Posted by: Dr Pano Kroko Churchill | February 20, 2012

Beijing’s last bathhouse and Mr Xi

Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping finished off his five-day visit to the US  by looking in on a Los Angeles Lakers basketball game. As Mr. Xi, who is expected to take over as Communist Party chief in a once-a-decade leadership change in the fall traveled around America, he admired most the progress made since he was last there in 1985…

And things have changed a lot since then, but nowhere have they changed as fast as in Beijing, where to find a classic place to have a bath is impossible anymore.

Of course you can find all kinds of spas and comfort hotels and all glitzy fake baths from Roman to Japanese, but not a single bathhouse of yore. You know, the old school style, that doesn’t make the man feel gay or metrosexual for taking a steam, a soak and a rubdown, naked in the company of men…

Because today, bathhouses are a rarity anywhere… but an impossibility in Beijing.

Even here in old and poor southern Beijing, they have fallen in disrepute, forgotten in oblivion or have simply disappeared. Vanished they have, and if any half way descent place remains, it is increasingly looking forlorn, like a place of despair, desolation and disrepute, slated for demolition.

At least that’s how they look from the outside, because inside there is another story. As always with all things Chinese appearances can be deceiving.

And it’s truly not an easy job to find a proper bathhouse in Beijing anymore. No lying here…

Certainly you won’t find any baths in the fashionable redeveloped districts of the Capital. Nothing near FSB. Not in the Hotel district or near the forbidden city. Nothng near the ubiquitous coffee shops and modern tea houses. Not i the red light district either.  Nor will you uncover one if you have no attachment to the cause of bathing in order to go out of your way to find one. And then you need persistence…

So where have they all gone?

There are still some for certain… And for those willing to search far and wide, and then go travel for more than an hour by public transport and local bus – all for a hot bath – we have the place…

The last classic public bathhouse of Beijing…

The Shuangxing Bathhouse.

It looks eerily neoclassic and was built in 1916 on the southern outskirts of Beijing. It is the oldest surviving bathhouse in the city.

Come here to have a feast for the senses…

Once you enter, the lounge, seems like the place that time forgot. Crickets chirp and the smell of exotic bath seeps through the air.  All through you hear crickets – kept as pets in little glass bottles – chirp hysterically. On the lounge wall there is a banner reading: “Serve the people wholeheartedly.”

Two rows of wooden beds line the sides of the hallway leading all the way to the pool. Most patrons here have grown old coming over for a splendid soak and massage.

The youngest among the loyal patrons were all born before the 1949 victory of the Communist Party of China in the final stage of the Chinese Civil War.

The oldest patrons were born before the Xinhai Revolution, marking the overthrow of the Qing Dynasty and the establishment of the Republic of China in 1911.

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In Shuangxing, a patron who has just received a fire-cupping treatment is sitting by the soaking pool. Patrons love to chat and socialize here.

In the old days, taking a bath was a top priority of the mundane life. When the Communist Party consolidated its rule over China, bathing was even a politically loaded term: Those came from the Old Society must dive into the pond of the New Society to rid themselves of the filth and dirt before joining the revolution. Those frequent patrons have gone through it all. To them, coming to the bathhouse is more about a trip down the memory lane than just a good scrub and a soak… into life. Here is where they weathered the ravages of the cultural revolution and the many see-saw actions and reactions of China’s political pendulum swinging wildly. Here is where they spoke in hushed tones of the need to calm down. Here is where order, harmony and a bit of tranquility, followed the outside world’s disorder, disharmony and mayhem… Here is where many retired intellectuals turn up to turn their bathhouse into a steamy conversation salon. Here is where none comes alone. Because instead of coming here alone, friends bring friends.

In the 21st century, this entire communal thing, is an analog for history. Living history and culture. Here being able to talk loudly about politics and crying about injustice done and the many inequalities — all the while listening to plain vanilla state propaganda news broadcast over a transistor radio — is a jarring anachronism of China’s rise from it’s humiliating defeats and a time of trials and tribulations, to a proud nation. And the bathhouse stood guard over all of it…

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Many older citizens of Beijing regard keeping crickets as pets a great sport. In the lounge, a few crickets are also savoring the steam.

At 6 a.m. each morning, staff at bathhouse pour hot water into the bath. The refills are at 12:30 p.m. and 3:30 p.m. Patrons would wait with only a white towel wrapped around their waist for hours for a dip into the latest outpouring of hot water.

At their request, the bathhouse installed a transparent roof. When patrons are indulging themselves with a steamy hot bath, they can see pigeons and aircraft whiz by over the head.

No loofah is needed. Or cold drink and alcohol. After getting out of the bath, just lie prostrate on wooden beds and have a masseur from the bathhouse give you a thorough rubdown with a terrycloth towel wrapped tightly around his hand. This is one of the peculiar “delights” of the Chinese bathhouse…He uses all of his considerable strength and the result is that the top layer of your skin is probably removed. This is what you call really getting clean. People there say that if you don’t feel a few pounds lighter after the bath, that one does not count as a bath; it is only a dip.

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Inside Shuangxing Bathhouse, an old man is enjoying massage that charges 6 yuan (US$0.95) per service. The admission costs 8 yuan (US$1.27). So you only need to pay 14 yuan for staying here all day long.

Then you drain a bottle of hot tea, and turn over a new leaf.

The current owner of Shuangxing Bathhouse hails from Northeast China. He came to Beijing in 1997. The moment he got off the train, he began to look for a public bathhouse. For one thing, it must be bustling with life, where people from all over the country converge. For another, it is the cheapest hangout for people at the bottom rung of the social hierarchy. However, the year of Hong Kong’s handover to China, bathhouses were no longer the way they used to be in Beijing. They changed their names to spas and saunas with a bourgeois undertone. Over half of China prostrate under the razzle-dazzle emanating from the expensive spa and massage centers.  It is then extremely difficult for the working class to find a place to get soaked.

The faster the society progresses, the less likely it is for the elderly to find a haven. In the past decade, Shuangxing has been in the eye of a whirlwind of changes. Years ago, Shuangxing had a barber’s shop on its left and a photography studio on the right. It was very convenient for people to take a refreshing bath and get a clean haircut before posing for a photo shoot. Then the photo studio was replaced by a pet mating service. The barber’s shop ran out of business and a karaoke box took over the space. Shuangxing is squeezed by Beijing’s riddance of the past and headlong race into the future.

Younger generations do not fancy the idea of being exposed to in a rustic-looking place. Those who wanted to give it a try were scared away by the fire cupping treatment ceremonies and the vigorous skin removing massage, going on in there. And that’s how the elderly began to reign the bathhouse. Maybe that’s why they last so long and get to be so old… A regular vigorous steam bath, massage followed by the soak. The old regular folks love to say: “All those who come in are friends. After taking off your clothes, everyone becomes the same and equal. This, is a Chinese characteristic.”

However, this sense of equality here is being replaced by another current trend and modern Chinese characteristic — the building boom. Buildings in the run-down neighborhood around Shuangxing are marked with the Chinese character chai, “demolish”, a unique feature of the Chinese urban landscape. Thus steadily losing it’s neighbours to the demolition rubble heap, this last public bathhouse has becomes a “nail house.”  A house standing alone, isolated and helpless – like a nail – in the blotted empty landscape. A tooth, standing in the way of redevelopment.

Old men who want to keep the bathhouse intact talk about their plan to sit in and fight the city hall for their right to continue taking their regular bath in a historic place. The owner, too restless from the news, approached the authorities from door to door about applying for “Time-honored Brand” status to protect it from demolition. However, the title is only awarded to businesses with more than 100 years of history. Shuangxing is too young by this standard.

These days, old men share the latest updates on the redevelopment plan while going through their ritual as usual. Their worries over the only public bathhouse quickly becoming a thing of the past can only be dispelled in a steamy hot bath.

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Shuangxing Bathhouse is located inside Nanyuan Hotel. Around it is a run-down neighborhood facing demolition.

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In 1998, a highly acclaimed Chinese feature film, “Shower”, was filmed inside Shuangxing. Xiong Zhizhong, the current owner of the bathhouse, blew up the film poster and hung it on the wall in an effort to attract patrons.

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In front of lockers are a row of sandals. Almost all of them are in perfect condition. The eight-yuan entrance fee at Shuangxing remained the same in the past few years to attract low-tier consumers.

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The only receptionist at Shuangxing Bathhouse is a “little man” who has been working there for quite a number of years.

He is able to answer the needs of all customers, and help with all chores, because there aren’t many these days.

Along with the days the old Bathhouse is renovating itself. Clamoring for new and newer clients it has joined the age by advertising for the first time of it’s long existence. And it is also offering coupons and mailers…

All in an effort to catch up with the times before the wrecking ball resigns it to the scrap heap of history.

Go Figure…

Yours,

Pano

PS:

Times are a changing…

Vice President Xi Jinping finished off his five-day visit to the US, by attending  a Los Angeles Lakers basketball game, cheering like so many fans… But he spent his whole time there, conversing with the old Lakers famed players like Magic Johnson, and with other cultural icons such as David Beckham.

Mr Xi also took the unusual step on Wednesday of attending a teatime reunion in Muscatine, Iowa, with a family that he had stayed with during a visit there as a young party official in 1985.

Mr Xi’s efforts to cultivate a more people’s person image in the US have also conjured memories of Mr Xi’s own father, Xi Zhongxun, a revolutionary hero who, in his later years, was a key proponent of economic reform and a relative political liberal.

The elder Mr Xi was also at pains to present a friendly face on a tour of the US in 1980 when he dined with a local family in Iowa, visited Disneyland in California, and tried on a hula skirt in Hawaii…

On the other hand the current President Hu, also attempted photo opportunities in the US, by visiting a school in Chicago on his state visit last year, but his efforts failed largely because he failed to strike a resonant chord with either the American or the Chinese public. Mainly because he is so “wooden.”

Yet Mr Xi is agile – no stranger to fame – having married a Pop Music icon and a People’s Star. And now it seems that all his efforts to reach out to the American people have paid off.  Many US officials, and even Vice President Joe Biden, were clamoring, saying how impressed they were by the future Chinese leader’s efforts to understand the American system, and hoped that their personal friendship would help to overcome disagreements in the future.

“This is a little unusual for any foreign leader, particularly a Chinese foreign leader, to want to expose themselves as much to the American public as he has,” Mr. Biden told reporters.

“This is a guy who wants to feel it and taste it, and he’s prepared to show another side of the Chinese leadership that I think is useful for Americans to see as well.”

But Mr Xi’s efforts to revamp the dour image of the party leadership are also aimed at the domestic audience in China, where many people see their leaders as being out of touch with an increasingly diverse and demanding society.

His appearance at the Lakers game will significantly enhance his public profile in China, where the NBA has been hugely popular, especially since the arrival of 7-foot-6 basketball sensation Yao Ming, who spent eight seasons with the Houston Rockets before retiring in July.

On Thursday, the league announced that its 21-game broadcast schedule during the Chinese New Year celebration in China from Jan. 21-28 was watched by 96 million viewers there—79 million on the league’s television partners in China, and an additional 17 million on digital platforms, the AP said.

The recent success of Jeremy Lin, an American-born point guard from Harvard who has had a phenomenal two-week run with the New York Knicks, has only added to the NBA’s popularity in China. Lin is the first American-born NBA player of Chinese or Taiwanese descent.

So now we have a new Chinese superstar in America… Mr Xi.

Yet lest we forget…

Originally, Mr. Xi  was known as the man of steel, a huge fan of Joseph Stalin, and a favourite of the hardliners and of the People’s Liberation Army.

But apparently like the old bathhouse, he now tries on a new tack…

A trick to get a new lease on Life.

Yet one wonders can the old “Joe” change his stripes?

Because it’s all a little too well choreographed…


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