While on leave last week, I went to a massage parlour in Shenzhen looking for nothing more than a relaxing foot squeeze.
I got more than I bargained for.
A 10-minute stroll from the Lok Ma Chau border crossing from Hong Kong, the Water Cube is no ordinary parlour. It is a palace, a six-storey emporium of services, housed in its own building with a flashing logo on the facade.
My husband and I stepped in. A chorus of greetings from the five men and women at the door greeted us, before one rapidly rattled off the welcome spiel: “Free entry but you must spend a minimum of 158 yuan each.”
It sounds like an oxymoron but what it means is that while one has unfettered access to the premises – which includes a sauna, a pool and even women who will blow-dry your hair (for a tip, of course), one has to tote up a bill for chargeable items such as massages to reach that auspicious figure – 158 yuan, or about S$30. That sounded reasonable, given that an hour-long foot reflexology session costs 68 yuan.
A couple of hours later, we left having spent 700 yuan.
There is a reason. The place is laid out like an entertainment arcade with “zones”, each one ready to cajole you into spending as much money as possible.
On the second floor are the tiled changing rooms where battalions of women stand, ready to brush your hair and even towel you dry after a shower; and a hair-salon. Here, both men and women have to change into matching shirt-and-short robes in shimmering paisley patterns. On the third floor, a main section is devoted to comfortable reclining chairs, each outfitted with a TV set. Feel like some fruit while having your foot rubbed? There are rows of apples and oranges for your picking.
Upstairs, there are private rooms where one gets to choose the latest flicks on a gigantic projector screen while having a massage.
And while this is touted to be a family-friendly spa, men can pick their masseuses from an electronic life-time machine – based on their photos, current availability, place of origin, and the kind of massages offered (full body, half body, tui na, lymphatic massage and so on). For some reason, the men appear to all opt for the first one.
There are other facilities: customers can play ping pong, shoot pool or sing karaoke. If all that activity got you peckish, there is a full-fledged Chinese restaurant that serves dim sum, preserved egg and lean meat congee or noodles with luncheon meat.
Beds are available for those who prefer to sleep.
Such all-in-one spa emporiums in Shenzhen, offering a new twist to the term “spa-cation”, are popular as a form of getaway for Hong Kongers. They can choose to spend an entire day esconced within, or even spend the night without having to pay for a hotel room.
We started out with foot reflexology in a private room.
We were offered fruit (pineapple and honeydew). My husband had a beer. I had a hot Ovaltine. We chose the movie Drug War by Hong Kong filmmaker Johnnie To.
Our male therapists – one is from Hubei, the other from Shaanxi – came in. Because it was a private room, there are extra fees. Plus the Shaanxi therapist is a “master”, which means an extra 20 yuan, we were told.
Lambs to the slaughter, we nodded.
Half an hour in, my therapist was rolling his eyes at my reactions to the film.
“That’s nothing,” he said dismissively, kneading my sole, as I gasped at a scene of a character played by Chinese actor Sun Honglei being forced to snort methamphetamine.
“Everyone in my hometown does it!” added the 20-something Hubei native, who had come to the southern boomtown city to make his fortune. “Two of my friends even died of ketamine overdose.”
With that riveting line, we put the movie on hold for his story – of bored kids from middle-class families, powerful drug traffickers and police officers who ostensibly close an eye to the goings-on – that brings to life China’s official statistic of 1.79 million addicts in 2011.
We next ordered a “foot scraping” service.
Another “master therapist” looked at my sole and shook his head in disapproval. “You have unusually thick skin on your heels,” he showed me as he deftly wielded a scalpel to flick off layers of dead skin.
“It means that you have poor blood circulation.”
I nodded, trying not to blanch at the sight of the grey flakes landing on the towel.
A couple of hours later, we walked out.
Light of foot and of wallet, we also left with tales to tell.