Massaging the masseuse in Beijing and Bangkok

massage 1gaiMoney is just money. But sexual companionship is priceless.” Lawrence Osborne, Bangkok Days

Xia. Hujialou, Beijing. One day I chance upon a new massage parlor in a leafy neighborhood south of the Workers’ Stadium. The girl I get, Xia (pronounced Syah), is very pretty, though this isn’t at first apparent in her shapeless tracksuit uniform, plain ponytail and no makeup in the low lighting. She steps out while I put on the required disposable shorts and returns a few minutes later. She strokes me slowly and sensuously, just as I like it, before pulling my shorts down to massage my buttocks and work her hands into my inner thighs, though without moving the treatment into overt sexual territory. After replacing the shorts she turns me over and finishes off with her hands back inside for some more erotic teasing. During the session I learn she’s twenty-eight and from the Sichuan city of Mianyang, which suffered moderate damage in the massive 2008 earthquake, when she was still living there. In a familiar refrain, she caught her husband in an affair and they’ve been separated for several years now; her kid is being brought up by her parents while she ekes out a living in the comparatively lucrative Beijing massage market.

While most girls share a dorm-style room in back of the venue, or in the foot massage room on collapsible La-Z-Boys after the last customers leave around 2 a.m., Xia sleeps alone in one of the private rooms. She likes wine. I promise her a bottle of imported red on my next visit. She gives me her cellphone number and we connect later that evening on WeChat. Her profile, I notice, contains attractive photos of herself on a recent trip she took. Her tight jeans and low-cut shirt bragging unmistakable breasts (no trick bra), the flawless face, and her sense of independence—prizing her privacy and imbibing when most Chinese females don’t touch alcohol—combine into a highly intriguing prospect.

I go back a few days later bearing wine and ask Xia out to dinner. No go. They don’t let her out except for daytime errands and the usual maximum of one or two days off a month. I settle for cultivating her on the job rather than pressuring her to give up a free day for my sake, her latest star-struck fickle customer, at least until she warms to the idea.

My intense attraction for her compels me to touch her. Normally I don’t feel up a masseuse unless she invites me to, as they occasionally do with certain telltale signs, say when they press their groin against your hand or pass their breasts over your face when leaning over you. Xia sits on the edge of the table and lets me give her a back rub under her shirt but won’t let me undo her bra.

“Can I give you a proper full-body massage and pay for the session?” I ask.

The predictable answer is, “No.”

Nothing freaks out a masseuse more than offering to massage her. This is even when I make it crystal clear I will be paying her the usual rate she’d be getting if she were massaging me, when I stress it’s strictly massage I have in mind and not sex, and when I add that I happen to have solid training in therapeutic massage to boot. Whereas they always have an excuse at the ready to refuse sex with you (and you can assume they’re not interested if they don’t bring it up themselves), this shocking proposal catches them quite off-guard. Their balking mystifies me just as much as I have mystified them. For how could anyone ever turn down a lovingly offered gratis massage? If nothing else, aren’t they at all curious as to what it might be like when performed by a foreigner trained in Western techniques? Most perplexing of all, why aren’t they demanding to be massaged?

On the face of it, to be sure, the idea is absurd. As much as we may sympathize with the harried restaurant server or store clerk, we show our appreciation with a tip or a smile and would never think of serving him something in recompense for his hard work. Or is it that we choose not to serve him due to the sheer impracticalities involved, which if removed would make the idea more viable? We could hardly, in lieu of a tip after our meal, invite a waitperson that’s rushing around to sit down in our place while we fetch him something to eat. But what if the restaurant was not busy at the time and he had no other customers? Or we waited until the end of his shift? Why couldn’t this be a fair alternative to a tip? Might it not humanize or at least mitigate the alienation inherent in the consumer transaction? Might it not occasionally be preferred to a tip due to the satisfying catharsis he would experience at this unprecedented reversal of roles?

Massage is distinguishable from other kinds of service in that it already is more humanized than the majority of transactions, which tend to be fleeting and impersonal. Let’s consider the class of servers with whom a greater degree of personalization and sustained one-on-one contact necessarily occurs—including not only massage therapists but all bodywork trainers, barbers and hair dressers, physical and psychological therapists, and innumerable types of consultants, coaches and tutors. We hire such people for the specialized skills or knowledge they have and we correspondingly lack. The most intimate and personal of these encounters is provided by the psychologist and the prostitute, who also tend to be among the most expensive, given the special competence required to navigate the treacherous emotional territory of the potentially volatile client.

The paid sexual encounter stands apart in being the only type of service requiring reciprocal participation. By this I mean, in all other types, the provider is in an active and the client in a passive role; the client receives but does not give back in equal terms. In the sexual encounter, by contrast, the client is required to return the service in kind if the transaction is to be carried out at all (though of course the degree of performance and skill may not be equal among the two parties). Massage falls roughly between the sexual and the therapeutic transaction. Like any therapeutic service, on the one hand, the client is in a passive role, being actively worked on by a skilled masseuse. Like the sexual service, on the other, there is no reason why the client can’t reciprocate and satisfy the masseuse by erotically massaging her in turn.

To look at it from another angle, let’s consider a form of noncommercial interaction requiring reciprocal participation: marriage and the love relationship. Ideally, both parties work equally hard at the mutual production of love. In cases where it doesn’t play out as planned and the respective contributions are unequal, resentment, despair and loneliness results. Anger may grow to the point where the neglected party terminates the relationship. Love turns out to be a kind of monetary transaction after all, in which the currency exchanged is not money but sex and affection: the male party traditionally “paying” for sex with emotional tokens and the female party “paying” for love with sexual gestures.

Here too massage seems to be a comparable phenomenon. Like the love relationship, the touch of any skilled masseur or masseuse is charged with emotion as much as it is with technique; it assuages and soothes loneliness as well as the muscles. The masseuse transfers emotional energy to the person receiving her touch, expending it in the process and draining herself. She knocks herself out of emotional whack and to restore herself needs to receive the like in turn. Considering that massage workers seldom if ever, after the thousands of massages they typically give over many years, get massaged themselves, isn’t this tremendous asymmetry, this intolerable imbalance in their life, of such a magnitude as to threaten to make them insane? Not once in the history of the world has a masseuse ever burst out and demanded of her customer, “Why can’t I be massaged?!”

Not once in the history of the world has a masseuse ever burst out and demanded of her customer, “Why can’t I be massaged?!”

Lele. Sanlitun, Beijing. Meanwhile there’s a shop in the Sanlitun bar area I’ve not noticed until now. I give it a shot. The rooms have foldout beds instead of proper massage tables, suggesting a handjob parlor, but the menu does offer the therapeutic-sounding “lymphatic oil massage.” What the girl assigned to me provides is something in between: stroking sans technique. With a squeeze of my cock she tries to nudge me up into the next price bracket, a handjob—for another 100 yuan. On the contrary, her aimless passes over my body is so boring that I call it quits after only thirty minutes. She’s none too pleased about this, since even if I don’t complain about her to the madam, she’s still going to lose face at my early departure. On my way out another girl passes by in the hallway. She’s dressed in a skin-tight leopard-patterned dress and has a voluptuous body. We lock eyes just before she slips into another room.

A few days later I’m back, asking for the fengmande (shapely) girl.

“Oh, that’s Lele,” the madam says.

Lele (pronounced like French “Le”) at once appears, as if expecting me. Her clear Mandarin belies her Anhui countryside background and for a twenty-one-year old she’s anything but shy. I find her bubbly personality immediately engaging. She too has no massage ability, but it doesn’t matter since I’d far prefer massaging her than being massaged by her. She agrees but wants more money—300 for the session, the equivalent of a handjob. We devote the final half hour to the reversal of roles. As with most women being massaged for the first time, she’s reluctant to remove her clothes and I need to take things delicately. Piece by piece they come off until she’s naked down to her panties, which she keeps fixed in place because she’s on her period.

“Now, there are a few basics you need to know when giving someone a massage,” I tell her as I demonstrate the same. “First, always, always use two hands. Second, lean over the person and channel your body weight through your arms for strength and leverage. If your hands are doing all the work, they’ll quickly tire out. Third, vary your strokes and your speed in unpredictable ways. The deeper you go, the slower you should go, but you can’t go too deep until you first melt the muscles with gradually deeper stroking. And don’t section off the body but connect the back and the ass, and the ass and the legs in a seamless way.”

“Thank you for this advice. We get no massage training here whatsoever.”

I turn her over. Her expansive boobs form a shivering mass when I gather them up in my hands and push them together. They are capped by big brown perfectly circular areolas which, oiled up, glisten like chocolate wafers. I caress the luxurious flesh of her belly, textured with stretch marks. “You’ve been pregnant?”

“Yep, I had a baby two years ago.”

“You’re married? So young?”

“My husband’s back in Anhui. My parents are bringing it up since he’s too busy with his job.”

“Why isn’t he here with you?”

Stupid question. The norm for families from the countryside is to spread out all over the map. People go where the money is. Money talks and also shuts up the inquisitive.

I work her inner thighs and her legs ease apart. I could push it but decide to wait till next time. “Am I doing a good job?”

“Yeah, can’t you tell I’m getting excited? We can get horny too, you know.”

A week later I’m back and tell her I want to devote the whole session to her.

“The other girls think it’s weird but my boss can deal with it.”

“You told them?”

“Yeah. They can’t accept it.”

I get her completely naked this time and but she’s not aroused. Her pussy isn’t leaking and she doesn’t want it massaged. “I’ve had other guys come on to me and they’ve offered me lots of money but I wasn’t interested. One Arab guy wanted to give me 1,000 kuai just to eat me out and I wouldn’t let him.”

“Why not?”

“I didn’t like him.”

“How much to let me sleep with you?”

“I could do it for 1,000.”

“That’s too much.”

With a bit of pushing she’s willing to go down to 600—1,000 if she comes over to my place—but insists that all negotiating has to go through her boss and the boss won’t let her give me her cellphone number. Some establishments do this to keep their girls on a leash and at a premium to entice customers back. Once they start freelancing they’re lost to the shop. I’m not sure what kind of intimidation or threats are used but they’ve been effective with Lele. Probably her young age. I decide to maintain a state of suspense. I give her my card.

“I’d like you to come here every week,” she says.

Juan. Maizidian, Beijing. The Binduyuan building in Maizidian with its scores of massage parlors is an old haunt of mine. Whenever I get bored with one parlor I simply try out another. There are so many that when I revisit one I’ve been to at some point in the past it’s newly fresh and unfamiliar and I’m not wholly sure I’ve been there before. Or I’m thrown off by new girls or new management, or the parlors’ practice of sharing girls to fill momentary demand, and I find myself at a new shop face to face with a girl I seem to recall from the dreamlike past. It’s a revolving carousel of a building with an endless number of horses for parlors to jump on. I get creative today with a parlor on the fifth rather than the usual third or fourth floors. The back room I’m ushered into has something I’ve not seen before—two massage tables placed flush together to form one wide table. I presume it’s to make it easier for the masseuse to get right up on it and work with greater ease.

The girl who appears, Juan (pronounced Jwen), has a down-to-earth cast, chuckling less mechanically than most and smiling only at the right moments. Like Lele she’s from the Anhui countryside but a bit older, twenty-six, with naturally brown hair. She’s wearing a loose sleeveless shirt that reveals hairy armpits and ample breasts, which settle on my face as she bends over to stroke my chest. She’s not great at massage but in the final minutes sweetens things up by giving my erection a thorough oiling up, while stopping short of bringing me off. That’s fine. The “handjob” and the “happy ending” are the most shopworn of clichés. It’s assumed you’re in a state of torture and releasing you is the only civil thing to do. So when they don’t and suddenly stop, I’m intrigued as to why, what’s causing them to act contrary to expectation. It’s just as intriguing as to why they set about handling my cock in the first place. Not that it’s illogical to touch the genitals; I just want to know which of the myriad possible reasons for doing so motivates a masseuse in each instance.

Not that it’s illogical to touch the genitals, of course; I just want to know which of the myriad possible reasons for doing so motivates a masseuse in each instance.

I ask Juan if she’s free to do house calls. She gives me her cellphone number. When I leave the shop she’s standing by the entrance with a cigarette. We step out into the hall, out of earshot of her boss. As she wants to freelance the house call (so she can pocket the entire 300 fee we’ve agreed on), and is only free in the mornings when I’m at work, it’s going to take some coordinating of our schedules to get her over to my place.

She finally makes it over one evening on a rare day off. When she shows up at my door I almost don’t recognize her. She’s pulled her hair up in a ponytail and done up her face. Juan has the kind of face that would be regarded as passably attractive—until she hits her mid-thirties and it sags. Now, with a makeup job she’s quite pretty. She agrees to be massaged, though the panties stay on. They all seem to be on their period three weeks out of the month rather than the other way around. When I turn her over to do her front, like Lele’s I gather up her love bags in my hands and try to assess whose has the most volume. Juan’s are a bit looser and floppier, with tan rather than dark areolas; one breast is bigger than the other. Still, they’re gorgeous and I think marginally larger than Lele’s. And as with Lele, her belly is reticulated with stretch marks, over her entire expanse, a veritable flesh washboard.

“Is this why you wanted me to turn the light down?” I ask.

“Yeah.”

“You had a baby?”

“I had an abortion—at six months.”

“Why so late?”

“My boyfriend back home got in trouble and thrown in jail, so we had to call off our plans together.”

“What did he do?”

“He and some friends badly beat up a man. They almost killed him.”

“Are you getting back together?”

“I don’t know. I don’t think so. Anyway he’s still locked up for another two years.”

We chat on the bed over a glass of wine, and start making out. Her breathing picks up. She takes me in her mouth and lets me pull down her panties. There’s little sign of blood. After a bit more play, we stop. I could push it but she’s not quite ready. I anticipate seeing her back anyway to consummate things, if not before my trip to Thailand during the Chinese Spring Festival holiday, then soon thereafter.

Kit. Khaosan, Bangkok. There are so many massage shops in this fabled backpacker haunt that I’m stuck in choice paralysis, until I go for a shop with just one girl sitting out front (most have a bunch of them), a young woman with South as opposed to Southeast Asian facial features and a plump figure by the name of Kit. She takes me upstairs to a row of massage cubicles on the third floor. The decor is clean and attractive with subdued lighting and New Age background music. After showering I get on the table naked. Kit drapes me with a towel. I learn from her smattering of English she’s from the rural Isan region, as most of them are. I ask her to concentrate on my lower back and legs. The towel slips off and falls on the floor. When I turn over, she strokes my cock as I massage her on the back under her shirt. I peel her pants down off her hips and she’s very wet between the legs. She collapses on top of me in giggles. We start kissing. Then the time is up. On my next visit I’m going to propose devoting the entire session to massaging her.

But not right away. I never go back to the same parlor before letting some time lapse. Returning too soon, appearing too eager, deflates anticipation. I want them to wonder what happened to me and to be surprised when I show up again at long last.

My present business is to elucidate the distinctive features of the Thai massage experience by visiting dozens of parlors, to orient myself in the scene, just as I orient myself around Bangkok by walking the entirety of the city before covering individual neighborhoods at closer range. On my first long walking day, from Nana in Sukhumvit to the Chao Phraya River along Thanon Bamrung Muang Road, I pass by a shop selling Buddhist paraphernalia and buy three lovely little kiln-glazed Buddhas with detachable scholar-style eyeglasses—one for Xia, one for Lele, and one for Juan back in Beijing.

Such is the range and quality of massage encountered in both countries that it’s hard to generalize about differences. Chinese venues range from converted flats with a few small rooms to labyrinthine, catacomb-like hallways where it’s easy to get lost on your way out. They have a restaurant-style menu on the shop counter listing a range of treatments from traditional foot and body massage to oil massages varying according to quality of the oil or thoroughness of the procedure. Prices range from $10-$15 US for basic foot and dry body massages to $20-$30 for oil massage—the typical session being one hour—and $50 and up for various packages combining foot and full-fledged spa routines, with longer sessions. Membership plans are also available in the swankier places and aggressively pushed. Other parlors, alternatively, substitute tiered sexual services for the higher price categories, though any massage establishment may offer sex in some form or other.

Thai venues are more uniform and adhere to a more predictable formula. The warm weather allows the masseuses sit outside the shop to hawk their services. The shop’s massage menu also stands on a placard outside or sits prominently in the window. Traditional Thai and oil massage are always featured, along with reflexology and other more specialized body treatments. Foot massage is on La-Z-Boys in the front lobby, body massage on the second or third floor. A sixty-minute oil massage ranges from US $10-$15, half the Chinese price, with half-hour intervals optionally added. But here’s an interesting cultural twist. As with restaurants in China which often refuse to accommodate the simplest requests (e.g. substituting oil and vinegar for the usual mayonnaise or Thousand Island for salad dressing), Chinese parlors can be unaccountably stubborn about extending your session, as if you’re somehow causing them trouble, or requiring that you add on another full session rather than just half an hour. Such greed and pettiness is unheard of in Thai parlors, which are always straightforward and grateful for your patronage and never unnecessarily complicate things for the customer.

The majority of Thai masseuses range in age from their twenties to forties. Massage girls tend not to be as attractive as women in the overt sex trade and accordingly earn less, but many manage to do themselves up quite nicely in makeup and New Age casual wear. Some even wear sarongs, but the norm in both countries is pants, to ward off the insinuating hands of male customers. Chinese masseuses also hail almost exclusively from the countryside but tend to be more unimaginatively decked out in frumpy uniforms or sportswear; those in their early to mid-twenties, typically still virgins, shy away from sexual services and stick to foot and dry massage (once married or divorced they become more at ease with the male body). There is greater tolerance for naked massage in Thailand compared to China, where you’re handed the regulation disposable shorts to put on—as if it were only fair the customer too had to be in uniform.

Cultural differences aside, whether you are touched erotically or not, with the intent to bring you to orgasm or stop short of it and charged extra or not; whether you are handled with any degree of skill or not, and finally how she reacts to your proposal to massage her, varies greatly from masseuse to masseuse and shop to shop and is equally unpredictable and wholly a matter of luck whether in Thailand or China. This uncertainty is the charm of Oriental massage.

Kanya. Sukhumvit, Bangkok. Kanya, the woman I select in a parlor on Soi 3 off Sukhumvit Road, is likewise of South Asian aspect and has a nicely ripened body in her mid-thirties. She gives a good treatment but saves the erotics for the final stretch. Wrapping her fist around my erection, she wants more money to finish me off. I refuse. Instead, I offer to massage her in my hotel room the next day and offer to pay double the hourly rate. She agrees, while deflecting my hand off her breast. The language barrier needs us to hammer down details repeatedly until they stick. I’m staying only a kilometer away over on Soi 2 in a small hotel she’s not familiar with, so we settle on my coming round to her shop at 3 p.m. and going back together. I get dressed. Just before I step out of the room, as though to reassure me I made the right choice for the unlikely proposal, she opens her shirt and flashes her tits in a floral bra. They are indeed generous and spill out under the cups. She proceeds to unbutton her pants to show me her belly. This sudden turn of events is exciting and I want to inspect her in more detail but decide to save the feast for tomorrow.

The next day at 3 p.m. sharp I arrive at her shop. Several masseuses are sitting out front but no Kanya. I ask for her and show them the shop’s business card with her name written on it in case I didn’t pronounce it right. They shake their heads. One steps into the shop and brings out the boss, who explains it’s Kanya’s day off. There must be some misunderstanding, I say. I wait a few more minutes but their pitying glances convey she won’t be coming. I can’t believe she got cold feet. Thai masseuses often ask me where I’m staying and are known to prefer house calls, given the opportunity to garner a bit more money. And if she really didn’t like the idea of receiving rather than giving a massage, what were the strip-show theatrics all about yesterday?

I compensate myself with a “chocolate” massage at a nearby parlor. The signboard out front shows a naked female body slathered in rich thick melted chocolate. It’s about twice the price of a regular oil massage. Up in a spare third-floor room, as a woman in her fifties goes to work on my back, the cloying smell of cheap chocolate hits my nostrils. When I turn over and she does my front, I look down and see nothing but oil on my body and my hard-on.

“Where’s the chocolate?” I ask.

She shows me a small bowl filled with oil and a clump of congealed chocolate at the bottom. If it weren’t for her accomplished stroking which quickly brings me off, I’d be pretty upset.

“That was a rip-off,” I tell the madam down in the lobby, a blond Russian of all people. “Nothing like the photo outside.”

She’s none too happy to hear my complaint, as if I had just spent the entire hour trying to cook up something to complain about. Anyway I won’t be back, nor will other customers who try it out, and her business will suffer and hopefully go under from deceptive practices. What they should do is use real melted chocolate and factor its price into the treatment. It’s a great concept and no matter how expensive people will go for it.

Gift. Nana Plaza, Bangkok. After a go-go bar tour in the city of Pattaya, I’m back in Sukhumvit and eager to check out the go-go bars at Nana Plaza for comparison’s sake. I’ve heard they’re not as good. What could beat something like Pattaya’s Airport Club? In the back of the bar beyond the pole-dancing stage is a jacuzzi next to a small circular platform with a single pole in the middle, surrounded by seats soon occupied by fired-up young foreign men (the jaded older dudes sit around the upper seats observing the proceedings from a distance). Three naked dancers descend into the jacuzzi and step out by turn onto the platform to soap themselves up and swirl around the pole on the sudsy surface on their haunches. Soon two of them are going at it with lesbian play and mutual cunnilingus. For 100-Baht tips, they invite the men to caress them and wash their vagina and even stick their fingers all the way inside.

I wonder what it is that the women who engage in this kind of exhibitionist theater experience. Relentless debasement? Or, on the contrary, a profoundly liberating exhilaration the likes of which the rest of us can never know? They seem to be enjoying it and if they’re not, they’re damn good actors.

I wonder what it is that the women who engage in this kind of exhibitionist theater experience. Relentless debasement? Or a profoundly liberating exhilaration the likes of which the rest of us can never know?

Upon stepping inside one of Nana Plaza’s go-go bars I see a girl on the stage with my kind of big heavy ass in a G-string. They’re just finishing their dance set and filing off as I settle into one of the tiered benches surrounding the walls for taking in the action. This one certainly qualifies for a second going over if and when she reemerges, but she turned around before I could catch the number tag pinned on her front and has already disappeared into a back room with the others. Anyway I’m not really in the mood to hire anyone tonight. It’s massage rather than straight fucking that’s my thing, and it takes an extraordinary body to pry loose my intransigence. In fact a lot of the men who patronize go-go bars are just there to watch and don’t plan to leave with a girl.

But the bars know this and work around it. The girls have very sharp eyes and spot your interest in them even before you do; the older gals serving drinks see you too and convey this to them in case they missed it. This is all demonstrated to me with mind-boggling efficiency a few moments later, when I find the girl with the ass standing before me and asking to sit down. Her name is Gift (a common Thai female name appropriated from the English word). The hot flesh of her hips next to me destroys any remaining resistance. When she asks if I’d like to have sex with her, I have no choice but to assent. The madam is already there to collect my money: 800 Baht for the bar fine and 300 for two drinks. Gift herself gets 2,000 for the fuck, plus another 400 for the room in the hourly hotel nearby, altogether totaling just over US $100.

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Gift’s tattoos.

Gift agrees to let me give her a massage. I can’t get it up due to penile exhaustion from all the massages I’ve had over the past two weeks in this country. There’s no oil, but I have on me a packet of water-based lubricant that stays slippery on the flesh for all of a few seconds before drying up. I turn her over and dry massage her on the front. Her body is a work of art but she’s dry between the legs. I settle for a bit of chitchat before we head our separate ways. She’s from Isan and twenty-six years old. She works on a freelance basis, staying at the bar only as long as it takes her to nail a customer, and goes home directly after sex. Some nights she doesn’t land anyone. In a typical month she gets ten times what she’s collected today from me. After a few more years she’ll have saved up enough to fulfill her dream of opening up a café back in her hometown. I suspect she earns more. Sex workers like to claim they earn less than they actually do to appear deserving of your money (just as I claim I earn less than I do when they ask me what my salary is).

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According to author Mark Jones, a prostitute’s tattoo of 5 lines of vertical script is “applied with an incantation of black magic” and casts spells on the lustful.

Vanida. Silom, Bangkok. My attempt to pay Kit another visit in Khaosan strangely falls through. On the way to her shop I pass a parlor close by that advertises “milk cream” massage—another novelty I have to try out before hopping over to see Kit. I’m not wholly sure in fact which shop is hers. When I step into the new place, I have the vague feeling it is Kit’s shop. A masseuse in her forties escorts me upstairs, and I now realize beyond a doubt it’s the same shop. Sitting on the stairs is a masseuse who looks just like Kit but perhaps a little older. I stare at her and she stares at me and there’s no immediate recognition. The woman takes me to exactly the same massage cubicle that Kit massaged me in. It’s too late now. In any case, I find older masseuses a better bet, more experienced and at ease with men. She gives me a perfunctory but competent massage—the cream feels as sensuous as oil on the skin but has a cooler sensation—and finishes off with an expert handjob, without requiring a tip.

In the evening I venture to a different area of the city—Si Lom, where the notorious Patpong sex district is located, now a magnet for gay male sex. Along Silom Road itself scores of regular massage parlors line the two-kilometer stretch westward from the Si Lom Skytrain station to Mahesak Road. I pop into one parlor with an attractive older woman, Vanida, who bores her eyes into me and seems very happy I’ve selected her. The massage has barely begun when we start pawing at each other. She wants another 1,000 Baht for “body-to-body” massage—sex. She’s luscious and I go for it. Mounting the table and positioning herself over me, we launch into frenzied sixty-nine. She’s a large woman and I worry our combined weight might collapse the table. Intercourse is awkward too as I’m still suffering from cock death and we stop after a minute or two. She massages me erotically for the rest of the session.

I want to see Vanida again. On my last night in Bangkok I invite her out to dinner in Silom. Over spicy Thai shrimp and squid, I learn she’s forty-three, from Songkhla in the south, not far from the border with Malaysia, and is both ethnically Malay, evident in her soft eyes and smooth caramel skin, and a Muslim. Her younger sister runs a restaurant just over the Malaysian side of the border. Vanida left her husband years ago after she caught him seducing her sister. She has their sixteen-year old daughter whom she’s putting through an expensive high school in Bangkok and hopes to send to college. She worked for many years as a hairdresser before switching to massage only a few months ago, which pays more. She claims I am the first male customer she’s had sex with.

She agrees to be massaged and after dinner we walk over to her shop. I insist on using a room for Thai massage, which is done right on the floor on a thin futon rather than the usual table for oil massage. Her body is most sumptuous. After turning her over I hold out for a few minutes of stroking before going down on her. She’s very eager herself and we shift to furious kissing and fucking. She’s falling for me, I can see. I like her too but don’t know if I will ever see her again.

Juan. Shuangjing, Beijing. Back in Beijing, the Spring festival over, I invite Juan over for another go. She tells me something happened and she hasn’t been sleeping well and will contact me again. I get a call from her a week later. She’s quit the massage parlor and is now selling clothes in a shop at the Solana Mall. The salary is less—$640 US per month compared to about twice as much previously—but she hates massage work and is through with it. I ask her what’s been going on. She says she was pickpocketed on the bus after withdrawing her first month’s salary from the bank. I offer to treat her to lunch the next day at her mall.

She’s almost an hour late to the restaurant.

“What took you so long?”

“I can’t get away when there are a lot of customers.”

“Tell me how you managed to lose so much money. Were you followed by someone scoping you out at the bank? That happens on paydays.”

“No. It was later in the day. I don’t know if it happened while standing in the crowd at the bus stop or on the bus. All I know is my wallet was gone from my bag after I got off.”

“Were you upset?”

“My God, you don’t know how upset I was.”

I only have a few minutes with her before I have to get back to work. I insist on her staying to finish off the dishes I ordered. “Here, this is to help tie you over until your next pay.” I hand her 1,000 yuan, about a week’s worth of wages on her new salary. “You don’t have to pay me back.”

“No,” she says, pushing it back. “I have some money and can manage until then.”

“Take it.”

“No.”

It’s a bit awkward; she must be unsure of my intentions—how sincere I am about not expecting her to pay me back—coupled with the obligatory initial refusal of any gift that’s standard procedure with Chinese politeness. Finally she takes the money. I invite her over to my place the next evening for another massage, without specifying I want anything more than that. She agrees and comes after she’s off work at 8 p.m. This time she gets a great massage and I get a great fuck (she turns out to be good in bed—defined as taking control of the rhythm). I don’t offer to pay her and she doesn’t ask. I give her one of the Buddha statues I picked up in Bangkok as a gift. She forgets to take it when she leaves.

I want to see her again but am not sure how to proceed. Would she be willing to continue the freebies? I doubt it. But if I pay her, that makes her a prostitute. Does she still consider herself to be a sex worker? Isn’t she trying to make a clean break? What if she doesn’t accept payment every time? Can one be a sex worker one minute and not the next? The answer comes one day the following week when she texts me to ask if I can lend her some more money—without even offering to come over. Here I draw the line and refuse.

“Well, then, don’t contact me anymore,” she replies.

Xiaoyun. Xicheng, Beijing. I long to see Xia again but she’s still back in Sichuan after going home for the Spring Festival and for reasons she won’t go into has to delay her return to Beijing indefinitely. Thinking of her makes me recollect another massage girl from Sichuan I haven’t seen for some time, Xiaoyun (pronounced Syao-ywin), who with her coworkers walked out of her previous parlor over low pay, forcing it to shut down. That was a year ago and she had returned to her hometown, but she replies right away to my text message and says she’s been back in Beijing for a while now working at a new place. Like Xia, she is twenty-eight and quite pretty with nice handfuls of breasts but a more willowy figure.

Her new location is over in Xicheng. It’s a shabby parlor but large inside, with a maze of hallways. The rooms have beds rather than massage tables. Though we’ve met only once previously, she recognizes me and is cheerful and friendlier this time.

“Why doesn’t this place require shorts?” I ask as I get on the bed naked. “The last place you worked at did.”

“I’m not sure either.”

When she turns me over and strokes my cock, I feel her up. As with the last time, she loves it and pulls up her shirt and opens her pants. She is so sensitive the slightest touch to her nipples makes her gasp. She guides my fingers to the right spot in her pussy to bring her to orgasm. I ask her if she’s having sex lately or is deprived.

“I met a guy here not long ago, a foreign guy, an American about your age. I fell in love with him.”

“Really? Where do you guys meet?”

“It’s complicated since he’s living with another girlfriend. We’ve only met a few times here and actually haven’t had sex yet. He hasn’t been free on my days off.”

“Why can’t you make love right here?”

“Taking things slowly, I guess.”

Indeed. Given the difficulty of cultivating a relationship with anyone under the circumstances, one has to assume they’re deprived. Some have tenuous relationships with boyfriends or husbands back in their hometown but months or years can go by with no contact. All migrant workers in China live under similar conditions—long working hours with hardly any time off, sex-segregated dorm rooms where they’re confined. Male Chinese migrants do have some recourse, given the widespread availability of prostitution at all price levels. The advantage for female migrants of working in a massage parlor (as opposed to a factory or other jobs in the service industry) is the opportunity to get spontaneously intimate with the right male customer. Obviously many masseuses are lonely and horny, and more than once has one climbed right on the table to fuck me.

Obviously many masseuses are lonely and horny, and more than once has one climbed right on the table to fuck me without charging extra.

The Chinese state media occasionally acknowledge the problem of migrants’ deprivation, even using the medical term “sexual depression,” but there are no proposed solutions or calls to action. This indifference is inevitable as long as we (I include the developed world here) continue to live in a society with an impoverished sexual ethics, where sexual happiness is not regarded as society’s responsibility, only deviancy is (harassment, rape, promiscuity, disease). We still live in the sexual Dark Ages, where it remains relegated to one’s personal affairs and for most people, something they’d rather not talk about, let alone do something about. Things won’t change until a critical mass wake up to the realization that sex, even more than a form of liberation, is a form of knowledge.

After more chatting I discover Xiaoyun to be a fan of Peking opera. She wishes she had someone to go with to the Mei Lanfang theater nearby. I gladly take up the offer. In a way, it’s even more exciting than giving her a massage. We just have to find a time when there’s a performance on her rare evenings off—and if she doesn’t have any qualms about going with me instead of the other American guy.

Lele. Hujialou, Beijing. One day I head over to Lele’s shop in Sanlitun to see how she’s doing. She’s not there. The madam says it’s her day off. That’s odd, as it’s the weekend, not normally allowed off. She tells me to come back again. When I return a few days later, Lele is still not there. Now the madam says she has gone back home to deal with a family problem. She begs me to stay and accept a different girl, but I want Lele. It looks like I may never see her again. She does have my card but I have no reason to expect she’ll contact me of her own accord. I’m feeling a bit lonely and walk over to Xia’s parlor in Hujialou about a mile away. She won’t be there, being still stuck back in Sichuan, but it’s cheaper than Lele’s parlor and the girls give better massages on top of it. I’ll try out someone new there.

The girl they give me turns out to be humdrum at the job. That’s par for the course. Massages are a letdown more often than not and one just has to factor that in the overall cost, which is sufficiently offset by the fantastic and memorable encounters, by the rare girl with the imagination to eroticize things. As I leave, the girl at the desk mumbles something about my “friend” missing me. I suppose she’s referring to Xia but not exactly sure what she means. Another girl comes up to the desk, very sexy in a black lace shirt and black miniskirt who smiles at me. I’m confused since I seem to recognize her. It hits me. “Lele! What are you doing here?”

“I quit that horrible parlor and came here.”

“How did you find this place of all places?”

“An online ad.”

The location is in fact in her general vicinity but still the coincidence is amazing. “I was just at your old parlor and was told you had gone back home.”

“I was for a short time but now I’m back.”

“I wanted to give you a small gift from Thailand.” I pull out the Buddha and remove the bubble wrapping. The Buddha’s eyeglasses have fallen off and are missing. I rummage through my backpack for them.

“Is this what you’re looking for?” says the manager, picking it up off the floor. He seems pleased I’m acquainted with Lele—being of course highly attuned to the value of her great body for the shop. “When you come back, ask for number one,” he says, pointing to her number “1” counter on the magnetic schedule board.

“You’re number one?”

“I’m always number one, in every place I work!”

A few days later I’m back. Lele agrees to our routine but wants more money this time—300 on top of the 128 for the oil massage, running up to a hefty $70 US for the privilege of massaging her. She claims she needs the money to cover a recent series of hospital visits amounting to 3,000 yuan.

“What’s wrong with you?”

“I have a fever.”

“A fever doesn’t cost that much. In the U.S., we wouldn’t even go to the hospital for that.”

“I also have a vaginal inflammation.”

“A yeast infection?”

“Yeah.”

“A yeast infection can be easily taken care of with some anti-fungal cream. Unless it’s bacterial.”

“It is, and it isn’t cured it yet.”

“How did you get it?”

“My husband was up here for a recent visit and he seems to have given it to me. I’m suspicious he got it from someone else.”

So much for going on down on her today. I was hoping we could get more sexual but there’s always some complication. She lets me massage the rest of her but has me go lightly on her legs, which still ache from climbing the Great Wall a couple days ago.

“Why were you out climbing the Wall with a fever?”

“It was my day off and my friend and I had already planned it. I didn’t want to disappoint her.”

She tells me it’s the only friend she has in Beijing. The girls she works with at the new parlor aren’t friendly to her because she’s “number one.”

“What do you mean?”

“I’m the only one who gives handjobs. The boss reserves the number one for the girl who can do that. I make more money than them and they don’t like that.”

“Why should that bother them? Of course you should get paid more if you do handjobs. They should understand that.”

“But they think I have a special relationship with the boss.”

“Do you?”

“No. And I also told them you’re giving me a massage and they don’t like that either.”

“Why not?”

“They think it’s weird.”

Binduyuan
The unassuming Binduyuan building in Beijing’s Maizidian area, three quarters of whose 60 residential units have been turned over to massage businesses. They run the gamut from no-nonsense traditional Chinese massage to seedy handjob parlors, but all are open to both male and female customers. A substantial proportion of the building’s clientele are Japanese women drawn by the affordable prices.

*     *     *

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