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Getting fire cupped in a Tianjin bath house (or) Losing a wrestling match to a giant octopus

I’ve wanted to spend an evening at a local bath house ever since getting a peek inside one in Tianjin’s doomed hutongs. Watching the movie Shower made we want to go even more. Tonight we finally got around to it, and the “Same Fortune Bathing Garden” (同福浴園) didn’t disappoint! It’s not every day that you return home feeling like you’ve just lost a wrestling match to a giant octopus.

There are three public bathhouses in our area that I know of: the two neighbourhood bath houses and one full-on for-profit business. Everyone, and here “everyone” means Mr. Lu the bike repairmen and Mr Chang the sidewalk barber and their friends, said they don’t go to the 5 kuài ($0.75) neighbourhood ones because they’re too dirty. They all recommended the one that’s a step up from the poor-apartment-plumbing-compensation neighbourhood bathhouses. It’s bigger and costs 4 kuài more. So me and two friends (one American and one local) took their advice and went to the 10 kuài ($1.50) one after dinner tonight.

Tianjin’s Same Fortune Bathing Garden (同福浴園): the Good, the Bad, and the I-Can’t-Believe-I-Just-Saw-That

The three of us met for guōtiēr (锅贴儿; pot stickers) before heading to the “Same Fortune Bathing Garden,” which was next door to the restaurant. We exchanged our shoes for locker keys and flip flops. Paying 12 kuài ($1.75) meant we got a new towel that we could keep; 10 kuài would get you a public towel that you would have to leave behind. We stripped down, stowed our stuff, and walked in our flip flops into the bath area.

The bathing area
There were showers and a bathroom along one wall (each shower had a plastic stand with public soap bars and pump shampoo), three massage tables in the middle, and two pools along the other wall. Each pool was the size of a large public hot tub in North America. One pool was warm, and the other really hot. A sign on the wall listed all the different services you could have: different kinds of massages with different kinds of lotions (using Chinese medicine, green tea, etc.), fire cupping (see below), toothpaste (who doesn’t love brushing their teeth in the shower?), and stuff like that. The most expensive massage used some kind of Chinese medicinal stuff and cost 40 kuài ($5.85). There were maybe six or seven customers in the bath area, and three attendants in briefs manned the massage tables, which were kept pretty busy. Seemed the most popular thing tonight was to get slathered head-to-toes in some sort of soapy-looking lotion. I was surprised — though after almost two years in Tianjin I probably shouldn’t be — at how the masseuses soaped their patrons everywhere. This was no sissy drape-a-towel-over-your-mid-section kind of soap down.

The bath house crowd
The bath house patrons were all middle-aged and up, and true to Tianjin form, they were happy to chat and were a lot of fun. Some said they go there every weekend, others said once a month. Some of them knew the staff and other patrons by name. This is one of my favourite aspects of Tianjin: people love to chat. You can sit naked on the side of a tub with people you’ve never met before and have a grand old conversation all evening long if you want. And in every group there’s always a couple of real characters to who love to joke around and have fun. We decided we definitely want to go back to this place.

I’m including this next paragraph only because it was a notable part of the experience. In addition to the “xiǎo jies” in another section of the bath house, there was another aspect of this public bath that I wasn’t particularly impressed with. There is a very handy squatty potty right next to the showers, but guys standing in the middle area where the massage tables were didn’t seem to feel the need to use it, as if taking the four seconds to walk over to it weren’t worth the effort. I suppose since we’re all wearing flip flops it doesn’t matter? Also, exfoliation is a popular aspect of going to public baths. The side of the tub has a pumice stone for people to use, and if you look in the water you can easily see that it gets a lot of use. The water doesn’t have any chemicals in it, at least not any that I could smell. We noticed all this when we first got in, but just instantly put it out of our minds for the rest of the evening and had a great time.

Getting a little sketchy…
Once we were dizzy from the heat (and still bloated from all the guōtiēr), we took showers, dried off (big towels provided), and put on some boxer shorts and a shirt (also provided). Then we walked out of the bath area into another section of the bath house. It was a large, very dimly lit room with booths of two beds each, all facing two big TVs on the front wall that played Chinese soap operas. Maybe 20 or 30 beds total. Middle aged men were chatting, smoking, or getting foot massages from young pretty girls. The second floor was rows of private rooms that ringed the main floor, like in a hotel. Hanging greenery obscured the view from the main floor. When Mr Lu and his buddies were discussing this bath house, they mentioned that there were xiǎo jies (小姐; “little miss” or “little sister,” also a euphemism for prostitutes).

Fire Cupping — 拔火罐儿bá huǒ guànr
Imagine losing a wrestling match to a giant octopus who pins you on your stomach for 15 minutes. That’s the best way I can describe what it feels like to bá huǒ guànr (拔火罐儿) — get fire cupping done to you. A guy lights a match under a class bulb and then sticks in on your skin. The heat creates really strong suction and it stays stuck to you until he pulls it off with a big sucking noise 10 minutes later. I’m not totally sure what it’s all supposed to do for you, other than give you a bunch of really big hickeys, but it’s a really common East Asian health treatment. It’s not uncommon to see people with red marks showing above the back of their collar, especially in the gym. It cost 10 kuài ($1.50) to have it done.

I waited on one bed and my Chinese friend waited on the other. Rob, the American, came in from the bathing area just as an older guy brought a plastic tub full of glass bulbs and a lighter. I laid down on my stomach and he stuck seventeen of them to my back, each time lighting the lighter inside right before he pressed the rim of the bulb down onto my skin. It wasn’t painful, but the suction was really strong. Once they were all on he put a heavy blanket over top. Ten minutes later he removed the blanket and pull the cups off one by one, leaving seventeen big puffy red welts behind.

The swelling has mostly gone down now (about three hours later), and some of them feel like a slight bruise. They’re still really red; don’t know how long that will last. Jessica’s on the way home from the night out a some friends’, so I’ll get to show her in a few minutes!

[PS – It snowed in Tianjin tonight!! So instead of showing Jessica my new hickeys when she got in, we went right back out for a little romantic midnight walk through the snow. See how much fun Tianjin is??]

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12 thoughts on “Getting fire cupped in a Tianjin bath house (or) Losing a wrestling match to a giant octopus”

  1. Ha! Sounds like quite the experience. I’m not sure I’d be too comfortable in the baths with all the exfoliation debris floating around, though.

    This fire cupping therapy is pretty popular up here in Xinjiang. Believe it or not, they tell me that it does everything from relieving sore muscles to somehow curing the common cold. Not sure about that last one, but I did go and try it out myself just like you did and posted pictures and even a video.

    My octopus spots lasted for about 2 weeks and my wife wouldn’t touch them for fear of somehow hurting me. Oddly enough, never in this whole process did I feel “relaxed” or “healed” of anything!

  2. Looks good, man! Those pictures of your back are pretty trauma-inducing. I’m glad you posted them. I chatted with my mom this morning, and mentioned, though didn’t describe (because why would I?) the slightly less-than-hygienic water. She was pretty disturbed. Of course she’s a nurse, so you can imagine. You know what’s great about China? After a while, hygiene really isn’t so big a deal. Was the water ? Absolutely. Will I go back? Also absolutely. It’s the same mindset that I take into my street-food dinners. Is the food horrifically unsanitary? Definitely. Will I enjoy it anyway? Yep. Good stuff.

  3. ha – Jessica got a big kick out of poking them. Weird how they don’t really hurt. Our taxi driver tonight said he does it regularly, and that it can help cure colds and lower your inner fire. That’s funny in your video when she goes yanking one around that was already stuck on, and pretty crazy how you can see the skin change colour right on the video.

    You guys can watch how they apply the suction cups in Josh’s video.

  4. For what it’s worth, I heard from a friend who recently underwent the same “treatment” that in traditional Chinese medicine, the darker the mark, the more an indication of problems with the organ associated with the area where the mark’s located. That’s not necessarily to say that proximity to the said organ has anything to do with the mark, of course …

  5. Joel:
    在天津有没有吃过陕西风味的饭菜?比如“羊肉泡馍(yángroù pàomó)”“米皮儿(mǐpír)”,来中国一定要尝过这些 特色菜,才算是不虚此行XXD

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