Posted from: Beijing
Javi and I got medicinal foot massages from the prostitutes at the bargain brothel down the street from my house. I first noticed the brothel on a walk one day; the sign outside says “24 hour foot massage”, and there’s a dumpling restaurant in the basement. Man, I thought, massage and dumplings at 3:00a.m.! Beijing has everything.
We went in around 5:00 in the afternoon with toesies aching from a morning trip to the Great Wall, expecting to be handed a pair of flip-flops and greeted by the smell of Chinese herbs. I looked at the couch piled full of bored, heavily made-up young women watching a soap opera and doing each other’s nails. Some guy wandered out of a curtained doorway zipping up his pants. Epiphany: there’s no such thing as a 24-hour foot massage parlor.
We were lead through a labyrinth of pitch-black hallways and ended up in what I can only surmise is affectionately called the “People Who Have Trouble Reading Between the Lines Pavillion”, with four hard massage chairs under flickering flourescents. The madam handed me a bawdy laminated ordering form covered in pictures of condom boxes and Russian models making sultry faces. “Do you want any of these?” Nothing on the menu appeared to involve feet, but I did note that most of the sexual favors cost a whopping $12.00 USD. A hand job and a plate of carrot dumplings for less than fifteen bucks: welcome to China, may I take your order? “You just want the five dollar foot massage from the sign outside, don’t you,” she said. It wasn’t a question.
Our massage girls were sweet as pie and very curious about us. I wondered if they were happy to take a break from getting people off, or if it sucked because they weren’t making as much money, but I didn’t bring it up. They get a reasonable number of foreign customers, they said, but most of them can’t speak any Chinese and they can’t communicate. I spent a moment contemplating the consequences of randomly pointing to something on the menu in this place.
“So what’s your name?” I asked. The girls looked at each other uneasily. “We don’t have names here, we have numbers. I’m Number Six, and that’s Number Nine.” Number Nine was quiet and pregnant. Number Six was chatty and pleasant, but I surmised she hadn’t had it very easy. Most Chinese people in Beijing have made exactly one major move in their lives: from their hometown to the big city. And once a year, during Spring Festival, they go back to see their family. If they’re terribly lucky, a couple times in their life they might travel somewhere unique, but that’s a rare event. A little depressing, yes, but that standard story speaks to a kind of familial stability. Not so for Number Six, who had moved to Beijing from Haerbin Province by herself when she was 15, and had been to several provinces along the way. We talked about travel. “Have you ever been to Mongolia?” she asked. “No, have you?” She had.
As our hour wound to a close – and the foot massage was pretty kickass, actually – I asked the ladies if the dumplings were any good. “Definitely try the green bean paste and the mushroom dumplings, they’re alright,” said Number Nine. But we home hungry, on happy feet.