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We lighten things up a bit this week with a playful essay first published in Meirirenwu. Writing under the alias Lao Xue, a female writer from China’s northeast pays tribute to one of her home region’s most loved institutions: the bathhouse.
As Lao Xue describes in colorful detail, a bathhouse is much more than taking a dip in the hot tub. It’s a hub of communal activity, a social lubricant and a means of spiritual release all-in-one.
The modern northeastern bathhouse of 21st Century China is equipped with so many trappings of luxury it resembles a five-star spa resort more than the old pool houses of yesteryear.
But at the core of the experience is the timeless tradition of the scrubdown—preferably by a middle-aged uncle or auntie—which Lao Xue meticulously depicts in its fullest glory.
Why Northeasterners Can’t Get Enough of Their Bathhouses
Credit: Anita Austvika
For China’s northeasterners, a bathhouse can fulfill all of life’s needs—from meals, mahjong, afternoon tea and chitchat to R+R, makeovers, catching up with relatives and even matchmaking.
To be precise, no one really uses the term “bathhouses” in the northeast. Venues that serve purely a cleansing function are called “pool houses,” as in a public pool house or municipal pool house.
But really, places where you can simply get a bath don’t exist anymore. Even the most rudimentary kind of neighborhood pool house—the type that charges 19 yuan ($2.8) for admission—usually offers at the very least a sauna, otherwise no one will bother.
As for the kind that can meet all your social needs, the ones that are so lavishly decorated they leave folks from outside the region awestruck—we call those spa centers.
The spa centers of the northeast are mostly open round-the-clock. In theory, if you have the time off, you could hang out in one for an entire month straight without getting bored.
You can doze off or head for the sauna—one room at a time, from 39 degrees Celsius to 99. There are rooms with every temperature setting you can think of. It’s simply a question of how much your body you can take.
You can watch movies, play video games, shoot balloons with a toy rifle, sing karaoke or try your luck grabbing your stuffed animal of choice with a robotic arm in one of those vending machines common in Asian video arcades.
Word has it that a spa center in the northeast is equipped with a virtual reality motorbike setup. I see no reason to question the claim. Sooner or later you’ll be able to bungee jump at a spa center—as long as there’s an owner willing to go to such lengths.
You could get a foot massage, a backrub, physical therapy or a full-body massage. When you’re getting treatment, all you need to do is lie there while various folks fuss over your body.
From the auntie scrubbing your body to the young man giving you a foot massage to the young lady rubbing your back—everyone is devoting their loving, undivided attention to your weary carcass, aching from sitting at a desk all day, five days a week.
You could get a manicure or pedicure, a facial or even have hairstylist Tony give you a makeover—as long as you trust the standards of Tony the hairstylist from the spa center.
And of course you can eat to your heart’s content. The buffet line one of the signature features of a spa center. Lobster is often standard fare. There’s a spa center in my hometown that’s extremely popular because the owner got his start with a chain of kebab restaurants. Having kebabs after spa treatment is their main attraction.
Still, the most important thing is the bath experience. These are bathhouses we’re talking about, after all.
An upscale spa center will have at least three pools. Each pool will be set at a different temperature and flavored differently. Take the typical ladies’ section, for example. The water in the pools will likely be mixed with red wine, milk, honey, salt or iron particles.
What about the design of the pools? There will probably be surfboards and water buckets on hand and built-in bathtubs. Toy fish and cobblestone are also a common feature. You name it and they’ll probably have it—and the designs are constantly updated.
The larger spa centers are de facto spa resorts. Spa centers without proper pools might as well pack up and go home. As far as northeasterners are concerned, these are only public bathrooms, designed for those poor souls who can’t shower at home.
What? You’ve never heard of pools in a ladies’ section? Do you know how many Chariman Mao bills we sugar mommas of the northeast contribute to spa centers in spending each year? The pools in the ladies’ section can only outshine those in the men’s section. They are not optional.
Besides, how are you going to get a scrubdown without proper pools? Even the aunties will send you back to the pool if you don’t soak your body properly, because it will make it all the more difficult for them to scrub the dirt blocking your pores. Lord knows how long it will take if you rely on a showerhead alone.
What? You’ve never had a scrubdown before?
Such a terrible waste of hospitality!
Credit: Adrian Motroc
If spa centers are the soul of the northwest, then the soul of the spa center is the scrubdown.
For a proper scrub you can’t go for a young woman. Most of them are just gophers. You need an auntie. Even someone in their 30s is too young. You have to pick someone in at least their 40s.
Only an auntie at that age, someone who’s past their halfway mark in life and has been to hell and back, is willing to take on the apparently demeaning task like rubbing dirt off another person’s body. Only someone like that would turn the scrubdown into the ultimate personal luxury.
If this is your first scrubdown, then you most definitely have to pick an auntie. She will dissolve your shyness and any sense of decorum with that unique brand of northeastern humor.
She will make small talk, discuss the weather and seamlessly slip in a slew of personal questions, such as whether you’re in a relationship or whether you have kids. She will ignore all your physical flaws, all the imperfections you care about, as she compartmentalizes your body and your spirit neatly into separate boxes.
She will treat you as a genuine friend in conversation while handling your body as an object, as she routinely and speedily completes the task of dirt shedding by smoothly pouring solvents like vinegar or red wine onto your body and scrubbing away with that uniquely northern Chinese essential that is the scrub cloth.
(In a bit of unpaid advertising, there’s a hierarchy when it comes to scrub cloths brands. Lao Tang is the undisputed industry leader. If you hand your auntie a Lao Tang scrub cloth and she responds with delight, it’s proof that both of you are veteran scrubbers.)
And so you inevitably start revealing yourself to the auntie as she rubs your ear lobes, neck and shoulders, then lifts your arm so she can start at your fingertips and slowly make her way to your elbow and armpit.
Next up is your tummy and thighs. Then she’ll slap you gently, signaling you to turn over. All four sides of your body—your front and back and both sides of your torso—will receive blanket treatment.
Even your heels, the soles of your feet and the gaps between your toes will not be left untouched. Every inch of your skin and every pore in your body will be tended to meticulously with subtle, vigorous strokes.
The top aunties can clear all semblance of dirt from your body in a single scrub—after you shower without a drop of body wash. That’s the equivalent of a full-body deep cleanse exfoliation. Aunties with a personal touch will even throw in a half-minute shoulder and head massage.
If you want to keep pampering yourself, then it’s time for treatment. After years of fine-tuning their offerings, milk treatments are quite basic for a bathhouse. You can get one even at your neighborhood pool house.
At an upscale spa center, you can get lathered with oil, let alone milk, honey or lemon and cucumber slices. The bottom line is whatever can be applied to the face can be applied to the whole body.
And not just applied—but having the substance or item in question caressed against your body over and over again. This is no mere massage—rather a full-body beauty treatment of an even more luxurious and relaxing variety.
And so you leave in a state of total relaxation. Not only have you rid yourself of all the dirt covering your body, but you’ve also given your ex a full dressing-down along with auntie. You’ve received a proper scrubbing, both physically and spiritually.
That’s why when you visit a spa center, the buffet line and sauna are icing on the cake. You have to start off with a shower, a dip in the pool, a scrub and even a full-body beauty treatment to kick back properly.
Once you’ve tried it, it’s hard to turn down such a unique and attentive experience again. That, I believe, it the core appeal of the spa center.
No one can resist the unrivaled charm of the northeastern bathhouse. No matter who you are, where you’re from or what you’re looking for, once you’ve had the spa center treatment, there’s no going back.
Hitting the bathhouse is also a pastime that cuts across class, age and profession. The only difference is that rich folk prefer the super-extravagant type that charges 199 yuan ($30) for admission and boasts a seven-story complex, the kind that has locker room attendants in kneeling position ready to trade your shoes for slippers, where scrubdowns start at 288 yuan ($43) and use red wine from a bottle of a 1982 Lafite, or the ones where the towels are so smooth they might as well have been woven from pure silk.
Meanwhile, regular Joe settles for the budget variety that costs 29 yuan per head ($4.3) in online bulk purchase, the kind that’s sparing in its use of red wine for scrubdowns and doesn’t have kneeling locker room attendants.
Regardless of how fancy the bathhouse, the essential nature of the experience is the same. There’s little in the way of comparison or showing off. Each to their own. Everyone keeps to themselves. What people care about is the experience itself.
Northeasterners can be quite the posers when it comes to high fashion and fine dining. But when it comes to bathhouses—whatever floats your boat.
There’s the customer who followed an auntie when she switched employers from an eastside to a westside bathhouse because she had the habit of scrubbing clients with two different kinds of scrub cloths; the one who became a loyal patron of a certain spa center because of their pools—the height of the steps in the pools were such that his bulging waistline was just submerged; and the one who favored one establishment because of their beef noodles. The washdown was straightforward—the real agenda was the beef noodles.
As I said at the outset, visiting a bathhouse is the northeasterner’s favorite form of relaxation. Whether you’re fresh from overtime, a business trip, the wrap of a project or your university entrance exams, whether you’re happy or troubled, tired or just plain bored, all the hardship and all your emotions can be erased with a trip to the bathhouse.
You enter in broad daylight and leave under the cover of night. Your body is still warm and you feel like you’re floating, your spirit lackadaisical. The feeling of utter release—you need to try it for yourself to know that I’m not pulling your leg.
Northeasterners are often called crude, lazy or unrefined. All they eat is stewed dishes and they’re always decked in mink, people say. But when it comes to washdowns, they have no peers.
While Chengdu natives are known for their passion for mahjong and Guangzhou residents their penchant for early morning dim sum, northeasterners obsess over their bathhouses as part of local culture.
Maybe northeasterners are actually lazy—so much so that they don’t bother with proper clothing. Sometimes they leave the spa center in the loose-fitting outfits they’ve changed into and wander the streets again or venture for another meal.
There may also be truth to the claim that northeasterners are unrefined. They’re just having a good time, so there’s no need to pay attention to appearances, they figure—as long as they’re happy.
The love affair with bathhouses may also have something to do with the fact that temperatures in the northeast commonly remain below 0 Celsius five out of 12 months in the year. It’s so cold there’s no point in venturing outside and it’s dry—might as well hole up in a humid spa center then.
But out of all the provinces in northern China, how come a bathhouse culture only took hold in the three northeastern ones? This may have something to do with the personality of northeasterners.
The sayings that northeasterners are warm, kind-hearted, that they’re all good Samaritans aren’t just figures of speech. That’s actually how they behave in reality.
The attitude stems from the sincerity of northeasterners. The fact that they call strangers sister, brother or auntie moments after meeting them helps bring people closer.
Going to the bathhouse together is another way of expressing affection. Think about it—if we’re not honest and forthright with each other after disrobing and laying bare our moles and scars, are we doing justice to the ritual?
It’s similar to the way Shandong natives bond over drinks—if I’m not wasted, if I’m not passed out under the table, then I haven’t demonstrated the depths of my commitment to you.
Now in the northeast, if you’re not willing to go to the bathhouse and hit the sauna with me, that means you don’t treat me as a friend. Not to mention the fact that Shandong native genuinely like their liquor and northeasterners truly enjoy a washdown.
If it’s such a pleasure, why not share the joy?
Northeasterners also don’t like maintaining airs. They’re very straightforward. Even celebrities from the northeast—take actor Lin Gengxin for example—don’t act like prima donnas, let alone your average northeasterner, who truly doesn’t give a sh*t.
To outsiders, taking a bath seems like a private, sensitive matter best done alone. If it can be helped, they would never appear naked in front of others. Meanwhile, in the northeast, our common response is: “So what?”
So what if we take a bath together? There’s no mixing of genders, after all. Don’t we all have the same body parts? What’s there to be embarrassed about?
That’s why at your typical spa center in the northeast, regardless of age, everyone likes to strut around naked by the pools. Some bathhouses even have plates of fruit on hand near their pools.
If you’re tired from taking a bath, you can enjoy a few pieces of fruit or a sip of juice at the bar table. You’ll be standing next to an entire row of butt-naked bodies and no one is thinking twice about it. Whereas if you’ve draped a towel over your private parts, you might get a few glares or even taunts accusing you of being pretentious.
The bottom line is because northeasterners are so open and forthright, there’s none of the usual shyness associated with stripping naked. All that’s left is total mental and physical release.
At the bathhouse, whether you’re with a friend, relative, colleague, client, or even your boss or father-in-law, everyone is on equal footing, having shed their masks, status and all semblance of baggage altogether.
The unspoken understanding extends even to the public rest area. The men are typically naked from the waist up and the women braless, at the very least, their hair wet and unkempt and free of makeup.
Everyone is reduced to their rawest, most primitive state. No faking it, no pretenses and no buried emotions. What you see is what you get.
And the fact is northeasterners have always been that way.
Decorum and subtlety have no place in the northeast. Northeasterners also aren’t used to holding back or sucking it up. They are carefree and wear their hearts on their sleeves.
If they like someone or something, they go all out. If they don’t, they bolt. Dodgy and shadowy actions and behavior drive the men and women of the northeast absolutely nuts.
That’s why these direct types who practice the principle that if things work out, then great, and if not, so be it, are obsessed with and passionate about their washdowns and enjoy bringing their new friends from out-of-town to a bathhouse.
As far as northeasterners are concerned, they’re taking you to a bathhouse because they like you.
Translator: Min Lee