Splashed across the illuminated photomural signs in bold red characters, the names – “Golden Water,” “Sparkling Sea,” “East Wave,” “Little River,” “Dragon Bridge” – conjure up an Oriental island paradise. The photomurals depict a corresponding scene, such as a quiet country cottage by a pond or a near-nude female swimmer emerging from water into sunlight. And yet this most primal of pleasures, bathing, is somehow too close to home. It must be made exotic, Occidentalized. Hence the interior that resembles a Roman bath, with the airy ceilings, the imitation marble tiling, the stained-glass sky lighting, the sculpted friezes of classical nudes.
In the lobby, I exchange my shoes for bath slippers, hand towel and locker key attached to wristband, and head for the men’s bath entrance. There a male attendant insists on helping me out of my clothes and stands next to me gazing at my naked body with intense curiosity. He is not necessarily gay, nor are most of the patrons, yet there is a male camaraderie in the air, a suggestion that the normal male boundaries don’t have to be strictly observed in this space. I trust that my items are safe in the locker, as locker theft wouldn’t be good for business. Another attendant offers to wash my clothes for the equivalent of $1 (USD) per piece and shine my shoes for 60 cents. Welcome to the new Chinese bathhouse, or “Bathing Center,” in the upscale formulation.
The bathhouses of Beijing vary in quality from the ritzy to the seedy and shabby (whose interiors lack the Roman ornamentation). Most have a hot-water pool big enough to fit five or ten bathers; some also have a cold-water pool. The hot-water pool should be hot enough that you have to descend into it in stages but not so hot that you can’t enter at all; low-quality bathhouses skimp on heating costs and their hot-water pools are tepid or half-full. There is also a sauna and a steam bath, showers lining the wall, and massage tables.
The masseur on hand – there are usually several busy at work during peak hours – offers me a vigorous “cleansing” massage for $2.50 designed to scrub the dead skin off my body with a rough towel and soap and water. I enjoy this massage, even the stinging percussive slapping, though I should forewarn prospective male customers who are not used to being touched by a man that the masseur will spread your legs apart and clean your anus and scrotum. The cleansing massage is optional. The masseur will nonetheless act very much as if your bathhouse visit is incomplete without one. Also offered at most bathhouses is the popular moxibustion treatment, the application of hot glass suction cups to the back to improve circulation.
After showering and drying off, I am asked if I want to “rest.” I do, and I am provided with pajama shirt and shorts and optional disposable underwear and proceed up to the “big resting room” on the second floor. Pajamas are required because women also use the resting room. Clean and carpeted with faux-Western decor, it houses as many as fifty or even a hundred beds with raised backs and fresh sheets, in rows all facing a large TV screen showing kung-fu movies continuously until the last customers fall asleep in the early hours of the morning. There may also be double beds for couples. If the interminable blaring of the big resting-room TV is a problem, private rooms with two, four, or more beds can also be rented hourly or overnight at reasonable rates.
With their affordable (for most urban Chinese) $2 entrance charge and 24-hour operation, bathhouses are an increasingly popular substitute for hotels. Conveniently and illegally, male-female couples are not required to show ID proving marriage to stay in a room together, nor need one fill out any forms upon entering the bathhouse for an overnight stay.
Upon settling down in the resting-room, I am approached by a male attendant who inquires if I would like anything to drink – beer, tea, soft drinks – or any snacks. Or how about a foot massage? Or perhaps a “therapeutic” body massage by one of the girls? Opting for a masseuse entails a number of possibilities, varying from bathhouse to bathhouse and within the same bathhouse. The attendant leads me either to a designated massage room with a row of massage tables, typically with a window with a clear view into the room to establish that nothing unprofessional is going on, or more likely to a private room, so that the house can justify squeezing a “room fee” of $5 out of me on top of the cost of the $7 massage.
The attendant politely asks me to wait in the room while he fetches a girl. As a regular bathhouse customer, I know the routine. I take off my pajama shirt but not my shorts and lay down face up. The masseuse is typically in her early 20s and passably attractive and fully dressed in sportswear or simple shirt and slacks. She then either proceeds with the therapeutic massage, which combines acupressure with aggressive manipulation of the flesh, in the most professional manner, as if it would be outrageous to suggest she could do otherwise, or she offers to masturbate me with Johnson’s baby oil. This is otherwise known as the “special service” (or more colloquially, 打飞机 – “shoot down the airplane”) at an additional cost running around $25. Alternatively, she offers an “oil massage,” which amounts to the same thing, though in some establishments the oil massage may be just that, minus the hand job, at a cheaper ten dollars. The lower-priced oil massage itself comes in two varieties, depending on the bathhouse. It is either strictly non-sexual and differs in no way from the “therapeutic” massage except that oil is used, or non-ejaculatory genital massage is included along with the rest of the body. In the latter case, the masseuse slips her oiled hands inside my pajama shorts, keeping my shorts in place to maintain appearances. For hand-jobs, she pulls my shorts down to the ankles. Most masseuses prefer to “specialize” in the lucrative business of hand jobs and predictably act surprised and disappointed if I don’t agree to one. As for vaginal intercourse, police intimidation has largely succeeded in driving full-blown prostitution out of most bathhouses. Those that do offer it charge $50-$60. There is nothing about a bathhouse on the outside that will key you in to the sexual policy they have on the inside.
When my 45-minute session is up, the masseuse encourages me to go for a double session. A trick of some masseuses is to spend the first session on one half of your body, leaving you feeling unfinished and more likely to agree to a double session. When I decline, she has me sign the adopted Chinese character for my surname on a receipt noting the service performed and agreed-upon price. This is to preempt any misunderstanding about fees down at the lobby cashier. My shoes have also been stashed away till I have paid in case I am contemplating making a break for it.
I have yet to meet a masseuse who wasn’t friendly and talkative. The expected volley of questions follows, and having been asked the same questions over and over again I can predict even the order in which they appear: Are you American? Yes. How long have you been in China? Three years. Why did you come to China? To teach and enjoy the culture. Do you often go to bathhouses? Yes. Do you like Chinese girls? Yes. Do you have a family? A wife. Does she know you are here? Yes. And she approves? Yes, as a matter of fact. And so on. Some masseuses are so busy asking me questions that they forget to massage me, but I welcome the opportunity to practice my Chinese.
Those who have encountered the likes of me, their first foreign customer, are moved to friendly banter by genuine curiosity, but masseuses who are not adept at emotional labor wouldn’t last long in the business. Many girls are in fact dismissed after racking up customer complaints. Others quit. There is a high turnover rate among bathhouse workers; most last only a few months in the same bathhouse. Beside the potential for physical abuse, the main occupational hazard is boredom. At most establishments, masseuses are required to be on hand 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, with the occasional afternoon off to deposit money in the bank, shop for clothes, or perform tricks on the side. Business picks up late in the evening and winds down by three o’clock in the morning. The masseuses sleep from 4 o’clock till noon. When they are not with customers, they lounge about the big resting room or in their own back room and sleep or watch TV.
A typical bathhouse employs 10-20 masseuses and an equal number of men, who serve as shoe keepers, laundry men, cooks, bath attendants, masseurs, waiters, bouncers, and pimps. Their presence also serves to protect the masseuses from unruly customers. They earn a pittance in comparison with what the masseuses earn, and therefore in return, the masseuses (so the rumor goes) may be expected to service them sexually free of charge.
Hand-job masseuses working in the big cities earn the equivalent of anywhere from $300-$1,200 per month, depending on how many customers show up daily; vaginal intercourse can earn 2-3 times as much. This is a lot more money than what, say, restaurant waitresses earn, who rarely make over $50 a month for putting in 12-hour days, seven days a week. Like their bathhouse sisters, waitresses in the cities also hail mostly from the countryside, but have chosen to remain sexually “pure.” Which means they will not be able to bring enough money back to build that new house for their parents. Visit any countryside village, and chances are that any of the newly constructed cement-and-tile houses you see were built with money sent home from daughters off in the city doing sex work.
Sex workers in Beijing come from every corner of China. Those from Liaoning, Jilin, and Heilongjiang Provinces in the northeast seem to represent the largest group. There is a pecking order of cities. Masseuses working in bathhouses in regional cities seek through personal connections to get an introduction to a bathhouse in one of the big tourist cities, whose higher rates for all services means higher earnings. Bathhouses in backwater cities also have a reputation for being less frequented by the police, as smaller cities attract less national or international attention. Bathhouses are primarily in the business of illicit physical gratification. China’s showcase cities – Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Shenzhen – have shouldered the responsibility of showing the rest of the country the way it should be run, not only economically but also morally, and this necessitates frequent vice-squad raids on the underground sex industry.
Bathhouse owners can reduce the likelihood of being raided by regularly paying off the neighborhood police. Cautious customers learn by word of mouth which bathhouses have good relations with the police. It also helps to know what exactly constitutes criminal activity. A male acquaintance in the Chinese Army who claims to understand the workings of the bathhouses proffers the following advice for men. Using the bath and big resting room is perfectly legal. Using a private resting room is also legal provided there are no females present among men. What can get you arrested is being discovered in a private room together with a woman who is not your immediate family member. This applies whether she is a masseuse or your girlfriend, whether you are naked or fully clothed and doing nothing more than playing mahjong (the same law supposedly applies to hotel rooms). The situation in the designated massage rooms is murkier.
Of course, exactly what is legal or illegal in China is seldom precisely spelled out. For all I know, anyone in a bathhouse during a raid is potentially subject to arrest. “If you must go to bathhouses,” my army friend advised me, “don’t go during peak hours, when the likelihood of a spectacular police raid is greatest.” I have never experienced a police raid at any of the 40 Beijing bathhouses I have sampled, and I have no desire to. If it is any consolation, some bathhouses keep a video monitor behind the resting-room serving counter with an outside view of the street entrance to serve as an early-warning system.
Bathhouses are plainly big business. How many are there? Except for a small number of “legitimate” bathing centers targeting foreigners curious to try nonsexual massage by the blind, bathhouses are not listed in the phone book. The police must have a pretty accurate list, if they would be willing to share it, which they generally are not. I can only guess at the number of bathhouses in Beijing by counting the number in my neighborhood on bicycle, then multiplying the total in my neighborhood with the total neighborhoods in the city. Hundreds. Embarrassed by their proliferation, the municipal authorities have shrouded the topic in silence, permitting only newspaper reports sensationalizing the latest police raids, which if this were the only source of knowledge about the bathhouses would leave one with the impression that the war against them was practically won. The fancy of their imminent extinction, however, is contradicted by their serenely confident presence on every street, sprouting up like giant neon mushrooms where only yesterday another business seemed to be flourishing. Everyone knows perfectly well that they exist, yet no one wants to talk about it. As the literary journal Du Shu remarked, “This vigorous business has its market and need. Need for what? The bosses know, the customers know, the city licensers know, the police know. But each party pretends it doesn’t know, till one day trouble occurs, and then everyone pretends they only learned of the problem today. So they close down the offending bathhouse, and the next day grant a license to a new one.”
Public bathing places have long been a necessity for the Chinese population, most of whose homes until recently lacked bathrooms, hot running water, or any running water. Until recently, bathing places were purely functional. Big resting rooms, private rooms, amenities, and prostitutes would all have been unimaginable luxuries. Many such bare-boned “public shower rooms” continue to serve the same function today; one finds them at government workplaces, campuses, and in the poorer neighborhoods. Yet China does boast a bathhouse tradition, in the same sense as Japan, Hungary, Turkey, and many other cultures, with a social purpose beyond mere hygiene. The “bathhouse” in its true sense is a place of relaxation and camaraderie, an island sanctuary from urban stress for purifying the soul and the body. It is an attempt to recapture an older bathhouse ideal, which the internationally released Chinese film Shower (1999, dir. Zhang Yang) nostalgically, and misleadingly, recalls, for the film depicts the Chinese bathhouse as a dying institution, when in fact it is very much alive. The film also omits any reference to prostitution or sexual massage – its bathhouse appears to be an exclusively male domain closed even to female customers – leaving audiences with a sanitized image of the Chinese bathhouse, and in this respect the film is of propagandistic value to a government that officially denies the existence of prostitution within its borders.
With the rise in living standards in the 1990s, it was inevitable that entrepreneurs would attempt to lure free-spending bath enthusiasts by outfitting bathhouses in the trappings of modernity, luxury, and, with female migrants flocking to the cities and prostitution booming, the promise of total physical gratification. The question of why the government doesn’t simply clear the bathhouses once and for all of sex workers made sense during the simpler era of the 1950s, when it more or less succeeded by decree in eradicating the country altogether of prostitution. The question is out of place in the increasingly complex and moneyed society of today’s China, however, although you can’t fault the government for not trying: some three million prostitutes have been arrested nationwide since 1984, with an estimated quarter of a million continuing to be arrested annually. Most are immediately released after paying a $365 fine. This is no more than a containment policy. While frequent police crackdowns on the sex industry during the mid 1990s pushed many transient profiteers into the pirated CD and video markets, the sex business at present shows no signs of losing steam, nor do the Chinese police appear to have the manpower or resources to roll it back.
People with power and influence are obviously giving the sex business semi-official blessing even as it is denounced and attacked. For one thing, there is the realization that the huge migrant population is better off employed than not, and employment at the baths is as structured a work site as any. For another, men like their baths. The usual method of containing prostitution in other countries is to corral bathhouses, massage parlors, and the like into police-monitored red-light districts. In Japan, for example, where bathing and sex have a long association, baths offering sexual massage for men, affectionately known as “Soap Land,” jostle alongside “Pink Salons” (hand-job bars) and strip-tease joints in urban red-light districts, while sexually segregated public baths functioning strictly for bathing are readily found in any neighborhood.
What makes the phenomenon in China remarkable is that the same neighborhood bathhouses that are used as showers, transient hotels, meeting places, and tranquil corners for relaxation for families also offer prostitution. Or to put it more precisely: female customers may find their way to resting rooms accompanied by husbands who furtively exchange knowing glances with their favorite masseuses. This is either unprecedented, or the way it once used to be, or perhaps the way it should be (if the same sexual services were also offered to women in a safe environment). But it is not, as far as I know, the present custom elsewhere. And it is doubly ironic not only that these factories of sexual gratification simultaneously serve as a washing place for families who lack hot running water, but also that this is happening in the capital of Beijing, center of state power, as well as throughout the rest of the country.
The West has construed China as a sexually repressed society. I find sexual expression here surprisingly fluid and free, though covert in the domestic mass media and understated and subtle in verbal discourse. My experience of the baths, especially, has thrown into relief the way things that are or should be kept separate in the American psyche merge and fuse in China. The body itself including the “private parts” is regarded quite naturally as everyone’s business; my genitals are touched by the men at the “Misty Lake” and by the male masseurs at all bathhouses I visit with the same ease and spontaneity as a handshake. Likewise do saleswomen in some Chinese brassiere shops directly squeeze the breasts of their customers to get an intuitive fitting, and my female college students caress each other’s hair instead of their own during class.
There is a strong sense of the boundary between the private and the public in China. It is just that because norms are so well understood in this relatively homogeneous society, the boundary is overstepped and even toyed with, to no one’s offense. And where Americans expect a boundary, none may exist. This is keenly brought home in the open-stalled WCs where users squat over holes and watch each other defecate (though these are gradually being replaced in tourist cities by closed-stalled WCs), restrooms in buildings whose windows casually provide passersby with a clear view of the urinals inside, unisexual lavatories in some primary schools; the recesses stumbled upon in certain parks where rows of couples congregate at night for lack of private quarters to have sex, clothed but in full view of one another; loveseat booths in movie theaters serving the same purpose. You not only see the public intruding upon the private but the private intruding upon the public as well: drunken businessmen staggering out of restaurants to vomit on a crowded sidewalk; working-class men baring and caressing their potbellies to passersby or urinating on buildings; women blissfully unaware of the pubic hair showing through their gauzy summer wear.
I call this the “sweet and sour” phenomenon: aspects of experience that in juxtaposition cause anxiety unless categorized and compartmentalized, sit together quite happily in China. Further instances abound in another bodily realm, that of diet and health. The decisive distinction in Western cooking between sweet and salty is blurred in Chinese cooking. Customers in Beijing McDonald’s restaurants can be seen consuming an ice cream cone in one hand and a Big Mac in the other, or they eat the ice cream first. There is no Chinese habit of capping a meal off with dessert, in part because sugar is already liberally applied to balance saltiness in main dishes. Raw tomato slices are sprinkled with sugar as an appetizer. Chinese European-style pastry is never sweet enough, while moon cakes, the traditional Moon Festival treat, consist of egg yolks embedded in a sickly sweet bean-paste jelly. “Bread cake” is the sliced bread variety of choice. Displayed in glass jugs in every restaurant is the beverage known as “medicinal spirits,” consisting of wolfberries, ginseng, or dead snakes steeped in one hundred and twelve-proof alcohol, and generally consumed for drinking rather than health purposes. Beer is preferred to tea as table water for washing down meals in restaurants. There is no drinking age, and college students can buy cheap hard liquor at any campus food stand. Children can buy cigarettes. Most antibiotic drugs are sold over the counter (though this is being gradually stamped out to the dangerous abuse of these drugs).
The oxymoron of the neighborhood sex-bathhouse is the sweet and sour of the Chinese sex industry. In the American context, it is like prostitutes being employed by the neighborhood YMCA. Or massage therapy treatments at the local health club whose deluxe version comes with a hand-job. In the U.S., where sexual massage parlors are restricted to certain neighborhoods in “vice” cities such as Las Vegas, San Francisco, or Honolulu (they are in fact more widespread, but that’s a dirty little secret), it is considered immoral, even criminal, to confuse sexual massage with “massage therapy.” But why, one might ask, should the idea of collapsing the two into one cause outrage when they already flourish separately? Why should you have to go across town from the good neighborhood to the bad neighborhood when you could simply pay a massage therapist extra for a sexual massage? Not sexual intercourse, mind you, just sexual massage.
I won’t be so gauche as to offer something of the sort as a proposal. I am merely trying to get insight into my own culture from an Asian perspective (the attempt itself is a novel idea): the Chinese bathhouse as the perfect focal point for American anxiety. Where no contradiction necessarily exists between sexual massage and therapeutic massage, we must see a contradiction and are supposed to be upset. The Chinese bathhouse is not merely an object of sociological interest and curiosity, which is all it asks. It is a singular test case in the form of a rude paradox that challenges our limits of cultural understanding and tolerance.
Americans have an uneasy relationship with their measly little sex industry, and sometimes get very upset about it. I once saw a news story emblematic of the perceived state of emergency. In 1986, Seattle opened up 2 striptease bars with lap dancing, which grew to 7 in 1988, but dropped over the years to a grand total of 4 strip joints today, according to the article. Serving a metropolitan population of what – one million? I wouldn’t exactly call that a grave public danger. But apparently there are people who do, because now the city government, in some newfound hysteria, is banning lap dancing in the strip clubs and has instituted a whole list of rules: 1) striptease performers must stay at least 4 feet away from customers; 2) no touching of any kind allowed between performer and customer, and no sticking dollar bills in performer’s underwear; 3) no money may be exchanged between performer and customer; 4) no private rooms allowed in clubs; 5) interior lighting must be kept on bright. Wouldn’t it be more sensible just to shut down the clubs altogether? But no, keep them open so we can watch what happens, and then bust customers for one false step. If that isn’t a theater of the absurd. No country is as obsessed with runaway sex as the U.S., and no country has less of a problem with it! China, by contrast, with its gargantuan sex industry, has at least a logical if disingenuous response to it: the government simply denies it exists.
♠ ♠ ♠
A few years have passed. I am no longer married, and my collection of bathhouses has grown to over 100 (the divorce was unrelated to this research). I arrive earlier than usual in Dalian on a business trip day with enough time to slip into a bathhouse before lunch. The hotel we’re now staying at has been changed, a five-star Nikko in the city center. There’s a bathhouse directly opposite the hotel, a functional sort of place, clean enough not to turn away any Japanese or Koreans coming in from across the street. After showering I’m ushered into a small massage room with empty doorway but for a curtain strung over. The price for a 60-minute oil massage is 118 kuai ($14). This is about typical for cities outside Beijing, and is a pretty good deal with the hand-job they can be expected to throw in. The girl, from Sichuan, is really thorough and adept. Her back massage is one of the best I’ve ever had and is the closest thing in China to a genuine Swedish-style deep-tissue massage.
In a good back massage, particularly when having the bands of muscles worked along both sides of the spine, the endorphins are released, making you feel so alert it’s like the first moments of an acid trip. But I also realize from her body language that no hand-job will be forthcoming. Maybe that explains the open doorway. I’m shocked. In Dalian? Where there is so much prostitution you can get propositioned right out on any street in broad daylight? I wonder if it has something to do with being across from the Nikko. Naïve Anglos stumbling into the place and being traumatized by unprepared-for sexual massage, complaining about it and getting the place in trouble?
Not that the Nikko itself has a problem with amenities of this sort. A card for room-service massage was slipped under my door just after checking in, provided by the Night Dream Fortune Massage Center (“First-Class Technique 100% Satisfaction”), depicting a woman unhitching her bra and a pricelist on the back; for an extra 30 kuai you can get a Japanese-speaking girl. No, we’re not talking strictly nonsexual “therapeutic” massage here – the only kind that exists anymore in the U.S. And in case you don’t get the message, an acrylic-framed Nikko placard next to the bathroom toilet has a similar massage menu with more expensive prices and a few euphemistically phrased extras – Aromatherapy” massage for 473 kuai, “2 Persons” massage for 568, and “Rejuvenating” massage for 294. Either outside prostitutes are upstaging the in-house ones, or they are one and the same and are sneaking in through the bedroom window to get around the hotel pimp.
Back at the bathhouse, on top of the 118 I have to pay a 30-kuai bath fee. These are Beijing rates, damn it. It’s not the first time I’ve been charged thus in Dalian. A bathhouse visit on my first trip to the city 5 years ago also netted a Beijing-style fee for massage. The only way a city outside Beijing can charge Beijing rates is because it’s got tourist clout, which Dalian has, to some extent. But I have a theory, to be tested later in the day, which is that this tourist clout lasts only as far as the downtown area; outside that it’s a plain old Chinese city with more typical prices.
My job is at a university a 15-minute taxi ride from downtown. Approaching the university, I pass by 4 bathhouses. When we get off at 5:30, a coworker, Ralph, tags along to have something to eat across the street. He’s a young Canadian guy, short and stout but handsome, married to a Chinese woman who’s just had a baby. I like him because you can talk to him about absolutely anything and no matter what you talk about he finds it highly amusing. We find an outdoor restaurant down a grimy little market street, squatting on collapsible stools at low tables; mutton on skewers, grilled squid and beer. Numerous extraordinary female bodies walk by in tight white slacks – a favorite current summer fashion. Dalian, a port city like Qingdao across the bay in Shandong, is known for its classy women. But it’s also the Northeast, Manchuria, where people are taller and the legs more dramatic.
Ralph leaves and I head for the first of the bathhouses I passed by earlier. It turns out to be an authentic, certifiably antique public shower, the only kind of bathhouse before the 1990s when people had no hot running water, with a mere 7-kuai bath fee and no sex workers or massage girls or any massage at all, and indeed the sign outside uses the characters 浴池 rather than the more typical 洗浴. So I head for my third attempt of the day, a block away. It seems classier than the place I went to in the morning – until I look more closely. The pool is not hot enough; it takes about 15 minutes to work up a sweat. I get into pajamas and go into the resting room. Numerous girls in gaudy black dresses and high heels lounge around. A male attendant giggles awkwardly when I request an oil massage. “We only do dapao here,” he says – fucking. Like I have no idea what’s going on. And in fact I don’t, for this is the first bathhouse in China I’ve been to that fucks but doesn’t massage; fucking always implies the existence of massage, but here it doesn’t. How much? I ask. “188.” So my theory is correct; things are cheaper this side of town, but I don’t want a fuck, I want a massage. I pay the 39 kuai bath fee, leave, and head for bathhouse attempt number 4, 5 minutes away on foot.
Built into the basement of a residential building, the Hao Li Bath is a fancy place, but low-key and tastefully outfitted with only the occasional nude Greek statue scattered among the numerous hallways. The bathing area is crowded with locals, some with elaborate tattoos and shaved heads, underworld types who glare at me curiously; must be a popular place. The small tattoo on my upper right shoulder, the Chinese character for “breasts” (乳) surrounded in flame, embarrasses me, it’s so puny. I’ve been meaning to have it ensconced in a larger abstract design and counterbalance that with an equally large tattoo on my upper left shoulder of the Chinese character for “bathing” (浴), but I’m worried about lack of sanitation controls in Chinese tattoo parlors and may have to wait till my next trip abroad. I don’t want to be tattooed with hepatitis C or HIV.
The hallway leading to the resting room features a second sauna room exposed in a wall of glass, the new fashion, then a tea ceremony room, a mahjong room, and several other rooms with shut doors and goings-on inside. In the big resting room, girls in white silk nightgowns are arrayed along the wall. One comes up to me immediately and she’s so pretty I can’t resist. A coworker gestures to both of us, meaning I can have both of them at the same time for double the fee. One is enough. She leads me down a hallway maze, passing by rooms with windows and bamboo shades you can see through, with beds and male and female occupants in various states of undress. There is even a room for playing cards, with card table, TV, and two guys and a girl. This is truly the Eastern brothel, where men go to socialize and incidentally to have sex, where the distinction between social activity and sex – a distinction we call privacy – is blurred.
I am led into a room with a queen-sized bed and once again annoyed to find out she doesn’t massage but only fucks. Her gorgeous thick straight eyebrows win me over, she’s already got me cornered, and it is 20 kuai cheaper than the last place. She slips out for a minute and returns with her kit – a cosmetics bag containing condoms, artificial lubricant, antiseptic wipes, baby oil for breast massage – plus two plastic cups, one filled with warm water and the other with cold water. This is for “hot-cold” fellatio – being sucked off with a mouthful of contrasting water sensations in turn. I tell her I don’t want it. I normally don’t go for fellatio except with girlfriends. Unprotected oral sex is less risky than unprotected intercourse, but still it’s best avoided, and likewise the eating out of prostitutes.
Outside a life of strictly observed monogamy, Chinese bathhouses must be among the most sanitary and logical venues to have sex. In a bathhouse, you wash, have sex, and wash again. Most male patrons go for the scrub-down massage in the bath area provided by the male masseurs as a prelude or finale to the sexual encounter. As noted above, this involves careful cleansing of the entire surface of the body – penis, scrotum and anus included – with a soapy washcloth, right out in the open in a row of massage tables. Though wholly nonsexual, involuntary erections are common, duly ignored, and not regarded as all that mortifying by anyone present, including the owner of the erection. Then, upon disrobing with a prostitute, she will apply antiseptic wipes to your penis and to herself, further reducing the potential of infection in either direction. Condom use is de rigueur – I have yet to engage a prostitute who isn’t armed with one (stories abound in the media of unprotected intercourse with Chinese prostitutes and the spreading of AIDS and syphilis, particularly in poorer areas; I don’t dispute this, I just personally have not encountered it). Now, even with a condom there is still a chance of catching something around the base of the penis such as a yeast infection, crabs, warts or even herpes, but it does greatly diminish the possibility of urinary tract infections (gonorrhea, chlamydia), syphilis, hepatitis, and HIV.
Many people who contract a urinary tract infection don’t know they have it, and as a result these infections are extremely widespread and nasty. Men almost always display initial symptoms, a gooey discharge from the penis. Those who notice the discharge will usually do the responsible thing and get it checked out. Yet all too many men will fail to get it checked out, either because they are too clueless to realize they’re infected since they don’t normally pay attention to their penis, or they just don’t give a damn. Due to overuse and abuse, antibiotics are losing their effectiveness as new strains of bacteria evolve. Prescribing the right antibiotic for a urinary tract infection is increasingly hit-and-miss, so that a second course of a different antibiotic is often necessary to completely knock out an infection. This requires a second doctor’s visit. Some guys may feel they’ve done their duty in going once and don’t go back for follow-up treatment. A lot of men are therefore operating under the illusion they are cured when they’re not. They then infect or re-infect their girlfriends or wives. For women, the situation is worse, as they are often asymptomatic and never realize they’ve been infected in the first place. A woman may know she is infected only because a man she has in turn infected happens to inform her about it. She goes to the doctor, gets treated with an antibiotic that likewise doesn’t do the trick and assumes she’s cured, when she’s not.
So while urinary tract infections are curable, they might as well be incurable, given the large number of permanently infectious people out there – the very same people who would be mortified at the thought of having an STD and are disgusted by the kind of people who do have STDs – though eventually most will find out when they become infertile from long-term complications. Which makes that lovely new girlfriend of yours who insists you don’t use a condom as proof of your intimacy (as Chinese girlfriends tend to do) more dangerous than a prostitute. You may be better off at a bathhouse. And of course you can always get a hand-job – sex can’t get much safer than that.
Lina, with the great eyebrows, steps out of her clothes. She’s got a hairy muff and hairy armpits, the way I like women, though her belly is too flat. We cuddle for the rest of the session after not a great fuck. Of course I’m pleasantly disarmed by prostitutes who perform with aplomb, but I’ve learned not to be disappointed by the vast majority who don’t. She’s 27, from Harbin, was married for four years to a man who beat her, divorced him two years ago. Typical for someone who ends up in the service industry, she never finished high school. She had worked in her family’s shop since her teens until a friend last winter convinced her to make money from sex. They went to Shanghai but wound up in Dalian. They both work in the bathhouse seven days a week from 1pm till 1am for three weeks of the month, the remaining week off when they’re on the rag, each taking four to five men a day, most of whom they are not too enamored of. What can be said on behalf of customers who typically aren’t in the habit of opening their mouths for the entire session? When the girls are off at 1am, they go back to the apartment they rent for $125 a month (most bathhouses pack their girls into dormitory-style rooms).
There are millions of beautiful women like this engaged in sex work in China, trying to claw and scrape their way out of the economic barrel. In the West, where women have traditionally had an easier task in marrying up, most men must settle for a woman down a notch on the scale of physical and cultural capital. No way do women as attractive as Lina have to sell their bodies to get ahead in the West. In China, with the huge crush of women trying to marry up, it’s women who must settle for a man down a notch, while men (both Chinese and foreign) can generally have their pick – if you are already in the privileged minority that is, which requires merely that you are not from the countryside. I call this the “trickle-up” effect. In a country of such great disparities between rich and poor that is China, you have this massive base of poor people who are screwed for life, the solid majority of the population, unless they just happen to be happy on the farm, and most of them are not. Things are a lot better for the majority than they were, say, 40-50 years ago, when millions were starving, but there’s never enough money to go around.
In the encounter between server and served, sparks don’t quite fly. Lina wants to see me again. I tell her I don’t know when I’ll next be sent to Dalian; could be next month, or next year. She wants to see me in my hotel next time. How can you escape from your shift? I ask her. “No problem, I’ll let the boss know in advance and he’ll give me the night off.” She also says she’ll make a trip to Beijing for the very first time if I don’t make it back to Dalian soon.
It’s unlikely to happen. It wouldn’t make economic sense. I’d have to be a lot richer than I am to justify the trip in her eyes. That’s an important difference between ordinary women and prostitutes. Most prostitutes are not out to be rescued by a man “Pretty Woman” style. They want to be in control and that means performing a cost-benefit analysis. Just like I don’t get seriously involved with someone if she can’t promise to give me the personal space I need to do my work, prostitutes won’t involve themselves with you if it interferes with their work. They relate to you from the standpoint of their potential further self-empowerment: the financial control they have over their lives. This brings up the question of the exploitation of sex workers and their common depiction as helpless victims of a categorically repellant and vicious process.
In the view of certain feminists, it is not possible to engage the services of a sex worker innocently: every commercial transaction for sex, without exception, is degrading, exploitative, and violent, if not always physically, then psychologically so in its leeching of human intimacy. Women who willingly prostitute themselves are deluded into believing it’s a worthy or dignified form of labor like any other, as the nature of the work, apart from the dehumanizing exploitation involved, inevitably and permanently grinds away their capacity to enter into intimate, loving sexual relationships. Because the nature of the commercial sexual transaction is inherently violent, men who pay for sex necessarily collaborate in this violence, however much they may treat sex workers individually with decency and kindness. There is only one correct stance to take. Since we don’t have the power to stop prostitution, given the vastness of the worldwide sex industry and the millions of people involved in it, we can at least educate, shame, and wherever possible, incarcerate the perpetrators and collaborators, from the moguls at the top down to the sex workers and the common schmucks who for some inexplicable reason need someone to masturbate them. End of argument.
This particular feminist reading of prostitution arose, ironically, in the U.S., where prostitution really isn’t much of a problem and there are probably the fewest per capita sex workers of any country in the world (I refer to straight-out prostitution, as opposed to mediated sex work, i.e., pornography and other forms of sexual performance such as stripping). Even North Korea is believed to employ large numbers of sex workers who service the upper echelons of the Kim Jong Il regime. Take Chicago, my hometown for example, where if I wanted to find a prostitute or masturbation masseuse, I honestly wouldn’t know where to look. The implication of this anti-prostitution argument is that the millions of women in China and other countries who voluntarily seek to better their material conditions by increasing their income through sex work should give it all up for the sake of ethical considerations and go back to the farm or the paltry wages they were previously earning as waitresses or assembly-line workers under more exhausting work conditions (believe me, you don’t want to be a waitress or a factory worker in China).
I don’t refer to the unfortunate millions of other women and children who are forced into sexual slavery in many parts of the world. This terrible phenomenon is not to be equated with all prostitution and requires separate treatment. China is also guilty of sexual slavery in various guises – primarily women kidnapped and sold as brides to peasants – but I have yet to encounter a Chinese sex worker, and I’ve met hundreds, who ever gave the slightest indication she was forced into the job or was not allowed to leave it or was physically abused by her boss. Nor have I encountered any child or teenage sex workers in China; they are almost all in their twenties, and a few in their thirties. They are always free to choose their niche, whether to engage in intercourse, only handjobs, or only nonsexual massage, and are paid accordingly. As noted, some prostitutes in poorer areas in the country may compete for customers by offering unprotected intercourse, and that’s a problem, but no prostitute has ever offered it to me, nor would I go for it.
I think people who espouse this intolerant position on prostitution do not really understand it or even care much about it. First of all, if they don’t scorn the idea, it rarely occurs to them to talk to one of the more knowledgeable sources of information about prostitution: the men who sleep with prostitutes. More challenging is talking to the prostitutes themselves, who are not inclined to share their experiences with people who appear to be hostile towards them. It will not do to approach them with a microphone, pay for their time but not for sex, and interview them disinterestedly, in the manner of ethnography with its sanctimoniously clear conscience. The only real way to do it, if one is so inclined, is to pay for sex or massage and try to get acquainted with them on their terms.
Which means taking your clothes off. You have to degrade yourself, for want of a better word, though I prefer to call it deconstructing yourself.
Every commercial sexual transaction involves an irreducible degree of intimacy between two people who engage, however temporarily, as equals in the reciprocity of the exchange. In the process you form a bond, when each of you gives up a little of the natural shame underpinning everyone’s sense of self and shares it in mutual humility. Perhaps this is what is most mortifying to those who are so upset by sex work. It is not simply the contamination of sex by money that outrages, but the contamination of intimacy – how anyone can countenance such a relinquishing of their personal privacy at a moment’s notice. For others like myself who are not so rankled by the idea of paying for sex, privacy doesn’t have that aura of the sacrosanct about it. On the contrary, there is something unsettling to me about the very notion of “privacy.” It’s at once deeply human yet strange and artificial, imposed on us. The violation of privacy, beginning with one’s own privacy, becomes attractive and fascinating (I guess I’m becoming Asian). What more effective way of outraging privacy, or rather liberating it, than turning it into an object of exchange?
At the same time, I would agree that money does have a corrosive effect on sex. It’s an unfortunate tradeoff of a career in sex work. Prostitutes don’t necessarily lose the capacity to enjoy sex – many of them are hyper-sexed but you won’t know it unless you happen to turn one of them on – what they lose is the capacity to enjoy sex without being paid for it. You will never get a freebie from a prostitute no matter how familiar she is with you. That’s why so few prostitutes end up getting married: what a waste of money in their view – though if you’re rich enough you may succeed in finding one who agrees to calm down for a while and be your kept woman. Is corruption of sex by money nothing other than the destruction of human intimacy? In a sense, yes, but so what? That’s the pact that some people make with themselves – money over love. You don’t have to be a prostitute to make that pact. And you don’t have to be a prostitute to marry someone for money. How many ordinary women will get intimate with you if you don’t first pass the financial stability test? Intimacy and economics are bound up with our whole culture and ideology. It’s otherwise known as bourgeois marriage. It’s a knotty problem, and stamping out prostitution won’t solve it.
In the lobby on my way out of the Hao Li Bath, I am given a discount coupon for my next visit. The coupon depicts a scenic waterfall: lush nature scenes are associated in the Chinese eye with entertainment culture. Similar nature scenes used to be displayed in large photomurals on the bare walls of cheap “home-style cooking” restaurants in the 90s before the Chinese discovered interior decoration. Another standard scene is the tropical beach. Large seafood restaurants and bathhouses still like to display tropical beach photo images or motifs on their marquee-sized signs out front; the signs are so similar that only the Chinese characters signal whether it’s a bathhouse or a restaurant.
A quote on the back of the coupon features a pun on a poem by the Tang Dynasty poet Li Bai: “However deep the Lake of Peach Blossom may be, it’s not so deep as your love for me/for the Hao Li Bath.” The tropical beach scene shows a naked Caucasian baby frolicking in the sand (“Caucasian” and “tropical” both serving as signifiers for “exotic” in China). Perhaps it means that if you go to the Hao Li you’ll be happy as a baby, or then again perhaps something more down to earth: bring real baby along. They don’t quite have daycare service yet, but Chinese bathhouses actually seek to draw whole families as their regular customers. It wasn’t all that long ago that families bathed in public showers, until hot running water became standard in homes, and it’s still not uncommon to see men bring their little sons practically just out of their diapers into the bathhouse to learn the male rites. Now the wife too is showing up at the luxury bathhouses with the all-you-can-eat buffets on the house and the live entertainment. The only bathhouse where I’ve seen young daughters brought along as well had the following trick up its sleeve: it installed a bathing-suited swimming pool, where mommy entertains daughter while daddy gets wanked with baby oil.
Places like the Hao Li are in a bit of a quandary in this regard. Though clean and attractive, it’s a stripped-down bathhouse with no vaudeville or exotic dancing or free food to keep the wife entertained, not to mention the prostitutes lolling about the big resting room. No easy task for a barely disguised brothel to expand its customer base beyond the usual clientele. It’s giving it a whirl anyway. Put a lovely little baby on the coupon in the hope that the wife’s reaction upon noticing it in her husband’s wallet is one of curiosity not annoyance. It won’t succeed, but it does deserve credit for being enterprising.
For the sake of comparison, have a look at the coupon from one of my neighborhood bathhouses in Beijing, the Xingyuan Blue Dragon Lake Bathing Center, which has made a bit more progress in this regard. The “blue” of the character qing (青) is of interest in itself. It can also be translated as “green” or “black.” How can something be at once blue, green and black? A black dragon is logical enough, but how can a dragon be blue or green? “What color do you think a dragon should be?” responded one friend. “Qing,” she added, “is a dense, majestic and dignified color in Chinese eyes.” By the same token, is the Blue Dragon Lake an unimpeachable family bathhouse, a den of iniquity, or simply a vaudeville club? It’s all three, depending on what use you make of it. Is it legal, illegal, or a different category altogether, provisionally legal – reserved for things that don’t exactly involve breaking the law but could be thus interpreted by the police? Smaller and less elaborate than the Hao Li, it does boast an entertaining errenzhuan performance every night (the traditional Northeast variety show laced with bawdy humor), which couples do in fact show up for, but other than that it’s a typical bathhouse servicing men in need of a hand-job.
Now look at the back of the coupon. Nobody believes they will encounter in this bathhouse the two Western couples scampering along the beach, unless they had me in mind, likely their very first foreigner, who disappointed the masseuse by refusing to get a hand-job since I usually test the quality of their hands in regular massage first and she didn’t cut it. And you won’t see any women walking around the mixed-sex resting room (which doubles as a vaudeville theater) wrapped in a towel but more safely in pajamas. Again, the coupon is targeting potential female customers. All the pitches printed on the back strive hard to justify the experience as good clean fun: “To interpret the new bathing culture….To breathe in the healthy life”; “A great place for healthy leisure, so let’s go!”; “Decency & Fashion / Health & Leisure”; and finally, “All rights reserved” (i.e., ultimately we reserve the right to define “health” and “decency” in male terms – as the commodious emission of semen).
That Chinese bathhouses succeed in drawing couples and their children while serving as vibrant prostitution venues is simply incredible, a phenomenon I doubt exists anywhere else in the world. On top of that, luxury bathhouses and luxury restaurants, a logical combination, often merge into a single establishment. Not only do bathhouses lure customers by boasting professional chefs for their buffets, restaurants add their own baths, like the fancy seafood restaurant that opened up in a former neighborhood of mine. Its striking architecture – an undulating façade depicting the sea – is matched by the impressive cuisine and décor inside; the huge bath takes up the fourth and fifth floors.
But I’m going to have to pull the rug out from under you by pointing out that most of what I have described in the foregoing is now a thing of the past. Indeed you may by this point be wondering about my title, the “old” Chinese bathhouse. So is there a “new” Chinese bathhouse, circa 2012? The bathhouses discussed above, once sprouting in every neighborhood like mushrooms and torn down every few years to be replaced by more robust and luxurious versions, flourished roughly in the decade of 1995-2005, though you can still see surviving relics in more backwater neighborhoods and cities. Today they have morphed into something rather altogether different. The formerly ubiquitous characters for bathhouse, 洗浴中心, are no longer to be seen, as if already relegated to a cheesy and unseemly distant era. That’s how fast China is changing.
What we are currently witnessing is much more ambitious: the 商务会所 or 休闲会馆 and a host of other Chinese euphemisms glossable as “business center,” “leisure palace,” “refreshment complex,” and the like. These establishments are built to last longer, with a higher financial outlay. The previously cheap entrance fees have become so steep ($30 or more) that many customers are simply priced out, leaving a majority clientele of business and government officials on the company tab, and effectively scrubbing public “bathing” of its erstwhile seedy and shabby connotations. At the same time, casual visitors continue to be encouraged to bring their families, attracted by the huge buffets of delicious cuisine included in the entrance fee, further deflecting attention from the elaborate prostitution that still goes on behind the woodwork. Another layer added to the veneer of decency is that you now need to show ID and register if you want to stay overnight in a private room, as in hotels, discouraging transients and solidifying the classist nature of the new bathhouse. If you’re willing to shell out, they do not disappoint, though their variety and inventiveness trumps easy description. One needs to visit many. “The new Chinese bathhouse, circa 2012″ could be the subject of a future essay, except for one problem: I too have been priced out of the new bathhouse.
A modest proposal regarding sex work: Why all sex should be paid for (an encounter with a freelance prostitute in Beijing)
The Guangzhou coffee paradox (a prostate massage)
Theatrics of Japanese Noh, Kabuki, and the mixed-bathing Onsen (the puzzle of Japan’s public bathing retreats)