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Hacktreks 2

First Chapters

Hacktreks - China - Meet Number Six

The number of his name
Jo McMillan

We 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 China’s massage industry. There wasn’t 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 didn’t tell him he mustn’t 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 Person’s 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 masseur’s 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. ‘We’re all ill with something. It’s 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 don’t work, I won’t 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. It’s illegal and ‘it’s a problem,’ he says. ‘If I’m ill, I have to foot the bill. And when I get old, I’ll have to depend on my savings. That’s why I’m 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 China’s market economy, if you’re 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 I’m drowning. Then he pulls them downwards and pins them open. ‘I’m glad I came here,’ he says. ‘It’s 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 he’s 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, ‘don’t 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

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