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Modern China

Visiting a Chinese sauna with my student…..steamy!
Paul Haire

One of my students who I teach English to recently invited me to a sauna to see a show and have dinner. I was slightly apprehensive by this because in China you go naked in the sauna, and whilst this guy seemed ok, I didn’t quite feel ready to see him in all his glory.

One of my students who I teach English to recently invited me to a sauna to see a show and have dinner. I was slightly apprehensive by this because in China you go naked in the sauna, and whilst this guy seemed ok, I didn’t quite feel ready to see him in all his glory. I consoled myself with the fact that in the sauna I wouldn’t be wearing my glasses and therefore wouldn’t be able to see anything anyway. I was also worried because my student was slightly sinister and I realized I was heading off with a complete stranger to god knows where, in China, where the police department make the muppets look competent. Subsequently, I decided to take my leatherman multi tool along for protection (obviously), nobody can mess with you when you’ve got that…’s got scissors!

I wasn’t sure what my student did for work, which made me even more nervous, he claimed to ‘’have’’ a coal mine and seemed well off, I had a faint suspicion he might be filthy rich, which was cemented by his bulging wallet full of 100 rmb notes. Also he seemed the kind of guy who would do well in the current China, sinister and full of dodgy business deals. So it was with some apprehension that I went down to the parking lot to meet him. His car was a brand new SUV (definitely well off) which had tasteful fake fur seat covers ( very Chinese). Off we went to a bathhouse, my death, who knows where? The journey was fairly uneventful and the conversation worryingly stilted (he comes to me for oral English practice) though his driving was reassuringly Chinese, erratic, dangerous and with a minimal adherence to the rules of the road.

We reached the sauna and were directed to a parking space by one of the little Hitler security guards endemic to Beijing. The building itself was huge, about three storeys high and 100 metres long. The entrance was brightly lit and staffed by pretty ladies and besuited men, who looked eager and willing to make sure you had a good time. The foyer was decorated using the same beige marble you see in almost all Chinese hotels and sauna’s.  

We took off our shoes and went through to the male sauna area on the ground floor. It could only be described as a faux roman bath, minus the recumbent emperor, grapes and nubile boys. Also there was a huge tv screen tastefully placed right in the middle of it, which I don’t think they had in ancient Rome. So you could sit and watch whatever you wanted whilst soaking your troubles away. We stripped off and with tackle out headed to the showers. I was slightly self conscious that I was almost definitely the only laowei in the whole building and was entering the prime area for Chinese male relaxation, a sort of Chinese golf club if you like. However, I felt reassured being there as a guest.  This was the real China I thought, where rich men have lots of mistresses and go to ktv and sauna’s every day after work. I was in the lions den!

 The place was almost brand new and obviously trying to be luxurious, however, due to the Chinese propensity to cut corners and save money, if felt a bit cheap and plasticky. Like so much current design in China, it was so close, but so far. Chinese people will have to realize that good design costs money. The sauna was nice though and there was a lovely long pool full of cold water in front of it perfect for a few lengths after sweating out last nights beer. I was preparing to relax for an hour or two before dinner, in the proper way, when lo and behold my student told it was time for dinner.

We donned our complimentary shorts, flip flops and dressing gowns and headed up to the second floor to a small buffet style restaurant located on one side of the building, which was open plan and had the stairs and a tree coming up the middle from the first floor and a wide carpeted balcony running around the outside. I was mildly disappointed to see children and women here, as I had secretly hoped we would be met by luscious lovelies from Sichuan ready to pluck, pummel and knead us all the way to heaven. Perhaps later I thought.

We had a light dinner of traditional Chinese food and then had a little wander. On one side of the second floor was a lounge with a ping pong table, which my friend sportingly suggested we play. Hoorah, thought I, here was my chance to be humiliated, furthermore there was an audience sitting right in front of the table. The last time I played table tennis was when I was about 12 and I was crap then too. We started playing and after my initial nerves wore off I actually begin enjoying myself. We, quite frankly, sucked, but I was having fun. We managed a rally of about three once but that was our best. My student after being exasperated by my utter crapness decided to give up. So we sat down and waited for the ‘’chinese’’ show to begin. All around sat people, (mostly men) relaxing in big chairs and pyjamas, as staff hurried and scurried here and there getting drinks and food. It was quite bizarre, like some giant adult slumber party. We ‘’talked’’ for a while and I meekly attempted to correct my students English mistakes.

Then we went through to the show. We entered a darkened theatre with a stage and lots of armchairs in front of it. There was a rock group playing who actually seemed quite good. People were sitting watching the group whilst drinking, smoking and getting foot massages, it was like being in a giant front room. We sat down and then a sweet little girl came and began giving me a foot massage whilst laughing and joking about me with her friend

 The show began with a compere telling some jokes and singing a song before introducing the first act who was a female singer. The show included a wide variety of different acts, sort of a cross between a musical and a school play. It included singers, one of whom was a fat, Chinese Robbie Williams with a nasty habit of hitting himself spasmodically in time with the music which made it look like he was having a mild epileptic fit. Also he ripped his vest off halfway through one of his songs, which quite frankly is unacceptable, even in China. There was a comedy pair comprising of a boy dressed in funny pyjamas and his sidekick, a pretty girl who attempted some basic acrobatics, but kept getting them wrong and would have to repeat them over and over again, which I felt  was where their true comedic value lay. There was also a very beautiful drag act who sang traditional Chinese opera and was quite frankly the prettiest girl in the whole show, including the young dancing girls who wore ridiculous costumes straight from the 70s. Beijing may be the seat of power in China, but it isn’t the seat of beauty.

 The show ended with a song from the original compere. We had laughed, we had cried, we had been awestruck (a man! No! Really!) and I hadn’t understood a single word. But I left feeling I had experienced something much more reflective of the modern China than for example the forbidden city or tai chi. I had seen a mixed up, exciting and boisterous show that didn’t quite fit together or know where it was going, but was still entertaining nontheless. It had a real energy and optimism, and I realized that it was a reflection of China as a whole just now with the Chinese economy rapidly developing and almost anything seeming possible. I expect my student enjoyed himself too as he mysteriously disappeared for half an hour during the show. Up to the third floor I expect…. I never found out what was on the third floor but I have a sneaking suspicion it may just have been the luscious Sichuan lovelies I had been hoping for. Ah well, next time I thought.
© Paul Haire March 2007
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