The old Chinese bathhouse, circa 2000

浴, the Chinese character for bathing, formerly displayed on signs indicating a bathhouse

“Wow, your skin is so white.”

“Only my butt is. My arms are darker than yours.”

“Your Chinese is really good.”

“Nothing special.”

“Where are you from?”

“America.”

“How long have you been in China?”

“Years.”

“You here alone or with your family?”

“Alone. My wife is back home.”

“Why did you come to China?”

“I like the contrast of cultures.”

“You don’t miss your family?”

“Not too much. I like living abroad.”

“What does she do?”

“Business.”

“Why didn’t you bring her with?”

“She’s Chinese.”

“Is that so. Does she know you frequent these places?”

“Yes.”

“And she approves?”

“Yes. You stopped massaging me.”

“Sorry. Do you want to do it?”

“Shoot the airplane?”

“No. Make love.”

“How much?”

“168.”

“So cheap. What about my massage?”

“We don’t actually do that here.”

“I can see that.”

“Let me get my kit.”

Lina slips out the room and down the hallway maze she just led me through, the hallway of the Eastern brothel, where men go to socialize and only incidentally to have sex: a tea room, a mahjong room, a room with two guys in robes and a girl in lingerie playing cards, and other rooms with bamboo-slatted windows through which could be seen the sexes in various states of undress. Then the big “resting room,” with house girls in silk nighties sitting around, one of whom beckoned me with thick rustic eyebrows. An attendant tried to get me to go for another girl and her together but Lina was enough.

She returns with the kit—a cosmetics bag with artificial lubricant and condoms. She also bears cups of hot and cold water. I’ve had the “fire and ice” treatment before. The girl takes you in her mouth filled first with the hot water which she squirts back out in an arching stream neatly caught by the cup, and then with the cold water. There is something too practiced about it, like a circus act. I tell Lina I don’t want it. She then applies oil to her chest to give me a breast massage. This can be marvelous when a glamorous bust is employed, less so with one as small as hers. But I am electrified by female body hair, and her bushy set of eyebrows, underarms and mons provokes a hard-on, which she goes over with a wet towel before rolling on a condom. Sex is short-lived. No prostitute tolerates more than a few minutes of fucking, no matter how friendly she is otherwise.

Those encountering the rare foreign customer commonly engage in friendly banter, if only out of curiosity, though masseuses who are not adept at emotional labor don’t last long in the business. Bad management and stringent working conditions also contribute to high turnover rates. The girls are required to be on hand twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, with only occasional days off. The main occupational hazard is boredom. When they aren’t with customers, they lounge about the big resting room or in a backroom dorm napping or watching TV. Business picks up late in the evening and winds down in the early hours of the morning, whereupon they sleep till noon. The shrewder bathhouses hire them on-call or freelance to fill momentary demand and reduce the room-and-board expense. This is better for the girls as well, which forces them to get out and be more active instead of sinking into lethargy, not to mention health problems from prolonged lack of exercise and sunlight. While most places keep their girls there around the clock, it should be stressed that they are not confined or enslaved (as in some brothels in India, for instance); they can go out to do errands and may quit the job any time.

Lina and I cuddle for the rest of the session. It’s now my turn to ask questions. First off, I always need to know what part of the country they’re from, since there are two places—Guangxi Province and Tibet—whose women I still haven’t slept with. “What’s your home town?”

“Harbin.”

“How old are you?”

“27.”

“Boyfriend?”

“Divorced. I left when he began beating me.”

“When did you marry?”

“21.”

“So early. The same age as my mother.”

“I worked in my family’s shop for years before that. Didn’t finish high school. Last year a female friend convinced me to try doing this. We went to Shanghai but when things didn’t work out there we went to Dalian. And then we wound up here.”

“What job did you do while married?”

“Clothing shop.”

“You live here in the bathhouse?”

“No. We rent a place nearby.”

“What are your hours?”

“Every day from 1 p.m. till 1 a.m.”

“No days off?”

“We take a week off each month during our period.”

“How many customers do you have every day?”

“Four or five.”

“What do you think of most of them?”

“Not much. What can you say about them, when some don’t even speak a word the entire time?”

I invite Lina to visit me in Beijing and she brightens up at this. 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 sex workers are not out to be rescued by a man “Pretty Woman” style. They want to be in control and are forever performing cost-benefit analyses. Just as I don’t get involved with someone who doesn’t give me the personal space I need to do my work, no prostitute wants to be with me outside of her work. She sizes me up according to whether I’m one to advance or interfere with her financial happiness.

Handjob masseuses in the bigger cities earn anywhere from 2,500-10,000 yuan a month, depending on the number of daily customers; intercourse can double or triple that. It is a lot more than what the rest of the service industry earns, which is rarely over 500 yuan a month for putting in the same twelve to fourteen-hour workday. This includes the many service workers employed by the bathhouses as cooks, attendants, servers, masseurs, maids and teenage girls doing nonsexual and foot massage. Like their sisters in sex work, reflexology masseuses and restaurant waitresses hail from the countryside, but unlike them they choose to remain “pure” and use their virginity value to marry up into a better household or attract a husband who can buy or build his own house. Yet visit any Chinese village, and chances are the newly constructed cement-and-tile houses you see were made with money sent home by the sex worker of the family.[1]

Visit any village, and chances are the newly constructed cement-and-tile houses you see were made with money sent home by the sex worker of the family.

I head back to the resting area where I am once again invited to “rest,” or, depending on how you translate xiuxi, to “relax.” But I mean, am I supposed to feel tired? Perhaps the best English gloss is to “unwind.” Then again, considering most patrons are seeking relief from the daily grind of alcohol-fueled business deals, it’s no wonder the default male condition is universal exhaustion, accelerating in middle age. Some other tonic is needed to ease passage into oblivion. Sadistic Sichuan cuisine works for a while but soon palls. In the absence of opium or a recreational drug culture, that leaves only one option: the Chinese form of white noise known as Hong Kong action films on repeat till the last comatose guests synchronize their snoring through their foot massages and the grating roar eases just before dawn. Maybe this is why the funhouse ambience of these establishments is taken dead seriously—the patrons are all practically dead.

I’m not sure if the Eastern and Western motifs slapped together for decor are haphazard or deliberate. On the one hand, the flashy photomural signs outside with bright red characters conjuring up an Oriental island paradise—Golden Water, Sparkling Sea, East Wave, Little River, Dragon Bridge, or as my bathhouse the Hao Li is named, the Great Benefit—and a corresponding scene of a bungalow and palm trees or a bikini-clad female emerging from the shore (seafood restaurants also like to display tropical beach-themed marquees out front; the signs are so similar that only the Chinese characters signal whether it’s a bathhouse or a restaurant). On the other, the Roman bath interior, marble tiling and nude Greek statues, and in the resting area, the Victorian molded-wood paneling and dreamy paintings on the walls of topless girls bearing urns. This most primal of pleasures, bathing, is somehow too close to home and must be made exotic, Occidentalized.

Forgoing rest and relaxation, I head into the hall to the men’s bath area to clean up, and stand again stunned at the novel sauna with its floor-to-ceiling wall of glass, exposing the blissfully naked occupants to view. In China, a benign gray area blurs the distinction between society and shame, a distinction known in the West as privacy. You also see people leave their toilet stall door open in public lavatories. It wasn’t too long ago that lavatories lacked compartments and users squatted in front of each other to grunt out their shit without the least shyness. Now private stalls or meter-high toilet dividers are the norm, but many lavatories also happen to have windows, providing passersby who care to look with a view inside.

In China, a benign gray area blurs the distinction between society and shame, a distinction known in the West as privacy.

A group of underworld types with shaved heads and ornate tattoos glare at me curiously in the bath area. I too have a tattoo, though I’m embarrassed by its puny size. I got it done in a Chicago tattoo studio years ago, which I walked into not intending to get one but to research an academic paper on the motives of non-Chinese going for Chinese tattoos, and why they tend to choose the same old characters for “love,” “strength,” “fortune,” “longevity,” etc. Out of the 100 or so characters listed on the shop’s sample chart, the character ru, for “breasts,” stood out, oddly being the sole character embellished in color, ensconced in a bright red-and-yellow flame. It was eye-catching but also copyrighted, and they wouldn’t let me photograph it. The only way I could acquire it was to get it tattooed right then and there. My tattooist told me I was the first person ever to choose that character. As it turned out, it became something of a liability, since every time masseuses in China see it they ask me about it and I either have to go through the whole spiel again or say I’m too tired to talk. Or I settle it by admitting, “I like breasts.”

In the changing room the male attendant insists on helping me into my clothes, just as he helped me out of them when I arrived, and again he gazes at my groin—to confirm, I suspect, that foreigners belonged to the species and I have something resembling a penis rather than a plug or a forked tentacle. It’s like when customers inspect the dishes I’m eating in the restaurants here to see what kind of food the foreigner can handle, that is, if we’re not provided with our own special menu. I also consider the possibility he knows I have a cock but simply wants to see how big it is. Not that he’s necessarily gay, any more than the rest of the staff or the patrons (there are dedicated gay bathhouses which we’ll investigate in the next chapter), despite there being a distinct, and for the Westerner, confusing male camaraderie in the air.

It’s the Spring Festival holiday season up in snowy Jilin City in the Manchurian hinterland, and despite the minus 20 degrees Celsius the crowds are out in force. Combing the downtown for a place to have coffee, all we find is a Be For Time Tea House. Another inventively ambiguous instance of Chinglish. Do they mean “before time,” as in the pre-historic past? Or are they exhorting us, in sloganeering style, to “Be for” their “Time” teahouse? Eighteen yuan, or a couple dollars, to drink all the non-alcoholic beverages you want and surf the web. The place is shabby, very ’90s feel, packed with customers playing cards, crunching seeds and smoking. The stale warmed-up Nescafé is needed to help digest the huge dinner we’ve just had at my Chinese girlfriend Yue’s parents’ place, topped off with M&M’s dumplings made by Gina (and cat-food dumplings for the cat), Yue’s American roommate and my other girlfriend, who is along for the trip.

Now it’s time to set out for some massage in a bathhouse. Though Yue has never been to one, she knows where they are and leads us to a street with a dozen or so establishments in a row. We take a chance on the Fire and Water Bathing Center. In the plush lobby, there’s a picture of the interior of the men’s bath, boasting a large ornate bathing pool.

Yue is one to talk off the top of her head. “Does the women’s bath have a pool like that?” she asks the receptionist.

“No.”

“Why not?”

“It just doesn’t.”

“Why it ‘just doesn’t’?”

“I don’t know.”

“What do you mean you don’t know?”

“That’s just the way it is.”

Yue isn’t happy about this. The fact is women’s baths in China seldom have pools. They have single-person wooden bathtubs in the bathing area, ostensibly due to female patrons’ fear of germs in a communal pool.

Passable five-star hotel ambience in our wood-paneled private room. We change into the provided pajamas and go to our respective bathing areas. An array of unlikely objects for sale in the men’s changing roombath salts and scents in glass bottles molded into nude statuettes, expensive designer underwear, Pabst Blue Ribbon beer. The large pool is luxurious but the water isn’t hot enough (to cut down on heating costs). Stairs descend to a fancy sauna or “fire-bath,” with a table in the middle, reclining wooden chairs, tatami mats and game sets for playing chess and go. It isn’t warm either but will be in ten minutes, they assure me.

Back up in our room I have the male attendant send in three masseuses. I make it very clear I want full-body oil massages. He is surprised but seems like he’s able to deal with it. Maybe they’ve had customers like me before. “How much?” I ask.

“100 for you, 50 each for your friends.”

I assume females get to pay less because it’s understood they won’t be fiddled with too elaborately, but we’ll see. Then a different attendant shows up and asks, “You want me to get you a beautiful girl, right?”

“Right.”

Yue and Gina arrive. The first attendant knocks and beckons me into the hallway. “Very sorry, it’s a little embarrassing for her to massage you in front of other women. How about putting you in a separate room?”

“No. My friends want to watch and be massaged too. They have absolutely no problem with it.”

Three girls enter. They are attractive enough and dressed in maid uniforms. The girl doing Yue has a glossy mane of hair extending to her buttocks. This prompts Yue to ask her how she’s going to be able to do the massage without getting oil on her hair.

As they go to work, they pass each other sly smiles at the unlikely likes of us. My masseuse pulls off my shorts and strokes my balls. Yue and Gina also get their ass massaged but their bottoms are pulled back in place before being turned over. Yue’s breasts are oiled up; Gina’s are not, to her chagrin. My cock receives feathery caresses before it too is oiled up and seized more purposefully. Gina’s girl gets up to dim the lighting just before I shoot. They finish on cue and leave.

The male attendant enters and presents me with a fee of 300. On top of that he wants a tip for setting up the exotic situation.

“My friends were only supposed to be charged 50 each. Why 100?”

“Oh, that was a misunderstanding. It’s 50 if a male gives a massage. We thought that’s what you wanted. Females always get 100 for doing an oil massage.”

“But you knew I requested three women to massage us.”

“No, not at first.”

“I did make that clear. Why didn’t you inform me of the price difference before the massages began?”

“That’s just how it is,” he says with a smirk.

I pay the 300 but decline to tip. Yue and Gina are unsatisfied with their massages and itching for more. The place is a general letdown. We head for another place across the street.

Once inside the next bathhouse, it’s apparent they too are winging it on the cheap. Though the pool in the men’s bath is hot enough, there are no towels for drying; you have to use the same small face towel provided for washing after squeezing out the excess water.

Up in our private room I summon a masseuse.

“Do you want a foot massage or a full-body massage?” the male attendant asks.

“Full-body massage. How much?”

“30 yuan.”

“Only 30?”

“You want a ‘proper’ massage, right?”

“I’m not sure what you mean by ‘proper’ massage. I want one with oil.”

“She can give you an oil massage on the back.”

“Only the back? I want a full-body massage with oil.”

“We don’t offer that here.”

“That’s odd. This is the first bathhouse I’ve been to that doesn’t have full-body oil massage.”

“Oh, you must want a ‘special’ massage with a xiaojie.”

“Yes.”

“All the xiaojie have gone home for the Spring Festival, but I can get one for you. I’ll call her up.”

“You mean borrow her from another bathhouse? How much for the massage?”

“100.”

“Whole body?”

“Whole body.”

“My two female friends who are with me, they want to watch. Is that a problem for the xiaojie?”

“Oh, in that case it’s 150.”

“They don’t want to do anything, just watch.”

“It’s still 150 for that. Do you want mouth intercourse?”

“How much for regular intercourse?”

“50.”

“Only 50? Total 150?”

“Yes.”

“And my friends can watch too?”

“Yes.”

“Just the massage is fine for now.”

“Do you want a chest push too?”

“Okay.”

An hour later the attendant returns to confess the girl that’s available can’t do a breast massage since hers are too small.

“Oh.”

Yue and Gina are still off in the bath. The girl shows up. She’s not attractive but has a nice ass and strips down to her silk panties. “You’re nice. Let’s do it,” she says.

“Just a massage is enough for today.”

“Oh, come on, let’s do it.”

“No, not today. My two girlfriends want to watch you give me an oil push. They’re cool about it.”

She replaces her bra and starts on my back. Yue and Gina arrive and settle into spoon position on the other bed. The girl spends too much time on my back before removing my pajama bottoms and turning me over. She’s just as laborious and lacking in technique on the legs as the rest of my body. This prevents the buildup of tension necessary to spring an erection.

“Things are beginning to drag,” I remark to Yue and Gina in English, when there’s a knock on the door, signaling the 45-minute session is up.

“You haven’t finished,” I tell the girl, pointing to my groin.

“That’s another 50.”

“Well, that’s what I asked for. Total 150, right?”

Blurting out a face-saving laugh at the novelty of masturbating a male customer in front of a pair of female guests, one of whom happens to be a foreigner and is caressing the other’s breasts under her pajama top, the girl sheds her panties and bra, oils up her torso and straddles me, leaning forward to massage me with her chest, just as I was told she was not going to do. She gets me hard. “Let me put a condom on you, okay?” she says.

“Fucking is included in the total 150, as I was told?”

“No, you can have a chest push for 150 or fuck for 150, but if you want both it’s 200. Since I’m already giving you a chest push it will be 200.”

“But the attendant told me everything would be 150.”

“No, it’s one or the other. Come on, I want to see what you feel like inside of me.”

She rolls a condom on with a giggle, straddles me and takes me inside. After a few moments of action, another knock on the door.

“Hurry up,” she says. “If you can’t cum in time, you’ll be charged another fifteen minutes.”

“Hey, this isn’t fair,” I protest. “I was promised a massage, a handjob, and a fuck originally for 150, now it’s up to 200, and you still haven’t even brought me off.”

“Well, hurry up. I’ll give you another minute.”

“I can’t cum and bargain at the same time.”

“Then do another session,” she croons.

“How much?”

“150.”

“No way, let’s stop.”

I dismiss the girl. For essentially nothing I end up paying 200. I’m ready to leave but Gina says Yue is horny. I slip off her pajamas and fold her legs back to eat her out while she pulls off Gina’s pajamas. Gina wants me to teach her how to give a handjob. I lie back with my legs splayed over her lap. The problem is we don’t have any oil, and my cock is a bit raw from excessive rubbing against the girl’s chest. She uses her mouth instead, as she angles her groin face up toward my face in a contorted version of sixty-nine. Yue climbs over us to sixty-nine me as well. She has never been able to engage in sixty-nine for more than a few moments before weirding out and bursting into laughter. We collapse in a human sandwich.

The West has construed China to be 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 kept separate in the American psyche—the most puritanical of Western societies—merge or fuse here. The body itself, including the “private parts,” is regarded quite naturally as everyone’s business. Male masseurs touch my genitals with the ease and spontaneity of a handshake. Likewise saleswomen in traditional brassiere shops squeeze the breasts of their customers to get an intuitive fitting, and my female students in class caress and play with each other’s hair instead of their own.

A line between the public and private does exist in China but it’s flimsy and porous. Because norms are homogeneous and so well understood, it is constantly overstepped and challenged: pavilions in parks where couples, for lack of private quarters, congregate at night to have sex in full view of one another, gracefully managed by having the woman sit on the man’s lap in her dress; loveseat booths in movie theaters and cafés serving the same purpose; drunken businessmen staggering out of restaurants to vomit on a crowded sidewalk; men on the street baring and caressing their potbellies; distraught people sitting on the pavement and openly crying. I once saw a man masturbating at a bus stop. But he was not so mentally disturbed as to lack any propriety, working his exposed shaft slowly enough not to draw too much attention, and if any around him noticed, they ignored him.

The sharp distinction in Western cooking between sweet and salty is blurred in the Chinese diet. Customers in McDonald’s restaurants consume an ice cream cone in one hand and a Big Mac in the other, or they eat the ice cream first. They sprinkle sugar on raw tomato slices where we sprinkle salt. Pastries are never sweet enough, while moon cakes, the traditional Moon Festival treat, consist of egg yolks embedded in a sickly sweet bean-paste. Sliced bread is a cross between bread and cake and is labeled “bread cake” on some brands. All kinds of necessary distinctions are blurred here. Displayed in glass jugs in every restaurant are “medicinal spirits” consisting of wolfberries, ginseng and iguanas steeped in 112-proof alcohol and consumed more for drinking than health purposes. There is no enforced drinking age; teenagers can buy cheap hard liquor in any restaurant or convenience store. Children can buy cigarettes. Antibiotic drugs are sold over the counter, which people here use indiscriminately for both bacterial and viral infections.[2] This is the “sweet and sour” phenomenon: juxtaposed disparities which cause the Westerner anxiety unless categorized and compartmentalized sit together quite happily in China.

The oxymoron of the neighborhood bathhouse is the sweet and sour of the Chinese sex industry. To imagine the same in the American context, it would be like having sex masseuses on hand at any neighborhood YMCA. But why should this be so objectionable when therapeutic and erotic massage flourish separately in the US? 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 to fold the genitals into the treatment? Or how about a neighborhood YMCA where not just couples but families and friends can stay overnight to watch movies together? Some bathhouses even have beauty salons—giving the ladies something to do while the gentlemen get massaged. With an entrance fee of only 15-25 yuan and 24-hour operation, they are also a popular substitute for hotels in China, to which unmarried guests have long been prohibited entry.[3]

Historically, public bathing places were a necessity for the Chinese population, most of whose homes long lacked bathrooms, hot water or any running water. Public showers were bare-boned and purely functional. Big resting rooms, private rooms, amenities, and prostitutes would all have been unimaginable luxuries. The old-style public shower continues to serve this function today; one finds them at government workplaces, campuses, and in poorer neighborhoods.

Yet China does boast a bathhouse tradition in the same sense as Japan, Hungary, Turkey, and other countries, with a social purpose beyond that of mere hygiene. The bathhouse is an island sanctuary from daily stress for purifying the body and soul at one and the same time. The internationally released Chinese film Shower (1999, dir. Zhang Yang) misleadingly recalls this ideal as a nostalgic one by depicting the 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 domain is exclusively male and closed to female staff or customers—leaving foreign audiences with a sanitized image of the Chinese bathhouse. In this respect the film is of propagandistic value to a government that officially denies the existence of prostitution within its borders.

The reality is quite the opposite. With the rise in living standards in the 1990s, it was inevitable that entrepreneurs would lure free-spending enthusiasts by outfitting bathhouses in the trappings of modernity and luxury and, with female migrants flocking to the cities and prostitution booming, the promise of total physical gratification. Meanwhile, an estimated quarter of a million prostitutes are arrested annually around the country. Most are immediately released after paying a $365 fine—no more than a containment policy. The sex industry shows no sign of losing steam, nor do the police have the manpower or resources or even desire to roll it back. Indeed it is widely understood that the police themselves not only patronize bathhouses but collude in running many of them. The military is also known to be heavily involved in the bathhouse business, as it is in other profitable industries.

It is widely understood that the police themselves not only patronize bathhouses but collude in running many of them.

People with power and influence give the sex industry semi-official blessing even as it is denounced and attacked in the moralistic media. For one thing, there is the realization that the huge migrant population is better off employed than not, and employment at the baths provides as structured a work regime as any. For another, it is plainly a huge business. The usual method in other countries of containing prostitution is to corral saunas, massage parlors and the like into police-monitored red-light districts. In Japan, for example, where bathing and sex also have a long association, baths offering the works for men, affectionately known as “Soap Land,” jostle alongside “Pink Salons” for handjobs and strip-tease joints in the red-light areas, while segregated public baths functioning strictly for bathing are readily found in any neighborhood. In China, by contrast, bathhouses of all types are found in every neighborhood; there are just no red lights.

Bathhouses are not advertised or listed in any phone book, since the Chinese don’t use phone books. The police must have a pretty accurate list if they’d be willing to share it, which they are certainly not. I can only guess at their number in Beijing by counting how many there are in my neighborhood and multiplying by the total number of 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. If this were the sole source of knowledge about the bathhouses it would leave one with the impression the war against them was practically won.

The fancy of their imminent extinction is contradicted by their serene presence on almost every street, sprouting up like giant neon mushrooms where only yesterday another business was flourishing. 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.”

Bathhouse owners reduce the likelihood of being raided by paying off the local police. Cautious customers learn by word of mouth which bathhouses are police-friendly. It also helps to know what exactly constitutes criminal activity. A male acquaintance in the army who claims to understand the scene proffers the following advice. Using the bath and big resting room is legal, but don’t be discovered in a private room 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). My army friend also advised me not to go during peak hours, when the likelihood of a spectacular police raid is greatest.

Whether or not police intimidation has succeeded in driving full-blown prostitution out of most bathhouses, you cannot “read” the outside of one for clues as to how much sex or whether any sex at all goes on inside. Exactly what is “legal” versus “illegal” in China is never precisely spelled out anyway. For all I know, anyone in a bathhouse during a raid is subject to arrest. Because they have a lot to lose as well, many owners install video monitors with a view of the street entrance as an early-warning system.

In the lobby I exchange my bath slippers back for my shoes, which they hold onto till you’ve paid up to discourage you from making a break for it (viz., after succumbing to erotic services beyond your budget). The cashier hands me a discount coupon for my next visit. The front of the slip depicts a scenic waterfall. The back shows a tropical beach and punningly quotes 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.” On the beach is a naked Caucasian baby frolicking in the sand (“Caucasian” and “tropical” here serving as signifiers for the exotic). Perhaps it means that if you go to the Hao Li you’ll be happy as a baby, or then again something more down to earth: bring real baby along.

They don’t quite have daycare service yet, but many bathhouses actually seek to draw whole families as their regular customers. Places like the Hao Li are in a bit of a quandary in this regard. Though clean and attractive, it’s a stripped-down, male-oriented bathhouse, with little in the way of entertainment in the big resting room, in contrast to the larger venues outfitted with stages for exotic dancing, variety shows, etc. No easy task for a barely disguised brothel to expand its customer base beyond the usual clientele. It’s giving it a shot anyway. Put a 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 and not annoyance. It won’t succeed, but it does deserve credit for being enterprising.

For the sake of comparison, consider another bathhouse in my neighborhood, the Xingyuan Black Dragon Lake Bathing Center, which is a bit more progressive in this regard. The character qing on the coupon front, referring to the dragon’s color, is of interest in that it can be translated not only as “black” but also “green” or “blue” (or a blend of the three colors, coming out to something closer to black). How can something be at once black, green and blue? A black dragon is logical enough, but a blue or a green dragon?

“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, the Black Dragon Lake is at once an unimpeachable family bathhouse, a den of iniquity, and a lively club boasting nightly errenzhuan performances (the traditional Manchurian variety act laced with bawdy humor), depending on whatever you want it to be. Does that make 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?

That many bathhouses do succeed in drawing couples and their children while operating simultaneously as brothels is a phenomenon that I doubt exists anywhere else in the world.

The back of the coupon shows a pair of Caucasian couples scampering along the beach, and off to the side, a smiling Chinese woman with a towel wrapped around her body. You won’t see any females in the mixed areas of this or any other bathhouse walking around like that; they’re safely wrapped in pajamas. The point is, the coupon is targeting female customers. All the pitches printed on it 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”). That many bathhouses do succeed in drawing couples and their children while operating simultaneously as brothels is a phenomenon that I doubt exists anywhere else in the world.

More ingenious still, the luxury bathhouse and the luxury restaurant often merge into a single establishment, and prove to be a most logical combination. There are bathhouses that lure customers by boasting professional chefs for their buffets, as well as restaurants attached to 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 itself takes up the fourth and fifth floors.

Luxury bathhouse restaurant, Beijing, 2004.

You may by this point be wondering about the “old” Chinese bathhouse of my title. So what then is the new Chinese bathhouse? The old bathhouse tends to be a shabby affair, built to last not much more than a few years or a decade at most. Each one that is torn down is replaced by a more expensive, expansive and ostentatious incarnation. The previously cheap entrance fees have gotten so steep at the newer luxury venues (up to ten times as much) that average customers are being priced out, shifting the clientele decisively to the middle and upper-middle class. At the same time, casual visitors continue to be encouraged to bring their families, attracted by the ever-fancier cuisine on offer, deflecting attention away from the prostitution that still goes on behind the woodwork. Another layer added to the veneer of decency is that, as noted earlier, you now need to show ID and register 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. Their variety and inventiveness is beyond the scope of this account and deserves another research project.

A dilapidated bathhouse in Beijing, pictured in 2005.

[1] The turn-of-the-century exchange rate hovered around 8.5 yuan to the US dollar. By 2014, it had appreciated to 6.2 to the dollar. Minimum-wage salaries had gone up considerably by this time as well. The yuan is generally referred to by locals as kuai; hereafter both terms will be used.
[2] This reckless practice has now been largely phased out in pharmacies.
[3] In 2003 the law was relaxed to allow unmarried couples to room together but both had to register with their national ID card. None of this applied to the freewheeling bathhouses, where unmarried couples were not required to register at reception.

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