It’s a thing in Canada. Some parlours are licensed, which means that attendants are allowed to perform the massage naked. Many places just operate as “holistic spa centres” and the police turn a blind eye to sex-for-money commitment-free encounters so long as they don’t advertise such an arrangement is offered.

I can book some X-rated Chinese action at home with Feng anytime, so I’m always looking for a real Chinese massage place. There are plenty in Toronto but so far none in Ottawa.

I pushed the door. A bell chimed. No one.

I glanced at the reception area. Slippers. An upside-down “” and diplomas on the wall. The hint of Tiger Balm smell. No mirror, dimmed lights, candles or pictures of naked women. It felt like a legit massage place.

A woman holding a phone emerged from the other end of the hallway.

“Hi, do you—”

She held a hand up, typed something on her phone, and gave it to me.

I look at the screen. A translation tool in Chinese.

“Never mind,” I said in Mandarin hoping she didn’t speak Cantonese. “I speak Putonghua.”


The quiet-shy Asian is a dumb stereotype. Chinese women are not particularly quiet and shy.

“Mei” came over and I took another Chinese language test.

“So, anyway… do you do massages?”

“Oh yeah! Now?”

Oh, yeah. Now.

And this is how I found myself enjoying a traditional Chinese massage, a treat I’ve been introduced to in 2001 by my boss in Hong Kong who one day took me to a parlour without telling me what was going—just imagine my face when I was instructed to take off my clothes…

A traditional Chinese massage involves none of the Western spa BS—“so please, like, let me know if the pressure is okay, like, I’m going to touch your back now.” It’s the perfect combination of stretching, kneading and pushing the muscles to balance energy and blood flow. Expect deep pressure, lots of oil, a hot tower to clean up and a brand-new body at the end.

So, why am I telling you this?

Because Chinese massages are a part of Chinese culture worth exploring.

And also because I’m getting tired of anti-China propaganda in Europe and North America.

It’s not a very good time to be Chinese in the West. If you’re not a spy, people suspect you run a sweatshop factory, slaughter your pet dog for breakfast, buy all the properties you can land on, trample on human rights just for laughs or flood the world with shitty products.

“Chinese students… yeah, like, they always cheat on exams,” I overheard a college student telling her friend at Starbucks.

“Are you sure it’s safe to shop in Chinatown?” a concerned client asked me recently. “I mean, these imported products could be full of chemicals, for all you know…”

“You got your FitBit band on AliExpress? I don’t buy made-in-China products, I get mine directly from FitBit,” a woman at the gym commented.

I see how these offhand comments affect Feng, who doesn’t even always strongly identify with Chinese culture. They affect me as well to a certain extent because this is not “my” China and the Chinese people I know I see depicted in popular Western culture—and I like to think I’m fairly knowledgeable after 12 years of studying Mandarin, a degree in Chinese studies, six trips to China and half of my life with a Chinese other half.

There are issues in China, much like everywhere else. China does have an agenda—newsflash, so do Europe and North America.

It’s not okay to okay an anti-Chinese sentiment.

Don’t let the media brainwash you. I suspect the Middle East isn’t just a bunch of countries fighting with each other shouting “Allāhu akbar” or that Africa isn’t just poor people waiting for white people’s help. I know for a fact not all Latinos make crossing the US border illegally their life goal.

Well, the same goes with China—the culture may feel strange and completely different but it doesn’t mean it’s bad, dangerous, or wrong. And for the record, Europe and North America can look pretty fucked up from a Chinese perspective.

So go out and get curious about a culture you feel you don’t know enough. Discover it with an open mind and get a new perspective. Be less easy to brainwash.

And yes, you can start with a Chinese massage.

The article was not sponsored by the Chinese Communist Party and it’s a complete accident I wrote it a day before the 70th anniversary of the PRC—“or is it…?” conspiracy theorists will say…

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French woman in English Canada.

Exploring the world with my camera since 1999, translating sentences for a living, writing stories that may or may not get attention.

Firm believer that nobody is normal... and it’s better this way.

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