It’s late 2013 and my first trip back to Taipei in twenty-five years. Nothing around me is familiar and I’m disoriented, though I do recall passing by massage parlors on that earlier visit and regretting not being able to try them out. The first parlor I chance upon is on a lane near my hotel and shows no menu of services on the outside or through the shop window. It’s dark inside. The female manager informs me all they offer is upper-body massage in reclining chairs or foot massage. Everything takes place in the front room, there evidently being no back or private rooms. I assume she’s not being straight with me, but as I already notice other prospects I take my business elsewhere, namely to the Morning Star Health Massage a few shops down the lane. It bears the standard sign of a multicolored pair of reflexology feet indicating therapeutic foot and body massage. Full-body oil massage is advertised in the window without a price. An attractive busty girl greets me as I enter and quotes me NT 1,200 (US $40) for a one-hour session. She leads me to a private room with a dedicated table and fiberglass module shower unit and tells me to shower and slip on the provided shorts.
Ten minutes later a different woman enters, a strange nerdish woman in her forties with short curly hair and glasses. She places her styrofoam takeout dinner under the massage table. She avoids eye contact and utters nary a word though I am at ease in Mandarin. I guess she’s starting her shift and disappointed to find a customer already waiting for her at exactly the wrong time and interrupting her meal. She keeps darting this way and that before getting settled, jumping up to open and close the door by small increments until she finds the right balance between my privacy and what I suppose to be her sense of safety. Or maybe her fidgeting betrays a paralyzed indecisiveness over whether to go request the front girl to do me instead so she can get at her takeout while it’s still warm.
She doles out a massage that is raunchy and clumsy in equal measure, her fidgety hands making jerky little movements inside my shorts, teasing and swiping against my cock yet unable to provoke an erotic response since she’s scarcely present and is daydreaming away the minutes. When the time is up she grabs her meal and dashes out of the room. Whereupon the busty girl walks in, grabs my cock over my shorts and says she’ll come to my hotel and fuck me for NT 2,500. I toy with the idea of having my girlfriend watch us, who happens to be in the hotel room waiting for me, but no, not tonight.
I step around the corner to a 7-Eleven to look over the wine selection. Inside the shop I become aware of a disturbed lady staring at me from behind the aisle. She sidles up to me, holding a spoon in her hand, which she passes over the wine bottles like a radiation detector. Then disappearing back behind the shelf she peers at me mischievously, grinning as if we were children playing hide and seek, or as if trying to communicate by some telepathic code. I don’t reciprocate her attentions. Yet any woman who approaches me with the frankness of a sex worker intrigues me, even if no words come out of her mouth. A wannabe prostitute? Not that she is necessarily after me or my money; perhaps she merely aspires to the prostitute’s freedom to buttonhole strange men at will and cut through all the bullshit, like the pair of prostitutes I once encountered in a convenience store in Zhengzhou, China, Feifei and Beibei, licking ice cream cones in their white fur jackets and without a moment’s hesitation offering to massage me together up in my hotel room, like girl scouts bumping into you around a street corner and selling you cookies in the same instant.
A wannabe prostitute? Perhaps she merely aspires to the prostitute’s freedom to buttonhole strange men at will and cut through all the bullshit.
I keep bumping into Miss Busty from the Morning Star over the next few days. There she is again: passing by on a nearby street, or waving at me from inside a restaurant, as if I’m unfinished business and she knows just where to place herself in my path. Surprised I don’t see her in the 7-Eleven, which is probably the most logical location to find me, apart from other nearby massage parlors, where I doubt she’d be welcome showing her face. She does have a friendly and spontaneous manner about her, as do many women involved in the business as a matter of fact. Not all of them are friendly or likable, but the stereotype of the wretched prostitute needs correcting (theorized at greater length in my Why all sex should be paid for).
I discover more reflexology shops in the close vicinity, with names such as Metro Health Preserving Shop, Superb Peace Hall Body Therapy Shop, and Mr. Lee’s Foot Therapy Shop. The Metro Health Preserving Shop offers 90-minute full-body treatments for NT 1,500 but the manager agrees to 1,000 for 60 minutes as I am pressed for time. He escorts me down to a basement with makeshift booths divided by sliding curtains like a hospital emergency room. A masseuse soon arrives. As with the previous treatment, she sticks her hands this way and that under my shorts and even pushes all the way through and out the other end, working around my hard-on and brushing it or bending it with her arm when it gets in the way, short of actually grabbing or stimulating it. Her movements are rapid and decidedly unsensuousness and my erection wilts. I get dressed and leave. On exiting I pass by a man getting his naked ass massaged at the exact moment the masseur slides his hand between his inner thigh and his testicles.
Mr. Lee’s, my next stop, is what we might call semiotically transparent, providing just what is advertised: therapeutic foot and body massage. My hot young masseuse with the dark skin of a Taiwanese aboriginal tears off a sheet of sanitary paper from a big roll in the hallway to lay out on my table. The massage is pleasant for a nonsexual treatment.
My experience at the next place, on the other hand, the Superb Peace Hall Body Therapy, is delightfully semiotically opaque and qualifies as memorable. In the small front room two women are getting their feet worked in reclining chairs. The inner room has two rows of curtained massage booths. A masseuse named Red Plum, in her thirties in jeans and a pleasant face, hands me a pair of shorts and steps out while I stuff my clothes in a plastic laundry basket fitting under the table. Unlike the usual translucent blue boxer-style disposables provided for massage in other Asian countries (all probably made by the same factory in China), these are translucent black and briefs style, and so tiny I can’t even get them over my thighs. She lets me use my own underwear.
Red Plum performs a very thorough deep-tissue procedure, probing into the pressure points to the point of pain and holding it there until too exquisite to bear and I wiggle her off. When I turn over, she reaches down over my stomach and slips her fingers into my underwear, applying extra oil to melt the pubic hair and access the flesh beneath. She remarks on my strong legs. I tell her I do a lot of bike riding and greatly enjoy having the area where I sit on my bicycle seat massaged, namely the space between the anus and the scrotum. Nonsexual masseuses generally balk at prostate massage yet Red Plum sticks her hand back inside my underwear and homes right in on my huiyin, as the perineum is known in the Chinese meridian system, but not before pulling out momentarily to confirm it’s okay. She said a male customer once accused her of sexually harassing him by touching him there. No problem, I reiterate. It’s one of the key pressure points of the body, and indeed a sexual pressure point as well, the massaging of which gives rise to a strong erection. She tantalizingly continues to work the area around my balls for the rest of the session while avoiding my penis. The woman’s rare combination of expert technique and open-mindedness makes for one of the most intense massages I have ever had. I vow to be back before the end of my trip, as I sense her next massage will push things further, now that she trusts I’m not going accuse her of violating me.
To elaborate, what makes this kind of massage so exciting is not simply being touched in the genital area. Of course, I was hoping her fingers would stray onto my cock. But there is nothing more boring than a handjob when you know that’s all you’re getting and that’s all the place has to offer. You can only really have a “happy ending” once—the very first time. After that, each handjob is more tedious than the last, even when performed by different people. With the same person, it becomes downright silly after the first few times. If things progress to intercourse by the second or third session, then at least it’s going somewhere. Moreover, handjobbers aren’t usually trained in massage and assume you aren’t much interested in preliminaries either, and go for the jugular after only a few moments of trailing their fingers over you. While good masturbation technique does require skill, the pleasure is short-lived when you know exactly how it will unfold.
The intensity of the experience lies not in the orgasm but in the buildup. A good erotic masseuse is adept at creating drama and suspense by defying your expectations and varying the outcome, delaying or avoiding ejaculation altogether and thereby transforming the massage room into a little theater of mime. It’s the not knowing whether a masseuse will bring you off which brings you back for more. But the most mind-blowing thing of all is the semiotic violation: the therapist who contravenes her own strictures, crosses the line and eroticizes what began as and was supposed to be only an ordinary therapeutic massage.
A skilled erotic masseuse is adept at creating drama and suspense by defying your expectations and thereby transforming the massage room into a little theater.
My project was to find out whether the semiotic violation could happen in Taiwan. It regularly did not on my trips to other Asian countries, in each of which I found little in the way of the unexpected, handjobs being either not available or greedily pushed on me for an extra fee. Thailand and Mainland China are of course the big exceptions, China especially, where as we know nothing corresponds to anything it’s supposed to, and you’ll get handjobbed in places you never expected and not handjobbed in places you expected (A sex addict sets out to visit every massage parlor in China). Hong Kong is just as semiotically mystifying as the Mainland, but that’s not surprising considering most of the masseuses there are from the Mainland. Taiwan is an interesting test case in that it’s Chinese culture but virtually all its massage workers are locals.
Originally I speculated that sex industries varied in predictable ways according to their country’s respective GDP. The more developed a country, the more regulated (i.e., overregulated) it is and hence the more semiotically transparent must be its sex businesses, corralled into red light zones where they can be effectively monitored and policed; and the less likely the masseuse will stick her fingers under the disposable shorts you’re required by law to wear because she has internalized the law (apart from designated establishments of prostitution). But what I have discovered is that all countries are more developed than China in regards to the “law,” which on the Mainland is a fluid phenomenon impossible to pin down.
Taiwan is not far behind, with one foot in Chinese culture and the other foot in the developed world, Japan in particular, given the latter’s fifty-year occupation of Taiwan (those who doubt Japan’s profound influence on Taiwan are urged to visit the two countries in turn and notice the countless similarities in social organization and infrastructure). It is, in other words, relatively semiotically opaque. For its part, Japan’s sex and massage industry has attained a level of perverted sophistication well beyond the question of semiotic transparency versus opacity; the problem is its sex culture remains insular and xenophobic and generally not open to foreign patronage.
I still have more research to do and head over to a neighborhood I recall behind Longshan Temple in Taipei’s Ximending District. On my first visit to the city, I was warned to stay away from these back streets, especially at night. Now I notice quite a few parlors, all with drab little signs displaying the characters for anmo (massage) instead of the usual reflexology feet, most of the shops discreetly out of the way on the second floor of shabby old residential buildings. The first door I knock on brings a man squinting at me in the darkness after a minute’s delay. He doesn’t seem happy to see me and hesitates to answer my questions. The next place I try, an old woman feigns ignorance and shakes her head when I inquire as to what kind of massage they offer. At a third place I have a bit more luck. A middle-aged woman invites me inside and says she has girls available for NT 2,400 and 45 minutes. I ask her where I can get an actual massage. She points me down a street heading back toward the city center.
It is telling that this particular market of squalid parlors is hidden away in a seedy neighborhood. The same is not to be said for the Mainland, where the decadent crops up in every locale and is pasted over in carnivalesque tones of gaiety and the burlesque. Here Taiwan has more in common with the U.S. massage industry at its sleaziest and brings to mind a visit I once made to a “Thai” massage parlor in San Francisco. The entrance descended to a basement with a heavy door behind an intimidating iron grate. When they decided through the peephole I wasn’t undercover law enforcement, local mafia, a drunken lout, or whatever paranoid suspicions forced them into what for all practical purposes was a war bunker, they buzzed me in. The Vietnamese masseuse didn’t make it very far into the session when we were interrupted by a third party, a rat the size of a dildo politely watching us on its hind legs. She apologized and ran out into the hall to grab a broom. I don’t remember anything about the massage after that, which means it was uneventful.
That was years ago. On a recent visit to my hometown of Chicago, I experienced the peculiar American version of the semiotically opaque, after I called up the number listed on the back of a taxi receipt advertising (presumably nonsexual) massage house calls. When I told them my address, they said they would get back to me. They never did. Evidently my neighborhood was designated a no-go zone too unsafe to risk their masseuses on. Oh, come on, West Rogers Park isn’t that bad. With such a generalized state of fear, it must be really scary to be a masseuse in the U.S.
Next stop is Hualien city on Taiwan’s east coast, famous for the Taroko Gorge and the region’s high concentration indigenous ethnic tribes. On one street a reflexology sign beckons, the Liberation Foot Care Shop, and I go inside. The sole masseuse isn’t on hand but drives up in her moped minutes later, as the manager holds on to me by peppering me with questions about life on the Mainland. The massage is serviceable but not memorable, in other words semiotically transparent.
Across the street I join my girlfriend, who is waiting for me in a little café run by a busy couple. The wife serves hand-dripped artisanal coffee behind a countertop crowded with coffee devotees. She has retained her beauty well into middle age with her wave-permed hair and immaculate white linen blouse, while her jeans-clad husband painstakingly picks out the bad raw beans on a tray before feeding the batch into the roaster. During our hour-long stay he cycles through several batches. They seem religiously devoted to their art, despite going through the same routine for hours at a time, day after day, cumulatively for hundreds upon hundreds or thousands of hours, to keep their loyal customers. This is the world of work, and it’s the same at popular massage establishments, which keep the masseuses churning the flesh of five, six, or seven customers a day. The moral of this is it’s your personal obligation to find work you can find your groove and expertise in.
And then for something new on my last day in the city, a whole street of curiously designated “male-female” spas. I only have time for one and vacillate between Cinderella’s Spa Male Female Finger Oil Pressure and Lucky Spa Male Female Leisure House, before opting for the latter. An elderly madam jumps up at the sight of me and suggests a 90-minute oil massage for NT 2,000. It’s three o’clock in the afternoon, a bit early I suspect, once again with no masseuses presently on hand. She summons one on the phone to come over right away. “We have a customer, a foreigner,” she says. And then in response to the other’s next question: “He’s male.” The girl will be over in ten minutes, she assures me, and leads me to a back room to get me set up and ready.
I slip on the boxer shorts and lie face down on the table, quite eager for a rubdown after hours of walking. Ten, twenty minutes go by. The woman reappears to apologize for the delay and sets about rubbing me down herself, which she’s not very good at. I wonder if it’s her first time finding herself in a situation where she has to give a customer a massage or if she’s ever in fact given one. After several minutes of spreading oil over my back, she leaves the room and trudges about. I start drifting off. Then I notice she’s returned and is whispering to someone.
“You were in the front room all along? I thought you would find him by yourself,” she chides the other.
“I was waiting for you to bring me in.”
I swivel my head up to see my masseuse standing in front of me. She has an hourglass body in black tights and spaghetti top and is very hot in her late thirties or thereabouts with large eyes and long thick hair.
The madam departs. After a brief chest massage Jade Lotus pulls down my shorts to handjob me. While fondling her substantial breasts, which turn out to be artificially enhanced, I pry. She’s divorced with a kid who’s living with her parents up in a mountain town.
“I’m an Ami,” she says, one of the aboriginal tribes common to the area. Her ex “took off” shortly after she gave birth. “All Taiwanese men are like that, they take off.”
I like her blunt manner. She works seventeen hours a day from 3:00 p.m. to 8:00 a.m., with two days off a month.
“Wow, isn’t that too much?”
“The shift includes sleep time. Occasionally we’re woken up with a customer in the late hours but usually not, so it’s not that bad.”
Come to think of it I arrived right around 3:00 p.m. She was late for her shift. Yet the two seem to get along and the madam probably can’t afford to lose her.
“Why did you ask your boss if I was male or female?”
“You massage women here? The same way you’re massaging me?”
“Sure, we often do.”
“Yeah, I can do that, no problem.”
So the meaning of “male female” on the signboard is more transparent rather than opaque. Back in the front room they invite me to some tea. Jade Lotus deflects my further questioning by remarking to the madam, “He’s handsome.”
The madam herself is very talkative and shares the shocking story of her three years doing business on the Chinese Mainland in the late 1980s (she adds she was indeed at Tiananmen Square during the upheaval in 1989). A distant relative in Tianjin convinced her to invest in a shrimp farming startup. She had a bit of money at the time and agreed, ultimately shelling out hundreds of thousands of USD for the project, but crooks at various points along the distribution chain siphoned it all off and she lost everything. In retrospect she realized it was all a setup. She still hasn’t gotten over it and never will, but enough years have passed that she can relate the story in good humor. In any case she’s left with her not terribly profitable massage business to make some amends for herself.
Back in Taipei I return to the Superb Peace Hall Body Therapy for another go with Red Plum. Eager to learn as much as I can about Taiwanese masseuses on this short trip, I pry into her life as well. She’s married with a kid, happily it seems, and is from the Mainland. Surprised, I ask her how she managed to make it over, as it’s virtually impossible for Mainlanders to live in Taiwan. She says she married a Taiwanese man and came here fourteen years ago. Meanwhile I’m getting more or less the same massage as last time, except for one dramatic improvement: she’s giving my balls a pretty thorough going over, and that’s where it ends when the time’s up. I could pay for another half hour to see if she’d inch yet further up along my shaft. But I leave it at that. It will provide sufficient fantasy material to last until my next visit to Taiwan.
* * *
Confucius and opium
Massage diary: Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam
Coffee and massage in Burma
In search of Malaysian massage
Massaging the masseuse in Beijing and Bangkok
Massaging the Yin-Yang in Pattaya