China's passion for foot-washing
By Fuchsia Dunlop
BBC News, China
What is your antidote to a frantic day's Christmas shopping? In China, one of the de-stressing options available to rich and poor alike is to go for a foot wash.
The young man sits at my feet, gazing up at me occasionally with almond eyes.
"How is this?" he asks me. "Is it comfortable? Too heavy? Too light?"
He massages ointments into my feet, rubs them and strokes them, easing away every tension.
From time to time he explains what he is doing in terms of Chinese medicine.
"This is the stomach," he says, as he focuses on one spot on the sole of my
foot. "This is the kidney."
And after an hour and a half of his gentle ministrations, I am so happy and relaxed that I can hardly move.
So-called foot-washing is one of the most popular leisure activities in China.
I was first introduced to it by a sassy female restaurateur on a rainy afternoon in Hunan Province.
She and her friends had planned to take me sightseeing, but there was a thunderstorm raging outside.
"Let's go and have our feet washed," she cried. I had always assumed that foot-washing was a euphemism for more sleazy services. But I am always ready for an adventure, and in such respectable company, who could refuse?
So the four of us piled into the car and drove off to a luxury hotel, where we hired a private foot-washing room.
Soon, as we lay back in our easy chairs, four young women came in with wooden pails of hot water, fragrant with herbs.
They soaked our feet, and then they kneaded, pummelled and slapped them in such perfect unison it was almost comical.
My host spent most of the time on her mobile phone, doing deals and gossiping with her friends. The rest of us sipped chrysanthemum tea and watched television. It carried on raining all afternoon, but none of us cared.
That blissful experience was, for me, the first of many foot-washes all over the country.
I started to notice the proliferation of neon signs advertising xi yu, "wash feet", in every Chinese city. And I have tried out all kinds of places.
Some are cramped basements carved up into cubicles, others have the air of private medical clinics.
And some are extraordinary emporia of pleasure, vast cinema-like spaces where you can have your feet massaged while watching the latest kung fu DVDs.
In the more salubrious establishments, an hour and a half of indulgence might set you back £5 or £10.
But in the cheaper places, it will not cost you more than £1 or £2, so you do not have to be rich to afford the occasional visit.
Some foot-washing centres, obviously, are also brothels, and it is not always clear where the boundary lies.
Once I spent a surreal evening at a massage parlour with a restaurant tycoon and a food-writer, both middle-aged men.
I felt uncomfortable as they unhooked their trousers and loosened their clothing. I felt out of place, as two pretty, flirtatious girls crawled all over them in a vigorous massage.
The apparent loucheness of the situation brought out all my English reserve. But they just carried on chatting and smoking as normal. I was as baffled by the end of the evening as I had been at the start.