Hacktreks - China - Meet Number Six
number of his name
are as blind as each other. My face, framed by the hole in the massage
couch, hangs like an obscure moon over the dark grey tiles. From here,
all I can see is shadow.
He tells me that he used to be a lighting technician for a theatre company,
and when he was twenty-four, he was struck on the back of the head in
a motoring accident. At the hospital, the doctors said he was fine.
Six months later, his vision became blurred, and within one month he
had lost his sight. His family clubbed together to meet the medical
expenses, and he had an operation to repair damage to the optical nerve.
At the end of the procedure, they had lost months of savings and he
had lost more vision. From a life casting light on a touring stage,
he is now quarantined in the darkness of Chinas massage industry.
There wasnt much else he could do. Government policy regards massage
as the most suitable employment for the blind. It is the Chinese equivalent
of piano tuning.
His first wife left him, but he remarried and had a daughter. Road accidents
are not passed on in the genes, so at the pre-marital health check they
didnt tell him he mustnt be a father. Congenital disability
has long been a source of shame in China (as in many places), a financial
burden, a blight on sibling marriage prospects, and an affront to the
population policies that want quality, not quantity. Attitudes
are, though, slowly changing. The China Disabled Persons Federation
represents sixty million people who are now referred to as disabled,
instead of canfei - something worthless - like the English cripple.
The people who were dismissed as the waste products of the collective
womb have now had some human value restored to them.
The masseurs wife and daughter live in Sichuan, a forty-hour train
ride away, but he came to work in central Shanghai because it is here
that businessmen and tourists will pay the best rates in the country
for a massage. He phones home once a fortnight, and some years, he goes
back for the Spring Festival. He tells me his story as if he were calmly
spreading facts on toast. In the background, there is the hum of air
conditioning and the slippery strains of a saxophone from the noodle
shop next door.
At the Sunshine massage parlour, he is known as Number Six. Number Six
is on duty every day from ten in the morning until midnight, when the
company coach drives the staff to their dormitory an hour away in the
cheap Shanghai suburbs. There he shares a room with three other men.
Healthcare massage is tiring, he says. Were all ill with
something. Its an occupational hazard. They are not allowed
to take statutory holidays, but can ask for occasional leave. Any time
off for holiday or sickness is unpaid. Bu lao bu de (no
work, no money), he says. Perhaps a few years ago he would have said
If I dont work, I wont get paid, but repetition
has worn the sentence down to a pebble of an aphorism. And when he says
it, his tongue turns the key at the back of a clock, and the emptying
spring inside him is wound up again.
Number Six moves to the top of the massage couch. His uniform smells
of White Cat washing powder. Staff here are not allowed to do their
own laundry. They have to give it to an agent, who makes a deduction
from their wages. He tells me that the management of the Sunshine keeps
seventy percent of each massage fee. He has no contract, and the employer
makes no contributions to medical insurance or pensions. Its illegal
and its a problem, he says. If Im ill,
I have to foot the bill. And when I get old, Ill have to depend
on my savings. Thats why Im working so hard now. His
is the story of migrant workers all over China, who have no protection
and who would be out of a job if they tried to get any. There are millions,
and millions more, queuing up for any kind of work.
When he first came to Shanghai, Number Six found a job in a small hotel,
the kind of place that is dangerous for a young blindman, where massage
is taken as a euphemism for sexual services. He has been at the Sunshine
for a year, a move he made through the recommendation of a friend. For
the blind, like everyone else in Chinas market economy, if youre
not tied to the safety rope of people you know, you are lost. He puts
a finger in each ear and I sound as though Im drowning. Then he
pulls them downwards and pins them open. Im glad I came
here, he says. Its so much better than at the hotel.
A mechanical voice from his watch announces that time is up. He offers
me a cup of water and asks me how I feel. I thank him, and say I feel
very relaxed, which would be true except for what hes told me.
He stands to attention, hands clasped behind his back and feet together.
In his white shirt and red trousers, he looks like a bowling pin waiting
to be knocked over. If you ever want another massage he
says, dont forget to ask for Number Six.
Number Six I say. And what is your name? His
eyes light up at the question, and he smiles.
Jo McMillan May 2003
Journeys in Hacktreks
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