Tianjin bathhouse guasha: OWW!!!

The first time I tried guāshā (刮痧), the traditional Chinese scraping/rubbing therapy for having too much “fire” in your body (which can make you get a cold), a Chinese friend told the shÄ«fu to do it a little lighter than usual (轻一点儿) and it only got uncomfortable at the last two or so strokes on each line. The second time I told the shÄ«fu the same thing and barely felt anything, which kind of seemed like a rip off. This time I’m ready for the real deal so I don’t tell the guy anything.

Instead of using a coin or an animal horn to do the scraping/rubbing he uses a small-size fire cup; it feels like having a magnet on your back that’s attracted to your skin. It also means I’m getting suctioned and scraped/rubbed at the same time. And he does 30 strokes per line — I know because I’m counting… oohhh, am I counting! I’m grinding my teeth by the time he gets to 24 or 25. It hurts the worst on the sides of my lower back (where it’s soft) and on the back of my neck, I guess because there’s less flesh there. But I’m determined, and try to make conversation to distract myself from the pain. The shÄ«fu is a southerner who came to Tianjin from Anhui province in the early 90’s. Ow! Rrrrr… uuugh! The photo is from the morning after.

This bathhouse is a different kind from the first one we tried a few times. That first bathhouse was the lowest-level business/recreation-oriented kind that charge 10-12 kuài to get in. Last night’s bathhouse is a step below that. It was originally built as part of the neighbourhood either in 1980 or just before — one old man peeling off his callouses on the edge of the tub said he’d been going there since 1980. It’s 5-6 kuài to get in. Back then most people used public baths as much out of necessity as for recreation. Indoor plumbing and heating in these 30-year-old neighbourhoods is poor and back then people didn’t so much want to shower at home, especially in the winter. Many still don’t, because even though household gas or electric hot water heaters are now common and more affordable, the government-controlled heating is often virtually useless in these older places. Thankfully this bathhouse is too small for xiÇŽojiÄ›s; there’s no back room or private rooms to put them in. Plus there’s a women’s side, too; when I entered the lobby a mother and her happily excited 11-year-old daughter were just receiving their locker keys for an after-dinner shower. This is the one (the only one in that area) that Mr. Lu said “doesn’t have any funny business” (没有乱七八糟).

It’s definitely a step down from the first place in terms of facilities. I’m glad I brought my own towel, because otherwise it’d be a public towel that has already been used by several people that evening. Same with the shower shoes. For soap and shampoo you’re also on your own. Signs on the wall overlooking the tubs list what kinds of skin, venereal, and other transmittable diseases are forbidden in the tubs. Next to the signs there’s a picture of puppies sitting on heart pillows, and next to that a 1970’s-looking pin-up drawing of a woman who would be considered too fat by North American pin-up “standards.”

It was definitely great for language practice, and relaxing, but I don’t know if I’ll go back. It was over a half-hour bike ride home straight on into heavy wind in sub-zero temperatures. There’s gotta be a similar place closer to our apartment. Plus, it was pretty dirty. Ideally I’d find a closer and cleaner place for around the same price without xiÇŽojiÄ›s where I can return multiple times — that way I don’t have to have the same conversations (“What country are you from? blah blah blah…”) every time I go because I’ll see the same people. Maybe that’s a tall order, but it’s worth keeping an eye out, I think.

Other bathhouse & Chinese medicine/therapy posts:

7 thoughts on “Tianjin bathhouse guasha: OWW!!!”

  1. Back when my wife was still in university and we could spend entire winters in her home village we would, out of necessity (you think Tianjin is cold? mate…. ), use the village bathhouse. Fortunately for me (call me soft, but I don’t like going public, and all the possible “anatomical curiosity” (as a former colleague put it), being, at that point, the only foreigner to have ever visited that village) the bathhouse had two private rooms going for 10 kuai per session, with no time limits (and, this being a village too small for men to get away with “funny business” without their wives finding out within minutes, no funny business). As time wore on and private solar water heaters became more affordable and more common, custom at the village bathhouse dropped off, and with that, so did standards, to the point where it would leave me feeling quite ill after a bath- bad air, you see. Even so, Chinese New Year’s Eve it was still jam packed with people waiting for their ritual New Year bath. Southern prejudices about Northerners bathing only three times in their lives (when they’re born, when the get married, when they die) are not entirely true: You’ve got to see in the New Year clean.

    What interests me, though, is that despite the increasing ubiquity of private solar water heaters in individual courtyards, that county last year built a whole lot of solar powered village bathhouses, including one in our village. There’s obviously still enough people without their own hot water to justify the investment. Gotta time your trip to the bathhouse well, though- you have to get their late enough for the water to be hot, early enough for the hot water to not have all been used up. An aunty caught a nasty chill last Spring Festival by showing up just a little too late for her New Year’s Eve bath.

    Not that any of this comment is on topic. Sorry. Just your description of the bathhouse brought back memories.

  2. Ruth –
    they say it’s good for me. It cures colds, or something.

    Chris –
    I’ve heard similar village stories (I’d link to one from a friend who was discovered in a Sichuan village bathhouse but she’s blocked). They’re always funny. And it reminds me that there are many chinas, and the ones like TJ are in the minority. In a village I imagine I’d be paying 10kuai for a private room, too. Heck, I’d pay 10 kuai for a private room and go every week!

    In TJ, for me anyway, the vast majority of the urbanites hardly take any notice — sometimes kids or older 阿姨s might stare a bit, and of course migrant workers are a different story. My wife and our female foreigner friends don’t have it as easy as I do. The bathhouse crowd is pretty tame; old guys aren’t super talkative.

    Weird your comments get different flags. No idea what that’s about… maybe the internets are out to get you.

Leave a Reply!