I love going to the public bathhouse (大众浴池) and relaxing in a big tub chatting about whatever with whoever over some some cold drinks, getting guāshā‘d (刮痧) and firecupped (拔罐儿) just for the experience. It’s a cheap (30 kuài total = $4.60 CDN) and fun evening. But unfortunately — if our experience last night at the “Shared Happiness Bathing Garden” (同福浴園) is any indication — darker aspects of Tianjin society sometimes find you even when you aren’t looking for them. Foreigners with taxi Chinese, be ye warned. One of our language student American friends accidentally found himself in a rather awkward situation last night that would’ve been really funny had it not involved sexually exploited women.
Sexual exploitation of women is more common and widely available than many lǎowài (老外) realize. Of course we know most of the more obvious clues: red lights strung outside a foot massage place, a ‘hair salon’ window full of skimpily dressed young women, a vaguely worded and conspicuously expensive service listed among the usual bathhouse offerings… But we can’t read all the signs, we don’t pick up on the more subtle publicly visible cues, and we don’t come pre-equipped with the intuition and knowledge of cultural insiders.
The truth is — and this is consistent with what we’ve been told all along — when it comes to bathhouses, massage parlours, karaoke bars and hair salons in China, there are generally two kinds. The first kind are just fronts for brothel-type businesses; they have obvious indicators like the ones I just mentioned and you wouldn’t go there if all you wanted was a mundane hair cut. The second kind really are actual bathhouses, hair salons, etc.; their main business is their stated business, but sexual services are often (not always) available for those who want them and know how to ask. And it doesn’t require a great deal of tact or secret handshaking to ask; foreigners’ taxi Chinese is more than adequate. In China, money-and-status rules, especially over the millions of unprivileged and unempowered.
Last night six of us went for a soak after dinner. For two language students it was their first time. The hot tubs, guasha/soap-down tables and showers are in one big room of naked men only, while the massage beds and TV are in another room where some of the attendants are women (young and old) and everyone wears clothes. We figured we’d soak for a while, do guasha or whatever, shower off, and then go get firecupped in the other room like we had in the past.
One guy, a language student who was there for the first time, left us in the hot tubs and headed alone to the other room, thinking he’d get a cheap, quick back rub from the same kind of forty-something-year-old guy who does the firecupping. Instead of giving him what he wanted, the male attendants tried to convince him to go into a back room for some sort of activity that he didn’t have the Chinese vocabulary for, though their obscene hand motions left no doubt about their meaning. He refused, but they still wouldn’t give him what he asked for. When I finally made my way from the showers to the firecupping bed (I was the last of the six), I discovered one of the female attendants walking up and down on my friend’s back, occasionally stopping to grind her knees into his ribs. Apparently she’d been smacking the snot out of him for the last thirty minutes, and she kept going for another thirty. They’d given him the most expensive non-sexual massage they had. Other than that (revenge?) they didn’t try anything sketchy with a whole crowd of us there.
I was all for making an evening at the bathhouse a monthly ritual, but I won’t go back to the “Shared Happiness Bathing Garden.” I’d wondered about this place before — perhaps I was willfully ignorant — but now we know. If it wasn’t a given that the police already know about and don’t care and maybe even frequent this place I’d have phoned them already. If anyone knows of anything that can be done, please let me know.
There’s an even smaller, dingier, older school bathhouse just two blocks away that’s half the price — the kind that Mr. Chang the sidewalk barber says is too dirty. I suppose we could always try that one, or even try a different one every month. These places aren’t in short supply yet.
Other bathhouse & Chinese medicine/therapy posts: