China is without a doubt a paradise for massage lovers, as you can find quality massages at very reasonable prices. However, this paradise can turn into a nightmare if you don’t choose the right place.
This essay, written by Ginés Olivares, is in my opinion a lively description of the types of situations you can find yourself in when trying to get a massage in China. Enjoy!
I have been a massage lover my whole life and have gotten them everywhere I have gone. I loved the massages I got in Hungary, in famous hot springs resorts across all of Europe, as well as in Central America and the pristine hotels in the hot springs region of Chile. Nobody can deny it: there exists a close relationship between hot springs and massage therapists.
After submitting your body to the so gratifying caress of hot springs, a massage from expert hands becomes a necessity, relaxing and removing tension and pain from the body. I need to be honest and I can’t forget the massages in Nordic countries, where the cold makes people turn to saunas and all of their additional features, but it seems like there doesn’t exist such a thing as a place that doesn’t offer a restorative pause for your body.
In Asia, Thai massage stands out, and for me was a unique experience, as at times I didn’t know if I was enjoying it or if they were massacring me, or the delicate massage of a geisha, a delight reserved for special occasions. However, in this story, I am going to recount my three experiences in China.
A very special massage
When I got to Shanghai, a trip that I had been anticipating for many years, after flying for never-ending hours from Miami to the cold of Chinese winter, I felt like I was all contorted and didn’t walk with the energy necessary to conquer the China of 2014, after having visited it at the beginning of the 80’s on my honeymoon.
From the window of my hotel in Nanjing Road, I spotted a large sign with the word massage in English, and I wouldn’t rest until reaching that place. They received me with perfect English and offered me green tea and slippers that I could keep. This massage center was located in one of the tallest buildings in Shanghai, with an altar to Buddha in the middle of the reception. I decided to go for an hour body massage at an internationally acceptable price. From there I went into a small room with two massage beds, green tea and mandarin oranges.
An assistant brought me thick cotton pajamas and with signals gave me instructions to take off my clothing and put the pajamas on. I waited a few moments until a young man of around twenty came in, who didn’t speak any English, but who could laugh in every language. I tried to explain to him that I had had an operation on my spinal cord and that it was recent.
He started to do his job and I started to feel the rigor of the Chinese massage, done with both the hands and elbows. The first thing he did was attack my back, right where I had had the operation.
I told him and repeated it, but he didn’t listen to me and understood even less so. This was a real massacre; he had no mercy. I tried to sit up a few times but this guy kept on going. When I saw him go up a small step ladder and climb up on top of my legs to attack my head and neck from above, I was afraid of experiencing something completely different than what I was looking for after my long trip.
Finally, the watch alarm rang and I felt life flow back into me. The man disappeared into a long, narrow hallway typical of massage parlors in China. When I left, around forty or fifty minutes later, when I was finally able to take off the ridiculous pajamas and sum up the courage to walk straight, considering that I felt nauseous due to the intensity of the blows, everything hurt.
Everything! I said goodbye to the receptionist and gave her my “Xie, Xie”. I lined up my steps towards the elevator and at the door, the massage therapist was laughing out loud, with his arms open in an exaggerated posture, waiting to hug me in a strange and unusual goodbye. He also had the pair of sandals in his hands, which according to him, I couldn’t forget.
When I left the building, I felt the fresh cold of the moment and walking in slow motion, I tentatively moved along until reaching the corner, where a person was selling fresh cherries, which fed my body and mind and made me forget the massage a bit, although I didn’t forget it for several days, most of all when I traveled on tourist shuttles in other cities.
Famous Chinese massage using cupping
I had left Shanghai to fly to Xi’an to fall in love with the terracotta warriors and also to meet a Chinese family, with whom I was to spend the lunar new year. This family became my Chinese family and we did so many things in so few days that my feet were dragging from exhaustion. Because of this, the head of the family and a group of eight family members decided to take me for a foot massage and cupping on my back.
The foot massage was very pleasant and because all of us were in the big room, the conversation was fluid, logically because of my interpreter friend and the very friendly women, who were asking where I was from, how many hours on bus or train does it take to get to my house, why I didn’t use long underwear for the cold, why my white skin was so unhealthy, as well as many other interesting questions that I answered with whatever came out of my mouth, while putting my feet in water that was extremely hot but still bearable. Then, they laid me down on the bed and kept on massaging me up until the upper part of my legs on top of my pants. I’m not sure how much I liked it but I didn’t complain, as they didn’t even let me pay.
When we were taking a rest, the trays with those pretty glass balls arrived, ready for cupping. They made me lie down on my stomach and take off my shirt. With a flame, they took all of the oxygen out of the cups and applied them to different parts of my back. I think I counted around 20 cups. Later, they covered me up and said they would be back in 25 minutes, mentioning that this skin absorption hurts, regardless of what they say.
The 25 minutes seemed like an eternity to me, and when they took the cups off, it was a liberation and my friends had a look of surprise that scared me. The marks left by the cups are a little worrying at first. They are circles of a purple color and depending on the color, reveal a message to the wise. On my very white back, these “red dots” were impressive even for my Chinese family. They told me that I couldn’t shower for 24 hours, which was another shock.
The night after the cupping, I slept like I never had before and I felt so good for the next few days that this experience has led me to unceasingly research cupping application techniques, which today I remember were popular in my early childhood in my native Chile.
When I left my adoptive family, leaving behind the always pleasant and smiling company of my friend, who didn’t only translate words but rather the spirit of everyone with real passion, I retraced my steps to Beijing for one day, during which I visited the Great Wall very early in the morning, and afterwards managed a short but nonetheless interesting visit to the Forbidden City, where I looked for the traces of the empress Yehonala, my passion of Chinese dynasties.
I left there around six in the evening to eat in the most famous and elegant restaurant, opting for their specialty, duck roasted over hot coals. I didn’t have a reservation, so I had to wait for a whole two hours, and they made me leave the place around ten at night, ravaged by fatigue from the new experiences.
Walking along Wangfujing Boulevard and entering the bright lobby of the hotel, I managed to make out to the left another large sign with the magic word: “massage”. My fatigue was not enough to stop me from going to the place, as I had to go to a basement where I was greeted by the owner, a cashier and a strange person who spoke a bit of all the most popular languages, who recommended me a massage with oil for total relaxation. I didn’t feel like talking about the price or conditions, and accepted, using my credit card.
Before going down the usual hall, the young man of around 25 years old told me that he was a landscape painter and also had a technique for meticulously writing Chinese characters, and showed me his exhibition room with many works. He asked me my name and in one moment, drew a few characters that represented my name and my excellent personal attributes, which would only cost me 67 dollars and that I could pay for with my credit card, and that he could wrap it himself without taking long.
At this moment, the only thing I could think about was being in my hotel room and in particular, its large and comfortable bed, as it was already around eleven at night and my plane was leaving Beijing for Miami at ten the next morning. Luckily, the assistant called me and handed me a card with number 16 and accompanied me to the room with that number.
A luxurious room with red walls and black edges was waiting for me, extremely clean with a pleasant aroma that made you want to relax. The assistant passed me a small, disposable material slip and asked me to change. She then took away the rest of my clothing and left the room. I changed and laid down on the bed, and in seconds the massage therapist appeared, with a small vial of a warm, oily liquid.
She only spoke a little English and was a skinny woman of about 38 years old. She asked my permission to pour a bit of oil onto my back and from there continued over my body with a not very traditional softness in Chinese massage. I slept profoundly and only woke up when she asked me to turn over to massage the front of my body, from my forehead to me feet.
I woke up once again when another woman entered the room with a small, metal bath with a lot of warm water, and asked me to get up to clean the oil of of my body. She had some white towels, which she took out of the other recipient with hot water, and scrubbed my head, face and whole body once again. I didn’t realize that I had lost my disposable slip and that I was completely naked.
She soon finished washing me and then dried me with hot towels that seemed to be made of silk. At no moment did I feel anything similar to a massage with sexual intentions, only just that I was naked during a moment of complete satisfaction from the fatigue of the day. That was how my 90 minute massage ended. It was one of the most restorative of my life.
When I got dressed and left to head back to the hotel, the artist was waiting for me with three paintings wrapped in a small paper with my name and attributes written in Chinese characters for the small price of 478 dollars, to which he had already added a substantial discount because of the friendship we had developed.
It cost me another half an hour to get rid of this man who fought, discussed, begged and swore because I didn’t buy his art, after he had had to wait for me until one in the morning for nothing. Once again my experiences tied me to China with more strength and decision.
Nanjing Road, Shanghai
It’s difficult to sit down and write about an experience in which you are guilty due to a lack of caution and precaution when in an unknown environment, but truth comes with the ability to be at peace with oneself. This is how during my third trip to China, for the October Festival, I arrived in Shanghai to head back home after having visited Guangzhou, Chengdu, Tibet and many other cities that were only more and more fascinating to me. I arrived in Shanghai from Guangzhou on a rainy Sunday night, to a comfortable hotel located on the most lively part of Nanjing Road. The next day, I was to leave for America.
I got my things together and changed into somewhat heavier clothes and went to eat at a seafood restaurant in front of the hotel. It was around nine at night and I decided to walk along Nanjing Road in the direction opposite to the Bund, looking for a Starbucks Coffee to use the wifi and to kill a bit of time.
During the walk, the pedestrian street was deserted because of the rain, and of course there were the young, attractive women offering personal massages which have nothing to do with massages but which are advertised as them in many parts of the world. I arrived at the café, where I stayed for half an hour, and then started my walk back to the hotel. Looking at the tall buildings, I saw a sign for massages and my body had trouble not thinking about a massage in detail.
However, I realized that it was the same place where I had had a difficult experience a few months beforehand, so I kept walking. Not more than twenty meters later and from the same building there appeared a young roman with a few papers in her hand and a folder that she opened to choose other catalogs. When she saw me, she came up to me immediately and offered me the best massages in the city for a price similar to the last one, showing me catalogs with different massages and asking me which ones I preferred. I answered that I only wanted a forty-five minute massage on my back and without oil this time, as I wanted to go back to the hotel early.
The girl spoke impressive English and told me that she was studying her Master’s Degree at the university, and immediately made a call on her cell phone and said something in Chinese that I didn’t understand. When she finished the call, she told me that I wouldn’t have to pay anything until I got to the massage parlor and that if I wanted, I could give her a tip for her part.
I asked her where the place was and she told me that it was two blocks down on the same Nanjing Road and invited me to walk with her up to the reception of the place. We walked, talking animatedly until an intersection with a main road, where she got into a taxi that was parked there. Suspicious, I reminded her that she hadn’t told me that we would have to take a taxi.
She responded that I hadn’t understood her, and that it was only five minutes away and because it was raining, we shouldn’t walk and that she would pay for the taxi. I got in, quite suspicious, and recorded in my mind the taxi’s permit number, but like she had said, it was only five minutes away and I could still see Nanjing road when I got out of the taxi. It was a business with strong lights and said massages and club.
We went up to the second floor together, where a woman of around 50 years old who also spoke English received us. She was very nice and asked me what massage I wanted and if I needed any other service. The music was loud and I told her that I couldn’t imagine having a massage with this music.
She told me that it was from the club, but in the massage room I wouldn’t hear anything. I asked the price and she told me that it would be 60 yuan and that they wold charge me in the room to not mix up the money with that of the club.
The girl that had brought me said goodbye and I entered the famous hallway until arriving at room number 3 with a door with transparent glass on its top half. I sat down to wait for the massage therapist and a young woman dressed normally with a beer and a glass on a tray appeared. The girl indicated to me that this was the beer I had ordered. I replied to her that I hadn’t ordered a beer, but to not cause problems, I would drink it.
She only spoke very sparse English and I managed to understand that it was 60 yuan and that she would come to give me the massage when I paid at the reception, pointing the massage bed out to me and telling me to take my shirt off and to lie face down. I managed to take a few sips of the beer and prepared to wait.
She only took a few minutes and then came back. She started her massage at my neck and headed downwards, without showing any lack of experience, and continued with the forty-five minutes of massage I had paid for. When she had finished with my upper area, she told me to take my pants off to continue with my legs.
I took off my pants and remained in my boxers. Getting near the 40 minute mark, she touched my back and showed me a condom in its package. I sat up in the bed and explained that I wasn’t there for that. But now, with better English, she told me that we shouldn’t waste time, and because I was already there, it would only cost 100 yuan more.
I told her no thanks and started to get dressed. The window let people see what was going on in the room and the receptionist came to ask me if there was some problem and I told her no, just that I was going.
So, she responded that I needed to pay for the beer and went to go find the bill. A minute later, two men came into the room, one Chinese man with a normal body and the other an immense black man. The Chinese man identified himself as the general manager of the exclusive club and held in his hand the bill that he wanted to give me to pay.
I asked him why so much fuss to charge me a beer. He laughed loudly and translated to the black man in a language or dialect I didn’t understand, and the black man laughed in an exaggerated and ridiculous way, and passed me the paper for immediate payment. What I could understand was the quantity 29.500 Yuan, approximately $4.90 in dollars.
I turned to the manager and asked him “What’s this?” He told me that it was what I had consumed: a complete massage with safe sex, a beer, a whiskey for the massage therapist and the registration as a new member of this exclusive massage club.
I explained to him what I had done since the moment I had arrived there and that I had paid 60 Yuan for the massage and that the only thing I owed was the beer. The manager spoke perfect English and spoke of morality, and that only an immoral person wouldn’t want to pay for what he consumed. Later, I had to tell them that I couldn’t spend all night talking business and that I only had 30 yuan with me and that I could give it to them.
Then, the black man opened his mouth and told me that he was going to check me. They incessantly searched through all of my clothes with me completely naked in the corner of the damned room. They threatened to go to my hotel to find my credit card to pay themselves and I reminded them that beside the hotel was a noisy police station.
Afterwards, they asked me to show them my watch, which didn’t interest them, as it was a cheap, unknown brand. They were hysterical and I asked myself, what would they do if they were to punish me, as two hours had already gone by.
At this moment, the manager was losing his patience with theatrical style, and told me to put my clothes back on, kicked me out of the club, and told me to never come back. The only thing I lost was my pack of cigarettes, which the black man confiscated without saying anything at all.
I left extremely quickly, and when I got to the exit staircase, a young guy that worked there said the word “taxi” to me and I nodded, and was was able to give him 10 Yuan. When he cam back with the taxi, I felt that something was giving my life back to me. This experience has taught me something I won’t forget. I will continue to get massages for the rest of my life, but in a very cautious and respectful way.
Frequently asked questions
Ginés Olivares is a Chilean from Valparaíso who has been living in the USA for the past 35 years. He holds a PhD in languages and literature, and is an untiring traveler and passionate writer. He currently works at an NGO dedicated to training and finding job opportunities for people with physical and mental handicaps in Miami.