FOCUS: Beijing sees boom in foot massage parlors

BEIJING, Aug. 1 Kyodo


A masseuse just out of high school plops customers’ feet in a bucket of near-scalding water colored red by a teabag of ground Chinese medicine and 10 minutes later pulls them out, covers them with cream and rubs, scratches and pulls the skin for 45 minutes.

The college-trained masseuse at the Red Room Time foot massage parlor and beauty salon, which opened last year on the ground floor of an apartment building, competes with other women her age for customers at seven foot massage parlors over three blocks of a common northeast Beijing residential area.

The parlors opened over the past year or two to attract guests from the adjacent Yuyang Hotel but mostly for weary and increasingly wealthy local Chinese people.

And customers need not remove their socks for service. The female duty manager at Red Room Time whispers ”We can do other things,” into male customers’ ears as they prepare to leave and offers them a mobile phone number.

Virtually eliminated by police in 1998 in a prostitution crackdown, these half-legit, half-illegal massage parlors have mushroomed throughout Beijing again to offer foot muscle therapy to tired workers as well as service on the sly to locals, travelers and expatriates. Mostly registered as beauty parlors or bathhouses, about 26,000 massage shops are now licensed in Beijing.

Half a dozen foot massage parlors have opened among the apartment blocks and hotels between downtown and Beijing’s high-tech district. Three parlors compete on one block in the upscale Inner Dongzhimen neighborhood.

Similar clusters as well as individual shops, mostly two-to-three-room spaces on the ground levels of apartment blocks, operate all over Beijing.

”The industry might be more noticeable in Beijing, because there weren’t that many until the last few years, at least in the foreigner-frequented areas,” said an American expatriate who follows the massage industry.

The parlors compete on details such as types of herbs used in the foot-soak water, the interior decor — from wood-paneled walls to well-lit art-deco atmosphere — and legitimate extra services such as full-body rubs.

Most customers come seeking comfort for aching muscles, said Ms. Guo, owner of the Flower God Health foot massage parlor, down the street from Red Room Time.

”There’s no rule on how often you should come — it’s whenever you’re tired,” Guo said. ”The massages protect your health, and they’re comfortable.”

Reflexology skills, learned over two days to two months of training, are also a selling point. Chinese believe every part of the human body corresponds to a part of the foot sole and that a skillful foot massage can relieve ailments in corresponding areas elsewhere in the body. Curative or not, people enjoy the relaxed feeling, said Ye Jun, healthcare reporter with the newspaper Beijing Weekend.

”Most people don’t use it to treat health problems, but just for relaxation,” Ye said. ”It does work to help people feel light and walk with springy steps afterward. My personal experience is, I also sleep well the night after I have a foot massage.”

Some foot massage parlors, such as the eight-year-old Liangzi Foot Massage chain, which survived the 1998 purge, give full-body massages, and people with sight disabilities give full-body massages at 472 clinic-style parlors around the city.

The minimum start-up cost for legally registered shops is 100,000 yuan (about $12,300). Prices for a foot rub range from 30 yuan to more than 100 yuan.

”We are all legitimate, or at least this parlor is legitimate,” said a staffer surnamed Zhang at the 10-month-old Kiss Hair parlor at Inner Dongzhimen.

But according to a 2000 city regulation prohibiting salons from giving massages below the shoulders, they’re almost all illegal, said He Qingcai, chief of the business registration department of the Beijing Administration for Industry and Commerce. ”Strictly speaking, that’s how it is,” he said.

A registered beauty parlor can massage only heads and shoulders, in keeping with Chinese barbering tradition, He said. Registered bathhouses can massage feet — and no other body part. Neighborhood foot massage venues usually lack baths.

Businesses formally registered as massage parlors, excluding those reserved for people with sight disabilities, total 35 in Beijing, he said.

Beijing has not gotten too tough on beauty shop-massage parlors partly because the Communist Party in 2002 urged the government to intervene less in private industry, He said. Any investigation into sexual services would start with another bureau, probably the police, he added.

They might find that at a parlor in the Yuyang Hotel area, one of the all-female staff of five yells ”Sex!” through the doorway at male passersby. She asks customers to lie down in private rooms before explaining the list of services and presses for a tip when customers leave uninterested.

A sign on the front door of Red Room Time asks people to call a city hotline to report any evidence of prostitution. But the only major complaint so far is neighbor disturbances, He said. Some parlors operate 24 hours a day.

Most Beijingers recognize the legal over the illegal, Ye said.

”They are tolerated because of the existence of formal, ‘clean’ foot massage centers like Liangzi,” Ye said. ”Foot massage has been accepted as a ‘clean’ service that works.”

COPYRIGHT 2005 Kyodo News International, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2005 Gale Group

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