Last days of a Beijing bathhouse – by Robert Foyle Hunwick
Hong Sheng, qigong master, can perform nude splits on a bridge of cracked tiles in a sauna the temperature of Mount Doom like a man half his age. That’s how some guys like to roll in China: the backslapping, the baijiu toasting, the bonobo displays of power. Beijing’s last old-style bathhouse isn’t the kind of place to worry about stray hairs, clean towels or a brace of someone else’s overripe cherries.
Just shy of a century old, the Shuangxingtang bathhouses in the far south Beijing suburb of Fengtai is one of the capital’s toughest buildings. So far it has survived a republic, various warlords, a full-scale occupation and a bitter civil war, followed by everything the Communist Party could throw at it. Perhaps it’s meaningful that property developers are most likely to finish this place off. A shame – there aren’t many hide-aways where one can escape from decorum so cheaply. Napping, grumbling, smoking and testicular displays are all being pushed out to the suburbs.
Don’t expect, or wish for, much courtesy from the older generation at Shuangxingtang, established 1916. They’ve had it with the outside world and its high falutin ways, and this is their last-chance saloon. Next door to my booth, on arrival, used longjohns were draped over the shared divide. I had assumed that they belonged to the gentleman dozing in the adjoining stall and ignored the pair, like you would any old man’s underwear. Sensing my presence, he jerked to attention and looked straight at the soiled drawers. “Get this crap out of my face!” he barked.
It turned out he was talking to someone behind me: ‘Little Kim’, barely a day over twelve and in charge of shoveling these old bastards’ shit. Already he bore the look of a portly North Korean dictator, and the thin sheen of exertion on his moon-like face spoke of purges to come. Some day, I consider, this Kim will make an upstanding official or truculent businessman – ideally both.
That isn’t odd in China, to see an adolescent gofer serving far older, possibly wiser, undeniably more wizened people. This was how the public baths of Rome might have looked in their dingier sections, reserved for the hoi polloi, away from the sophisticated symposia. Down Fengtai, rather than up Pompeii. It turned out I was wrong about Kim – the sly fellow was 17, or that’s what he claimed, enthusiastically smoking on a gold-tipped Hongsha. Despite the obligatory ‘No Smoking’ signs, hunkering down with a cigarette is a cherished pastime at Shuangxingtang.
While bathhouses still thrive in China, the model is changing in the big cities. Back when indoor plumbing was a luxury, your grandfather would say “the rich go to the doctor and the poor visit a bathhouse.” They were an essential part of the community: people gathered to eat, smoke, sleep, argue, play Chinese chess, sleep, watch cricket fights, smoke, eat, sleep, read the latest tabloid insights, drink, smoke and sleep, all while telling their family they were just popping out for a communal bath. Now the rich are visiting bathhouses in droves, and they favour the deluxe rub to the plebeian tub.
Bathhouses these days are expected at the least to have massage rooms, special services, rotating buffets and flatscreen televisions showing sports. Sweating in the nude, next to a shrewd investor, crooked cadre or blubbery cop, all comrades are rendered equal (and there’s less risk of being recorded and blackmailed afterwards). It costs over two hundred yuan to visit a new-fangled bathhouse – where hot-spring pools are decked out with fake trees, ornate footbridges, uniformed attendants and fish that nibble on dead skin – and less than ten yuan to get the full Monty at historic joints like Shuangxingtang.
It’s not just the lifestyle that is dying here – it’s the customers. Places like Shuangxingtang are literally running out of punters. In September 2014, the Xinyuan baths in Haidian district, allegedly built under the Guangxu Emperor, had their doors closed for them by a bulldozer. Well-intentioned local regulations, designed to keep the facilities affordable, had prevented Xinyuan and places like it from increasing their fees enough to pay the rising bills consigning the business to history.
The Xiong family, who have owned Shuangxingtang for the last two decades, know their shop has its name writ in water. The walls are speckled with evidence of a losing battle with mildew, where the forces of ayi and her mop-bucket are in retreat. Most tiles are cracked or missing around the larger tubs, and the grouting has a giddy, mustard tan that speaks to years of nicotine fug. Shuangxingtang was the main shooting location for the 1999 film Shower, which received multiple international awards and “two thumbs up!” from Roger Ebert. But although attempts were made on the back of the film to apply for World Intangible Cultural Heritage status in 2006, they were fruitless. The place is doomed, and I can’t explain why.
There are huge, blown-up photographs depicting key scenes in Shower braving every room (I initially mistook them as adverts for services offered). These publicity stills can be misleading if it’s spa facilities you’re after. Seek out a creamy facial mask, or a soothing peel, and you’ll be met with a polite stare – this is your great-grandfather’s grandfather’s kind of place, no fuss and most certainly no muss. There’s a KTV upstairs, but I didn’t dare go up.
Other than that, not much else seems to have changed since the Cultural Revolution. They even have framed, black and white photographs of Mao Zedong and Lin Biao hanging in the changing room, although they’re kept well apart at opposite ends, with Mao on the left and Lin on the right – politically correct even in death. Thirty years on, Lin Biao remains the PRC’s foremost traitor and public enemy, so to display his portrait takes indignance, indifference or some merry prankster at work. It’s especially ironic in this context, as he was supposedly terrified of water.
It was past dusk on a chilly winter’s evening when my companion J and I groped our way through the neighbourhood, searching for the right bathhouse among an array of identical, dimly-lit alleys. It was six o’clock, so naturally the street was deserted, and there was no one to tell us where we were, nor any landmarks – just row upon row of dingy shops, restaurants and lock-ups selling hubcaps and other motoring goods, plus the occasional, evil-looking karaoke joint. We watched a depressed-looking 30-something hostess in a down coat begin her shift at some dreadful Entertainment Complex offering “Massage, Sauna, KTV”, and hoped to God this wasn’t the place. It wasn’t: we had passed Shuangxingtang a block back.
Entrance was a cool eight yuan. For another twenty, they throw in a full rubdown (recommended) that gets you a complete day of soaking. No overnighters, a sign warns – they’ve had trouble with those, and besides, there’s a hotel next door. Shuangxingtang doesn’t see a lot of trade from foreigners and we got the traditional bathhouse welcome: a friendly nod, then an unbridled stare downward. Whether it’s a glance or a glare, other customers rarely hid their curiosity and I chided myself for not offering better entertainment – an elaborate green merkin or ‘Drink Coke’ tattoo pays for itself.
No British prude, I was ready to hang loose, but – there was always someone willing to better my studied nonchalance! One determined middle-aged man, gripping his lit cigarette through determined teeth, absent-mindedly soaped himself under the steaming shower. Someone else expertly flicked a customer’s rump with a wet towel, also while smoking. And another sat in the tub, talking on the phone, cigarette in his other hand. I don’t generally smoke, even while swimming, and couldn’t possibly hope to match them.
Nor could I rival their musicality. Men in bathhouses often break into song without shame or concern. They just knock it out. I realise, now, that I could have bellowed a minute of Queen and no one would have said anything. But despite all the solo singing, acknowledgements between strangers were snorted not spoken. I had always considered this sort of greeting the domain of pure pulp fiction (“Malone grunted assent”) but quickly got the hang of non-syllabic speech, and even gave a pathic nod to one man with a sprawling black dragon ascending his left arm and most of his shoulder, who then wouldn’t leave either of us alone. He caused my friend J particular anxiety with several vigorous shakes of the hand, wagging his eyebrows meaningfully for far too long to be harmless. “What did that mean?” J asked me in a hush. “What does he want?” “It’s probably nothing. Just something to do with, you know … sex,” I reassured him. “It’s fine, we’ll go through next door.”
We left the changing area and trooped to the main hall, with ‘Dragon’ hot on our tail. Behold two giant, steaming baths, and more showers than you could count. Dragon leapt into one of the tubs, and beckoned us to join. We pointedly climbed into the adjacent bath. A peaceful calm soon settled – this was a place to relax and forget the modern world, its deadlines and demands. There was only the low murmur of voices in conversation, the playful splash of water. The occasional resounding ‘thwack’ from the massage tables. Jay and I exchanged contented nods. This was what we’d come for, a soak of old Beijing before it dried up like an old crone.
Suddenly, the guy with Dragon tattoos was back on the move, clambering over the divide and heading into our bath. He had kept his hands clasped nonchalantly behind his back, but soon began flicking water coquettishly on himself and at us. A coded signal? Local ritual? Haze the newcomers? He waded, veered off, circled back, smiling, nodding, splashing water, a pattern that continued until J finally broke the void and voiced the obvious:
“Do you think he’s gay? I think he thinks we like him now.”
Mr Dragon was yards away, oblivious to our commentary.
“Don’t make eye contact. Pretend he’s not there.”
“Eye contact?” J scowled. “His dick’s about a foot from my face.”
That was true enough. I gave Dragon a terse smile dovetailing into a slight frown (the English way of telling someone to fuck off, I had always presumed), and saw that his cheeks had turned a bright scarlet. Just then he reached over, tapped J on the shoulder, and launched himself out of the water like a humpback whale. A huge error: on landing, his heel slipped on a puddle, somersaulting him onto his buttocks and back. It was a complete wipeout – but he was back on his feet within seconds. He gave the room a reassuring smile, fading into an agonised grimace of self-pity. As soon as he hit the changing-room door, though, the whole thing collapsed. Brimming with tears, his eyes lurched with pain, jangled embarrassment and, finally, the irreversible frustration of enduring a plain old fuck-up.
“Aww,” J conceded. “He’s drunk.”
Silently toasting Dragon’s departure, we opted for the sauna. According to a smartly posted sign outside, drinking while “steaming” is not something the Chinese staff recommend – along with being pregnant, childish or enduring any kind of heat for longer than about ten minutes. Cocooned in the back of the Finnish-style commode was Hong Sheng. He was 56, athletically built – a master at practicing limber yogic splits on tile-floored baths – and began gabbing from the moment we sat down. In his rambling spiel he introducing himself as a “TCM master” who had been practicing his techniques, passed down through the Hong family since the Tang Dynasty, for over four decades.
A self-proclaimed qigong master, Hong was. Qigong is the ancient practice of duping superstitious fat cats into handing over large sums of cash by performing cheap magic tricks. “I can wear the shortest shorts in winter and be completely comfortable,” Hong vouchsafed cheerfully from his lotus position, streaming sweat as he ladled more water on the sizzling coals. “I can make water boil. I can make lights illuminate. Without electricity.” Could he turn the heat down? Do it, you swine, I panted internally.
“Throughout history, people have perceived us as either gods or fools – or worse, madmen,” Hong lamented. “Would you believe it if I told you I have actually spent some time in a mental hospital?” We would. It had been among the grimmest times of his life, he said – two months in a pitiless psychiatric ward run on medieval thinking, in 2006. “I often thought about suicide,” he told us, punctuating this remark with a rip-roaring fart while pouring still more water on the screeching rocks. Hong had the scars to prove it, too, and invited us to peer at the marks on his muscular, twisted frame from “the operations I did on myself.”
All this while, a squat, silent fellow beside us had absorbed the conversation without stirring. As soon as the qigong master had gone back to his nude splits, he leaned over to tell us: “In Beijing dialect, that’s called bullshit.”
Before long, we were ready to leave. It was a bone-freezing night, and there were those donkey dumplings we had seen advertised nearby to look forward to. While we donned our winter ensemble (leg warmers, vest, heavy-duty sweaters, hat, ski boots, scarf, muffler), Hong stopped by to bid us an extended farewell. He listed a few more qualifications and offered a (free?) consultation. Despite the frostbite lurking outside, he was wearing only a loose cotton t-shirt and plain khaki shorts. Possibly he should have been back in the psych ward. Perhaps he really was an ancient mystic imbued with temperature-warping psychic abilities. Conceivably it was the ineffable blessing of a soak in Shuangxingtang that had warmed his soul. Or maybe he just lived in that hotel next door.
Robert Foyle Hunwick is a writer and editor in Beijing. He is working on a book about vice, crime and China's other attractions
Author’s note: Rumours suggest the expansion of nearby Nanyuan airport will shortly lead to the demolition of this historic bathhouse. Visit while you can
Original illustration by Marcus Pibworth. Photos from QQ news