A Canadian In Beijing: Steamy Bathhouse in Shanghai

One of the essential activities during my time here, according to Jeni, was for us to go to the “bathhouse.” For me, coming from Toronto, this word is associated with more than bathing, if you know what I mean. It is laced with pleasure, kinkiness, anonymity and play. Basically, a lot of steam… of multiple origins.

Shanghai’s bathhouse was an experience I will never forget and one that will forever redefine my understanding of the word. Perhaps this was more of a “spa,” but regardless of its accurate translation, it blew my mind.

We arrived to glitzy double doors and five different attendants whose roles were (in order) to open the doors for us, greet us in both Chinese and English, beckon us to the correct counter and take our shoes. We were given rubber thongs and wrist bracelets with numbers. (From here on in, we were tracked by these numbers, so at least they did have the anonymity factor covered.)

I stepped forth in my plastic shoes and my curiosity.

Standing in the lobby, I took in the bubbling fountain, marble counters, grand piano, huge chandelier, statues and plush carpeting. I could have been standing in a five-star hotel. The lobby was also like a courtyard as the building stretched upwards five stories with various “services” on all levels but balconies overlooking the lobby from each. I learned that we would first experience the baths and then make our way upstairs. Jeni had a plan.

Really? It was already 8:30pm and I couldn’t imagine having enough time to explore this whole facility. I learned, then, that the “services” end at two o’clock in the morning, but that the spa is open twenty-four hours. I was still unsure of what these “services” would be but I was along for the ride and I nodded my consent.

What was I getting into?

We were led into the women’s entrance, which led directly into a change room where we were assigned the locker that corresponded with our number. We were instructed to remove our clothes and jewelry before moving on to the shower area.

Now, there is always a moment of self-consciousness in these settings. We live in a world that doesn’t champion nakedness often enough. At least, not after puberty, unless of course we take in special festivals or nudist colonies or have an overwhelmingly strong ability to filter out socialization and just regularly take our clothes off in public.

I hesitated in that moment and had a flash of panic. Almost simultaneous to that flash, I was aware that all the women around (besides the staff) were naked except for me. I was the odd one still dressed and my hesitation seemed grossly out of place – colonial, in a way, as though my culture was trying to bully its repressed ways into a comfortable environment in which there was no need for self-consciousness.

I removed mine too.

Spaces like this normalize nakedness.

We were led into the shower area that consisted of both stand up showers, which are the ones I’m familiar with from back home, and sit-down showers, which are in front of mirrors with hand-held shower heads and stools. I chose the unfamiliar kind because I was curious about sitting and showering and I must say that I quite like it!

All of the soap, shampoo, conditioners were provided here and there is never a time limit. Showering is required before going into the baths, but after being led to the showers, the choices were ours and we could then decide to take in a variety of options.

Women were quietly enjoying their solitude or chatting quietly in various baths as the staff constantly hovered to remove stray towels, arrange the rubber shoes more neatly, offer water or razors for those showering who wanted to also shave, etc. This made me slightly uncomfortable, but I just tried to take in the relaxation and accept that this is yet another culture difference: lots of staff and constant surveillance.

There were about eight baths in total of varying temperatures, from very hot to cold. One was a tea bath that was green in colour and smelled wonderful and another was a milk bath, slightly murky but filled with a softening ingredient that felt wonderful on my skin. Some of the baths had jets and some did not. One was outdoors along with the access to the steam room. This outside bath was lined with beautiful smooth rocks in the spring air and it was not as well lit which made for a more intimate vibe, but the rest were indoors as was the sauna and the post-bath treatment area.

After over an hour of various temperatures, sauna, steam room, more showering and a frequent return to the green tea bath (my favourite), we all signed up for some post-bath treatment. They showed us “the menu” that was written in both English and Chinese offering a “scrub down” service, facials, skin softening, etc. All were separately priced but very reasonable and we settled on the scrub, a cucumber mask and a milk treatment post-scrub. (Not very vegan of me, I know, but hey… it’s all part of the experience.)

Three women worked in this room and clients lie on narrow beds while they put on their scrub gloves and rub down your skin with this gritty, textured, spongy fabric. It exfoliates and remove dirt and dead skin cells. They “cleaned” our entire bodies (from head to toe) with the exception of our faces that were covered in cucumber (real cucumber!). When the scrub was over, they removed the mask and showed us the huge piles of dirt and skin they had removed from our bodies. We were then doused in the milk treatment and sent on our way back to the showers.

My skin has never felt so soft and smooth.

Leaving the baths took us back into the structured passageway towards the locker room. First, we were brought into a towel room where we were given paper underwear and floral mumus, or pyjamas, which was the “female” uniform for all clients. They were terrible and we all laughed as we looked at each other wearing bright pink and yellow tent dresses.

We were then led out of the baths and set loose. I noticed that the men also had floral outfits, but theirs were shirts and shorts. Both men and women mingled together in the other areas of the complex.

Jeni took us upstairs where she showed us the games rooms (you can play MaJong or poker in small separate rooms and smoke with friends here), the restaurant, the bar and the entertainment area — a huge stage fully equipped with lighting and spotlights, but we had missed the acrobats that evening! I was particularly impressed with the seating in the entertainment room that comprised of more than hundred recliners with additional footstools, each with a separate towel draped perfectly over its back. The room was nearly empty, but I could picture it full and smiled at the thought of lounging, floral, peaced-out people all taking in some crazy entertainment after having been pampered to the point of pure passivity. That would be an easy gig!

Can you imagine getting an easy chair and a footstool at a live music show? Amazing.

Upstairs, we toured the massage rooms with one-hour foot massages (that go up the knee) and half-hour back massages that were available on massage chairs. We chose to do back massages and we were assigned three male masseurs who massaged us silently over our clothes and on top of additional towels. It also included a quick chiropractic neck adjustment that I wasn’t expecting. It was a shock but felt wonderful.

You could also choose to get your nails done – full pedicures and manicures – and the technicians would either come to you, (i.e. where you’re already getting a foot/leg massage), or you could go to them (specific nail rooms).

We didn’t make it up any more levels but I was told that these upper floors had rooms that could be rented as sleep spaces. My brain extended to imagine whether or not these rooms are used for other things as well. I didn’t voice my curiosity while Jeni explained that she had stayed overnight once before and it had just cost her a bit more money. She said that it “beats a hotel” and I can see why! And furthermore, I had already heard loud snoring in the foot/leg massage room. After all this pampering, I could have fallen asleep right then too.

Such luxury is exhausting!

It was just around one in the morning by this time and we went back down to the locker area. Here, there was also a “get ready” room where all hair products, hair dryers, combs (sanitized) and lotions were provided. You could also purchase a variety of products that lined the entranceway in glass displays. Everything from underwear to deodorants.

We got dressed and headed for the lobby. Here, they removed our bracelets and tallied up our various charges. For $175 kuai (around $25 Canadian), I had just experienced a sophisticated bathhouse in Asia and I will forever consider this to be the definition of the term.

I took some pictures in the lobby with much negotiating and surveillance by the staff. Cameras were rightfully regarded as interlopers in such a private space.