Sure, a RMB158 foot massage at Zen is nice. Here the ambient sound of gongs and bells, dim lights and aromatic oils combine for an hour sole soothing luxury. It's nice in the same way taking a warm bath followed by ten hours of sleep. It’s safe. But as the mantra of every Mommy blogger and Instagram fitness star goes, the magic happens outside your comfort zone.
With that in mind, we took a mid-afternoon metro ride to a destination well outside our comfort zone, Hongkou. Here we found an establishment at 88 Kunming Lu by the name of 扬州足浴 (Yangzhou Zuyu). Trundling in from 35-degree summer heat, we were welcomed with a dearth of air-conditioning and a cup of hot water.
Yangzhou Zuyu is the dollar menu of massage parlors. This place is so obscure, it’s listed as "closed" on Dianping. All services are RMB40, including ear-candling. With a price this steep we can only assume it includes a cup of tea made with used Lipton bags and a slap across the face.
Opting for the classic foot massage we were invited to stick our feet in a plastic bucket of yellow water and experience unparalleled brutality for an hour. A stiff knuckle to the arch and an assault of the nail beds can only be described as the smell-my-fingers technique, we got exactly what we needed to feel alive, all performed single handedly. The other hand was occupied with a smartphone.
There is a line normal people won’t cross, and it became increasingly clear that if you drew that line for these masseuses, they would snort it.
This is a space where all are free to be themselves as evidenced by the man to our left who fell asleep and began releasing a steady symphony of farts in contrapuntal accompaniment to a pan flute rendtion of Elton John's "Mona Lisa and Madhatters". He must have been a regular, because everyone seemed familiar and undaunted by his brand. Checking our messages, we caught our sweaty reflection on our phone screen and questioned every decision we ever made.
It started innocently enough, but quickly spiraled into a full blown existential crisis. With each pressure point pushed, a new question arose. Note that this is a stark contrast to Zen where the landscape of our mind is always briefly transformed into a Tracy Chapman concert at Red Rocks circa 1996.
Do they serve pork belly next door? What has pork done for you? What has pork done for me? Is it really the other white meat? Or am I the other white meat? Who is the leading intellectual in Australia since The Crocodile Hunter died? Can God really save the queen? Or is he too busy trying to seduce Mary? Is the Father also the Son and the Holy Spirit? If so, how do they form teams for family game night?
Just when the questions threatened to consume us, we were resurrected back to reality by a rogue patron from the full body massage room. Pants zipper undone and lukewarm Suntory in hand, we don’t remember sending him an invitation to our personal space but he RSVPed with gusto. Though we’re still unclear on whether he wanted to befriend us or kill us, we know if we were going to die we’d want to be played out by pan flute Rocket Man while watching a Chinese war movie.
We left Yangzhou Zuyu in a daze. It was a true cultural exchange. Pan flute for pan flute and toot for toot. We’re not saying this massage will change you, but it will entertain you. If you block out your neighbor’s gastrointestinal gurgles, the masseuse’s uncomfortably personal phone call, and the fact that you’re seated in a sweatbox in the ass-end of Hongkou, you might actually be able to melt into your seat and relax. If you don’t mind being uncomfortable or are a glutton for humorously punishing atmospheres, a cheap foot massage gives you a memory that can’t be copied at higher end establishments. At the end of the day you’re really just shelling out the extra RMB for a sandalwood scented candle and the guarantee that you won’t be accosted by someone who can’t even be bothered to zip his own pants.
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