The sexpat (part one)

Setting out to visit every massage parlour in China



A red neon sign so far in the distance it could be a firefly. I too am a fly and it pulls me irresistibly toward it, for it is in the shape of a suspected character, and like most shop signs that consist of a single character, it is probably zu, meaning “foot.” While zu might resemble a standing or crouching man, the upper square being his head, the image is in fact thought to have originally depicted a footprint. Another theory is that the lower half indeed depicts the foot or lower leg and the upper square (which stands for “mouth”), the kneecap. This character has a particular beauty and energy, balanced as if on feet, like a runner poised at the starting line, or a figure skater on landing, or a kneeling masseuse with hands poised over a torso; a charged character. Chinese characters, especially the small class of simple iconographic characters upon which the remaining thousands are built, fuse pictorial representation and abstract stylisation in perfect equilibrium. They are both pictures and logos as memorable as the predominant corporate logos of our time. If you understand the ingenuity that goes into a well-designed logo, you’ve had your first lesson in the Chinese script.

But even if I did not catch sight of a sign in the distance, I would need to scope out the street anyway, as I do every street of every city, and as I am now doing in the Fengtai District of southwest Beijing, far from where I live. Many shops are recessed or hidden behind trees. Sometimes lanes running off the street shelter little massage shops as well, noticed only by the hawk-eyed. Many more shops – the best kind – exist in the labyrinths of residential compounds, again set off from the street. So as I make a beeline toward the sign, I keep an eye out for other tempting signs along the way. Shortly before arriving at my destination, sure enough I come upon two more, adjacent shops, each with the characters baojian in plain white on red, the standard format for non-electric signs.

Baojian. An interesting word. Normally it appears in the compound baojian pin, or “health care products,” namely a shop that sells either nutritional supplements or dildos and sex toys, “health care” being a traditional euphemism for sex. But if you see a sign only with the characters baojian on it, it’s something quite distinct, an abbreviation for baojian anmo, or “therapeutic massage,” where baojian supposedly does refer to the health, and anmo, literally “press and rub,” to massage. Nonsexual massage, that is. Not that there isn’t more precise terminology for different kinds of massage, including the erotic variety. Chinese is a highly euphemistic language, and you have to think in terms of peeling an onion to get at the meaning of something. There’s no general term for a “handjob,” for instance, apart from the amusing idiom da feiji, “shoot the airplane.” Even this term is rarely uttered, and the closest neutral stand-in expression, such as might be printed on a parlour’s menu of services, is the catch-all tuiyou, “pushing oil,” or an oil massage (jingyou, “aroma oil,” linba, “lymphatic,” and Oushi, “Euro-style” are other terms for the same, all denoting slow sensuous stroking). But an oil massage does not necessarily entail a handjob. You might end up with just a polite Swedish massage in your disposable shorts, and your masseuse will act offended if you hint at having expected more than that. Or it may in fact be more than that, the shorts yanked down, the prostate intensively worked and the genitals folded into the treatment (with or without ejaculation), the penis simply being another limb that gets rubbed as a matter of course. The most undesirable outcome, on the other hand, is the indifferent handjob that’s over in five minutes, without even a massage.

As there is no reliable correspondence in China between signifier and signified, I walk up to the first of the two shops expecting to find anything under the sun. At the threshold I see four girls in dyed blond hair and fake eyelashes, garish satin negligees and push-up bras, sitting on a couch. They glance at me without getting up, so I know they are prostitutes rather than the lowest of the low, the con artists, those who run out to you and try to drag you inside their shop. The con-artist establishments tend to operate in tourist areas frequented by foreigners and display a sign for “massage” in English and/or Japanese.

Here’s how they work. A girl takes you to a tiny room with a narrow bed (rather than a dedicated massage table), sits on its edge and tugs your belt buckle loose. Another girl enters and they both offer to massage you for twice the price. Before you have a chance to decide, a third girl comes in, and they beg and cajole you into a three-way for triple the price. As soon as you agree, two of the girls leave and the remaining one proceeds to unzip you. “Hey, where did those two go?” you ask. “They’ll be back in a few minutes.” So they did not mean doing you at the same time but one after the other. Moreover, you discover, the girl won’t pull your dick out until you fork over more money, since anything extra is extra and the base fee is for a regular massage. “What massage?!” you protest. One of the latter two reenters to help smooth your feathers, but now she wants the surcharge too, just for being in the room it seems. Once that’s agreed to (you’ll be amazed at what you agree to in vulnerable situations), the first one applies oil to your dick while the other again leaves. When you ask for her back, she returns and takes over, and the first one leaves. By this point you’re so angry you’ve lost your erection and you buckle your pants back up to get the hell out. You also realise the whole point is to get you angry and out the door as soon as possible. But not until you’ve paid up. The negotiating gets ugly as you only want to pay for what you’ve received, which amounts to nothing. Meanwhile some male friends of theirs are now on hand who were not there when you entered the shop. You could make a break for it but decide to shell out. You almost feel they deserve to be paid, after witnessing the finesse with which they expedited the transfer of your money.

No, the neighbourhood I’m presently exploring is as local as they get; people see right past me, not even recognising the foreign apparition in their midst as it’s something they could never imagine in their neck of the woods in the first place. I have zero interest in prostitutes, and I leave without stepping inside. The shop next door also advertises baojian. I go in. They charge a typical 200 yuan for a one-hour oil massage. The sole woman present, in her twenties with beautiful eyes, leads me to a room partitioned into cubicles each the exact size of the beds they are built around and hands me a pair of disposable shorts.

“Can you just drape a towel over me instead of these shorts? They are uncomfortable and I don’t like to wear them.”

“No way,” she says.

It’s true there is some kind of a law or policy requiring their use, yet quite a few places dispense with them nonetheless, often the older masseuses who are more relaxed about male nudity. She leaves while I get undressed. The mattress on the floor is a real mattress with springs, not a plywood board and a blanket for padding; the customer’s comfort is being taken into account. So I should be getting something for my money. I lay face down and the girl returns. Xiaoyun, or Little Rue, is from Sichuan and has a gruff, unsmiling manner, yet the touch of her hands is friendly. After doing my back and legs, she tells me to turn over.

Though I prefer the intensity of nakedness or the drama of a precariously draped hand towel, disposable shorts can be highly erotic. They are made of a translucent blue, durable paper-like material. There is also a thinner, more frangible variety – the kind I am now wearing – that tears with the slightest pressure; it’s virtually transparent and the penis is visible through the surface in sharp relief. The more fastidious girls roll up the cuffs of the shorts to seal off the ass when doing your thighs. Others stick their hands inside the shorts from above or below to cover more territory. Others yet simply pull the shorts down (and back up before turning you over). Little Rue chooses a fourth method, ripping open the shorts at the legs to give her hands easy access, but wants another 100 yuan to tuichulai, “squeeze it out.” I generally don’t go for handjobs, especially when there’s an extra charge, but those beguiling eyes … I give in. At this point another masseuse shows up at the shop and walks into our cubicle to ask Little Rue a question. She scrutinises me and reaches down to give my cock a squeeze of approval.

When she’s gone Little Rue spreads oil over my cock. She lacks technique and pumps me too quickly. I need to train her. But then she does something unexpected. She leans close and stares into my eyes, her lips parted, shirt hanging open at the neck and boobs dangling. I mash both breasts over her shirt. She pulls her shirt and bra up and her pants down. I squash the breasts with one hand while masturbating her with the other. She clamps her hand on mine over her tits. I maul them harder. Her face is scrunched in concentration and she soon orgasms. I don’t want her to finish me off; that’s for another encounter. On my way out, the other girl catches my eye. I may be back one day to give her a shot – if she’s still around. If the place is still around.

I head back up the street toward our original target, the red neon sign. Like the characters baojian, zu too is an abbreviation, for zuliao, “foot treatment” or zudao, “foot reflexology.” The shop advertises the former, but the words are interchangeable: all foot massage parlours offer the same set of foot and body massage services, zu being the ubiquitous signifier of massage in China.

The madam welcomes me and summons a masseuse, Xuelin, Snowy Jade, a plain-faced but cheery young Chongqing native. Once again I ask if I can use a towel instead of the disposable shorts she hands me. No problem, she says. She goes to fetch a towel. The madam arrives back with her a moment later to explain that I have to use the shorts after all. I lay down on the low massage divan with a hole to rest the head in when prone. Snowy Jade seems to like me and clamps her thighs provocatively over my head as she leans over and reaches down over my ass to slip her hands under the fragile shorts. The house oil is olive (gone are the days when baby oil was it), velvety smooth and gorgeous on the flesh. More crucially, she has the “touch.” Only a minority of massage workers have the touch, but those who do, it’s incomparably delicious, the electrically charged layer of oil separating their warm hands from incipient attack, hovering and jiggling over the flesh. Even if the massage is completely nonsexual, it’s more than worth it to find someone with the touch, to have your neck or your feet stroked like the shaft of your penis, and if you’re lucky, to then have your balls spread apart like your ass and foot reflexology performed on your penis ...

Snowy Jade pulls my shorts all the way off my ass and applies oil between my legs. She’s not shy about it. She kneads my butt cheeks and works her way between them, digging her fingers down to the anus and perineum, though without scooping up my testicles. That’s okay; she’s pacing the suspense. She replaces the shorts and turns me over. Her hands slip right underneath my shorts with sufficient oil to saturate the pubic hair as her fingers snake around the base and reach to the root of the erect cock, as if digging it out of the soil. I want her to grab my shaft below the balls like the handle of a gun but refrain from verbal directives. She’s clearly enjoying my torment. I suspect the session will end in a cliffhanger. I could ask her to extend it another half hour, at a fifty-percent hike in the price, as I sometimes do on the off chance they bring me off, but I actually prefer the fraught ambivalence of the scene. It leaves me energised. I exit the shop explosively fired up and bloated with anticipation of the long evening ahead.

I continue down the street in the same direction for two hours, determined to slice a line across this section of the grid. The stretch soon empties out into a dusty industrial zone of car repair shops, corporate buildings, undeveloped plots strewn with rubbish, and huge construction sites sprouting residential towers that will in turn attract a slew of fresh massage parlours when the new communities spring to life a year or two down the line. Eventually local businesses start reappearing and life resumes.

I pass dozens of the most plentiful type of shop to offer massage, the meirong, or beauty salon. They run the gamut from filthy makeshift shacks to large chain operations. Body massage is usually offered, but the hairdressers are seldom very practiced at it, devoting their energies instead to head and neck massage while shampooing you. Many of the seedier affairs are salons only in name but actually brothels with washed-up prostitutes milking the last few years they can out of their trade. It’s the rare salon – an attractive woman catching my eye from inside or a sharply designed sign in the window listing massage services – that causes me to halt and take a closer look. Needless to say none this evening entices me and it is unlikely any will.

You can go five minutes in any direction in a Chinese city and come upon some sort of massage service. But as I have grown pickier over time (it’s not so much the awful encounters as the mind-blowing ones that have raised my standards), I frequently find myself walking for hours before finding a place my intuition allows me to take a chance on. Some days turn up nothing. Either way, I gain. The more I get massaged, the more fun I have, but the more I walk, the more exercise I get. After scouring most of the neighbourhoods of this vast metropolis, and large swaths of other Chinese cities as well on my frequent business trips, I have lost much weight. I am no longer pre-diabetic, in my middle age, or have a fatty liver condition. For the first time in years, women glance my way on the street. Women who had long been one tier above and just out of reach are now signalling their availability, though I can scarcely fit them into my busy schedule anymore with so much more territory yet to cover before I can cross off all the grids on the map of every city (something of course I never will be able to do in any case since new massage places pop up at a faster rate than I am able to track them down).

A word of advice to those considering my method of weight loss. You can’t just exercise and expect to lose weight. The body doesn’t work that way. The more you exercise, the more calories your body demands you consume to restore lost energy; caloric expenditure and gain always remain constant, cancelling each other out (and leaving so many confused as to why they can never seem to lose weight). Dieting may win battles but always loses the war as you inexorably spring back to your usual weight. So what’s the secret? To break the cycle, you need to exercise to the point where you so thoroughly exhaust yourself that you lose your appetite. It won’t do to walk for a mere one or two hours; you need to walk for four or five hours. You need to walk until your legs become so rubbery you start stumbling. Obviously, this isn’t exercise in the usual sense. Rather, we’re back in the Stone Age, when the number of miles racked up was dictated by the hunt.

In the eight or so free hours I have daily after I get off work, I can rack up as many as twenty miles and still squeeze in a few massages. I aim on average for 100 miles per week, which I calculate will enable me to traverse every street of urban China in five more years. By that time, admittedly, new establishments will have replaced most of the ones I have visited, and I will have to start all over again.

Originally from Chicago, author Isham Cook has been based in Beijing since 1994. Part two of our hero's adventures will follow on Saturday