The world at your feet
When Nepal's ambassador to China first came to Beijing, he was struck by the number of massage parlours in the city - and was curious about foot massage.
But at some of the smaller centres, he noticed, the people at the reception seemed to be hustling for business, and the rooms were too small. He was concerned about privacy, hygiene and language, so he shied away.
Untill he discovered Liangzi Foot Body Massage Centre, that is.
Narendra Raj Panday and his wife were pleasantly surprised with the comfortable rooms, the dcor, the big-screen TVs and the massage, of course.
No wonder. Customers are welcomed by receptionists in elegant cheongsams and greeted warmly by masseurs and masseuses. They enter suites decorated with traditional Chinese furniture. As soon as they are seated, hot water with herbs is brought in wooden buckets.
After the feet soak for about 15 minutes, masseurs and masseuses come in and the joy, or pain, of the massage begins.
The hallway is filled with rhythmic thumping and an occasional shriek from first-timers who are surprised by the strength of the massage.
As they press the soles of your feet, masseurs and masseuses will tell you which part of your body needs more attention - according to foot reflexology, every part of the body has a corresponding spot on the foot which indicates its health.
What is today taken for granted as a pleasant, relaxing experience in China was probably pioneered by Liangzi, when it was founded in 1997 by Zhu Guofan.
Before coming to Beijing in 1996, Zhu sold clothing, and had restaurants in his hometown of Xinxiang, Henan Province. He must have been quite successful because he was able to invest 7.2 million yuan (US$890,000) to open two foot massage centres in Beijing - one at Zhichunli in Haidian District and another near the China World Trade Centre in Chaoyang District.
The idea came to him when he was trying to relax in between hectic business deals. The most popular way then was to visit a public bathhouse for a shower, a rubdown with a damp towel, and a massage.
There were three kinds of foot massages at the time. One was a tub with hot water that massaged the feet with electric-magnetic waves. Another was by podiatrists from Yangzhou, whose service is considered the most professional in the trade. An ambiguous third one was available at some beauty salons, where foot massage was often a cover for prostitution.
Zhu and his friend thought they could combine foot care with massage - all above board - where business people could relax without any stigma.
They invited a Yangzhou podiatrist and a blind masseur to come up with the right form of foot massage, and at the same time looked for ideas in history books.
They found that the earliest records of foot massage appeared in the times of King Zhou Wenwang in late Shang Dynasty (1600-1100 BC).
Podiatry became popular in the Ming and Qing dynasties (1368-1911) to fix foot problems - it was half treatment and half massage, using knives, hands and scratching boards.
In the first year of business Zhu lost so much money on his two massage centres that he had to sell some other businesses to support them.
The next year, fortune smiled in the form of a major government crackdown on prostitution. Almost all the foot massage centres in Beijing, which Zhu estimates as more than 3,000, were closed down.
Zhu's massage centres almost met the same fate but he managed to invite officials to come to his centres so that they could see there was no hankypanky.
In a masterstroke, he hung a sign at the entrance promising a 20,000-yuan (US$2,500) reward to anyone who could find any form of prostitution in his parlours.
He survived - and thrived.
Zhu recruited most masseurs and masseuses from Henan Province. They were specially trained to strengthen their fingers and arms, given high pay, an eight-hour working day and regular trips around the city.
Zhu was so successful he reckons that during 1999-2002, there were more than 1,000 foot massage centres nation-wide claiming to be Liangzi chain-stores - it took a lot of effort for him to end that by legal means. Now there are more than 400 franchised Liangzi foot massage centres in China, including more than 30 in Beijing. These centres employ a total of 30,000 staff and Zhu claims his massage revolution has helped employ 20 million around the country. Each of his three wholly-owned centres employs 300-400 people.
Inspired, no doubt, by his success, the number of foot massage centres is growing in the city.
Mao Yuxiao and his friends have recently set up Joy Club, a luxury spa and foot massage centre within the Eastern Third Ring Road.
"Most people in China are under great work pressure, and there are not many choices which combine relaxation and health," he said. "People need to take a break and learn to relax."
Mao aims at high-income groups, foreign diplomats, artists and successful business people. To make the centre different, he introduced traditional Chinese medicine consultation, provides food and modern facilities to make the venue comfortable.
"The market will definitely become more specialized," he predicted. "Health will become everybody's concern."
Zhu agrees with him on the health angle.
"Until 2002, I considered foot massage as just a business. Because the market is chaotic, I was not clear what my customers wanted. That changed in 2002, when I started to take it as a health industry that is good for people's bodies."
Ambassador Panday might not see the health angle but has a good reason for going to Liangzi: "I come here whenever I feel exhausted. It makes me sleep better."
Price for some different massages at Liangzi:
Palace vola (two masseuses): 300 yuan (US$37), 100 minutes
Foot massage (including back pattering): 180 yuan (US$22), 100 minutes
Foot massage (excluding back pattering): 150 yuan (US$19), 80 minutes
Back massage: 30 yuan (US$3.7), 20 minutes
Head massage: 200 yuan (US$25), 60 minutes
Body massage: 260 yuan (US$32), 90 minutes
*Note: Top-class masseuse or masseur charges an extra 50 yuan (US$6.17)
See page 14 for foot massage centres.
(China Daily 03/10/2006 page4)
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