Coffee, tea, wine? Chinese take baths in many flavors

FOREIGN CLOSEUP

January 21, 1993|By Robert Benjamin | Robert Benjamin,Beijing Bureau

BEIJING -- When an icy Siberian wind sweeps down from the steppes of Mongolia, a gray fog of pollution enshrouds China's capital and northern China's long, dry winter sucks the moisture out of every living thing, what can be done?

For many Beijingers, the only answer is to take a bath. Soak their chilled, parched bodies in the luxury of hot water. Steam this city's ubiquitous coal dust from their pores and throats.

Trouble is, Beijing's apartments are drafty and underheated. TC Most residents don't have their own bathing facilities with running hot water.

Some can take hot showers where they work, but many long have had to rely on regular trips to Beijing's public bathhouses, where group pools and showers are available for about 25 cents a visit.

Beijing has more than 50 public bathhouses, about one for every 200,000 residents. Some close in the summer. But in winter, each handles an average of 3,000 customers a day. On weekends and public holidays, there are waiting lines.

Ordinary bathhouses have a well-earned reputation for being rather filthy. More finicky customers won't use their towels or their resting beds. "I've never sat on one for a second, let alone lain on one" of the beds, a bather told a Chinese newspaper.

Not surprisingly, given the recent rapid rise in living standards in urban China, a few bathhouses here have been refurbished lately and now tout services that were available only to the affluent before the 1949 Communist revolution.

Among these, the Xinghuayuan ("Strengthen China Garden") Bathhouse, renovated a year ago at a cost of almost $1 million, is supposed to be the Ritz.

The now marginally clean bathhouse sits off one of Beijing's busiest shopping streets, along a busy alleyway suspiciously called Xianyukou ("Fresh Fish") alley. Its customers still can take a quick shower for about $1, but this state-owned bathhouse's new renown rests on its upscale services.

Uniformed attendants greet bathers at the door and guide them through a long list of options. Perhaps the "multifunction total bath" for about $11? For men, this includes a private resting room with towels and robes, a half-hour massage and shared use of a hot tub, whirlpool, sauna, steam bath and a variety of hot showers.

Or how about an exotic bath for a few dollars more?

There's a milk bath to keep skin supple and glossy. A rice wine bath to improve sleep. A coffee bath to invigorate the blood. A herbal bath to bring peace and happiness. A vinegar bath to ward off colds. A tea bath to remove skin wrinkles. A seawater bath to heal the skin.

Of course, Xinghuayuan is too expensive for most Chinese, whose average income is about $30 a month.

The several hundred bathers who use it each day tend to come from Beijing's nouveau riche entrepreneurs, who have the money and time to while away the afternoon soaking, sweating, sleeping, smoking and eating in what amounts to a rare, relatively quiet hideaway in this crowded town.

"I have a tub at home, but my whole apartment is not much bigger than the sauna room here," says a 32-year-old woman who has her own business carving personal seals and comes to Xinghuayuan three times a week.

In the women's lounge, she and her friends relax in their bathrobes, sipping tea and eating oranges, smoking Yves St. Laurent cigarettes, applying makeup and discussing whether they should have plastic surgery to reshape their eyes and noses so as to look more like Western women, a fashion here these days.

The men's floor is considerably more funky: rusted pipes, broken whirlpool, penetrating snoring, a chiropodist who neglects to clean his tools between clients and two long-haired, tattooed characters partying in their changing room with beer, cuts of greasy meat and many flicks of their cigarette ashes onto the already tired carpeting.

"This is not a high-class bathhouse, but just a middle-class one," sniffs a 30-year-old factory manager while soaking in a group tub. He punctuates his judgment by loudly spitting on the shower-room floor outside the pool of water.

By contrast, some bathhouses in freewheeling Guangdong province near Hong Kong offer women who give massages, he notes, adding wistfully: "I understand their business is really good."

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