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Chinese Bathhouse

January 2006

My favorite line in E.M. Forster’s novel, A Room With a View, is when Freddy greets his new neighbor, Emerson, by saying, “How d’ye do? Come and have a bathe.”  Another character present chuckles over the absurdity of such a greeting, but nevertheless, they all go traipsing off to a nearby pond to have a jolly good bath together.  This leads to my favorite scene in the movie version, where the men are nude and chasing each other around the pond (as naked men are bound to do), only to be discovered by some fully-clothed and proper neighbors who are out for a walk.  The men yelp and try to hide behind bushes while the women laugh into their parasols. Freddy’s mother asks the obvious question, “Why not have a comfortable bath at home?”

So when our friend Charlie invited us to go to a Chinese bathhouse, we had no idea what to expect, since bathing together isn’t something we westerners normally go out of our way to do.  And even if we tried, the results would no doubt be disastrous and humiliating, as my movie proves.  But in China, bathhouses are quite common and quite popular, so Zac and I agreed that it was high time we found out what went on beyond the wavy concrete façade.  Although we too questioned, “Why can’t we take a comfortable bath at home?”

We selected Saturday evening, Zac’s birthday, as the day to mark our entrance into the nude underworld of Chinese bathhouses.  We felt it was appropriate that Zac should enter his 27th year of life the same as the first: wearing nothing but his birthday suit.  Charlie had chosen to take us to one of Dalian’s most luxurious bathhouses, the Golden Lotus.  Many a foreigner before us had ventured into this watery world, so we’d heard plenty of rumors.  There are saunas and steam rooms.  There are prostitutes.  You can get massages and skin scrubbings.  And above all, you have to get naked with a bunch of other people.  We were wary, but we entered the bathhouse with an open mind.

Once inside the door, we were each given a small towel and a rubber bracelet with our locker key and number (which functioned as a charge account for any services received inside the bathhouse).  Then Zac and Charlie went into the male side, and Felicia and I went into the women’s side.  First we took off our shoes and they were whisked away.  Then we were led to our lockers.  We each had a personal attendant while we undressed, who took our clothes and put them into the lockers for us.  The interior was probably the cleanest, most beautiful place I’d seen in Dalian;  everything was polished and shining.  And there were mirrors everywhere.  Whoever decorated the place evidently decided that we liked to stare at ourselves and other people naked. 

Once we too were fully naked, we were led to the shower room and given some plastic sandals to wear.  Each shower was in a little alcove, but due to the abundance of mirrors, I could watch Felicia showering and she could see me.  There were so many mirrors that everywhere you looked, you were confronted with nudity.  In each shower, there were numerous bottles of shampoos, conditioners, and body washes and our small towels functioned as washcloths.  While showering, we had a generous view of naked women receiving skin scrubbings by robust women wearing black bikinis.  If these views seem the least bit enticing to any of my male readership, just keep in mind that the vast majority of the patrons at this expensive bathhouse were at least middle-aged and were quite flabby and wobbly.  It really made me fear aging.

After showering, we tried the steam room, which gave me uncanny insight into the life of a steamed dumpling.  It was painfully hot.  Then we tried the sauna, which we could only tolerate for about five minutes.  After this, we took another shower because we were all sweaty.  Then, just to take advantage of all the free services, we brushed our teeth.  The attendants unwrapped the toothbrush for us, put the toothpaste on, and filled a cup of water.  The service was so good it was ridiculous.

Having exhausted all the activities doable in that room, we were given towels (or, more specifically, the towels were put on us), and were led back to the locker area.  There, a dutiful attendant gave us some bathhouse clothes to wear: socks, disposable underwear, shorts and a shirt.  Finally relieved of our nudity, we combed our hair and applied various lotions from the bountiful dressing table, then we headed up the carpeted, mirror-lined stairs into the co-ed lounge.

I will turn this e-mail over to Zac now, for a description of the male side of the bathhouse.

The rectangular bathing room was very large and well decorated.  In the center of the room was a shallow circular pool.  Along the one of the long walls were around ten showering pods.  I followed Charlie, as I didn’t really know what to do and didn’t want to break any protocol, if there was any.  First to the showers; we each grabbed our own pods.  The men’s side wasn’t covered with mirrors and so thankfully I couldn’t see any one else showering.  The pods were, however, open to the room so I could see everyone else.  It was a nice shower, as far as showers go but I ran out of things to wash and went to see if Charlie was finished.  He was still enjoying his shower so I went to wait for him in the pool. 

There were perhaps 20-30 men in the room and there was only one other guy in the pool, although a few were lounging on the wide rim.  As soon as I took a dip it became clear that the high temperature precluded any dawdling.  After a minute or two Charlie joined me and we talked for a bit.  He translated the sign above the pool: “Those with STD’s aren’t allowed in the pool.”  We got out, drank some complementary mineral water and headed over to the sauna.

I had been in a few saunas before but this one seemed hotter than most.  As Charlie and I sat, I told him that in the USA it wasn’t common to be naked with other people, barring locker rooms.  I did say that the USA is more prudish than other western countries.  He was intrigued to find out that in Europe it’s possible to find women going topless on the beach.  I then tried to explain nudist beaches but I was finding it difficult to concentrate in the humidity and heat. Charlie must have been ready to leave for a while as I had to teach him a new phrase, “high tolerance,” so he could praise me for staying comfortable in the steamy room for so long. 

I asked him what was normally next; he said it was a massage.  At the far end of the room was the massage area with about ten massage beds.  Charlie had said earlier that the massages cost 100 RMB ($13) but in fact that was the price to have a young woman erotically “massage” you for an hour. Since these were male masseurs (the only kind available in this room), they only cost 20 RMB.  We went over and proceeded to be prodded, pounded and pulled from head to toe for twenty minutes; it felt really good.

From there it was another shower and, just to take full advantage of the situation, we went over to the other long wall, lined with sinks, and brushed our teeth and shaved with the complementary toothbrushes and razors.  The toothpaste was squeezed and the shaving cream was put on my hand by an attendant.  The razor was so cheap that it proved completely ineffective, so we quickly gave up on shaving.  The only thing left to do was take a dip in the separate sliver of the pool that was filled with cold water, but declining to try that we went instead to the next stage of the bathhouse experience.

The next room was a sort transition room; there was a wall with four primping areas, complete with creams, cologne and hairbrushes.  In the middle of the room was an attendant to help us into our co-ed bathhouse lounging attire.  At this point both being naked and being waited on had lost most of their novelty.  Even so, when the attendant helped me into my disposable underwear, I was surprised.  Feeling very clean, Charlie and I went upstairs, past the life size painting of a beautiful servant woman and found Sera and Felicia waiting in the lounge.  Back to Sera…

The second floor lounges were co-ed.  However, we soon noticed that the female patrons and male masseurs tended to be in one room, while the male patrons and scantily-clad female masseuses congregated in the larger room.  If there were any gay people in this bathhouse, they were in the closet.  However, the prostitutes, a whole army of them, were not in any closets.  They were lined up along a bench in the predominantly male side of the lounge.  Most of the prostitutes at this swanky bathhouse were lithe collegiate women, wearing identical blue evening gowns and plenty of makeup and sparkle.  The bathhouse functions as their pimp, undoubtedly taking a large cut of their profits, but paying the appropriate bribes and providing some protection in return.  Although prostitutes are technically illegal in China (just like pirated DVDs), they thrive in bathhouses and karaoke bars, and everyone knows it.  In a way, I think this is better, because at least they’re not on the streets or strung out on drugs.

The lounge was beautiful and tended to resemble the first-class section of an airplane, with large sofa-like chairs, thin blankets, personal flat-screen TVs, and dim mood lighting.  Felicia and I chose to wait for Zac and Charlie in the female room because the sight of many female masseuses kneeling before middle-aged business men providing foot massages was a bit disturbing.  As soon as we sat down and started playing with the TV, attendants appeared and asked if we wanted drinks.  We said no.  Then the masseurs came, offering massages.  We didn’t really feel like forking over the extra money for these massages, so we declined.  But they kept coming.  “Would you like a head massage?”  A few seconds later, “How about a foot massage?”  Then, “Perhaps a shoulder massage would interest you?”  Figuring out we were cheapskates, “How about a hand massage?” and the final bid, “Don’t you want to try a traditional Chinese massage?”  Felicia dutifully translated all of this for me, until Zac and Charlie finally came up.  We had been joking that they must have found some prostitutes, because we couldn’t figure out why they had taken longer than us.  We compared our respective bathing experiences and quickly learned that all was not equal in the bathing world.  Felicia and I were envious of their pool.

Since bathhouses and prostitutes are a novelty for Zac and me, we discussed a lot about the bathhouse culture.  We learned that rich people come to these expensive bathhouses maybe a couple of times a month, to relax and enjoy the atmosphere.  Not everyone will partake of the prostitutes, although if someone really comes to the bathhouses a lot, we should be suspicious. Businesses can also treat their prestigious clients to services at the bathhouse.  This bathhouse cost 39RMB ($4.80) just for entry, and all scrubbings, drinks, and massages cost extra.  The mid-level bathhouses cost 15-20 RMB for entry, offer all the same services, but are less clean and have less diligent attendants.  But most Chinese people frequent the common bathhouses, which can cost as little as 3RMB for entry.  At those bathhouses, you have to bring all your own soaps and towels and they’re quite crowded.

 Although we experienced a Chinese bathhouse first-hand, the enigma remained: Why not have a comfortable bath at home?  Our Chinese friends provided a variety of reasons.  First of all, it’s a tradition that is ingrained in their culture.  For a long time, houses simply didn’t have bathing facilities, so everyone had to go to local bathhouses.  The perception still lingers that you will get cleaner at a bathhouse than at home.  Some people who favor therapeutic, multi-hour showers go to the bathhouse because it is cheaper than showering at home where you have to pay for water and the electricity to heat it.  Students who live in the university dormitories have no alternative for showering other than their campus bathhouse.  Sometimes it is just more convenient to shower at the bathhouse since showers in the home aren’t always designed very well—resulting in flooding and molding.  Some go for the massages, skin-scrubbings, saunas and prostitutes.  Others go to the lavish bathhouses for the relaxing atmosphere and the feeling of being waited upon.  And who knows, maybe some go to celebrate their birthday suit.  We went out of curiosity, and I’m glad we did, but I think I’ll just continue to have a comfortable bath at home. 

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