Friday, May 30, 2008

Test driving a traditional Chinese Massage

Picture of the moment: Speaking of bodily use-by dates (see below), this Will kit for Singles caught my eye - clever marketing, since it probably contains little more more than a Post-it note to pencil in the solitary name of the person you're leaving your stufforama to - that's right, Thou Thyself Thou! Highway robbery at $24.95 - how stupid do they think we singles are? OK, I admit I did turn it over and over and wonder exactly what it said inside ...

I paused in front of a Chinese Massage/Acupuncture clinic today, and decided to go for it.

I've been suffering from a bit of a stiff upper back, plus a disturbing recent development where my skull and neck make a loud "crunching" sound when I look down.

It's probably everything to do with my work and play - I ride a bicycle for a living, I spend too much time laptopping, and I'm going to be 50 in 5 years' time. Despite conscientious efforts to stretch and remain flexible, poledancing classes and separating my portable keyboard from the screen using impressive towers of phone books, the body is telling me yes, it does have a best-before date.

This massage clinic is in Double Bay, or rather, "Double Pay" as Sydneysiders smirk, so I braced myself for the worst. As I predicted, it wasn't cheap: $78 a massage, $46 for half an hour.

"Special for you to try" whispered a bespectacled, Chinese studenty type from Beijing who'd amputated the Ch's and ng's off his name and was left with "Tony" . "$30 special ... or $1 a minute."

Ah, to be Chinese is to bargain.

When he led me back to the massage rooms I broke out an involuntary chuckle: despite being located in one of the most hoity-toity suburbs in Sydney, this operation was pure, unadulterated Chinatown on a misplaced GPS coordinate.

How so?

Where most massage clinics try to cultivate a Zenlike ambience complete with incense, mood lighting, hemp-hued drapery and Wyndham Hill or plinkety plunkety sitars on the iPod, this clinic was just that - reminiscent of the makeshift clinics where you got your shots as a snotty tot.

Tony threw on a cassette which immediately filled the space with the incongruous sound of birds twittering against bad harp music. Flickering fluros overhead stripped the room of any kind of warmth or ambience. He slung the pocket door closed so I could strip down; a bunch of those wire coat hangers jangling cacophonously from a hook behind it.

A complete lack of carpet meant hearing a customer's clomping and scraping stilettos all the way from reception up the corridor and into the adjacent cubicle, defined by a thin paneled divider that fell several feet short of the ceiling.

My neighbor proceeded to bleat through a megaphone at length about herself and her day, uh-huh'd by her acupuncturist. When I asked my masseur a question, his unseen colleague answered me through the wall - in between stopping to repeatedly answer his ringing phone while needling his client. How bizarre!

Now and then Tony would exit to heat up a towel under a hot running tap, nuke it in the microwave then slap it on my neck.

"I give you 5 minute sample of reflexology, no charge, no charge," said Tony.

It wasn't bad, but needed more knuckle grease.

I mused about all this while lying there being pummeled in true Beijing sidewalk chair massage style. They say eating should be a calm affair, chew every mouthful well, don't talk. Yet Chinese restaurants are the noisiest of all, mouths shoveling food and shouting and slurping of oolong tea all at the same time. Why should a massage be any different?

At the end, I was actually quite satisfied with my experience.

There's something comforting and unpretentious about those 88 ways to know you're Chinese, and this clinic is surely the 89th.