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A Life With Little Soul and No Respect

Foot massage salons are booming in China. But work conditions and customers' attitudes can be wretched.

August 14, 2004|John M. Glionna | Times Staff Writer

BEIJING — For farm wife Zhang Meiqing, the advice from her older brother seemed sage: Toiling in the rice paddies was fool's work, he said. Come to the city for a career of washing and rubbing people's feet -- that's the path to riches.

So the 32-year-old mother left behind her village in southern Hainan province a year ago to join a surging wave of migrant laborers who make up one of the lowest rungs of urban China's new underclass: foot massage workers.

Ten hours a day, her back aching, her fingers sore and calloused, Zhang hunches atop a tiny stool providing a humble service to a growing population of affluent Chinese.

Some men leer at her; women bark as though she were a servant. And many feet smell so rank, they bring tears to her eyes.

Her $40-a-week salary would be a substantial amount of money back in her village. Still, a weary Zhang questions her brother's wisdom. She misses home. On good days, she believes she provides a valuable service. More often, she's so ashamed of her job's demeaning reputation -- nothing more than a subservient foot washer -- she cannot look at herself in the mirror.

"This is painful work," she said. "I think it's even harder than being in the fields."

Reflexology, the 5,000-year-old health treatment in which pressure to specific points of the foot is believed to cure or prevent disease, is big business in China. Countless salons have opened, and billboards promote the luxury and health benefits of a foot massage to foreigners and moneyed Chinese alike. Men, who account for most of the clientele, get a chance to have young women treat them like emperors.

In the late 1990s, a handful of salons employed only veteran technicians. Although those reflexology offices still operate, the therapy's new popularity has bred a growing number of less reputable salons where undertrained employees labor under questionable conditions.

Most big-city foot massage parlors employ young men and women lured from small towns and villages. Seeking to escape the boredom of rural life, they answer newspaper ads promising they can triple their incomes by massaging feet.

They are often disappointed. Most live in cramped, soulless dormitories with 30 or more workers. Like Zhang, many feel out of place, and some last no more than a week before returning home. Others stick it out, sending money home and promising to return once they've built their nest eggs.

But China's new foot massage industry has a grimy sole.

Several newspaper investigations say the "herbal medicines" used to soak feet before a massage can be caustic to customers and workers. And they have questioned the training received by many of the workers -- as little as two or three days -- saying many unskilled masseurs have injured clients.

One Beijing newspaper reported that people sometimes paid for government-issued foot massage credentials without receiving any training, and it quoted a man who admitted that he had received his certification yet couldn't even read his textbook.

Zhang Hongjing, co-founder of the Chinese Reflexology Assn., says there are 1,600 foot massage salons each in Beijing and Shanghai, with three times that many operating with unlicensed technicians. She blames the government for the rash of substandard parlors popping up across China.

"There's a huge market here that officials are exploiting," she said. "But there's no quality control. The government forces people to pay for licenses not backed by legitimate training. And it's hurting the reputation of the practice as a whole."

Wang Yi is among the new breed of foot massage shop owners. A short, swarthy man who favors loud Western shirts and resembles a Chinese version of actor Joe Pesci, Wang got into the business two months ago.

He wanted to open a bar where men would pay to dance with pretty girls, but such places are not allowed in the capital, so Wang settled for foot massage. His first move was to place an ad in his hometown newspaper in the city of Anshan, 300 miles north of Beijing. He promised a salary of $375 a month, including room, board and transportation to the capital. He was flooded with responses.

But many newly hired say the claims were overblown, and that they make much less.

Wang is frank about the less-publicized side of the business. He trains his employees for just a week before putting them to work in stalls featuring comfortable chairs where customers can watch TV while being massaged.

Although industry spokesmen insist the herbs used for the pre-massage soak help circulation, Wang isn't so sure. "I buy it at a wholesale market to make sure people's feet don't smell," he said. "As for health benefits, people think soaking their feet in treated water for five minutes is going to improve their health. That's quite impossible."

Although Wang acknowledged that foot massage is viewed primarily as a health regimen, he said it's also a way for his predominantly male clients to relax in the company of young women.

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