I left work one Saturday evening in late September and headed for the border. Joe had gone the night before and was waiting for me at one of the Shenzhen crossing points. My third solo venture past the emaciated Praetorian Guardsmen was less eventful than most. All the same, once past the ersatz duty-free and purely decorative metal detectors, you’re immediately thrust into a world of entirely different contours: a land where opportunism bludgeons order and get-her-done schemes marvelously subvert Gesellschaft. To the left and right, frumpish women on motorized rickshaws peddle milk tea and instant noodles. For China’s richest and most industrious city, there was an unseemly number of unemployed youth tempestuously waiting our arrival; I found Joe and co. at the entrance just as Apollo made his final adieux. The air was warm and heavy, a bit stifling but conducive to beer and mischief all the same.
We walked through an industrial park of sorts along the barricaded canal that divides Hong Kong’s New Territories from Mainland China. Our host Alex, an Anglo-American who divides his time between China and Guatemala, lived at the Regency and would routinely conduct his affairs from the hotel lobby. We dropped our bags and headed for dinner.
Several blocks away sat a once-ambitious retail development somewhat akin to an upscale outlet mall (minus the ubiquitous parking) with several foreign-friendly restaurants. A most spirited anti-Japanese furor over a worthless off-shore island dispute was then sweeping the country, so even the Japanese restaurant – not only five blocks from the border with Hong Kong and surrounded by 4-star hotels, but also Chinese owned and operated – had voluntarily closed-downed shop for the foreseeable future. Across the country, those who hadn’t taken similar measures – and even many who did – would see their life’s toil go up in chauvinist flames in the coming weeks. Alas, we went for traditional fare instead. All I can remember were the employees’ matching polka-dotted newsie caps and the fact one could still smoke inside.
We then ventured to a most enlightening house party in a neighboring building. Hosted by two roving Frenchmen, there was a motley of New China’s most enterprising characters. Among the frogs, the younger took the gold. A ripe young 22, he was out to conquer the Middle Kingdom with nothing but stealth and chest-hair. The son of a successful Italian journalist raised in Paris, he carried himself as a socially and sexually domineering upper-lower-middle-class 45-year old, formerly aspiring-Mafioso resident of Queens may have: that is, with confidence and furry, thoraxical flare. He was manufacturing belts, I believe, and mentioned his bi-weekly inspections at the factory. That he spoke little English, much less any Chinese, must have made for good times at the plant. All the same, he was a fun and magnanimous character – and made for good cheer. It didn’t hurt that his Colombian inamorata was arguably the most beautiful girl I’ve seen in China. Why Shenzhen? To even pose the question is to miss the point. With the Frenchman’s ragtag group of random Poles, Italians and the mute, metrosexual Turkish kebab-shop owner (I kid you not) we made for the club.
For those of who who’ve read my earlier post on Shenzhen nightlife, I shall not bore with superfluous reports. That said, it was another suitably hilarious locale. Much to my initial chagrin, we bought a table and ordered several bottles of knockoff Goose.
After several hours of wanton giggling, we made for the spa – the weekend’s main attraction. Amongst Kongians, Shenzhen serves two purposes: highly crafted, knockoff handbags and industrial spend-the-night spas. After a 6am detour to McDonalds, we enter the nouveau riche El Dorado of traveling Chinese businessmen that is Queen’s Spa. It is here that the offspring of coolies become emperors, if only for a night.
Once past the 100-employee front-desk, you take a hard right and head for the men’s corridors. Inside, there is a custodian for every customer there to encourage you as you slip out of your matted civilian wear and into something more comfortable. You’re given an electric bracelet that doubles as locker and charge card. The four of us are now in matching robes and slippers, though I don my glasses just in case. Once past the showers, you enter the communal spa, a series of miniature adjacent pools, some piping hot, others excruciatingly cold. Initially naked and tipsy, you rapidly come to your senses – or so you’ve thought. Only once you reach the central parlor do you realize you’re truly no longer in Chattanooga.
Tingling from sensory confusion, we don our robes and enter the culinary chamber. It’s nearly seven in the morning but you wouldn’t know it. Every which way are squat little balding emperors bumbling about, chain-smoking and making vaguely imperious gestures in their satin robes and matching Aladdin pants. The ceiling is low and the lights are dimmed. To one side are a plethora of rounded tables, each slightly sequestered from the next so as to give those scarfing noodles and sipping tea the impression they’re trading State Secrets at seven in the morning. Not that you would know the hour, of course: there isn’t a window in the entire three-story complex: it’s always 4pm on an overcast Saturday afternoon in mid-winter….
We take a table and order an array of dim sum and green tea. The stewardess attending us is not impressed, but press ahead we must. At the breakfast bar they have orange juice and bowls of assorted gummies. Rather than ask Joe to Nero-feed me grapes, I smoke and eat candy whilst awaiting our meal.
We inquire about the standard full-body massage, but even at this hour all the trained masseuses are spoken for. Just beyond the dining sector are five long stadium-seating rows of plush reclining chairs. Each comes with an adjustable flat-screen television and set of pillows and blankets. Every seat is occupied by a different bloated rump of a geezer. They stuff pistachios into their face, channel surf between Korean Bimbo-hosted game-shoes and music videos whilst pretending not to notice the various women tugging away at their shoulders and feet. Occasionally they light another cigarette and feign interest in the screen. Some give way and doze off. The important thing is that they’re being served and served they shall remain until they abandon their madrugadian thrones. For but a moment, justice has been served; they’ve achieved their rightful place in these cantankerous cosmos. Only once they’ve showered and paid their bills will they be subject to the laws and vagaries and Other Human Needs and Desires: the cabbies and milkmen, laborers and street-sweepers, vendors and traffic-wardens, the children, the old and infirm of the outside world whose existence must also be (physically) heeded. Until then, snack away whilst your wife and children slumber: you’re Lord Protector, Master of the Spasi Realm.
Of course, we too engaged in said debauchery, though somewhat less earnestly so. Since both full-body massage and stadium seating were booked, we had to hire a private room (it’s not as sketch as it sounds). Hence the four of us clambered off into a separate chamber equipped with, well, more television sets and the solace of only listening to your friends’ snoring. The trained ones taken, a string of amateur masseuses pile into the room – eight in all, given we’d each ordered both foot and shoulder massages alike. Nay, I suppose we were no worse than our porky, imperious Chinese counterparts, though at least we had the deference to giggle at our disconcertingly good fortune rather than grimace at the television screen as though our foreman had just taken paternity leave.
Thus we sat in the dark, sipping tea and channel surfing between Bond and golf whilst two unassuming women from the provinces hacked away at our feet and shoulders. Relaxing as it was, I couldn’t shake the awkward presentiment that neither of us, me nor my shoulder companion, were supposed to be there and then at that particular moment, an early Sunday morning in late September. Yet we both trudged along, going through the motions until our 30-minute obligations were up and we could each return to our proper stations in life, I to sleep and they to repose.
The foot masseuse, on the other hand, was of a far more amicable nature. Since hers was the only gaze I couldn’t ignore (does one not make eye contact with the person caressing your flat-footed, corn-fed feet?), we developed a bizarre rapport of sorts. Every time I giggled at our predicament, she would look up, smile and gaze into my eyes with deep affection. Perhaps she was being earnest – though that I doubt. Nonetheless, once the appointed time had lapsed and the other seven masseuses departed, she decided – of her own volition – to stick around. My companions were now getting far more satisfaction than I from my stupefyingly silly position: perched between Joe on one side and Ambrose the other, Daniel Craig dancing across my screen, a chunky, chortling courtesan now kneading her way from calves on up to thigh.
Fear not, intrepid reader, this isn’t that sort of report. Rather than charm (or disgust) you with sultry endeavors, we end our story on the note it began with. After fifteen wildly unnerving minutes, my enterprising therapist bid us farewell. The others had already fallen asleep. I finished my tea and reclined my industrial chaise longue.
We awoke a few hours later – our allotted dozing time had passed – and snuck back into slippers. After a third breakfast of spicy noodles and black coffee, we crawled back to the baths whence the evening had begun. The environs were still teeming; the lighting still subdued: you have virtually no idea what time, day, week, month or even year it is. They say a Russian businessman once spent a hundred days at Queen’s Spa without ever seeing the light of day. A night alone already reeked of siren’s jaded clutches.
I showered, had a shave and put my dampish shirt back on. A man was waiting to collect my slippers at the locker. We smoked a menthol – don’t ask me whence or why – and stuffed a Mao into his jar. Back at reception, one could again sense the world above. Whilst still a level below ground, the shadows grew more angular, the air less artificially fragrant. My wanton 100-yuan tip threw off the collective bill, but generous my friends were feeling. Free-riding and moral hazard work in more than one direction.
We entered the street back into Shenzhen, a city with a name; Guangdong, a province with a language; China, a country with a government, military and repressive apparatus of imperial proportions. These things were real, tangible, present in space and time, answerable to laws not of their making, contingent upon the rain and shine. This was the world we wanted.